Early in World War II, the Allies realized that if they were going to win the war, they would need to develop ships capable of making amphibious invasions.  Such ships would allow them to land troops, vehicles and supplies virtually anywhere there was a beach, in remote areas that would surprise the enemy.  Without these ships, Allied seaborne invasions would be limited to established (and well-defended) ports, and seizing such areas would not be easy.  Having landing ships would give the Allies more flexibility and the element of surprise.

The American and British forces worked together on this task and ultimately created several types of invasion ships, broadly grouped into two main categories:

  • Landing Craft were used for short-range seaborne excursions, of perhaps a few miles, and generally from ship-to-shore.  
  • Landing Ships were sturdier seagoing craft, able to travel across oceans from port-to-shore. 

By 1943, the U.S. Navy had developed a wide range of different invasion craft to be used in different situations, and they used an alphabet soup of acronyms to describe them, most of which began with the letters "LC" or "LS."  Probably the most famous Landing Craft was the LCVP (Landing Craft, Vehicle or Personnel), also known as a “Higgins Boat,” depicted in the opening scene of the movie, “Saving Private Ryan” during the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day.  These boats carried up to 36 men, or 1 jeep and 12 men, and traveled from offshore ships to the beaches.

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Above:  LST 201.  The Main Deck (shown) carried cargo and light vehicles and a Tank Deck (below) carried heavy tanks.  Note the double doors at the bow and the four LCVPs ("Higgins boats") on davits at the stern for off-loading troops during amphibious invasions.  LSTs were extremely versatile and each had a crew of about 120 men.

The largest beachable landing ship developed by the Navy during World War II was the “Landing Ship, Tank” known as an LST, which would prove to be the real workhorse of amphibious invasions.  Over a thousand LSTs were built during World War II, most of which survived the war, and almost all LSTs had a similar design.  Most of them were just over 300 feet long and about 50 feet wide, or as long as a football field and about half as wide.  They could carry several dozen trucks and jeeps on the exposed Main Deck on the topside plus up to 20 Sherman tanks on the Tank Deck below.  By the end of the war, LSTs comprised over 10% of the U.S. Navy's entire fleet of seagoing ships.

LSTs were specially designed for amphibious invasions.  They had flat bottoms that could land on beaches and an innovative system of ballast tanks that were pumped dry during landings (for loft) and pumped full before going to sea (for stability in rough weather).  Large double-doors on the bow of the ship, with a ramp that lowered onto the beach, allowed the loading and unloading of vehicles, troops and supplies.

These ships had a shallow draft, only about seven feet when unloaded, and consequently they could be built along the inland waterways of the Midwest.  This freed up ship construction facilities at America’s deep-water coastal ports so they could build deeper-draft ships, such as warships and merchant marine Liberty ships.  LST construction sites soon popped up throughout the Midwest, including in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio and Pennsylvania, giving these ports their moniker of “The Cornfield Navy.”  Construction of an LST was typically completed in a few months, then with a skeleton crew it traveled down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where it was transferred to the U.S. Navy and commissioned.

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Above:  Two LSTs beached at Normandy in 1944 while off-loading supplies.  These ships were designed for beaching:  note the flat hulls, shallow draft, and protective steel bars around the propellers.

Nicknamed by their Navy crews “Large Slow Targets,” LSTs were initially considered by the Navy to be expendable, to be used for just a single invasion.  However, these ships proved to be durable and many saw action in repeated conflicts.  Most LSTs were scrapped after World War II but some saw action in the Korean War and in Vietnam. 

Each LST was numbered in sequence and they typically were not given names, simply because so many of them were built.  In fact, they were the largest Navy ships during the war not to be named. 

LSTs were extremely versatile and were used by the Navy in every theatre of World War II, performing numerous types of missions.  They were used during the invasions of Sicily and Italy in 1943, in Normandy in 1944 and throughout the Pacific, but they were also used in various other tasks.  Some served as PT boat tenders, battle damage repair ships, hospital ships, or aircraft engine repair ships.  In the Mediterranean in 1943, a few LSTs were even converted to flat-topped "aircraft carriers" for scout planes.  The World War II naval historian, Samuel Eliot Morison, described the LST as the "most useful all-around craft invented by the Navy."  The last LSTs were built in the 1950s and the Navy's last remaining LST, 1184, was decommissioned in 2002. 

Seeing an LST Today

I believe there are only three LSTs remaining in America.  LST 325, berthed in Evansville, Indiana, is the only remaining operable LST in American waters and is open for tours.  LST 393 in Muskegon, Michigan is also a museum and is open for tours. 

If you live in the Northeast, you can travel on a converted World War II LST for just a few dollars.  LST 510 served at the Normandy Invasion (D-Day) in 1944 and was later modified into a ferry now called the “Cape Henlopen,” which travels nearly every day across Long Island Sound between eastern Long Island and New London, Connecticut. 

In fact, in 2014 and 2015, I traveled on LST 510 enroute to visiting my brother Don, who lived in New London at the time.  Although most of my fellow passengers probably didn’t realize the history behind the ship, I was thrilled to travel on an LST, especially one that had served at Normandy.  If you travel on the Cross Sound Ferry across Long Island Sound, be aware that they have a large fleet of ferry boats.  But if you time it right, you might be lucky enough to ride on LST 510.

 

Riding on LST 510

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

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