WASHINGTON -- Ships, like men, can sometimes pass without us discovering their stories.
War veterans frequently keep their own counsel and stories to themselves. But it is especially true of ships that have only historians to give a voice to their stories and legacy.
LST-510, formerly of the U.S. Navy, is one such ship with a proud past.
Travelers and beach-goers daily zip on and off a seemingly ordinary ferry that runs day and night between New London, Conn. and Long Island, N.Y.
Over 63 years after she was launched, the ship formerly known as LST-510 still plies the waters of Long Island Sound. She carries thousands of passengers a year.
“We had no idea this ship was famous and more than just a ferry,” said Shaked Zak, a student from Hawaii vacationing on Long Island.
But there is more to this ship than first meets the eye.
LST-510, now the USS Cape Henlopen, works as a car and passenger ferry for the Cross Sound Ferry. Leap back in time to Sept. 1943 and World War II.
Combat and transport ships were being built and rolled into action so fast that time did not always permit a naming, and a number had to suffice. Hence, LST (“Landing Ship for Tanks”) 510.
Built by a Great Lakes shipyard, within just three days of being commissioned she proceeded down the Mississippi River to New Orleans. There U.S. Navy Lt. George P. Andrews took command.
In March 1944, LST-510 was loaded for bear and part of a 64-ship convoy crossing the hazardous waters of the North Atlantic. She carried over 600-tons of ammunition critical to the war effort in Europe. A 150-ton specialized tank landing craft was gerry rigged to her deck. She weighed anchor and riding low in the water sailed for England.
Weather and log records show that over a three-day period, the ship endured winds that dashed 50-foot swells over her bow, sleet storms that froze her decks, dense fog, and the company of unforgiving icebergs.
But most deadly to the LST-510 and her high explosive cargo were the U-boats.
A week into the crossing, a wolf-pack of German submarines hit the convoy full force. Four cargo ships took torpedoes, one so close that the explosion of its hull threw debris the 400 yards between them onto the port side of LST-510.
Chaos reigned as U-boat predators closed with the convoy. LST-510 maneuvered to avoid torpedoes. Then, her main engines failed.
The crew passed anxious hours clinging the same deck rails as ferry passengers do today. The ship was a sitting-duck target for a torpedo. A long night passed. Engine repairs improvised by the crew allowed the ship to reach the safety of waters off Ireland.
She steamed on to England and delivered her precious cargo for the Allies. In May 1944, LST-510 participated in Exercise TIGER, a trial-run for the Normandy invasion.
Then, four days before the landings at Normandy for Operation OVERLORD, LST-510 loaded 200 men and 70 tanks and jeeps into her hull. At 0344 on June 5, 1944, she weighed anchor and made way for occupied France.
The LST-510 came into sight of the fierce fight on “Omaha Beach” and delivered her cargo of men and material. As she proceeded back to England, the unscheduled arrival of screaming Stuka dive bombers, swarming down with payloads of death, put her crew at battle stations.
Back and forth over the ensuing days she endured air raids and continued making shipments.
As thousands of wounded poured out from the Normandy landings, ever adaptable, LST-510 took doctors and corpsmen on board and assumed the role of make-shift, floating hospital.
Working by kerosene lamps and jeep headlights in the darkness of the ship’s tank deck, that today serves as the place where ferried cars park, doctors struggled to save soldiers’ lives.
The last known surviving crew member of the LST-510 was U.S. Navy corpsman Donald T. Dalton of Ossining, N.Y. who died in December 2005 at age 77. A decorated veteran of the World War II European and Pacific campaigns, Dalton was also recalled in 1950 for the Korean War. Dalton and the others on board LST-510 were lauded for treating thousands of wounded soldiers from June to October 1944, and saving many lives.
Passengers on the ferry today might be forgiven for finding it hard to imagine what occurred on the decks of this unassuming ship. To this day, you can see the now faded battle-star and National Defense Service Medal she received for war service displayed near her bridge.
“We still find remnants below her deck from when she was a hospital off Normandy,” said one sailor that has worked on the ferry for more fours years and is a U.S. Navy veteran, “I’m proud to be aboard her.”
Hundreds of men survived their Normandy wounds and were nursed back to fight another day, return home, marry, have families and grow old. All because of the lumbering presence off Normandy of what then was a ship known simply as LST-510.
* To sail the USS Cape Henlopen (formerly LST-510):
The USS Cape Henlopen of the Cross Sound Ferry costs $44 per car and sails every few hours from New London, Conn. to Orient Point on Long Island, N.Y. The ferry takes cars and passengers and operates a food concession and bar on board (Telephone: 860-443-5281).
Additional pictures of the ship may be viewed at: https://www.longislandferry.com/Default.asp