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Tin Can Sailors’ ties to The Sullivans stay strong

There is something about the USS The Sullivans that keeps bringing its sailors back.

For some, it’s the smell of hydraulic oil and paint that lets loose a flood of memories. For others, it’s the five brothers killed together at sea for whom the Fletcher-class destroyer is named. For many, it’s the camaraderie of guys who know what it’s like to be aboard a Navy ship at sea.

But it’s certainly not the lack of air-conditioning.

“It was hot as hell,” Edward Suite, 78, of Falkville, Ala., recalled from his days aboard The Sullivans in the late 1950s.

Suite and his two daughters drove 16 hours to Buffalo this week to help paint the deck of the decommissioned destroyer.

He is one of 47 former servicemen who made the annual trip to the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park to paint and repair its intricate parts. They’re known as the Tin Can Sailors, and they help maintain the museum ship so that thousands of visitors each year can see what life aboard a Navy destroyer was like.

“Without the work that they’re doing, there would just be a backlog of maintenance,” said Patrick J. Cunningham, executive director of the Naval & Military Park.

On Saturday, as the Tin Can Sailors wound down their volunteer work, the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park unveiled a new donation of an oil painting that depicts USS The Sullivans during World War II. The painting, “Convoy of the Cripples” by artist Raymond Massey, was donated by a Wyoming rancher, Hort Spitzer, and will be on display in the naval park.

Buffalo native Sam de Castro, commander of the modern guided-missile destroyer that also bears the name USS The Sullivans, returned to the naval park Saturday for the unveiling.

De Castro said the story of the five Sullivan brothers who died aboard the USS Juneau in November 1942 – Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison – is a draw for many of the former servicemen who return each year to help maintain the ship.

“The connection that all of us have to the sacrifice that these other guys made, I think, is one of the things that brings us back to this ship,” de Castro said. “At the time, that was the biggest story in the country.”

Gerry Brouillard, 80, of Waterbury, Conn., still vividly remembers his days aboard The Sullivans. He first boarded the ship not long after it was recommissioned for the Korean War. One Christmas Eve, Brouillard recalled, he kept watch in the pitch black night for flares that would signal the South Koreans were in trouble. He didn’t see the flashes of light that night, but he can still feel the minus 35-degree temperatures.

“It gets me every Christmas Eve,” Brouillard said. This week, Brouillard helped paint an outside wall on the deck below where he once kept watch.

Like many of the Tin Can Sailors who return to The Sullivans each year, Brouillard travels to Buffalo to work, but he also comes for the friendships. He reconnected in Buffalo years ago with an old Navy buddy, Ronald Glessner, of Plainfield, Ind. The two were cooks on the ship during the Korean War and for several years served up the food for the volunteers aboard the decommissioned The Sullivans.

Richard “Andy” Anderson, a Korean War veteran, has been flying to Buffalo from California every year to work on the ship.

“I come back here because I want to preserve this ship so that the public knows what the Navy did,” said Anderson, of San Diego.

Jim Mach, 70, of Depew, was a radar man in the Navy during Vietnam aboard the USS Richard E. Kraus. He has chipped paint and polished brass during the years he has volunteered for the annual field days aboard The Sullivans. This year, Mach helped install a light in one of the ship’s boilers so that visitors can see its inner workings.

But it’s the memories that draw him back.

“That’s why we come,” Mach said. “You enjoy it. There are friendships from around the country.”