Two decommissioned Navy ships, towed by tugboats, arrived at a desolate stretch of downtown Buffalo's waterfront 40 years ago this summer. One city official described the arrivals as "instant urban renewal."
The remark proved prophetic. The USS The Sullivans and the even bigger USS Little Rock were intended as memorials on an empty waterfront. They are currently major destination points that contributed to the waterfront's rebirth.
Hundreds of couples have married aboard them. Veterans celebrate reunions. Business groups hold parties. There are even weekend scouting camp-outs aboard the vessels.
And Saturday morning, the 19 volunteers who served as the crew members who delivered the ships to Buffalo in the summer of 1977 will be honored. Most of those 19 volunteers have died, but not all who made the park possible are gone.
"We still have people like Anthony LoRusso, who is the father of the park," said retired Coast Guard Capt. Brian W. Roche, executive director of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval & Military Park. "But it was these fellows who volunteered and made the park come to life. They went and picked up the Sullivans and Little Rock."
The idea of the naval park started with LoRusso. He was visiting a friend, a Marine pilot, in North Carolina in 1975 when the friend suggested he visit the USS North Carolina, a decommissioned battleship, that had been designated a National Historic Landmark and turned into a museum in Wilmington, N.C.
"I saw the USS North Carolina and said, 'God, I wish something like that could happen in Buffalo.' When I came home, I spoke with Mayor Stanley Makowski and he said, "Anthony, that's an interesting idea. Why don't you see what you can do?' " recalled the 76-year-old LoRusso, a retired judge.
Two summers later, as he stood on the waterfront adjacent to War Memorial Auditorium with Urban Renewal Commissioner Richard L. Miller, they marveled as the Little Rock arrived in August 1977, one month after the Sullivans had moored beside a seawall and bollards the city constructed especially for the two ships.
"I remember Richard Miller was standing next to me and looking up at the huge mass in front of us and he exclaimed, 'Instant urban renewal!' But for years the only thing that was down there were the ships. The park survived on fees from a parking lot we had that was used by people going to Buffalo Braves and Sabres games," LoRusso said.
The decommissioned ships were docked near the area where the Canadiana years earlier had ferried generations of Buffalonians across Lake Erie to Crystal Beach Amusement Park. But when the Canadiana stopped, the waterfront turned desolate, LoRusso said.
The determination of LoRusso, an Air Force veteran, and other veterans who stood by the park in lean times paid off. They obtained other military hardware from fighter planes to the USS Croaker, a World War II submarine.
The Naval & Military Park today has grown to include a submarine, three fighter jets, a tank, a PT boat, several monuments, a hangar and a three-story building with a restaurant and exhibits. And around it, Canalside continues to blossom with wharf boat rentals, docks and more to come.
It can be said that the 19 men who brought the two ships to Buffalo four decades ago started the Canalside renaissance. It just took a long time for it to come together.
Story of success
Federal money helped pay for the infrastructure around the park, LoRusso said, and later city and state investments made Canalside a reality.
"The location was good and everything sort of developed around it. It's become amazing," LoRusso said. "The waterfront is a focal point for the city. Local people and people from out of town come to visit the waterfront. There's concerts and events at Canalside. It really is exciting."
So far this year, residents of 48 states and 72 countries have visited the park, which expects about 75,000 to 80,000 visitors before the park closes for the season in November, according to John Branning, a retired Navy senior chief petty officer who supervisors maintenance of the park's ships and other exhibits.
What makes the park popular for weddings and other special events, Branning said, is its view. In fact, he got married on the USS Little Rock last September after his fiancé, the former Barbara Sullivan, suggested the location.
"I thought there was no better view of the waterfront and the entrance into Lake Erie as a backdrop from the Buffalo River," he said of the setting for the wedding. "We married on the bow at the front of the ship and had the reception on the stern, or the fantail as we call it."
Fifty guests attended the wedding, but the 610-foot-long Little Rock can accommodate up to 250 people for receptions and other gatherings, Branning said.
"The USS Sullivans is not as big but we have had wedding ceremonies aboard it," he said of the 376-foot-long destroyer, which was named for the five Sullivan brothers who were killed in World War II when their ship, the USS Juneau, was hit by a Japanese submarine's torpedo off Guadalcanal.
But socializing is not the only reason people are drawn to The Sullivans and Little Rock.
"We also rent the ships for paranormal investigations. We have 15 to 20 of them a year. They're actually trying to see if there are entities on board. We've had Ghost Hunters from the SyFy Channel here and every time there's a rerun of that episode people start calling looking to rent the ships," Branning said.
Are there ghosts on the park's ships?
"People have taken photographs of anomalies, of things not easily explained. They detect sounds and voices and I always say you can't live on one of these ships without leaving something of yourself behind," Branning said, referring to the thousands of sailors who served on the ships.
A 22-year Navy veteran, he described sailors as "fickle." Once out at sea, most are eager to return to land. But once on shore, they again are eager to set sail.
"So if there are any kind of entities on board the ships, they're just former sailors and they don't care what you are doing. They are just going about their business," Branning said.
When the local veterans went to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to pick up the two ships, LoRusso said, a sailor there told him that the Little Rock was haunted.
"He said to me, 'You sure you want it? You know it is a haunted ship. You'll hear noises,' " LoRusso recalled, adding that ghost stories were not about to frighten him away from the offer of the second ship.
Journey to Buffalo
Originally, only The Sullivans was supposed to be sent to Buffalo. LoRusso had written to then-President Jimmy Carter and a deputy secretary of the Navy; the Navy had already agreed to donate the destroyer.
But once there, the local vets heard they had another offer.
"The Navy wanted to give us a second ship, and the city said let's grab it. We can put in more bollards," LoRusso said of the posts to which the ships are tethered to prevent them from going adrift.
But getting both ships here was the heavy lift, he said. And so a call went out for volunteers who had served in the Navy to make the journey. Mostly city workers responded.
George M. Rease says his father, George E. Rease, jumped at the chance, even though it meant the 50-year-old street department worker had to use vacation days for what would be a working vacation.
"My father served in World War II as a gunner on the USS Oklahoma City and that was a sister ship to the USS Little Rock, another cruiser," Rease said. "It was like these guys who volunteered were kids again. Here they are on deck, doing some of the same things they did when they were in the Navy."
In Philadelphia, Rease said his father had to give a new generation of sailors instructions as to how to operate the water pumps on The Sullivans, and when they came back for the Little Rock, they had to solve problems with lifting up a stubborn anchor with a rusty chain.
But they succeeded. In two separate voyages a month apart, a tugboat in front and a tugboat behind pulled and pushed the ships north on the Atlantic Ocean to the St. Lawrence Seaway. They turned west to Lake Ontario and the Welland Canal, which put them into Lake Erie's waters and finally into the Buffalo River.
"They had to pull the ropes attached to the tugboats because of the slack, and when my dad came back, it was like he had almost six-pack abs from all of the exercise," Rease recalled.
The son says it is hard to believe 40 years have passed since the ships arrived.
"It's mind-blowing. When the ships came, I was just a 14-year-old kid with a paper route," he said.
And speaking of newspapers, Rease shared his father's albums of newspaper clippings that detailed how the ships came to be in Buffalo along with numerous historic photographs of the journey here.
A ceremony at 10 a.m. Saturday will honor the 19 who made the trip, and their surviving families. Rease said the tribute is long overdue.
"The families are definitely proud of the guys who did it. This is a fantastic thing. I'm glad they're honoring them," he said. "There have to be a lot of people who want to know how the ships got here. At least a dozen members of my family will be at the ceremony."
In addition to the Rease family, relatives of volunteers Michael Bertini, Thomas W. Heilig, Joseph Heilig and Leonard A. Sniadecki also will be in attendance.
The other volunteers who will be remembered for their contributions are Mike Dillemuth, John Fibich, Jack Fitzgerald, Ronald Kubisty, Harold R. Lawson, Frank A. Manuele, Tom McCarthy, Chet Moher, Walter Pawlewski, Charles R. Quagliana, Henry Speakman, Hugh J. Wilson, Thomas Reardon and Louis J. Clabeaux, who later became the Naval & Military Park's first executive director.
The ceremony will take place in the park's hangar building and relatives will receive plaques inscribed with messages of thanks for the patriotic volunteerism their loved ones performed.
And they will also receive a special memento, Roche added: "A piece of the original teak decking from the Little Rock."