VALLEJO -- Below deck, down the steep metal stairs, the aroma of salt water, oil paint, naval fuel and cordite provides a powerful blast of nostalgia to any old sea dog. Allan Jessop, a square-jawed 71-year-old ("too old for Vietnam, too young for Korea," he says) drives a power drill into the galley wall of the world's last remaining World War II LCS combat vessel. Gordon Stutrud, another volunteer, looks on.
"There's something special about her," said Stutrud, who was stationed off the shore of Cuba when the world stood at the brink of nuclear war in 1962. "Every time I come aboard, the smell, the feel, it all takes me back 50 years."
Jessop and Stutrud are among the handful of volunteers -- mostly retirees and Navy veterans -- working feverishly to have LCS 102 ready to sail on its own power for Fleet Week in October. If these old-timers can complete their mission, they say this 387-ton U.S. Navy Landing Craft Support vessel, one of only 130 ever built, could become the largest World War II combat ship still able to sail under its own power in the United States.
The National Association of USS LCS (L) 1-130 veterans group, which owns the 158-foot ship, has for years toiled at Mare Island in Vallejo toward its goal of restoring the LCS 102 to full operation.
"I don't know that we'll make it to Fleet Week this year, but we will get there," Stutrud said. "We would join the parade of ships, and it would be glorious."
Jessop, in blue overalls and mopping his brow during a quick break, was more firm.
"The goal is Fleet Week," he said.
San Francisco Fleet Week, scheduled Oct. 7-13, celebrates the Bay Area's rich naval tradition and honors the men and women who served in the past and today. The event draws tens of thousands of spectators each year.
Dozens of World War II ships have been restored and preserved as museums. The USS Iowa, the battleship on which President Franklin D. Roosevelt made several trans-Atlantic voyages, was recently tugged from Richmond to Los Angeles for installation as a floating museum. But because of costs, age and modern nautical regulations, keeping a World War II ship seaworthy has been seen as untenable.
But not for the volunteers of LCS 102.
"It takes money and work to keep her going, but it's worth it," Stutrud said.
The ship is already a historical marvel, a heavily armed battle tank on water designed for maximum potency in the hellish, close-quarters combat of the South Pacific. Built in Portland, Ore., in February 1945, it reached the Pacific theater for nine months of World War II combat.
Specially built as an amphibious ship for island battles in the Pacific, the "Mighty Midget" was heavily armed to lay close-range supporting fire for landing forces on beaches. The flat bottom and skegs were designed to let the ship beach itself and remain intact to re-enter the water.
Six of the 130 built were destroyed in battle, Jessop said, and the subsequent 68 years has whittled the original population down, so all that remains is the nearly pristine craft they labor on today.
"The ones that were destroyed were mostly taken out by kamikaze boats," said Jessop, himself a survivor of a heart attack and cancer. "You can't imagine how terrible the firefights were."
That more ships and crews weren't lost is probably owed to the vessels' firepower. The LCS 102s bristled with more guns per ton than any ship ever built for the Navy, according to a 1995 naval history book -- 13 guns and rocket launchers, including twin 40 mm guns and a 3-inch 50 caliber. Fusillades of shells were capable of shredding aircraft like confetti.
"The kamikaze planes weren't able to get too close," Jessop said with a half-smile.
The ship faced enemy fire in Borneo, Philippines, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. After the war, it was lent to Japan for use in its small civil defense navy and renamed the Himawai. In 1966, it found a new home in Thailand, where it was used by the Thai navy and called the Nakha, which means "serpent," until 2007. In 2007, the National Association of USS LCS (L) 1-130 bought the ship and had it towed to Vallejo.
The crusty band of volunteers has toiled for years, raising money and fixing everything they can on the vessel. They fire up the engines once a month and have new radar and radio equipment they are set to install. To make it seaworthy, they'll need to shore up instability in the propeller shafts, mount sophisticated radar equipment and do some electrical and sewage work, but they're close.
Jeff Nilsson, executive director of the Historic Naval Ships Association in Tidewater, Va., said he knows of a handful of World War II ships still able to sail in U.S. waters, but none are like the LCS 130.
"There are some Liberty and Victory ships out there that can get underway, but they aren't combat vessels, and the guns they had are gone," he said. "There are a few small PT boats out there, too."
The menacing guns still swing on the turrets, giving the ship the guise of an instrument of war. The gun sights on the anti-aircraft cannons still resemble spider webs, and shells up to 35 pounds are stored below -- sans gunpowder, of course.
The volunteers think a voyage will raise the profile, draw more funding and enhance the ship's prospects as a self-sustaining, working attraction. They'd like to move from their $1,200-per-month dock in Vallejo to less expensive, more accessible digs in Petaluma, Napa or San Francisco.
On a recent afternoon, a former brigadier general and military historian named David Henley came from Newport Beach to visit the ship he'd heard so much about. As the volunteers kept up their race against time to restore the ship, Henley marveled at the gem tucked on the Vallejo shore.
"You tip your cap to these guys," he said. "If they can get her to glide through the water again, what an accomplishment."
Contact Robert Rogers at 510-262-2726. Follow him at Twitter.com/roberthrogers.
The LCS 102 is open to the public from 9:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Volunteers will give visitors tours of the ship and show educational videos. Admission is free, but donations are accepted. The ship is located at 1080 Nimitz Ave. at Mare Island, behind Building 117.
For more information or to volunteer or donate, contact Bill Mason at 415-359-4510 or email@example.com.