WWII-Era Warship Sinking in Lake Erie


A decommissioned World War II Navy ship in New York started sinking last week after a breach caused the vessel to take on water. USS The Sullivans is moored at the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park in Lake Erie.

As of Tuesday (April 19), the ship is reportedly wedged against the pier and touching the bottom of the Buffalo River. Lexia Littlejohn, commander of the Buffalo sector of the U.S. Coast Guard, said the USS The Sullivans was “fairly stable.”

“I don't suspect there will be additional damage to the ship,” she told reporters.

Ship History

According to the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park, the USS The Sullivans is a Fletcher-class Destroyer, the largest and most important class of U.S. Destroyers used in World War II. Originally commissioned in 1943, the DD-537 was named after five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, making it the only ship in the Navy to be named after more than one person.

The Sullivan brothers—George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al—enlisted in the Navy in 1942. Although it was Navy policy to separate the brothers, they reportedly enlisted with the provision they stay together. All five were killed after the USS Juneau was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine in the Battle of Guadalcanal.

USS The Sullivans, which held up to 310 sailors, saw action in the Pacific Theater, the Korean War and the Cuban Missile Crisis. During these events, it shot down Japanese planes, bombarded Iwo Jim and Okinawa and rescued American pilots and crew from burning or sinking vessels.

In terms of size, the DD-537 is 376 feet long, with a 39-foot beam and 19-foot draft. At a weight of 2,100 tons, the ship was also armed with several guns and depth charges.

The ship was decommissioned in 1965 and had earned 11 battle stars for meritorious performances. The vessel is a designated historic landmark.

What Happened

On April 13, USS The Sullivans began taking on water. The ship had been under repair due to previous concerns regarding the hull and water breaching.

In February 2021, the 78-year-old ship reached emergency repair status when a high amount of water penetrated the hull. Crews have reportedly been repairing holes on the vessel since August 2021, with divers temporarily patching holes in the bottom of the boat caused by rusting and corrosion.

A team of divers had been working on the ship, according to officials, but were pulled from the project last year when the water became too cold for the epoxy to seal. They were reportedly scheduled to return to work this week.

Earlier this month, Park President Paul Marzello and Rep. Brian Higgins announced $490,000 in federal dollars to help with repairs.

“What you see now is a vessel that's floating, however below the waterline, that's the critical point that we talk about. Below the waterline is where she is damaged,” Marzello said at the time. “We have several perforations that need to be patched, we have several works that need to be formed on the interior ship, on the underside, down near the keel is probably the area where she needs the most work.”

“The problem seems to be aft of midship meaning more towards the stern. We also know that it is starboard side, right side versus port side on the left. So somewhere in that lower right section of the hole, we have a problem and we don’t know what it is," said Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown at a press conference.

“We have an 80-year-old vessel that was meant to serve about 25 years and she’s served us honorably. It has an incredible reputation, incredible story, but 80 years later when she’s meant to be a museum ship that was never in the plan. We are making it the plan because of what it symbolizes and that’s why it’s important for us to make sure she stays afloat,” Marzello said.

The U.S. Coast Guard Sector Buffalo announced on April 14 that dewatering pumps capable of removing water at over 13,000 gallons per minute were working on the scene. They estimeated at that point there were more than 3 million gallons of water inside the ship.

However, dewatering operations were paused on April 15 due to the introduction of fuel oil into the water. The Coast Guard noted that the flooding and position of the ships had caused oil from consolidated tanks onboard to leak.

Currently, the ship is reportedly surrounded by yellow absorbent booms to keep oil in the river as crews continue cleanup.

Littlejohn told reporters that 4,610 gallons of oily waste had leaked from tanks inside the ship and was removed from the water. Along with the oil mixture, consisting of oil and water but primarily oil, eight cubic yards of debris were removed, including oil and wood. She added that maneuvering the boom surrounding the listing vessel helped workers control the debris' spread.

“When the Navy transfers a ship to a city or municipality, they're supposed to give it to you without any oil, but as we know back in the '70s, there weren't the environmental concerns or knowledge that we have now,” Marzello said. “To turn the ship over doesn't mean you get in to scrub every last ounce of oil out of the ship.

“Diesel is in the bottom of the ship, it's not in a controlled area – it's tucked in all nooks and crannies and it's a difficult thing to get out.”

The oil and debris needed to be cleared from the area before any holes in the hull could be identified and water could be pumped out. The eventual goal will be to patch and plug the breaches with epoxy.

What’s Next

The Buffalo Times reports that T&T Salvage, a wreck removal and salvage company from Texas, has been hired to help with recovery efforts. They will first evaluate the site and then develop a plan for divers once debris is removed and the weather permits.

“T&T will give us detailed information on as salvage plan,” Littlejohn said. “Putting that together and then coast guard will approve that.”

While several assessments are reportedly already in the work, including an outside-the-ship stability survey, the U.S. Navy architect is joining T&T and about 60 onsite workers. Additionally, Marzello said the Naval Park was able to provide a 3-D video tour of the inside of the warship, plus a damage control manual from when the vessel was commissioned in 1943.

However, the weather in the area has proven to be a challenge for the survey. While the condition was to be inspected Tuesday, high winds, high water levels and low temperatures delayed the mission until later in the day.

Senator Charles Schumer, joined by Mayor Byron Brown, visited Buffalo earlier this week to propose a three-party plan to help crews:

  • Work on securing federal funding;
  • Call on the Environmental Protection Agency to work with local officials on remaining cleanup issues; and
  • Push for major increases to the National Maritime Heritage Grant Program in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act.

“We cannot let the Sullivans’ stories sink into the abyss,” Schumer said at the press conference.

No timeline was reportedly provided for when repairs are expected to be completed.


Tagged categories: Historic Preservation; Historic Structures; Marine; NA; North America; Program/Project Management; Rehabilitation/Repair; Ships and vessels; Shipyards; Steel repair

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