The Prairie Shipyard

By Barbara Forgy Schock

The Zephyr, Galesburg


After the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the United States declared war on that nation. Military planners knew it would be a two-ocean campaign as the conflict was already underway in Europe. Vessels which could carry men, equipment and supplies long distances and discharge them on a beach would be required. The Navy began a program of building ships for that purpose.


On February 6, 1942, Congress appropriated billions of dollars for war industries. As a result, the war output of the United States increased 25 times in the next several years. War production covered the landscape and thousands of individuals moved to work in those plants.


This paper was originally written for presentation to the Rebecca Parke Chapter of the National Society Daughters of the American Revolution in 1999. It seems appropriate to recall it now that LST-325 is docked in Peoria. The ship has revived many memories in the minds of veterans and war workers of those long ago days.


   It was quite a sight to see a large steel ship rising over the flat prairie on the north bank of the Illinois River at Seneca, Illinois. The Chicago Bridge and Iron Company had been awarded a contract by the U.S. Navy for the building of Landing Ship Tanks, known as LSTs. The company began preparing the shipyard in May, 1942. On June 15, 1942, the first ship was laid.


   The Chicago Bridge and Iron Company's main business was building pressurized tanks of various types and shapes all over the world. Many a town had a water tower which had been constructed by CBI. They had a reputation for quality workmanship and efficiency.


   The company had been chosen to build the LSTs because of their reputation and skills, particularly welding. There was another reason why the military had decided to produce boats in the interior of the country. The coastal shipyards were busy building the large vessels such as aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers and destroyers. There was no alternative but to use the inland waterways for the production of smaller ships. The Bureau of Ships estimated there was a need for 500 smaller craft of various kinds.


   There were other shipyards in Illinois during World War II. Barges were built on the Missisippi River at Quincy. East Saint Louis also had a shipyard. Of course, there were shipyards in Chicago, too. Many of the naval parts were fabricated by factories and foundaries in Chicago.  Nearly a billion dollar's worth of ships were produced in the state in a three year period.


   The Illinois River had been dredged to a depth of 9 1/2 feet so it could accommodate this type of ship. It also connected to the Mississippi River and the port of New Orleans from which the vessels could go to any theater of the war.


   The site for the Seneca shipyard had been selected because there was a solid sandstone base under it. After clearing the top soil and creviced limestone, the underlying foundation would be strong enough to bear the weight of all that steel.


   It was a wedge-shaped piece of pasture and corn land of 200 acres on the bank of the Illinois River. The shipyard stretched for three-fourths of a mile along the river side. The shipbuilding was arranged so there were 15 berths parallel to the river. As the ships were completed they were moved to a central way and then prepared for launch.


   Each LST was 327 feet in length and weighed 5,500 tons. Sections were fabricated and hoisted into place. Then the pieces were welded together. Very little scaffolding was used in the construction of the ships because that cost time and money. Speed was of the essence at the time they were being built.


   CBI trained teams of workers to perform certain tasks. Most jobs began with a two week training period, but the welders were trained for four to six weeks. The teams moved from ship to ship doing the same work on each one.


   Sixteen different trades were involved in the construction of the LSTs. The unionized skilled workers were paid $1.20 an hour. Laborers were paid 83 cents an hour. There were two 9-hour shifts six days a week. Each person worked a 54-hour week. The work time over 48 hours was paid at a time-and-a-half rate. The peak number of employees in the yard was 11,000. The beginning and ending of  a shift was staggered at 15 minute intervals to regulate the flow of traffic.


   As I have said, the LST initials stand for landing ship tank. The Navy wanted a flat bottom ocean-going vessel capable of carrying tanks and troops a long distance and landing them on a beach. The bow of the ship was designed with two large doors which opened so that a ramp could come down on the beach for unloading. The ship was also capable of removing itself from the beach and bringing in another load of men and machines. It also had to have enough armament to protect itself. Originally, the ships were not expected to have a very long life. If one LST successfully completed one trip, the Navy planners knew it would be worth its cost.


   The LSTs opened their bow doors on the beaches so well that specifications were added to increase the life of the ships. Some of them were fitted to serve as "baby flat tops" for the landing of small aircraft. Some were even fitted for transporting railroad equipment.


   It took six months to complete the first LST at Seneca because the shipyard was being constructed at the same time. The ship that had been laid back in June, 1942 was launched on December 13, 1942. There would be another 156 ships launched before the end of the war. The company planned to build one LST each week when peak efficiency was reached. They were able to produce seven ships a month!


   The first ship took 880,000 manhours to complete. By the time the last ship was launched, only 280,000 manhours were required to complete each one. In other words, the work required to complete a ship had been cut by two-thirds. That is an astonishing statistic.


   Launch day was always an exciting time in the shipyard. Each ship had a female sponsor who broke a bottle of champagne over the bow just before the ship slide down the ways into the river. CBI even kept track of the amount of champagne used to christen the ships. They used 39 gallons of the bubbly liquid.


   Since the river was narrow, the ships were launched sideways. They slid down the ways on a 3/8 inch thick layer of launching grease and hit the water at a speed of 22 to 28 miles an hour. Observers on the south bank of the river were frequently drenched by the wave of water traveling from the river across the fields.


   Each LST was then tied up at the fitting dock for trials. Their engines were run at 2/3 of their maximum speed during the final inspection to be sure they were operating correctly. A crew of sailors also arrived to take up their work and to get ready to go down the river.


   The LSTs were given numbers as identification. Only a few of the ships had names. These were utilitarian ships and weren't expected to survive for very long.


   My parents, William and Theresa Forgy, moved to Seneca, Illinois, in November, 1942. I was seven years old and my sister, Mary Ann, was almost six. My father had decided to leave farming. The farm on which he worked with his father was only 80 acres. (It had been purchased by my great grandmother in 1886 and is now registered as an Illinois Centennial Farm.) My grandfather didn't see any reason to replace the horses he had always used.


    After graduating from high school, my father had received training in electrical work at a technical school in Chicago.  He graduated at the bottom of the depression and there was no job for him. He took up farming as a result. When World War II began there was a great demand for trained workers of every kind. My father saw his opportunity and decided to follow that line of work as his contribution to the war effort.


   He heard that the Chicago Bridge and Iron Company which usually built water towers had been enlisted by the U.S. Navy to begin building LSTs on the Illinois River at Seneca. He applied for a job and was hired on the spot.


   His first job was checking the pyrometers on the engines of the ship. A pyrometer is a device to check the temperature inside the combustion chambers of an engine. Later, he was transferred to another team. There, his job was to wire the mast of the ship for the newly developed radar that was being installed. When each ship went down the river, the mast was laid flat on the deck. At New Orleans, the mast was raised again and the necessary radar equipment installed. The first job was a hot one in the summer time, the second  was a cold one in the winter time. But, my father enjoyed every minute of it.


   CBI received the "E" Award in June 1943. This was an efficiency award given by the U.S. Navy for meeting certain standards of production. It was a coveted honor among companies holding contracts with the military. The company paid for a full page advertisement in the Chicago Daily Tribune to announce its "E" award. I still have the sterling silver "E" pin that my father received.


   Seneca was a quiet village of 1,235 residents. There was no sewage treatment plant, no newspaper, no movie theater and one doctor. A night watchman constituted the police department. The town had been established in the 19th century as a watering stop for the railroad. This little place on the eastern edge of LaSalle County was inundated by over 10,000 shipyard workers. Housing had to be built, utilities had to be installed, streets and roads had to be constructed, schools had to be expanded.


   The people of Seneca took a dim view of all this disturbance in their nice little town located 90 miles southwest of Chicago.

They didn't like having all those people coming from all directions and at least 26 states to work in the shipyard. They didn't like having an additional 1,500 dwellings built to accomodate the workers and their families. They didn't like having the government agencies coming in to build all the facilities necessary to take care of so many people.


   At the end of the war, Seneca had a new school building, a waterworks and sewage disposal system, better streets, and fire protection equipment. The town went back to the way it had been, but with a lot of memories.


   In 1987 I took my father back to Seneca for a reunion of some of the Navy men who had served on the LST. We took a boat ride on the Illinois River to see what was left of the shipyard. We could still see the launching ways on the river bank. The concrete fitting dock was crumbling away, but was still recognizable. The site is now a gravel pit. Since the top soil had been removed, the land could never be farmed again and the prairie couldn't return.



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What is an LST (Landing Ship – Tank)?


By Mike Kroll


Modern navies are composes of many ships and boats but most of us are most familiar with the exciting combat vessels such as aircraft carriers and battleships or perhaps submarines and destroyers. You would probably be amazed to hear that such ships are actually the minority of vessels composing a navy. This was especially true during World War II when America built the largest naval armada ever known with most of the ships serving decidedly less glamorous roles such as oilers, supply ships, tugs, tenders, liberty ships (mass produced freighters) and a huge number of landing craft and landing ships.

World War II saw the greatest use of amphibious assaults and landings of any conflict before or since. Principally used throughout in the Pacific war against the Japanese but also in Sicily, Italy, and of course Normandy, France; amphibious assaults were complex, highly dangerous and required technology never before utilized in warfare. Chief among that technology were boats and ships capable of hauling men, material and equipment right up to the beach and returning for more. To make matters more complicated World War II saw the first use of highly mechanized infantry and large tanks that required a way to be landed with the troops or immediately thereafter. These required tools of amphibious landings didn't exist at the beginning of the war but were quickly “invented” to meet war needs.

Anyone who has seen a World War II movie is undoubtedly familiar with a landing craft. That was the boat you saw that looked like a big floating box with an angled flat ramp at its bow that took infantry ashore in movies like The Sands of Iwo Jima or Saving Private Ryan. These boats were designed with a shallow draft and built mostly out of plywood in New Orleans by Higgins Industries. Each landing craft was designed to deliver a platoon of infantry (about 36 troops) and their personal equipment to the beach. Each such “Higgins Boat” was a little over 36 feet long, about 10 feet wide and had a draft of just over 3 feet fully loaded. There were also landing craft designed to deliver a single vehicle such as a truck or a tank to shore along with its crew but landing craft were not designed to be more than short-range shuttle to shore.

Landing Ships were large ocean-going vessels designed specifically to carry men and equipment on long-rang sea voyages to the site of an amphibious landing where most of the troops were loaded into the much smaller Landing Craft and shuttled ashore. By means of contrast and LST was about 328 feet long and 50 feet wide but still had a draft of just under 4 feet. The front or bow of an LST is designed to be beached and opened to permit vehicles to be driven directly off the ship and on to the beach. Each LST could carry about 2,100 tons of infantry and military vehicles in addition to its own crew and small fleet of landing craft.

In a typical amphibious landing the first waves would all arrive in landing craft as the LSTs and their protective screen of combat vessels steamed off shore. While most LSTs did have anti-aircraft machine guns and many had a single 5-inch gun mounted aft they were essentially defenseless against enemy attack unless accompanied by other warships. Their sheer size and slow top speed of nine knots earned them the affectionate moniker of “Large Slow Target.” In any opposed amphibious assault the LSTs would only land themselves well after the beach was relatively secured because to land earlier than that was damn near suicidal.

The concept behind LSTs originated with the British after their near disaster in that reverse amphibious operation at Dunkirk early in the war. While most of the British troop evacuating Dunkirk in 1940 were saved by a hastily mustered armada of vessels nearly all of their equipment had to be left on the beach in France because there was no way to withdraw it. The British Admiralty recognized the importance of having such a capability if they were ever to retake continental Europe and together with Prime Minister Winston Churchill persuaded President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his top military chiefs to jointly develop and construct the necessary ships. The much smaller landing craft predated the LST but didn't see significant construction until after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and their victories in the western Pacific. The Japanese had been using a ramp-bowed boat to great effect in their own amphibious landings since 1937 and American naval and marine took note. By 1938 the Marines were testing prototypes of the Higgins Boat and their first use was by British commandos in 1940.

Production of LSTs didn't begin until 1942 when the Navy also authorized the construction of Destroyer Escorts for the express purpose of defending LSTs in transit and off-shore during invasions. Naval Destroyers were among the smaller combat vessels of World War II but they were generally also among the fastest ships in the fleet. Typically assigned to the perimeter of a fleet or convoy to protect against air or submarine attack or assigned specifically to anti-submarine duty destroyers were among the largest class of combat vessels in service. Destroyer escorts were smaller yet but more importantly slower. Since they typically were assigned to accompany slow convoys or groups of LSTs the speed was deemed of secondary importance to lower cost and smaller crew compliment. During World War II over 1,000 LSTs of various types were produced and over 450 American destroyer escorts were produced. U.S. Naval ships performing the same role as destroyer escorts today are called frigates.

LST made their combat debut during the campaign for the Solomon Islands in June 1943. It is safe to say that without the LST the island hopping strategy employed against the Japanese in the Pacific would not have been feasible. Not only were these ships indispensable in landing infantry and vehicles on invasion beaches they were also adaptable to many other uses throughout the war. For example, 38 LSTs were converted into small hospital ships and a number of these were used to evacuate D-Day wounded back to England across the English Channel. Many others were used to carry cargo of spare parts, ammunition and other necessary supplies to American occupied islands across the Pacific that didn't have proper port facilities to accommodate traditional logistics ships.

As was typical of World War II nearly all of the LSTs were modified by their crews to incorporate features that improved comfort, utility and safety of the ships or to meet the needs of a specific special mission. A number of LSTs were outfitted as landing craft repair facilities and helped keep damaged Higgins Boats in the war. Amazingly, LSTs proved to be quite resilient and only 26 LSTs were lost to enemy action throughout the war. Another 13 were lost to weather, accident or reef damage. At war's end the vast majority of the LSTs built during the war were still in service in either the American or British navies. During the post-war years many of these ships were sold for non-military use or scrapped. Four were sold to the Greek Navy, including LST-325 currently visiting Peoria.

One final historical point of note about LSTs is their unique manufacture. While nearly all American naval ships are manufactured at coastal ports the majority of LST were manufactured at inland site in the Midwest. By wars end America had produced 1,051 LSTs with 670 built at five inland builder in the Midwest collectively known as the “cornfield shipyards.” Evansville, Indiana was the single largest producer of LSTs during the war.