Western New York Heritage

Keeping Sully Shipshape: Floating Landmark Presents Unique Preservation Challenges

View Print Version PDF

USS The Sullivans weathers Western New York snow flurries along Buffalo’s waterfront.  Each winter brings ice and a set of unique preservation challenges to the historic vessel and her berthmates.

Spring, Summer and Fall bring visitors from around the globe to Buffalo’s waterfront and the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park (BNP).  In addition, this unique regional site plays host to numerous weddings, reunions, memorials, tour groups and encampments. Our small but mighty staff embrace changing roles to ensure the smooth flow of events and people, while carving out time for the curatorial and caretaking duties required by out three floating US Navy vessels.

At a point in mid-November, we can sense the seasonal change that precedes the arrival of Winter, and along with it a brisk change in duties. Winter along the Buffalo River is cold, desolate, and isolated. In addition to these feelings, Winter also brings another unwanted visitor: ice. A significant preservation challenge, once the ice arrives, it encases and immobilizes our vessels. The moaning and creaking heard all winter long reminds us that the steel hulls below the waterline have begun to contract.

A member of the BNP staff balances on a slab of ice, inside one of USS The Sullivans fuel oil tanks, which has filled with water as a result of leaks in the ship’s hull.

This is not to say that Spring, Summer and Fall are without their own challenges. Wind, rain, and sun each affect the ships differently than ice, and they are no less concerning. Wind pushes the ships against their pier bumpers, rubbing the paint away and exposing the steel, while bringing in unwanted tree logs and debris from the Buffalo River that endlessly bump against the hulls. Collected rainwater snakes its way through the superstructures and upper decks, finding points of least resistance and finally settling in spaces that are open to the tour route, causing erosion to interior decks. Sun and heat cause the steel to expand, stressing the rivets and bi-metallic welds, where aluminum meets steel. Every day of every year these forces meticulously work against our three tourable vessels, creating a “man vs. nature” paradigm that presents a very unique set of preservation challenges, requiring a yeoman’s dedication and skill.  Of the three ships, our venerable National Historic Landmark, USS The Sullivans (DD-537), has borne the most wear and tear from these seasonal changes.

USS Little Rock fires a Talos missile during an exercise in the Mediterranean, ca. 1961.

USS Little Rock (CLG-4), USS Croaker (SSK-246), and USS The Sullivans are 76, 77 and 78 years old, respectively. They were constructed for one purpose only, to wage war against the Axis powers in World War II, though they continued to serve well beyond that conflict’s end. Their builders in Philadelphia, New London, CT, and San Francisco could not have imagined their surviving well into the new millennium. USS The Sullivans served the US Navy from 1943 to 1965 and USS Croaker from 1944 to 1971, while USS Little Rock served twice, from 1945 to 1949 and again from 1960 to 1976. Their service lives were diverse, and between them they travelled approximately 3.5 million nautical miles in service to America. USS The Sullivans alone cut through 1,313,000 nautical miles during her 22 years, and it is her story of sacrifice and preservation that follows.

USS Croaker, SS-246, ca. 1946.

Each July since 2014, BNP’s superintendent of ships, John Branning, dons his wet suit and gears up to jump into Canalside’s Commercial Slip. Prior to John’s attaining his diving certification, the museum had only engaged divers to inspect the hulls sporadically. John, a 22-year retired Navy Senior Chief, recognized the need for closer yearly inspection and so BNP, then under the direction of Col. Patrick Cunningham, approved his certification. Though Branning’s Navy duties did not include diving, his motto, “no self-respecting Senior Chief would let his command fail,” is marrow deep and prompted him to request the training. What John saw upon his first inspection of USS The Sullivans opened his eyes to the neglect she and the other vessels had experienced. Encased in thousands of pounds of the invasive zebra mussel, anywhere John scrapped the mussels down to the steel was ready to spring a leak. Hundreds of places along her steel hull were found to be only one-tenth of an inch thick.  At that thickness, a pinky finger can easily break through with a few good scratches.

USS The Sullivans screens the aircraft carrier USS Bunker Hill (CV-17), following a successful kamikaze strike on the later off Okinawa, May 1945.

US Navy

Retired US Navy Senior Chief John Branning dons his wet suit prior to his annual underwater evaluation of USS The Sullivans’ hull.

Late winter and spring is the time for John to survey the hull from the inside to identify and mentally catalog the active holes and places where potential holes can develop. Come summer, the underwater evaluation for USS The Sullivans requires about two days of diving. Once back on land, an additional two or three days of processing, collating and summarizing is required before passing the information along to staff and management. Also participating in this process with John are other maintenance staff and ship caretakers, mimicking John’s whereabouts inside the hull at various spaces while also keeping eyes and ears on him for safety. This survey stage is essential for informing the staff of the number of holes that have been found, their location and, most important, their severity. Armed with this knowledge, the staff can create a preservation strategy, confident that they are using the most up-to-date information regarding hull status.

Underwater view of a section of hull on USS The Sullivans, showing both zebra mussel encrustation and several small holes.

When it comes to actually “plugging holes” in one of the vessels, the staff has several options at their disposal.  In most cases, however, the choice is weather-dependent. There have been times during the winter months when a breach has occurred on USS The Sullivans that is too urgent to wait until summer when John can get into the water. Immediate action is required if there is a threat of the water flooding shipboard systems like water tanks, vents and electrical units that are still in use today, or if the volume of water entering the ship is too great to let it flow unabated for months at a time. In situations such at this, the “shoring” method is used. John can handle many things, but he’s not cold water certified! Shoring requires two-part epoxy, a steel or aluminum plate and a mechanical screw jack or trusty piece of two-by-four wood.

Once the hole is identified, the two-part epoxy is mixed to begin the chemical reaction that will harden it. The hole is then gently scraped of any excess paint to bring it right down to the steel. This must be done gently to avoid expanding the hole or creating another hole near the existing one.  Once scraping is completed, the epoxy is attached to the steel or aluminum plate, and it is pressed against the hole. After we feel secure that the patch has successfully stopped the leak, the shoring is put into place and the two-by-four attached to the nearest bulkhead, angle iron or frame to keep the patch secured. This will “shore up” any winter leaks until the Buffalo River can warm up.

The shoring method can actually be used both inside and outside the ship if necessary. On some occasions, the location of the leak cannot be accessed because the water cannot be pumped out, or it is coming in as fast as it can be removed. Both of these situations prevent a staff member from climbing inside to help secure an inside patch.  Thus, it is up to John to patch the hole from the outside. Here again he uses two-part epoxy, gently scraping off the zebra mussels and pushing the blend into the hole while applying more onto the top layer. This process doesn’t work on the inside, as the water pressure would just blow through the epoxy without the shoring. However on the outside, the water pressure secures it to the hole, allowing it to harden and become like concrete. Though only temporary, the shoring method minimizes the damage that might occur before spring and summer.

Water streams through a hole in USS The Sullivans, while several smaller holes nearby are detectable by the streams of rust.

Once the weather warms, a two-part patching method is employed. More secure than shoring, it allows the staff to secure the hole from the outside and inside at the same time, though it is not without its challenges. I, myself, am typically the inside patcher, though as Director of Museum Collections and Curator, it’s technically not in my job description. Nonetheless, I embrace it as it allows me to see parts of the ship not normally accessed, while learning about their construction and doing some very tangible preservation work. John prepares the patches based on his survey taken a few days before, cutting some rubber material and aluminum plating, then boring holes in the two plates through which bolts will be threaded. We discuss what holes will be addressed, in what order and where they’re located. Once he is in the water, John can’t communicate with the staff unless he surfaces. Communication becomes a tedious process as he must relay information to a staff “runner,” who then relays information relative to his location in relation to myself. John takes one half of each of the patches while I take the rest.  Then the real work begins!

The author inside the starboard freshwater tank in the aft fire room of USS The Sullivans, having just completed a patching operation (visible over his right arm).  Note the hammer resting on the structural feature, having been used to help pinpoint his location inside the vessel.

Once we both have reached our designated areas, the hull tapping commences. Inside, I can readily see, and usually feel, the water rushing into the hole, giving me a “river wash.” John has no such luxury. It is dark down below and it takes a few minutes of tapping to get his bearings. Eventually our taps draw closer and to help him identify the breach, I stick a large file through the hole. His grabbing the file signifies that we are both in the correct spot.  John then gently scrapes away any debris and places his half of the patch, along with the bolt, into place over the hole. Inside, my job is to secure the other half of the patch and begin threading the nut onto the bolt. Our continued tapping signals convey to the other where we are in the process, as John’s wrench is necessary to keep the bolt steady as I begin to tighten the nut. Once the patch is secured, I sit for a minute or two to make sure it holds. This tedious process is then repeated, securing nine or ten holes a year, like clockwork. That is, up until 2020.

COVID-19 is many unfortunate things to many people and organizations. Like every other museum in the country, the naval park faced a closure. When the spread of the virus caused a pandemic, we shut our doors on March 20, 2020, just as preparations were being made to open for the season. Staff were furloughed for a little more than three months, and not everyone returned when the museum did open.

These furloughs meant nothing to the changing seasons, however, as they continued to provide the usual cycles of rain, wind, sun and ice. Gone, however, was the 2020 winter and spring survey John usually conducts—the all-important step of identifying and prioritizing holes. Gone, too, were the winter and spring shoring days, securing leaks before the water warms up. Plus, because many staff didn’t return, John was unable to don his wet suit that summer to do patchwork on USS The Sullivans. None of aforementioned patching processes occurred.

This left all three vessels neglected for two winters, 2020 and 2021. After opening briefly on July 15, 2020, the museum closed again for the season after Labor Day, and with no money coming in, many staff were furloughed a second time for a month or longer. Thus, in hindsight, it should have been no real surprise when, on February 26, 2021, Allen Jordan, the museum’s maintenance foreman, and I discovered to our horror a 10- to 15-degree port list on “Sully.” Bundled against the wind and snow, we turned to each other, eyes wide, knowing what this meant. Just two seasons of COVID-related neglect had reshaped the ship’s structure and hull in fundamental and compromising ways.

USS The Sullivans’ alarming list to port, discovered in February 2021, prompted swift action to save this National Historic Landmark.

We immediately made an interior survey, stern to bow, port to starboard, seeking the spaces that contained water, with shocking results. Our early estimation that 12,000 to 16,000 gallons of water had come onboard was soon adjusted to 20,000 gallons. Entire spaces, namely the engine rooms and fire (boiler) rooms, were flooded three to four feet deep. Holds and bilge spaces in six other compartments were filled as far as the water would go. In addition, we noticed that three freshwater tanks had also filled with water. These 5,600-gallon tanks held fresh water while the ship was in service. In early 2021, they were again holding “fresh” Buffalo River water. After three to four hours surveying, we delivered the alarming news to Paul Marzello, BNP’s president and CEO.

As of this past summer, the “Save the Sullivans” campaign had raised over half of its goal $1 million goal.

Paul reacted quickly. Working with our public relations firm, Abbey Mecca & Company, a fundraising appeal was crafted immediately and word was sent out to all news stations and The Buffalo News on February 26. A $100,000 emergency campaign had started, and through the quick work of Paul and Abbey Mecca that amount was miraculously raised in three days! A new goal was then set at $1 million, and many public and private civil leaders heard our call for help. After four months the “Save the Sullivans” campaign has raised $540,000 dollars towards the $1 million goal. Working with a local marine company, BIDCO, enough funds have now been secured to start a preservation project that will protect the hull for 20 to 25 years. The plan calls for the entire hull to be coated with a two-part epoxy paint, without having to dry dock. When the paint dries, it will harden into a flexible fiberglass material, protecting the hull from future degradation. Work on this hull preservation plan began in August 2021.

Sparks from a welder can be seen along the waterline (center) as work began on the hull preservation project for USS The Sullivans in August 2021.

The mission of the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park is to “Honor, Educate, Inspire and Preserve.” This mission is held dear by our staff and volunteers, but for me, “Preserve” is the key word. If our three largest artifacts are not preserved, there will be no honor, education or inspiration. All three vessels, each closing in on their 80th birthdays over the next few years, are main characters in their own stories, not to mention the stories of the thousands of sailors who served aboard them while they travelled over three million nautical miles. Preserving the stories of these ships and sailors honors their collective service. It educates the public about life on board a warship and inspires others to follow in the sailors’ footsteps. If preservation is overlooked and the ships continue to degrade, that service and those stories will degrade and diminish too. Living witnesses to the Second World War, the Korean conflict and the Cold War would be lost forever. To parrot the words of Senior Chief John Branning—we won’t let our command fail.

The full content is available in the Fall 2021 Issue.