The ship-preservation community watched fearfully in April as the museum ship USS The Sullivans (DD-537) began sinking at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park in western New York.
The trouble began on 13 April, as the historic Fletcher-class destroyer—one of only four ships of that legendary World War II–era class still in existence—began listing to starboard. A serious hull breach had occurred, electrical power was lost, and the vessel was taking on water. At press time, the cause of the breach was still under investigation.
The sinking emergency evoked a strange echo of historical coincidence—for the ship had been named to honor the victims of another sinking: that of the light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52), lost during the November 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. (Even the dates conjure an eerie sense of connectedness: The Juneau sank on 13 November; The Sullivans began sinking on 13 April.)
George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan—five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa—had enlisted together after Pearl Harbor, joining the Navy with an all-for-one, one-for-all determination to stick together throughout their World War II service. The five of them were serving on board the Juneau when a torpedo slammed her port side near the forward fire room during the fierce night fighting of 12 November 1942. On the morning of the 13th, a Japanese submarine’s torpedo finished off the crippled cruiser; she exploded in two, both halves sinking in less than a minute, instantly killing the majority of the 700-man crew.
Frank, Joe, and Matt Sullivan were among those who lost their lives in the explosion and sinking. Al Sullivan, the youngest, survived one more day before drowning. George Sullivan, the first born and the last to die, managed to hold on for several more days before the sharks got him. When the belated rescue teams finally arrived eight days after the sinking, only ten sailors out of the hundred who had survived the Juneau’s loss were still alive.
For the millions of parents back in the United States worried about a son fighting overseas, the news of a household’s sudden loss of five sons constituted an unimaginable level of grief. The Navy called it “the heaviest loss suffered by a single family in American naval history.”
Aleta Sullivan, the bereaved mother, personally christened the USS The Sullivans in April 1943. The new destroyer was the first Navy ship to be named for more than one person, and the first to have “The” as part of the name. The ship’s official motto was that of her five namesakes: “We stick together.”
The Sullivans garnered nine battle stars for her World War II service and two for her Korean War service. She supported the Marine landings at Beirut in 1958 and helped enforce the naval blockade during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 before being decommissioned (but kept in reserve) in 1965. In 1977, she began her new life as a museum ship, and in 1986, she was declared a National Historic Landmark.
Now, a major triage effort is underway by those tasked with rescuing and preserving the treasure trove of artifacts, documents, and displays that fell victim to the hundreds of thousands of gallons of oily water that flooded the breached ship. By early May, emergency crews had managed to right The Sullivans significantly; she had been listing at 30 degrees at the worst of it and now had a list of 1 to 2 degrees. Officials declared that they had moved from “an emergency response” to “a maintenance and decontamination phase.”
At press time, the park—home to two other historic naval vessels as well, the submarine USS Croaker (SS-246) and light cruiser Little Rock (CL-92)—remained closed for The Sullivans’ ongoing recovery process.