Dunedin recaptures a piece of history

Dunedin finds a 10.5-ton "alligator" that was manufactured and tested in the city.
Navy Korean War veteran Paul Hurtubise, 85, examines the landing vehicle tracked — colloquially called an alligator — outside Dunedin's Veterans of Foreign Wars post. On May 22, about 60 people gathered in Dunedin to watch the vehicle be transported back into town. The project cost about $20,000 and an official unveiling ceremony is planned for July. JIM DAMASKE   |   Times
Navy Korean War veteran Paul Hurtubise, 85, examines the landing vehicle tracked — colloquially called an alligator — outside Dunedin's Veterans of Foreign Wars post. On May 22, about 60 people gathered in Dunedin to watch the vehicle be transported back into town. The project cost about $20,000 and an official unveiling ceremony is planned for July.JIM DAMASKE | Times
Published May 28 2015

DUNEDIN — It started over a couple of beers.

One summer evening in 2012, John Tornga and George Nigro — both Dunedin residents — were socializing at the Dunedin Boat Club.

The conversation turned to the city's history, namely the amphibious vehicles manufactured and tested in Dunedin during World War II.

Then, Nigro said, Tornga asked something that seemed near impossible: What if they could bring a landing vehicle tracked — colloquially called an alligator — back to Dunedin?

"We knew we had to find one," Tornga, a Dunedin city commissioner, said.

Nigro, who is vice president of the Dunedin museum's board of directors, said the conversation led to a mission that spanned three years and an organization dedicated to finding an LVT.

Dunedin LVT Preservation Group conducted a "worldwide search" scouring the Internet and making phone calls, Nigro said.

The organization saw the results of its work on May 22.

About 60 people gathered on the streets of Dunedin to watch the vehicle, loaded on a tractor-trailer and flanked by sheriff escorts, travel to its final resting place: Dunedin's Veterans of Foreign Wars post, where it will stay.

"All right, Johnny!" Here it comes," shouted Dunedin City Commissioner Bruce Livingston as the vehicle turned on Douglas Avenue.

"I might cry," Tornga said. He clapped and waved his hands at the LVT as it passed.

When the parade reached the veterans post, a crane was waiting. The crane slowly moved the 10.5-ton vehicle from the truck to a concrete pad as onlookers cheered and shouted, "Welcome home!"

According to Nigro, finding an LVT proved difficult. After two years of searching, the group found a vehicle owned by a collector in Chicago and made an offer. Nigro estimated the project, which included refurbishing the once-rusted vehicle, cost about $20,000 and was funded largely by donations from Dunedin residents.

The group is still asking for contributions to continue restoring the vehicle, and Nigro said an unveiling ceremony is planned for July.

"People realize our history may be short, but it's extremely rich," he said. "This is just the beginning."

The vehicle on display was not made in Dunedin. Nigro said it is symbolic of the significance Dunedin played in the second world war.

"I know I can trace my roots back to my grandfather coming from Hungary," he said. "This vehicle can trace its roots to Dunedin."

Locals speak with pride of the city's connection to World War II. A 1978 book from the Dunedin Historical Society mentions the city's past, noting that U.S. Marines came to Dunedin in 1941 to "master the operation of Roebling amphibious tanks" and test the vehicles.

Hallie Maxon, 97, sat with an American flag in her hand and watched the ceremony. Her husband, Glenn DeVere Maxon, was one of the Marines who first came to Dunedin in 1941. Glenn died in 2006.

Seeing a vehicle similar to the one he worked on was an emotional experience, she said.

"It makes me cry," she said.

Lou Woods, owner of Hippi's Trucking in Colfax, Wis., carried the LVT to Dunedin.

He said he was skeptical when he first heard about the mission to get the vehicle to Florida.

"It was something I'd never done," he said. After talking to Tornga, he decided it was an important cause and agreed to help move the vehicle roughly 1,200 miles to Dunedin. He charged the group $4,000 — about a 30 percent discount, he said.

Woods drove four days with the vehicle strapped to his trailer bed, fielding questions from strangers along the way.

"People were very curious," he said.

When he reached Florida, he stopped and polished his tractor-trailer to make sure it'd be presentable for Friday's event.

"It's an important thing," he said.

Chris Coules, a 43-year-old Dunedin resident, stood on Douglas Avenue with a large American flag as he waited for the caravan to pass.

He said the novelty of the event interested him.

"It's not often you're going to see a giant military vehicle going through downtown Dunedin," he said.

Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Ayana Stewart at astewart@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8913.

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