Wednesday, August 3, 2011

The Heroes of Seneca, IL

Seneca, IL, is a small Illinois River town that sits in LaSalle County, IL (with a small portion in Grundy County), between the towns of Morris and Marseilles.

We began attending church at St. Patrick's Parish in Seneca almost four years ago, making the scenic 20 minute drive from Morris each Sunday. During the course of all those drives, I didn't know much about Seneca other than the fact that it once had some sort of popular shipyard and a championship high school basketball team.

That all changed a few weeks ago, when I learned that Seneca played a key role in America's victory effort during World War II.

It turns out that Seneca wasn't just home to some shipyard — it was once home to a massive shipyard that constructed "Landing Ship, Tank" (LST) naval vessels that supported amphibious operations during World War II by transporting vehicles, cargo, and landing troops directly onto an enemy shores. These very vessels (how many were constructed in Seneca, I'm not certain) were used to land troops and vehicles on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day.

Today, Seneca has a population of about 2,000 people, but during World War II, the town was home to 27,000 people — mostly shipyard workers who worked on constructing these large vessels.

It may seem odd that a town in the middle of the Prairie State was chosen for a wartime shipyard — but apparently the sandstone base under the river bed off Seneca was ideal for construction of the shipyard. The Illinois River is also a major waterway through the Midwest. Head south, and you'll make your way to the Mississippi and, eventually, the Gulf of Mexico. Head north and you'll enter Lake Michigan in Chicago and, eventually, the Atlantic Ocean.

Here is a great article on the history of the "Prairie Shipyard." The first LST was built in Seneca on December 13, 1942, and a total of 157 LSTs were constructed over a three-year period.

The photo above is the memorial, located in Seneca's Crotty Park, to the Prairie Shipyard workers who built the LSTs, and the men and women of the Navy and Coast Guard who sailed them.

Also above is a photograph of the Seneca bridge that crosses the Illinois River, near the spot where LSTs would have been built and launched during World War II.

Following is a photo, courtesy of the National Archives at Chicago Facebook page, that shows a photo of the "Prairie Shipyard" as it looked during its heydey during World War II:

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