How a community — and world — came together to save the USS The Sullivans

USS The Sullivans. ( Shinerunner/Wikimedia Commons)
November 21, 2021

Perhaps it says something about the spirit of Western New York that amid one of the most difficult years in modern history, those who learned of Buffalo’s old and leaking warship managed to raise more than $1 million in eight months.

Maybe it’s the story of what the USS The Sullivans represents that touches so many — a floating tribute to a working class family that lost all five of its sons aboard the USS Juneau almost exactly 79 years ago, when it was struck by a Japanese torpedo in the Pacific Ocean, resulting in the deaths of 687 men.

Or maybe it’s the momentum generated by several high-profile donors, ranging from a 4-year-old boy who made two separate donations totaling less than $3, to the Save America’s Treasures foundation that contributed $499,000 after the community raised the other half.

“We were just overwhelmed,” said Paul Marzello, president of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, which received contributions from donors in 26 states and seven countries. “We had a plan in place. We just didn’t think it was going to be mobilized in such a short period of time.”

In the end, thanks to foundations, local contributors and naval contacts from around the country, the naval park not only reached the $1 million fundraising goal to repair the breached hull of the USS The Sullivans, but raised enough money to start an endowment that will continue protecting the ship’s legacy in the future.

Kelly Sullivan, a third-grade teacher and granddaughter of the only Sullivan brother who married, expressed deep gratitude Sunday to the people from around the world who stepped forward to protect the ship and her family’s legacy. She still gets teary eyed around the anniversary of the USS Juneau’s sinking when she reflects on the generations of aunts, uncles and cousins she never got to meet because of the tragedy that beset the Sullivan family.

“We’ve been through some tough times these last few years, and to see people be so generous, it makes you emotional,” she said in a telephone interview. “It really does.”

From the moment word got out that the Canalside destroyer was listing and taking on water, offers to help began pouring in from as far away as Australia and Japan.

Marzello heard from welders and plumbers, from companies wanting to donate pumps to get water out of the hull. He received offers of assistance from the Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Virginia and from a Massachusetts naval park that was ready to send a crew down to help. The Coast Guard did an exterior and interior inspection of the ship.

Within days, the naval park had enough money to cover emergency repairs.

The 1943 destroyer was built with a thin hull for speed and maneuverability, but was never meant to float for so long. In recent years, the naval park has repaired small holes in the hull every spring. But harsh winter weather and the pandemic-related shutdown apparently hastened the damage this year, and water seeped into the leaky hull, causing the ship to list to port.

Fundraising efforts were strong enough for the naval park to hire Buffalo Industrial Diving Company in early September. The local marine and engineering outfit begin making more extensive repairs, which includes applying an epoxy coating to the entire exterior hull to create a watertight barrier that will strengthen and protect the destroyer’s thin outer steel.

They were forced to halt work last week because the drop in water temperature affects the ability of the epoxy to bond to the ship. About a quarter of the repair work was completed. It is expected to resume around April.

Kelly Sullivan, who lives in Cedar Falls, Iowa, not far from where the original Sullivan brothers were raised, was in town for the fundraising kickoff in March and was pleased to return to not only celebrate the fundraising accomplishment, but to also attend a Buffalo Bills watch party Sunday with Marzello.

One of her former third-grade students, Ike Boettger, is an offensive guard for the Bills. Sullivan also pointed out that she first flew on a plane at age 5 to be present for the dedication of the naval park and the USS The Sullivans’ final home.

“Buffalo has been like a second home to me,” said Sullivan, now 50.

Two businessmen made major contributions toward the fundraising goal. West Herr Automotive Group quickly stepped up to donate $50,000 for the emergency repairs. And developer Douglas Jemal came forward with an initial $10,000 and held a fundraiser in March that raised about $85,000 as part of the Save The Sullivans campaign.

Jemal said Sunday that the future of the USS The Sullivans is about more than just a saving a National Historic Landmark. It’s about honoring the sacrifices of the Sullivan family and the 400,000 other American soldiers who died for our freedoms in World War II.

After such a rough year, it’s good to bring the community back together for something positive, he said by phone.

“It just goes to show you, when a community unites, what it can get done,” he said, “rather than divide.”

Jemal was also one of the people impressed with the generosity Arrow Swartwout, 4, who brought a little sandwich bag of change to give to Manzello out of concern for the boat. Swartwout has been getting the royal treatment from the staff and volunteers at the naval park ever since.

Arrow, who received a season’s pass to the naval park, will be present at today’s news conference to formally announce that the fundraising goal was attained.

“He walks the ship as though he owns it,” Marzello said. “I love it. I mean, that’s how the story has just gone — absolutely crazy with the kinds of goodwill gestures that grow from it.”


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