Onto Rugged Shores: The Voyage of LST 534

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When Henry Norman Alvers contracted Alzheimer’s Disease, his daughter, producer Linda Alvers, began investigating her father’s life, focusing on his service in World War II. The fruits of Alvers’ research is the documentary, Onto Rugged Shores: The Voyage of LST534.

The "Landing Ship Tank" or LST was a flat-bottomed floating warehouse designed to transport tanks and other heavy vehicles and equipment to France for the Normandy invasion. (Indeed, D-Day could not have occurred before its invention.) Onto Rugged Shores chronicles the path of one of these boats, LST534, from its manufacture in an Evansville, Indiana, shipyard through its perilous convoy crossing over the North Atlantic, its circuitous travels among English ports in the build-up preparatory to D-Day, and its role in the invasion itself. After D-Day, its crew assumed their part of the war was over, but in fact LST534 was slated for service in the Pacific.

Upon its return Stateside, the ship underwent refitting while its crew received a well deserved (and apparently memorably decadent) leave in New York City. When the ship was once again ready for action, it sailed through the Panama Canal to the Pacific where it took part in the landing at Okinawa. After the surrender in Tokyo Bay, LST534 was making its way home for good when a typhoon beached it on a coral reef. The good ship, finally damaged beyond repair, was scuttled in the Pacific.

Only a few photographs were ever taken of LST534, but this loss was compensated for by some priceless film footage taken by a crew member. Two significant events in the ship’s life that were captured for posterity are included in Onto Rugged Shores: the initiation rites administered to some fresh recruits, and the shipboard fire that ensued from a kamikaze pilot’s hit at Okinawa.

Venerable journalist and narrator Howard K. Smith fills in the historical details about LST534, but the heart of Onto Rugged Shores lies in its interviews with her former crew. These men recount their experiences – many of which are alarming in their peril and horror – in understated tones, while their eyes gleam with pride and surprise that they once took part in such momentous, dramatic events. These gentle, self-deprecating heroes seem like throwbacks to another age in the way they modestly recognize their place in history, and they too seem conscious of how our culture has changed since their youth. So often in the show do they preface their comments by saying, "But you have to understand…," that perhaps their quiet heroics do require translation for the brasher times we live in.

Photographs of the men during their service years underscore what we know but often forget: the soldiers who fought and won the largest military confrontation in history were nothing more than boys. As one of the crew members puts it, "It was a growing up experience – I wouldn’t take a million dollars for it. I wouldn’t want to do it again for a million dollars, but I wouldn’t take a million dollars for my experiences there."

Like the vessel that is its subject, Onto Rugged Shores: Voyage of LST534 is a durable, no-frills vehicle that travels to its destination with a scornful disregard for fuss or pretense. And, at the end, when we finally get to see some of its surviving crew members seated together, and we hear them telling the old stories while lifting both feet up off the floor in amazement or laughter, it’s plain that the war was a formative experience that has never lost its hold on them.

– Tom Block

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