USS LST 393 offers unique glimpse at WWII history

July 14, 2023

USS LST 393 offers unique glimpse at WWII history

MI Travelogue is a presentation of Preferred Credit Union, www.preferredcu.org, located locally at 266 N. Jebavy Dr., Ludington.

Story and Photos by Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief

MUSKEGON — For 75 years, an important piece of U.S. Navy history has called Muskegon home. The USS LST 393, which for most of its existence was known as the Highway 16, is a 328-foot long equipment transport ship (LST stands for landing ship, tank), which earned three battle stars during World War II. Following its service in the war, it was a major transportation link to the growth of Michigan’s automobile industry.

Roger Kass has been a volunteer with the USS LST 393 Preservation Association since 2009. The 1970 graduate of Ludington High School joined the U.S. Navy after graduation and served in the Seabees, the construction battalion of the Navy’s Civil Engineering Corps. After his military service, he began working for General Telephone (later Verizon) in Muskegon where he has lived since. He now serves as board vice president (and has served other roles on the association’s board) and knows the ins and outs of the LST 393, like many of the other numerous volunteers who spend countless hours preserving the ship.

On the night of June 6, 1944, the U.S. Navy’s LST 393 arrived in the Omaha Beach zone several hours after the launch of D-Day, the Allied invasion of France. The ship off-loaded Sherman tanks (LST stands for “landing ship, tank) along with other war materials. It then spent two days aground, due to a low tide. The ship ended up making 30 round trips from England to Omaha Beach, brining various equipment and supplies to France and returning with wounded Allied soldiers and thousands of German prisoners of war. D-Day was the ship’s third assignment. Previously, it had participated in Allied landings in Sicily and Salemo. 

After the French campaign, LST 393 was assigned to return to the east coast of the United States for a refit. It was scheduled to participate in the invasion of Japan and was repainted with tropical camouflage. It was on its way to Japan, by way of the Panama Canal, when the war ended in September 1945. 

The LST 393 was built by the Newport News Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. of Virginia in 1942 and was launched on Nov. 11, 1942. It made 75 voyages to foreign shores and covered over 51,817. During its service, it carried 9,135 soldiers, 3,248 vehicles, 817 casualties and 5,373 prisoners. It was decommissioned on March 1, 1946 and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on March 14, 1947. 

On March 28, 1948, the LST 393 was purchased by Sand Products Corporation of Detroit. 

“My grandfather, Max McKee bought this ship in 1948,” Patrick McKee said, standing at the West Michigan Dock & Market Corp (also known as the Mart Dock) along Muskegon Lake, which is also owned by Sand Products Corporation, and home of the LST 393. Patrick, and his brother, Max, are among the third generation of their family, to be part of the company, which was started in 1930. The company eventually moved its headquarters to Muskegon. 

“He had the idea of transporting new vehicles from Detroit across Lake Michigan to Milwaukee, in order to avoid the congestion of Chicago,” Patrick McKee said about his grandfather. Max McKee, the elder, thought a naval LST would make the perfect vessel for moving mass amounts of new cars across the lake. He renamed it the Highway 16, as it served as extension of the main highway between Detroit to Muskegon prior to the construction of I-96. Route 16 then continued in Milwaukee. It also transported Nash Ramblers (built in Kenosha, Wis.) from Milwaukee to Muskegon. 

The ship could carry 210 automobiles when it began. Due to the increase in size of vehicles, that capacity was lowered to 171 by the early 1970s. 

The Highway 16 also was used to offset overflow vehicle cargo for the Milwaukee Clipper carferry that travelled between Muskegon and Milwaukee (that ship is also a museum ship now located in Muskegon). 

The Highway 16 was in service for 25 years, ending in 1973 when General Motors Corporation made the decision to end water shipments of automobiles to Milwaukee. 

The ship sat dormant until 2000 when a group approached the McKees and proposed a museum ship. A group began working on the LST 393 with assistance from the Michigan LST Association, but its efforts stopped after two years. In 2005, a group headed by Muskegon residents Dan Weikel and Bob Wygant asked permission from the McKees to make a new attempt at a museum. They formed the USS LST 393 Preservation Association a non-profit corporation, and began restoration efforts.

“Keeping the ship didn’t make sense but we did it. Sacrifice should be remembered,” Patrick McKee said in a previously published interview. “My dad was a very young sailor in the Navy in World War II and served in the Pacific. My grandfather, who purchased the ship, was a captain in the infantry in France in World War I. He was born in Tipton, Iowa, and moved to Detroit.”

Of the 1,051 LSTs that were built, only a handful remain around the world. In the United States, the LST 393 is one of two LST museum ships. The other is the LST 325, located in Evansville, Ind. on the Ohio River. Several LSTs were built in Evansville. The LST 510, now called the MV Cape Henlopen, was converted to a passenger and auto ferry and operates between New London, Conn. and Orient Point, on the east end of Long Island, NY.  

The USS LST 393 museum not only to the crew that served onboard that ship, but also to all veterans of the U.S. military, especially World War II. The ship is full of memorabilia, much of it connected directly to the ship. 

Among the prized possessions include the American flag that flew on the ship during its first Omaha Beach landing. Lt. Paul Grambsh lowered the tattered flag to the deck, rolled it up and tucked it into a sea bag. The bag was found 50 years later by Grambsh’s family and donated to the LST. 

Cars on the deck of the Highway 16. Photo from the USS LST 393 museum collection.

Another item, displayed next to the flag on the tank deck, is the bottle neck that christened the ship in 1942. It was donated by the late Lucy Sorenson Pape who was the 11-year-old daughter of one of the ship yard’s executives when she had the honor to christen the ship.  

The LST 393, located at 560 Mart St., Muskegon, holds various fundraisers including the popular Movies on the Deck series. It can be rented for events and youth group overnight stays. It is open daily May through September from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. with the last tour at 4 p.m. Cost is $10 for adults and $5 for students.

Click here for more information. 

The LST 393 stranded, July 1944, Normady beach. Photo from the USS LST 393 museum collection.

 

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