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Deep-Diving Nine PBS Film Explores History Of 7 Navy Ships Named St. Louis

Jimmy Infante
Lockheed Martin
The USS St. Louis (LCS-19), which is a Freedom-class littoral combat ship, was commissioned a little over a year ago.

When St. Louisan Kara Vaninger began sketching out a plan of attack for her latest film, she envisioned significant travel ahead. After all, she would be detailing the construction, commissioning and christening of a brand-new U.S. Navy ship — the 3,500-ton USS St. Louis (LCS-19) — whose launch would take place many miles from the Midwest, despite the ship’s name.

Instead, given the COVID-19 restrictions, her 58-minute documentary set to premiere next week on Nine PBS came together mostly at her kitchen table, with Vaninger surrounded by foster cats rather than sailors or ocean waves. But viewing the film, you wouldn’t suspect that anything had changed about its development.

Evie Hemphill / St. Louis Public Radio
Kara Vaninger is the writer, producer and narrator of “USS St. Louis: Centuries of Service.”

That’s because in “USS St. Louis: Centuries of Service,” Vaninger still finds a way to bring to life the striking history of the seven Navy ships that have sailed under the St. Louis name — from the first’s role fighting piracy and the slave trade, to the escape of “Lucky Lou” from Pearl Harbor, to the current crew’s reflections on their vessel and the city it honors.

Vaninger, who started working for Nine PBS 13 years ago laying cables and setting up camera crews as a freelancer, is quick to credit her sources and the military with helping her find workarounds to ensure the documentary’s success in spite of pandemic snafus.

Last year, for instance, when the writer and producer learned that she wouldn’t be allowed into the shipyard where the latest USS St. Louis was built, or be able to document its August 2020 commissioning ceremony in Pensacola, Florida, crew members allowed her to send them questions and logistical instructions. They thoughtfully set up cameras along decks and other photogenic backdrops to record their responses — and wound up giving her lots of great content even from afar.

Nine PBS Producer Discusses The Deep And Ongoing Legacy Of The USS St. Louis
Listen as Kara Vaninger previews the soon-to-premiere documentary "USS St. Louis: Centuries of Service" with host Sarah Fenske.

“The Navy was incredibly collaborative; everybody just gave their time,” Vaninger told St. Louis on the Air.

All that hard work shows up vividly in the new film, which will make its broadcast debut at 7 p.m. Sept. 27 on Nine PBS. The station partnered with the Missouri Historical Society and Soldiers Memorial Military Museum on the project.

On Thursday’s talk show, Vaninger joined host Sarah Fenske with a preview of it. Vaninger said she had no idea when she began the project just how deep and fascinating the history would be.

“I was thrilled to see how far back the ships went, because I’m a huge history buff myself,” the producer said.

U.S. Navy
USS St. Louis crew members enjoyed a visit to St. Louis, including a Cardinals game, in 2019.

She also found herself struck by some of the personal stories her sources shared, particularly those provided by Michael Backauskas, the son of a veteran who served on “Lucky Lou.”

“He wore his father’s photo on his suit jacket and walked around the reunion, and sure enough, people started to come up and said, ‘I remember your dad.’ And so he took a video camera with him, to many of these [crew] reunions — I think it was 10 or 15 years he went — and recorded these guys telling their stories, and their wives as well,” Vaninger said.

“I cannot tell you how appreciative I am of his willingness [to] document these people before they were gone. Most of them are not with us anymore.”

The film also highlights the connections between the current USS St. Louis, its crew, the ship’s sponsor and the city of St. Louis.

Related Event
What: “USS St. Louis: Centuries of Service” premiere
When: 7 p.m. Monday
Where: Nine PBS and livestream
The documentary will also be broadcast at 9 p.m. Sept. 29, and at 9:30 a.m. Oct. 3. Or you can stream it online, at ninepbs.org.

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. Jane Mather-Glass is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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