The Belly of the Beast

In the January/February issue of Evansville Living, we toured the USS LST-325 at 610 N.W. Riverside Drive to give you the inside scoop on what lies inside the warship and how to prepare for the tour. But part of our journey took us on a path the average attendee won’t be able to see.

As fate would have it, our photographer Zach Straw — not to be confused with our expert tour guide Zach Shaw — asked a question only an LST engineer could answer just as Assistant Chief Engineer Jerry Wirth was making his way through the Tank Deck.

A short conversation about the engine’s cylinder displacement — which promptly went over my head — turned into an hour and a half detour through the main engine room, auxiliary engine room, cold storage, the current crew’s quarters, and the original infirmary.

“I love being able to take people a little more in depth to the technical aspects of the ship when I have the opportunity,” says Wirth.

    ▲ Rumbling under the feet of tourists on the Tank Deck, the main engine room, auxiliary engine room, and a web of maintenance passageways house the machines and power that keep the LST fully operational to this day.

Playing off each other’s passion and knowledge, Wirth and Shaw led us through areas of the ship that are off limits to the public. And for good reason.

We entered the engine rooms from a steep ladder-like staircase on the Tank Deck. While my senses were overwhelmed once I touched down onto the rickety metal walkways that shifted under our feet, one feeling stood out above the rest — it was hot.

We had spent our tour up to that point with winter coats zipped up to our chins and hands shoved deep into our pockets, but the two 900 horsepower engines in the main room gave off a heat that we wished would reach the rest of the ship.

As Wirth explained the engines, even answering Straw’s original question, I began to imagine the unbearable torture of working on the LST engines in the heat of Greek summers.

“[The engines] are 12V567s which means 12 cylinders in a ‘v’ configuration like a V8, and each cylinder is 567 cubic inches,” says Wirth.

Ducking our heads through hatches — which Shaw says were added many years after World War II for easier movement throughout the ship — and carefully avoiding touching the walls covered in functioning switches and wires, we moved into the auxiliary engine room.

This room has three generators for electrical power, the power distribution panel (or “the big wall of scary switches” as Wirth describes it), the fire system, and fuel transfer. With more than 125 different valves and the ballast system — responsible for allowing LSTs to land troops and equipment directly on shore — this room was one of the most intimidating. I was teetering in between anxiety about the many dangers both the vintage machinery and I posed to each other, and the awe of standing inches from the very equipment that carried our troops to Normandy and back. Wirth seemed to only feel the latter.

“My favorite part of working is arriving at the ship and realizing that this is my job,” he says. “I am so lucky and blessed. How often does one get to cut, weld, drill, and fix a historic object? And they pay me to do it.”

An Evansville native, Wirth hasn’t always explored his mechanical passion aboard the LST. His job, much like our incredible extended tour, was a happy accident.

▲ Wirth and his grandson, Grant, pose on the Main Deck of the LST during their first visit to the ship in 2018.

Owner and President of Wirth Machine Inc. for more than 40 years, Wirth first boarded the LST in July 2018. He was supposed to take his grandson to a tractor show one weekend, but they arrived only to realized they had the wrong dates. Curious about the ship and remembering his father who served on an LST in WWII, Wirth and Grant took their own tour.

With his impressive technical resume, Wirth quickly sought out a volunteer position on the crew and, after he fixed a major piece of the main ramp that no one else could, was offered his permanent position among the other 1,600 current members. An ordained minister, Wirth would also become a member of the ship’s Chaplain team.

While our standard and exclusive tours both induced many goosebumps along my arms — especially when the heavy door to the infirmary was opened, looking as if a wounded soldier could be carried in at any moment — Wirth’s passion for his job and true appreciation of the LST were the highlights of our visit.

“What I work on is a legacy. But my work is only an addition to the work of countless, unnamed others who came before me and share in this work with me,” he says. “It is not my legacy I am working on, but the legacy of others. I work on the legacy of other crew members who have added their talents and time to make the ship what we enjoy today. I work on the legacy my father left me.”

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Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen
Jodi Keen is the managing editor of Evansville Living and Evansville Business magazines.

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