The treasures of the USS The Sullivans’ Memorial Room were saved as the World War II-era destroyer was listing in the Buffalo River in mid-April.
Emergency responders carried away the intricate 3-D model of the destroyer, letters to the namesake Sullivan brothers and two original flags — including a tattered American flag attached to the mast of The Sullivans during fighting near the Japanese cities of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
But worries remain about the rooms that took the brunt of the damage: the engineering room and ship office, which were an estimated 70% submerged, as well as berthing (sleeping) areas and the mess deck (or community space), which were about 50% submerged, according to Shane Stephenson, the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park’s director of museum collections.
And it wasn’t just water putting artifacts in danger. Oily waste and debris had filled many compartments of The Sullivans, and Stephenson said humidity and fumes were other potential troublemakers.
The first nonemergency responder to enter The Sullivans, Stephenson was uncertain about the status of original documents in the ship office, too. Encouraged that 5,000 folders of ship blueprints had survived untouched in the Memorial Room, many documents stored in the office were submerged and all but ruined. Stephenson intended to freeze many of the papers in an attempt to preserve them.
The curator assuaged concerns that many inherent artifacts — those that had endured from the ship’s time in service — would not be removed from their original positions.
“We’re not stripping the ship,” said Stephenson, who said he’s following National Historic Landmark guidelines for historic vessel preservation projects. “Nothing will come off.”
In his first assessment below deck, Stephenson called the damage to the ship’s interior “considerable,” but he remained optimistic that restoring the museum ship, a star of the naval park’s tours, would be key to its “living history.”
“Our role will be to preserve artifacts on board to tell the story of the ship,” Stephenson said, “and retell the story of the ship in new ways after she reopens again to visitors.”
While the naval park is tentatively expected to reopen Memorial Day weekend, The Sullivans will likely be closed to the public for much longer as a new chapter unfolds in the ship’s 80-year history.
Areas of Concern
At its worst, the USS The Sullivans listed 30 degrees to starboard — aft (rear) of midship — meaning the middle-right of the vessel was underwater.
Stephenson’s restoration work matters, and there will be a close eye on his efforts. The extent of the damage remains a pressing question from veterans who served on the ship, the Tin Can Sailors who helped with upkeep and fans of naval history — the intangible memories attached to the artifacts on board, as well as the ship itself, are priceless.
A compartment-by-compartment cleaning and removal commenced Tuesday, with Stephenson overseeing Miller Environmental Group workers who descended into the ship from a ladder near the stern of The Sullivans. They emerged with large plastic bags containing mattresses and other items from sailors’ former living quarters, which had been almost fully submerged in contaminated water during the three weeks the ship was leaning.
Stephenson stressed an important distinction regarding artifacts on the ship: there are non-native artifacts, like uniforms, plaques and pictures, donated to the ship to preserve memories, and artifacts inherent to the ship, such as ship parts like machinery, assemblies, reduction gears and bulkheads.
The berthing spaces held non-native artifacts, too, like three photo boards that memorialized Navy veterans such as Jerry Reilly, the First Ward native who served on the USS Juneau with the five Sullivan brothers, and George Mendonsa, the subject of the iconic “Kissing Sailor” photo taken by Alfred Eisenstaedt in Times Square after World War II. Stephenson said that, while these boards looked fine from a distance, their quality was likely damaged, or at least jeopardized by sitting in oily water.
“At the very least they can be digitally cataloged,” said Stephenson.
Hal Burke, who served as a personnelman on The Sullivans in 1964 and helped repair the ship as a member of the Tin Can Sailors Field Days volunteer group since 2012, described the emotional value of those photo boards.
“All these pictures and stories have a profound influence on the people who come on-board,” said Burke, who was inspired by the photo of Reilly in 2017 to help reconnect two sides of Reilly’s family, which had not communicated since World War II, during a Sullivans reunion he organized.
Burke said that the ship office was the area in which he served and, five decades later, worked in during the Tin Can Sailors’ Field Days, four days each year where volunteers gathered from all over the country to complete maintenance on the ship. “We were in there cleaning during Field Days, reminiscing about when we used a typewriter in there — long before iPhones,” Burke said of his 2017 visit.
Decontaminating the inside of the ship and disposing of ruined items is the dirty work, but Stephenson — from his makeshift artifact center on the third deck of the neighboring USS Little Rock — faces difficult decisions in the two months ahead. He, along with private art conservator Gabriel Dunn, will triage non-native artifacts into two categories, separating those able to be preserved from those that need conservation, or slight repairs to add longevity. It’s possible the naval park will require volunteers to assist with the triage.
Even though he never served in the military, Stephenson has a strong history background and is confident he can make the most of the difficult situation. Before his four-year tenure at the naval park, he spent five years at the Buffalo History Museum and remains vice president of the Buffalo Presidential Center. Eager to discuss the history of destroyers and their value to the U.S. Navy during World War II, Stephenson explained his reverence for the naval park ships.
“They’re like historic homes that float,” Stephenson said of the trio of ships in the water. He knows his responsibility to tell the story of The Sullivans.
(c) 2022 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)
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