On his 93rd birthday this year, Navy veteran Ben Read of Glendora got behind the wheel of a landing craft for the first time in 75 years during a trip to the National WWII Museum in New Orleans.
Read drove the same type of ship during the war 75 years ago, and had been dreaming of seeing one ever since joining dozens of other World War II veterans from the Southland on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C. in May 2018.
He didn’t get a chance to see one on the trip to the nation’s capital, but was able to hop aboard one in New Orleans.
“I cannot even begin to tell you what a thrill this is,” Read said as he stroked the wheel of the landing craft vehicle-personnel, or LCVP, invented by New Orleans boat maker Andrew Higgins.
Read was a Navy coxswain in the South Pacific during WWII and drove LCVPs in the Mariana Islands. The vessels were used in every amphibious operation during the war. President Dwight Eisenhower later said the Higgins boats helped the U.S. win the war.
Read’s daughter, Cheryl Balman, said her father discovered there was a LCVP at the museum in New Orleans and had been telling his family he wanted to see it for years.
Late last year, his daughters started a GoFundMe campaign to raise money for Read to make the trip. Within one day, they had reached their goal and then some.
“He had to go see his boat. It was such a big deal to him,” Balman said.
After Read and his daughter received COVID-19 vaccinations, they made the trip to New Orleans in February, where Read received a big surprise on his birthday. Museum staff had a ladder waiting for Read to climb onboard the boat and relive decades-old memories.
“As I scanned the room my eyes locked onto the boat, because that’s why I came here,” he said. “All the rest of this is wonderful, but that boat means something to me.”
Read went on to tell his daughter about his time on the open water, explaining how he could fit 36 men in the boat and he only gave them three minutes to vacate the boat on his trips to and from the islands.
“I didn’t even know I was going to be allowed to go behind the wheel. I was so thrilled,” Read said of his experience at the museum. “The memories raced, and I could look and see different items on the boat and know, I still remember what that’s called, and I named them for my daughter.”
There are fewer than 10 original LCVPs left in the world, according to Tom Czekanski, senior curator at the National WWII Museum. He said when the museum was being organized there wasn’t one available, so volunteers worked with former Higgins employees and original plans to create one using some original parts like the ramp and the engine.
“When it was finished there was a lieutenant who had inspected every boat that Higgins built and he was still alive, came to New Orleans, inspected the vessel and said, ‘This is it. If I was inspecting them today this would be perfect, I would accept it,’” Czekanski said.
Although the LCVP was the highlight of his trip, Read toured the entire museum with his daughter.
“When your parents get older you never know how long you have with them and every experience and every moment matters,” Balman said, adding, through tears of joy, “This moment is something that I just appreciate this so much.”
Balman thanked the National WWII Museum staff for making her father’s dream come true, saying, “literally nothing could get any better than this.”
Read reveled in his past, sharing stories with his daughter and anyone else who listened.
“When you get my age all we have left is memories,” he said. “We don’t get the chance to make many memories.”
As he held back tears he said, “Not many of us talk about it but if you have chance to talk to a veteran, listen. You honor a veteran when you listen.”