Donning a green safety vest over a blue sweatshirt and picking up an American flag on a cool Thursday morning, 92-year-old Ernie Andrus led several dozen people out onto U.S. 190 east of Covington, starting another leg of a journey that has taken the World War II veteran more than 2,000 miles since 2013.
Andrus is running across the country in an effort to raise money to haul a World War II-era ship known as the LST 325 to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in 2019.
Even though Andrus, a Navy veteran, served in the hospital corps, he has a special affection for the vessel because 15 years ago, he and several other men restored the last remaining LST 325 and sailed it from Greece back to the United States. Unfortunately for Andrus, the board of the nonprofit LST Memorial, which owns the ship and operates it as a tourist attraction, voted to have it hauled to Normandy for the commemoration to reduce the risk of damage or loss. That will cost millions of dollars, Andrus said.
And so he runs.
Andrus is undertaking this journey alone, closely followed by his children, who live throughout the country — he spent Christmas week with one of seven daughters in Jackson Hole, Wyoming.
There were once 1,051 LST (Landing Ship, Tank) craft built for the war effort, and they were used extensively during amphibious operations, including the Normandy invasion. The 330-foot oceangoing ships were able to carry tanks, men and weapons right up to the shores on which battles were fought.
Before undertaking his journey, Andrus sold his homes in Prescott, Arizona, and Los Angeles. He travels in an RV, towing his car. Typically, he parks the RV at a location central to several days’ runs, then drives his car to the starting line. Then, when he finishes the day’s run, he gets a ride back to his car before returning to his RV.
On Thursday, Andrus had an ample escort — members of the public, several deputies and Covington Police Chief Tim Lentz — the second-biggest group Andrus has run with. Several police departments provided security, making Andrus’ arrival in Covington look like the approach of a Carnival parade. Along the route, people parked and got out to cheer on Andrus.
At 92, his pace is not quick, but it’s steady. He keeps up a consistent stream of stories and conversation, and when someone takes a picture, he raises the American flag proudly. He runs three days a week, returning to the previous run’s finish line to start anew on the next leg.
Saturday, he will start in downtown Covington and run out east of the city to a spot on La. 36 about 6 miles from where he started.
He has been using a thoroughly modern means to keep people updated on his progress: Facebook. He also has a website documenting his journey and the story of LST 325, and providing a link where people can donate to the cause. On his Facebook page, he has chronicled runs through rain, with and without an escort, and always with a sense of humor.
“Come run with me, you can walk, I’ll run,” he urges people on his Facebook page. Andrus said he averages about 22 minutes per mile and covers about 6 or 7 miles on his runs. He expects the journey — which he began by touching the Pacific Ocean in San Diego in October 2013 — to take him between two and four years. His planned end point is near Brunswick, Georgia.
The 6.2 miles he covered Thursday took about 21/2 hours, and he arrived to a small crowd in Covington chanting, “Ernie! Ernie!” and begging to take pictures.
Somebody put a bottle of water in his hand, and Andrus happily spoke with all who wanted a word or a picture, though he did ask for a chair so he could sit down. Covering that sort of territory, it turns out, can wear out a nonagenarian.
Covington Mayor Mike Cooper welcomed Andrus and presented him with a key to the city and a pin to put on his vest.
During the run, Andrus complained that his shoes were getting worn, and one of his companions, Tony LeMon, called Ryan Green at Varsity Sports in Mandeville, who found he had a few pairs of Andrus’ size 13 Brooks sneakers. After Cooper gave Andrus the key to the city, Green gave him the shoes.
Andrus described the morning run as “great,” then used the same word to describe all of Louisiana. But, he said, he wished it wasn’t quite so flat: “I like hills.”
Through his entire venture, only one run — in New Mexico, in subfreezing weather — hasn’t been fun.
On Thursday, the weather was unimportant to Lisa Robinson and Stacy LeBouef, two friends who traveled from Thibodaux to run with Andrus.
“I am so impressed that he’s 92 and still running,” LeBouef said. “I’m 45, and I sometimes don’t feel like I can move.”
LeBouef follows Andrus on Facebook, and the pair had been looking for a good opportunity to run with him. “It was great,” Robinson said afterward. Andrus “told stories the whole time.”
Lentz said Andrus’ passion was evident, and the stories kept people entertained.
Andrus had a few final remarks after his run, first dismissing Forrest Gump’s fictional cross-country trek: “He’s a little younger than me, and he didn’t have a cause,” he said to laughter.
Then he said he wanted to help people remember the cost of freedom is high.
“It’s not free,” he said.
Follow Faimon A. Roberts III on Twitter, @faimon.