SENECA — “The Last Signal” is a new documentary in the final stages of production. It tells the story of Raymond “De Vere” Johnson and John Heimsoth, World War II veterans who both served in the Navy aboard LST-218. Johnson, 92, of Illinois and a signal man during his time in service, thought he was the last surviving crew member of the ship constructed at the Seneca Prairie Shipyard in Seneca, Ill. His daughter sought to prove him wrong.
Johnson’s daughter, Cheryl, posted on Facebook seeking other veterans of the ship. Within weeks, the post had more than a million hits and had been shared worldwide. It also brought contact with Heimsoth, 91, of Stover, Mo. “The Last Signal” is a documentary which captures their reunion and shares their story, along with the history of the small town Illinois shipyard.
“When we came to Seneca to film and highlight the community’s contribution to the war effort, I was amazed at how well the community has kept its history alive and continues to celebrate its contribution to one of the most historic times in our nation’s history,” said producer Kyle Olson.
After the U.S. entered the war, defense manufacturing soon sky-rocketed. The coastal shipyards were handling the large vessels such as aircraft carriers, battleships and destroyers, but the government looked inland for the production of smaller craft such as the LST, or Landing Ship Tank.
Situated on 200 acres on the bank of the Illinois River and on a bed of solid sandstone which could handle the 5,500 ton weight of the ships, the Seneca Prairie Shipyard was soon receiving accolades for its production rate.
Seneca was originally founded as a watering stop for the railroad. With approximately 1,200 residents at the beginning of the war, thousands of people relocated to the area with the arrival of the shipyard. This also brought about additional housing, better roads, utilities, sewer system and an expanded school. Approximately 27,000 people worked at the yard during World War II.
According to the Seneca Shipyard Days website, 16 different trades were required to construct each of the 157 LSTs built. Skilled workers earned $1.20 an hour and laborers received .83 an hour. There were two, nine-hour shifts per day, six days a week. The yard employed 11,000 people when fully staffed.
The first LST built in Seneca took six months and 880,000 man-hours to construct because the shipyard was still being constructed. The Chicago Bridge and Iron Co., owners of the shipyard, planned on one LST a week once everything was in place, but they were soon building seven a month with only 280,000 man-hours invested per ship. This production rate won the company and itsworkers the coveted Army-Navy “E” award, presented to companies and workers for excellence in war production.
Once construction was complete, the ships were launched sideways into the Illinois River from one of the 15 berths that ran parallel to the river. Each ship had a female sponsor present at the launch, and as tradition goes, she broke a bottle of champagne over the bow. The shipyard kept track of the champagne used at the launches, and by the war’s end, 39 gallons of champagne had been spent.
The flat-bottomed ships were capable of transporting troops, tanks and supplies, and of delivering them directly onto the beach through two large doors in the hull. Because of their travel into heavy combat areas, the 327-foot-long LSTs weren’t expected to survive long, and few were given traditional names. LST-218 earned four battle stars before being decommissioned.
Filming has been completed on the documentary, but funding is needed to complete the post-production work so the film can be released to a large viewing audience. The producers need to raise at least $5,000. Donations are tax-deductible and can be made through Hatchfund at www.hatchfund.org/project/the_last_signal.
“Being able to capture the story of these two veterans who served together on this ship has been an honor. This is a story that needs to be shared with a mass audience. My hope is that contributions will be made to our Hatchfund effort, so we can get this documentary out into the world,” said Olson.
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