Back      Restonian Retrieves Bell

          From His World War II Past

           Times Community Newspapers September 20, 1995

                                By Tom Grubisich  Times Staff Writer

The brass bell of the LST 793 first sounded in the spring of 1944 when the flat-bottomed troop and material carrier was commissioned at the Dravo Shipyard in Pittsburgh. For the next year, it tolled every hour of the day and night as its crew of 115 Coast Guardsmen took it to the war in the Pacific – ultimately to the bloody and blackened beach of Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

Electrician’s mate Earl R. Leister Jr., a native of Arlington who now lives in Reston, remembers the sound of the bell when the quartermaster on duty on the bridge would yank on the lanyard to signal the hour.

"There were bombs being dropped by the Japanese planes, and our 22- and 40-mm anti-aircraft guns were firing back – the noise was tremendous – but through almost the worst of it you could hear that bell," Leister said. "Every hour, through the night."

LST 793 and its crew of mostly young men in their teens and 20s survived the war, including many trips ferrying soldiers, ordnance and equipment between Okinawa and the Philippines. By early 1946, the ship was delivered to a base in Lake Charles, La., where it was mothballed. The brass bell sounded no more.

But half a century later, the bell rings again. "Listen to that," says Leister, now 72 and a resident of Heron House on Lake Anne Plaza, as he pulls on the new lanyard. "Isn’t that something?"

Between now and Sept. 26, the bell is on display in the café of Il Cigno restaurant on Lake Anne Plaza. But on Sept. 27, Leister and his wife Wanda will take it to Stroudsburg, Pa., for the 13th reunion of the crew of LST 793.

For years, Leister and other surviving crew members had assumed the bell was irretrievably lost. The LST (for landing-ship-tank) was taken out of mothballs and sold to the Texarkana Wheat and Flour Co. The company used the boat for years, then time dimmed what happened to the boat – and its bell.

But in the early 1980’s, Gamaliel Ballance, a commercial fisherman who lived in Hatteras Island, S.C., turned up at an LST 793 reunion and informed members he had the bell. He said the captain of the LST, George Miller, by then deceased, had given it to him. "We didn’t question the truthfulness of his story," said Leister.

Ballance had the bell mounted on the side of his fishing shack in Hatteras. Polished no more, the bell developed a thick coat of rust.

Then two years ago, Ballance died. He left no will, and his family, unable to agree on a division of his estate, put everything up for auction, including the bell.

Members of the LST 793 reunion group found out about all this from member Raymond Carter, who had been informed about the auction by Ballance’s nephew.

The auction was set for Aug. 5 in Elizabeth City, S.C. In the program, the bell was item No. 261.

Because Leister was the reunion group member who lived closest to Elizabeth City, he was delegated to go there and try to make the clinching bid.

"We were prepared to go $1000," he said.

Five other parties bid against Leister, but the auctioneer, he said, was aware of the circumstances, and he brought his gavel down when Leister bid $500.

Leister brought the bell to Reston, and Il Cigno proprietor Sylvio Valbusa and other close friends, using elbow grease and steel buffers, cleaned away the "solid green" rust and shined the brass to a golden patina. The striker was given a new woven white lanyard. The Leisters will take the bell to the reunion, which will be attended by 30 families. The bell will be carried in a ceremonial box with "LST 793" painted in gold block letters. Valbusa and others fashioned the box.

After the reunion, the bell will be rotated every three months among surviving crew members. "Like a bottle of champagne, the last man alive will fall heir to the bell," Leister said.

As the reunion approaches, Leister thinks about his fellow crew members, about hitting the beach in Okinawa with Japanese kamikaze planes whizzing overhead so low he could see the pilots’ faces, about the bell which tolled them through the days and  nights of the war that surrounded the LST 793.

"Oh, my Lord, it almost makes me cry," Leister said, "There are feelings I can’t put in words. The whole crew will be waiting for me."

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