Why do they call it that? SS American Victory: Tampa's Channelside heroic Victory ship

6:35 AM, Jul 4, 2012   |    comments
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Without this hero, there is no way we'd be celebrating our independence today. It's not too pretty, but during World War II, this Tampa Bay treasure did amazing things to keep us free.

Why do they call it the SS American Victory?

It's tall and long, topped with masts that served as cranes, and painted with various shades of battle-ready grey.

When today's cargo ship captains cruise into the Port of Tampa, this old, bold ship welcomes them.

And it's because of ships just like this one that we're free today to say "welcome" in English -- instead of "willkommen" in German, "kangei" in Japanese, or "dobro pozhalovit'" in Russian.

We won World War II. And cargo ships like this may not be sexy, but they were the backbone of that victory.

"You really need to keep the troops fed. You need to keep them in ammunition. You need to keep them sheltered," explained Bill Kuzmick.

"They need these basic elements to fight the war. And these ships could provide the basic elements and beyond."

Kuzmick runs the nonprofit group that keeps alive that story and this ship, the SS American Victory.

More than 500 of these "Victory" ships were built during World War II. The goal: crank 'em out faster than the Germans and Japanese could sink 'em.

"A Victory Ship is a cargo vessel that's designed to haul anything that is needed overseas. It would hold from bullets, bombs, beans, bread, telephone poles, tanks -- you name it," Kuzmick said.

"America needed these ships. And this ship was built in 55 days."

These ships were built fast, but they were built to last.

Thanks to an incredible team of volunteers, they still take this ship out into Tampa Bay to cruise -- under its own power -- twice a year. And maybe even more impressive than that? All of the bathrooms still work!

"You come here, and a lot of people don't understand -- you fall in love with the ship. It's got a soul. And you really fall in love with making her work and making her work right," Kuzmick said.

In Tampa's Channelside district, you can step inside and tour almost every space on the ship. It's really hands-on and really -- real.

Many rooms, right down to the captain's quarters, are kept just like they were when this ship was in service -- stuffed with sailors in the Merchant Marine, risking their lives to feed and supply America's troops.

"The American Victory served in World War II, Korea, and Vietnam. And she still serves today by training active duty and reserve military, FBI agents, working dogs, firefighters, police officers," Kuzmick said.

Captain John Timmell and a group of local leaders saved the ship, brought it to Tampa in 1999, and raised millions to restore it.

"The ship was named after American University in Washington, DC. These ships were named after universities, countries, communities that were faithful to and supportive of the war effort," Kuzmick said.

More than 3,200 military cargo ships sailed the seas and supplied the front lines in World War II. Just four remain active today.

And one of them stands proudly as the Port of Tampa's welcome to the world.

Why do they call it that? Now you know.

On Independence Day, there's a patriotic celebration onboard the SS American Victory. Their 4th of July Family Funfest goes from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.

They'll have face painting, arts and crafts, and prizes for kids. Plus food, beer, and wine -- all capped off with fireworks. For more details, visit the American Victory Ship website.

Grayson Kamm, 10 News

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