SS LANE VICTORY Underway by Gordon Ghareeb
First published on MaritimeMatters June 2008
She lies in waiting only 8,000-feet from where she was born. The warm Southern Californian sunshine beats down upon the gray-painted steel of her hull and upright superstructure. She epitomizes the euphemism of form following function. She was created out of a frenzied government program to build ships faster than the enemy could put them on the ocean floor. At the time of her construction, the craft now sitting so calmly in the main channel of the Los Angeles Harbor was merely one ship out of 534 identical vessels that were mass produced by six of the nation’s emergency shipyards during the Second World War. There was nothing exceptional to distinguish this rather drab and austere vessel from her sisters. All were built in record time by a workforce made up largely of women. These “Rosie Riveters” had no idea that the freighter they were putting together on Terminal Island at the California Shipbuilding Corporation was to one day become the jewel in the crown of the Victory Ship program.
Only 16 of the mass produced victory ships still exist. Of the original 534 victory ships completed, four were lost in the closing days of the war, 514 have been scrapped or wrecked, and of those victory ships that remain afloat, just three are available for public viewing. Of these three, only one is fully operational and licensed for deep sea voyaging. She is the s.s. LANE VICTORY.
Sired from a fierce American drive to prevail against the Axis powers of the 1940s and tempered by active service in three American conflicts, the LANE VICTORY awaits her visitors today with all the spirit and tenacity that created her some 63 years ago. She is a floating time machine able to transport her guests back to the world of the Andrews Sisters, food ration coupons, and air raid sirens. The LANE VICTORY. Still a monument to the nation who built her; to the men who sailed her to ports around the globe; and to the Merchant Mariners and United States Naval Armed Guards who sacrificed their lives aboard merchant ships such as this one so that we, the future generations, might embrace a standard of living never before dreamed of upon this planet.
Six times a year the LANE VICTORY is taken out to sea with a full compliment of 800 passengers. Coast Guard certified and staffed by an experienced crew, the LANE VICTORY steams easily off the coast of Santa Catalina Island allowing all on board the opportunity to experience, and perhaps better understand, the perils faced by the United States Merchant Marine during the Second World War. A Nazi spy is found among the ship’s company, sending out the position of the LANE VICTORY to his comrades before he is apprehended by the United States Naval Armed Guard. But barely has this villain been clapped in irons when an all out alert is sounded throughout the ship. Soon four enemy dive-bombers are spotted in the distance and in no time the LANE VICTORY is under attack from all sides.
The Naval Armed Guard scramble to the five-inch cannon at the vessel’s stern and the twin 40-mm anti aircraft guns on the after deck house. As the enemy planes strafe their target the ack-ack-ack-ack-ack of the machine guns is accentuated by the boom of the five-inch cannon, all aimed at the marauding aircraft. Time after time the enemy planes buzz the ship, so close you can see the pilot in the cockpit, hell-bent on sending this particular victory ship asunder.
Out of nowhere emanate the drone of additional airplane propellers. Have the Nazi aviators summoned help? Is the LANE VICTORY about to become another causality of war? The atmosphere aboard ship is tense. Guns are firing in rapid succession. Dive bombers are coming straight out of the sky at us. The mind gets carried away with the events unfolding before it. What would a young seaman have thought standing here on the deck in World War II watching the enemy coming directly at him. It is a time in the present for introspection of what once was.
But the newcomers turn out to be Yankee fighters coming to our rescue. The belligerent attack now turns into a massive dogfight played out over the sea surrounding us. The enemy planes take some hits and smoke pours from their sides as the American heroes pummel them into submission. The invaders surrender to the Americans. All eight aircraft assemble off the ship’s flank and make a low-level fly-over as the United States’ planes escort the enemy safely to the aerodrome in Van Nuys. The passengers and crew standing on the decks of the LANE VICTORY below cheer and applaud the precision flying we have just witnessed. But we are also paying homage to the brave boys who faced the realities of that actual horror aboard these ships in World War II.
Peace descends back aboard the vessel and the old victory ship continues on her course home to San Pedro. The heroic steamer is greeted by the Los Angeles Harbor fire boat upon her return to her home port. As the LANE VICTORY is made all-fast once again at berth-94 her compliment cannot help but ponder the thrill this homecoming must have elicited back in 1945. It was the time when America rose to meet the challenge thrown in her path. The ship on which we are standing is proof to the success of that challenge. And, too, she is a living memorial to the men and women who never returned to the shores of the country they left to defend.
We take the LANE VICTORY out six times a year for such a rendezvous with history. She is an incredible thing to witness under way. Steam up in the boilers, churning water trailing from her wake, and the feel of the salt-sea air on the faces of those lucky enough to be onboard. An amazing amount of work goes into each of these cruises and the ship is kept alive and in working order by a crew of men and women who receive no pay. In fact, no one connected with the Merchant Marine Veterans of World War II gets paid a cent for the time and labor we lavish on our vintage showpiece. We are all, quite simply, volunteers from the President of the organization and the Captain of the ship on down to the unlicensed hands. Everyone here is doing their part to keep the LANE VICTORY alive and vibrant. This is the most worthwhile organization I have ever been a member of and the reward is difficult to put into words. For me, it is my own way to personally pay back those who went before and made sacrifices so that I may walk these decks today and take part in one small facet of what made this country great.
Sail with us back to the days of World War II. You have six chances this summer to see the LANE VICTORY in action, under way, and alive. Our passengers are welcome to visit the ship’s bridge while we are at sea or to tour the engine room and experience first hand this hot and humid cavern while the turbines generate the 6,000 shaft horsepower necessary to take the ship out to sea.
The LANE VICTORY can also be explored while she rests dockside at berth 94 in San Pedro. The gangway is down every day from 9:00 am to 3:00 pm and visitors are welcome to come aboard for a nominal fee. Not only is the ship herself an extraordinary artifact but two of her ‘tween deck cargo holds are serving as outstanding museums depicting the essence of the ship and the battles through which she has prevailed.
Come experience seagoing life as it was in 1945. More information can be found on our official website at www.lanevictory.org for those seeking additional details. Or bookmark this page as I will be continuing this blog on a regular basis to tell the ongoing story of this remarkable and yet most ordinary ship that is the s.s LANE VICTORY.
When we are not at sea, the LANE VICTORY is open for visitors every day from 0900 to 1500 hrs in San Pedro, California, beneath the Vincent Thomas Bridge, (use the Catalina Ferry Terminal for directions and parking)
MARTIN COX - Founder and publisher of MaritimeMatters, inspired by maritime culture and technology growing up in the port of Southampton. He works as a photographer in Los Angeles, and his works has been exhibited in LA, San Francisco, New York, London and Iceland. Martin is the co-writer of the book “Hollywood to Honolulu; the story of the Los Angeles Steamship Company” published by the Steam Ship Historical Society of America. The Los Angeles Maritime Museum has commissioned artworks and collected his photographs.