Thanks to a leaking, cockroach-infested ship and a bunch of old sailors long past their prime, 74-year-old Joe Sadlier got to do the impossible - he got to be a kid again.
A bus driver in Ketchikan, Sadlier was one of 29 veterans, average age 72, who completed an improbable journey Wednesday with a hero's homecoming at the state docks in Mobile.
Sadlier, who grew up in Juneau, was the ship's cook on the voyage of LST-325 from the Greek island of Crete to Mobile, Ala.
The official reason for the trans-Atlantic trip was to bring the ship back to the United States to become a museum and memorial for the thousands of American soldiers who served on the landing ships that were key players in the Atlantic and Pacific in World War II.
But the voyage also provided a great adventure for men like Sadlier and the ship's laundryman, 73-year-old Albert White of Roswell, N.M.
"I was retired and just laying around in Roswell soaking up the sun. I was called and told about this opportunity and I jumped at it," White said.
He said he never worried his great adventure might end in tragedy at the bottom of the cold, rugged seas of the North Atlantic.
"These old things were built rugged. I knew it wouldn't sink," he said.
For Sadlier, the trip provided medicine he couldn't have received from a regiment of doctors.
"Physically we are all in our 70s," said Sadlier, one arm around his daughter and the other pointing to the gray-haired men who were his shipmates. "Mentally we were 18 when we were out on that ship."
Sadlier was born in Juneau, the son of an Alaska Juneau gold mine worker. In 1944, he volunteered for the Navy rather than attend his senior year at Juneau High School. He ended up serving on LSTs and passed ammunition to the gunner on board one in the Battle of Okinawa.
Sadlier said he thought it would be an impossible voyage when he first arrived in Crete and saw the rusty old ship.
"The ship was a mess. It was filled with cockroaches," Sadlier said.
But once they got the ship on the ocean, Sadlier said, "It was just like going back in time. We were 18 again."
He said cooking in a small galley that was built almost 60 years ago, with just three big pots and a skillet, was a challenge. The stormy seas of the North Atlantic didn't help.
"I got to know what a flying saucer is, because I had a galley full of them," Sadlier said.
His daughter, Maracalynne Velez, is in the U.S. Navy stationed in Meridian, Miss. She was on the dock with her children, Sergio, 15, and Marlena, 12.
"You're looking great. The kids have grown so much," Sadlier said as he hugged his daughter and grandchildren seconds after walking down the shaky gangplank to leave the ship.
Velez wanted to know if her dad had gotten the Christmas present she sent him.
Sadlier shook his head and said the crew had been isolated.
"We were out there by ourselves for 6,000 miles. We didn't have a mailing address. We didn't even know who the hell the president was," Sadlier said.
"We are very proud of him," Velez said of her father. "I took the children out of school today and one of their teachers said, 'Thank him for what he did for our country."'
One of the toughest jobs on the ship belonged to Corbin Fowkes, a retired construction worker from Clarion County, Pa., who worked below deck eight to 12 hours a day trying to keep the ship's aging engines running.
"The engines gave us all kinds of trouble. We blew a piston. We lost our steering. The last couple of times the engine stopped we said, 'We've hit the end of the line.' But somehow we got it going again," Fowkes said.
During the last few days of the trip, he said, water was leaking into the engine room and they had to work to keep the machinery dry.
"We had to run water off the side of the engine," Fowkes said.
The old sailors said they didn't think much about the attention their voyage might be getting back home.
"We thought maybe a few wives and kids would be at the dock when we came in. But all the way in this morning there were crowds of people on the docks and an armada of boats," White said.
Among those waving from the bank as LST-325 cruised past downtown Mobile were Martha and Chris Henken, who checked their 5-year-old daughter Michelle out of kindergarten so she could "be a part of history."
Sitting in a lawn chair, holding a Mardi Gras flag, Martha Henken said what the crew of LST-325 accomplished was "incredible."
"We decided to get here early so we could be a part of it," Henken said.
The LST Association and the logbook of the LST-325's voyage are available online.