WWII veteran finishes journey across America at Mission Beach on 100th birthday
Even after health issues sidelined Andrus and forced him to stop mid-trek, a friend took over for the final stretch to ensure Andrus’ efforts were not wasted
After four years, five months and four days, Ernie Andrus made it to the other side of America, just in time for his 100th birthday.
On Saturday, the Pacific Ocean washed over the World War II veteran’s running shoes as he finished a cross-country journey in Mission Beach with a little help from some friends and family.
Andrus started his trek on the sands of Saint Simons Island, Georgia, on March 16, 2019, before weaving his way through the southern U.S. states.
Health issues sidelined Andrus after five states and forced him to stop mid-trek. John Martin, a friend who had accompanied him through the journey, took over for the final stretch to ensure Andrus’ efforts were not wasted.
This was the second time Andrus had attempted the coast-to-coast feat. The first time, he completed the 2,600-mile trek solo back in 2013 — and at a run.
Both journeys were part of a fundraising effort for LST 325, the last operational WWII amphibious landing ship-tank, afloat in U.S. waters.
Andrus, who served on an LST in the South Pacific during the war, was part of a crew of veterans that traveled to Greece to help restore LST 325 and bring it back to America in 2001. Now docked in Indiana, the ship serves as a museum and memorial.
Now, he’s raising money to fulfill his dream of taking the ship back to Normandy — where it landed on Omaha Beach 79 years ago — for a D-Day memorial.
Finding his inspiration
Andrus jokes that he wears three hats: a WWII veteran baseball cap he received at a D-Day anniversary in Normandy for his service in the U.S. Navy, a rainbow sweatband he wore on both of his cross-country journeys and a Navy dress hat he wore as crew on the LST 325.
Andrus decided to join the Navy after the Attack on Pearl Harbor and completed his boot camp training here in San Diego at the Naval Training Center in 1942.
After serving about a year-and-a-half as a pharmacist’s mate on a transport ship, taking multiple trips across the South Pacific to transport wounded soldiers, he was put on LST 124.
“I had no idea what an LST was,” Andrus said.
He came to find out that the ships could not only carry tanks, vehicles and soldiers, but could land those tanks and troops directly onto shore.
“It’s considered the ship that won the war,” Andrus said. “We couldn’t have won it without them.”
A total of 1,051 LSTs were built during WWII. Years later after most of them had been decommissioned, Andrus and other veterans joined forces to locate one that they could salvage.
“It was 10 years before we finally found one,” Andrus said.
LST 325 was found in a ship boneyard in Greece. This particular ship was part of the back-up force for the troops going ashore at Omaha Beach in Normandy on D-Day.
“We formed our own Navy when we went over to get the ship,” Andrus said of the crew of veterans. “We were all old men.”
After months of hard work, they got the ship running. “Man, it ran good,” Andrus recalled, tearing up. “There wasn’t a dry eye on that ship.”
Then, they completed what was thought of as an impossible task and sailed the ship back across the Atlantic one final time.
Though Andrus had to get off the ship in Gibraltar due to an injury, he met the ship for its homecoming in Alabama in January 2001.
“They believed we were crazy old men until we got there,” Andrus said. “When the ship pulled into the harbor, we were suddenly heroes.”
Meeting friends along the way
When a man who was running across every country came through Prescott, Arizona, where Andrus was living at the time, an idea sparked.
“I just thought, ‘I think I’ll do that,’” Andrus said.
Then after seeing the buzz he received when he completed his first 200-mile relay at 88, he thought, “Maybe I can raise some money for the ship.”
Andrus began his first trek in October 2013 in San Diego, running 3 to 5 miles about three days per week. After completing a stretch, Andrus would hitchhike back to his RV. Then, he would drive to the spot he stopped running and start the whole thing over again.
He was joined by various supporters along the way, who had often run sections with him. Among them was Martin, who didn’t know Andrus until he happened upon one of the most wholesome YouTube rabbit holes.
The San Bernardino County firefighter was at work in October 2015 when a video caught his attention. It was then-91-year-old Andrus running with an American flag.
Martin remembers watching and thinking, “This is ridiculous. What is this guy doing? He’s crazy.”
Curious, Martin went on a deep dive and found out Andrus was about two-thirds done with his trek. On a whim, he decided to message Andrus on Facebook, and sure enough, he answered.
A couple months later, Martin found himself on a plane to meet Andrus in Mississippi, where the pair ran together to Louisiana. And a few months after that, Martin joined Andrus at the finish line.
Andrus reached the Atlantic Ocean in August 2016 — the day after his 93rd birthday — surrounded by a crowd of more than 1,000 people cheering him on.
He became the oldest person to ever run coast-to-coast, completing the feat in 999 hours, 32 minutes. He raised more than $30,000 for the LST.
Ernie Andrus started in San Diego in 2013. He reached the Atlantic this weekend, 2,600 miles later
Although he didn’t raise enough to send the LST to Normandy, the money went to supporting the ship’s upkeep.
After finishing his first trek, Andrus said he realized how much running meant to him, calling it a cure-all for life’s problems.
“Then after two years getting bored, I decided to run back the other way,” Andrus said, chuckling.
Though Andrus knew it was unlikely he would raise enough to get LST 325 to Normandy, he was determined to try anyway.
“I already thought he was crazy, now I thought he was completely out of his ever-loving mind,” Martin added.
When Andrus announced his plans to his family on his 95th birthday, he was immediately met with resistance, so he enlisted Martin to join him.
“I’ve never been thrown under a bigger or faster speeding bus in my life,” Martin joked.
Martin took an early retirement from the fire department, and seven months later, he and Andrus were on their way back across America.
“It’s a good thing (he came) because I would have never made it,” Andrus said.
Passing the torch
Andrus began his second journey from east to west on March 16, 2019, taking the same route as he had before.
He and Martin walked 2.5 to 3 miles on Monday, Thursday and Saturday mornings — until a week after his 97th birthday in 2020, when Andrus called it quits. Congestive heart failure had left him weak and caused his legs to swell.
Martin decided to take over the mission entirely. After he had driven from Texas to the home of one of Andrus’ daughters in Shasta Lake in Northern California, he turned right back around.
“It took two days to get back to where we took our last step together and I resumed it,” Martin said, considering it an honor to help Andrus finish his quest.
After a couple of months, Andrus felt well enough to start walking again and would try to walk during their usual time, joining Martin from afar.
Recently, Andrus rejoined Martin on the road, but after a couple of walks, he had to stop completely.
“I’m (feeling) fairly good,” Andrus said. “I just can hardly walk.”
Even so, he was excited to finish what he started Saturday on his 100th birthday, ending his running career on a high note. Pushing his walker adorned with American flags and four Navy medals, Andrus stepped onto the Mission Beach boardwalk.
Hand-in-hand with Martin and his daughter on either side, Andrus stepped out onto the sand and insisted in walking to the surf to touch the water — exactly where he had originally begun his journey seven years earlier.
This time, the celebration was a bit more intimate. As Andrus’ granddaughters led him back to the boardwalk, more than 100 friends and family gathered to cheer him on and celebrate Andrus’ centennial, singing happy birthday as he approached.
Union-Tribune photographer Nelvin C. Cepeda contributed to this report.