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Refurbished Ship Carries Passengers Back in Time : Attractions: The Lane Victory, built for use in World War II, is no 'Love Boat.' But it does have cannons.

July 25, 1993|GORDON DILLOW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONG BEACH AREA — The Lane Victory may be the world's most unusual cruise ship.

There are none of the customary amenities one would find on the Princess Lines or Carnival Cruises--no health spa, no four-star dining room, no casino, no swimming pools, no luxury cabins. In fact, there aren't any passenger cabins at all.

But the Lane Victory offers its passengers a lot of things other cruise ships don't. Cannons, for example. And a contingent of armed soldiers riding shotgun. And a chance to be "strafed" by World War II aircraft.

For many of the 700 passengers and crew who crowded aboard the Lane Victory recently for a day trip to Santa Catalina Island and back, a cruise on the 48-year-old ship was a cruise down memory lane. For them, it was like traveling back half a century, to a time when they were young and the whole world was at war.

"I guess for a lot of people it's a way to relive their youth," said cruise director Clint Johnson, himself a World War II merchant seaman, as he stood on the swaying deck of the ship that participated in three of America's wars. "A lot of these people served on ships just like this in the war."

"I gotta tell you, as we pulled out of the harbor I got a little tear in my eye," said William Taeger, 70, of Peabody, Mass., a Navy and Coast Guard veteran who escorted cargo ships like the Lane Victory during the war. He had read about the Lane Victory in a magazine and immediately made a reservation for the cruise, one of six day-cruises the ship takes each year.

It was not cheap. The cruise cost $100 a person ($60 for children under 15), and there was the air fare from Boston to Los Angeles. It was a lot of money for an eight-hour cruise on a restored cargo ship. But Taeger did not regret a thing.

"Damn right it's worth it," he said. "I didn't want the 'Love Boat.' "

But not everyone aboard the Lane Victory was a crusty old salt.

"We're taking this cruise in honor of our father," said Turkka Laaksonen, 54, of Redondo Beach, who was with his wife, Laura, and his brother, Markku, 44, of Boulder, Colo. Laaksonen explained that his father, Taivo, who recently died at age 79, had been a merchant seaman with both the Finnish and U.S. merchant fleets during World War II.

"He would have loved this," Laaksonen said. "He would have been in tears."

"It's a tub, but I love it," said Bart Marks, a 47-year-old ex-Navy man from La Verne who was taking the cruise with his daughter, Candace, 12. Marks said he was a tugboat sailor in the Navy, and was taking the cruise "to see what it was like on a big ship."

"It's pretty cool," said Brett Price, 13, of Downey. Brett did not know much about World War II--"It was somewhere a long time ago"--but he thought the ship itself was "interesting."

The Lane Victory was built at the California Shipbuilding Corp. yard on Terminal Island in 1945. One of 531 Victory ships constructed during the frenzied days of World War II, the 455-foot long, 62-foot wide ship was designed as a seagoing workhorse, an unglamorous but hardy vessel that could haul cargo and troops to the far-flung theaters of the war.

The Lane Victory saw brief service at the end of World War II, was put into mothballs and then recalled to service during the Korean War. On one memorable voyage in 1950, the Lane Victory evacuated more than 7,000 Korean refugees from Wonsan, Korea.

Decommissioned again in 1953, it came back in 1966 to haul military supplies to Vietnam. In 1971 it went into mothballs again in San Francisco.

Five years ago, members of the U.S. Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II, led by group President Joe Vernick and Vice President John Smith, found the vessel and decided to turn it into a floating museum and memorial to the thousands of U.S. merchant seamen who died in the war.

Thousands of dollars and countless hours of volunteer labor later, the restored Lane Victory was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1991. It took its first Catalina cruise last October. The ship is scheduled to depart at 9 a.m. today on its latest cruise, and cruises are scheduled Oct. 2 and 3. Proceeds from the cruises go toward continued restoration and to pay for a planned trip to Normandy, France, in 1994 as part of the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

On a recent Saturday, a cruise began at Berth 53 in San Pedro as a stream of passengers, most of them of retirement age, made their way up the gangplank of the gray cargo ship. To the tune of "Anchors Aweigh," performed by an on-board jazz group called the Yellow Houn' Dawg Band, the Lane Victory slowly got underway, escorted by a tugboat. As part of a ceremony to honor the U.S. merchant mariners who died in World War II, an honor guard fired a three-gun salute.

The ship's crew was made up almost entirely of grizzled veterans. At the helm was Capt. Steven Tilghman, 75, a chief mate on Victory and Liberty ships during World War II who only recently retired after 33 years as an oil tanker captain.

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