The City of Crestview welcomes a 96-year old World War II veteran who is on a mission:
CRESTVIEW — Mayor JB Whitten didn’t have to go very far out of his way to welcome Ernie Andrus to Crestview. He was already part of the band of supporters that joined the World War II veteran on his Monday morning 4-mile walk from the U.S. Hwy. 90 Shoal River bridge to downtown.
A veteran of the decisive three-week June-July 1944 Battle of Saipan, Mr. Andrus served in the U.S. Navy during the war, arriving on the shores of the strategic island aboard the first LST vessel to hit the beach.
That landing ship-tank found a fond spot in Mr. Andrus’ heart and now, determined to raise enough funds to transport another LST, no. 325, back to the D-Day beaches of Normandy, France, to be on permanent display, the vet is walking across the nation to draw attention to the cause.
At 96 years of age, he agrees it’s going to be quite a walk given his average progress of 4 miles or so a day and 13 miles a week. He anticipates he’ll be 100 when — not if — he reaches his goal.
“If a 100-year-old man can make it, people may take notice,” he said Monday morning. “I’m hoping we can get it (the LST) over there to France. I’m hoping the Navy will take notice.”
Built in Philadelphia and launched on Oct. 27, 1942, the USS LST 325 is currently docked in Evansville, Indiana, where a group of volunteers, mostly veterans like Mr. Andrus, maintain her as a memorial to its many crewmen over a long, distinguished career that included the Allied invasions of North Africa, Sicily, the Italian mainland, and Normandy.
Mr. Andrus chuckles as he recalls the ship’s uncomfortable ride, which his own LST 124 shared with LST 625, and which many a seasick soldier passenger lamented as the worst part of attacking German-occupied France.
“I enjoyed it. It was fun,” Mr. Andrus said. “I get seasick on a merry-go-round, but being on the ocean never bothered any of us Navy guys.”
His job on LST 124 involved helping embark and disembark passengers — Marines and soldiers going ashore to fight and wounded servicemen coming off of Saipan. The brutal battle cost the lives of 2,949 American servicemen and 10,464 wounded.
“They gave ‘em to me alive and I kept them alive,” Mr. Andrus said. “I had one they thought was dead, but I kept him alive.” In fact, contradicting an order from is officer, he revived the Marine several times while he was being evacuated aboard the LST 124.
“Every Marine I met said I was his best friend, and I’m not going to let my best friend die,” he said.
LST 625 is the only restored and substantially unchanged ship of its class that is still operational and seaworthy, Mr. Andrus said, and he and his fellow volunteers are eager to sail it across the Atlantic and back ashore in Normandy where it will form a memorial to the sailors who sailed it and its sister LSTs.
Mr. Andrus is using his second transcontinental walk, which he started in March at St. Simons Island, Georgia, (where he concluded his first walk, a west-to-east trek) as an opportunity to relax and enjoy the hospitality of the communities through which he walks.
He began his Crestview leg with a hearty breakfast at Hub City Smokehouse, hosted by Mayor Whitten and pit master Mike Carroll, where he praised the cuisine.
“Until now, the only place I found in the South that makes good oatmeal is the Corner Café in DeFuniak Springs,” he said. “I raised $386 in Crestview plus had a good breakfast and found another restaurant in the South that knows how to make oatmeal.”
WANT TO HELP?
Checks made out to “Coast to Coast Runs” can be sent to Coast to Coast Runs, 5010 North Tiara Court, Otis Orchard, WA 99027. On the memo line, note if the contribution is a Sponsor or Donation. “Sponsor money helps cover my expenses,” Ernie Andrus said. “Donation money goes to the LST Ship Memorial.” Donations, sponsorships and book and shirt orders can be made at coast2coastruns.com.