Despite ‘extensive’ damage to USS The Sullivans, Naval Park hopes to preserve artifacts


Officials who provided an update on the World War II destroyer USS The Sullivans said the ship is stable but not completely out of danger of sinking. (U.S. Coast Guard Sector Buffalo/Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) – Treasures in the USS The Sullivans Memorial Hall were rescued as the World War II destroyer was listed in the Buffalo River in mid-April.

Rescuers took away the intricate 3D model of the destroyer, letters to the namesake Sullivan brothers and two original flags, including a tattered American flag tied to the Sullivans’ mast during battles near the Japanese islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

But concerns remain over which rooms suffered the most damage: the ship’s engineering room and office, which were around 70% submerged, as well as the berthing (sleeping) areas and mess deck. (or community space), which were about 50% submerged, according to Shane Stephenson, director of collections at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park museum.

And it wasn’t just the water that endangered the artifacts. Trash and oily debris had filled many compartments of The Sullivans, and Stephenson said dampness and fumes were other potential troublemakers.

The first non-emergency responder to enter the Sullivans, Stephenson was also unsure of the status of the original documents at the ship’s office. Encouraged by the fact that 5,000 ship plan files had survived intact in the memorial room, many of the documents stored in the office were overwhelmed and virtually destroyed. Stephenson intended to freeze many papers in an effort to preserve them.

The curator allayed concerns that many inherent artifacts – those that had survived the ship’s time in service – would not be removed from their original position.

“We’re not dismantling the ship,” said Stephenson, who said he follows National Historic Landmarks guidelines for historic ship preservation projects. “Nothing will come out.”

In his first below-deck assessment, Stephenson called the damage inside the ship “extensive”, but he remained optimistic that restoring the museum ship, a star of naval park tours, would be key. of its “living history”.

“Our role will be to preserve artifacts on board to tell the ship’s story,” Stephenson said, “and to tell the ship’s story in new ways after it reopens to visitors.”

While the Naval Park is tentatively set 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 worst, USS The Sullivans was reading 30 degrees starboard – aft (aft) of midships – meaning the starboard midships was underwater.

Stephenson’s restoration work is significant and his efforts will be closely watched. The extent of the damage remains a pressing question from veterans who served on the ship, Tin Can Sailors who helped with maintenance, 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 cleanup and removal began on Tuesday, with Stephenson overseeing Miller Environmental Group workers who descended into the ship from a ladder near the Sullivans’ stern. They emerged with large plastic bags containing mattresses and other items from the sailors’ former living quarters, which had been almost entirely submerged in contaminated water during the three weeks the ship was at heel.

Stephenson pointed to an important distinction regarding artifacts on the ship: there are non-native artifacts, such as uniforms, plaques, and pictures, given to the ship to preserve memories, and artifacts inherent to the ship, such as coins. such as machinery, assemblies, gear reductions and bulkheads.

The docking spaces also contained non-native artifacts, such as three photo panels that commemorated 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 good from a distance, their quality was likely damaged, or at least compromised by being in oily water.

“At the very least, they can be cataloged digitally, Stephenson said.

Hal Burke, who served as a staff member on The Sullivans in 1964 and has helped repair the ship as a member of the Tin Can Sailors Field Days volunteer group since 2012, described the emotional value of these photo panels.

“All of these images and stories have a profound influence on who gets on board,” said Burke, who drew inspiration from Reilly’s 2017 photo to help reconnect the two sides of Reilly’s family, who had no not communicated since the Second World War. , at a meeting of Sullivans he organized.

Burke said the ship’s office was the area in which he served and, five decades later, worked during the Tin Can Sailors’ Field Days, four days a year when volunteers congregated from all over the world. country to carry out the maintenance of the vessel. “We were there cleaning up during Field Days, remembering when we used a typewriter there — way before iPhones,” Burke said of his 2017 visit.

And after

Decontaminating the ship’s interior and disposing of ruined items is the dirty work, but Stephenson – from his makeshift artifact center on the third deck of the nearby USS Little Rock – faces tough decisions in both. coming months. He, along with private art conservator Gabriel Dunn, will sort non-native artifacts into two categories, separating those that can be preserved from those that require conservation or minor repairs to add longevity. The Naval Fleet may need volunteers to assist with triage.

Although he has never served in the military, Stephenson has a solid background in history and is confident he can make the best of the tough situation. Prior to 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 respect for Naval Fleet ships.

“They’re like historic homes floating around,” Stephenson said of the trio of ships in the water. He knows his responsibility to tell the story of the Sullivans.


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