The USS Croaker, the USS The Sullivans, and the USS Little Rock are iconic pieces of Buffalo’s history, sitting quietly at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park at Canalside. Their doors are open to tourists by day, but by night, they take on a different life.
Under the leadership of tour guides from the Buffalo-based paranormal investigation company Beyond Ghosts LLC, an anxious group of thrill-seekers, paranormal enthusiasts, and history fanatics awaited their chance to come face-to-face with the ghosts of sailors who once served on the ships.
Interest in the paranormal is not a new trend, but an old pastime being seen in new light due to television shows displaying the adventures of paranormal investigators. Classic tales of spirits haunting historical places are now being looked at with 21st century gadgets and technologies, attracting younger generations and reconnecting adults alike.
When the sun dipped below the city skyline and the water turned ink black, the group of investigators boarded the Croaker. The Gato-class submarine earned her three battle stars by claiming 11 Japanese vessels during World War II.
The group settled in the Game Room. On two tables were an array of objects, including flashlights, K2 meters, checkerboards, a sailor’s hat and a bottle of whiskey. The flashlights would be used to communicate with ghosts, as it’s believed ghosts can use their energy to turn them on and off in answer to yes or no questions.
The K2 meters are more of your standard "ghost-hunting" equipment. To respond "yes" to a question, spirits can use their electromagnetic fields (EMF) to turn the K2 meter on. A row of lights on the meter indicates how much emotion is behind each response. The more lights that light up on the spectrum ranging from green to red, the more emotion is involved with the spirit’s response.
The sailor’s hat and bottle of whiskey are what is known as "trigger objects," which are believed to help the spirits feel more at home. All of these objects were laid out on the table with one goal in mind – to make contact with the spirits on the ship.
There was very little activity at first. One man challenged a spirit to a game of checkers, a woman talked about her son who is currently in the Navy.
Chris Gurnett, the group’s tour guide, compared ghost hunting to fishing, explaining the importance of patience.
A lover of history, Gurnett has been interested in the paranormal his whole life. It wasn’t until he saw the show "Ghost Hunters," a popular sci-fi television show that debuted in 2004, that he realized that his love for the paranormal could be more than just a hobby.
"It was something that was never seen before, something very new, and I had no idea people did that and from that point on, I was like, ‘This is what I want to do’," Gurnett recalled.
The room fell silent, until one participant asked the ghost if it could repeat after her. She knocked a simple pattern on the wall, and the group waited in suspense for a response.
No sounds were heard.
Suddenly, a flashlight turned on.
Everyone’s breath caught in their throat. They had made contact with a ghost.
"Can you turn the flashlight off?" someone asked.
Slowly, the flashlight turned off, flickering as if the battery was dying.
Boredom began to grow. Some of the women felt strange sensations of cold brush their skin and nonexistent fingers running through their hair. Gurnett explained this is normal – since there weren’t women on the ship when the spirits were living, they take interest in them now.
A clear sound breaks the silence: steady, deliberate pacing above the group on the deck. The sound of heavy boots on metal slamming across the deck made the whole group shiver.
The steps ended, and Gurnett headed to the deck to see if anyone from another group had snuck onto the deck, or if anyone from off the street had made their way onto the Croaker.
The footsteps were so clear and pronounced that it shocked even the more seasoned paranormal enthusiasts of the group. The group decided to meet back in the game room of the Croaker at the end of the hunt to try to figure out whether or not the footsteps were truly paranormal.
The group moved onto the USS The Sullivans, still electrified from their first major encounter. The Sullivans, named after the five Sullivan brothers who died serving during World War II, saw combat in the Marshalls, Carolines, Marianas and Philippines during WWII, as well as during the Korean War and Cuban blockade. The Sullivans has her fair share of paranormal activity.
The Officer Room, which is believed to one of the most haunted rooms on the three ships, didn’t evoke much fear at first. The ghost-hunters sat in booth seats around a table with maps trapped under glass. The large table and a smaller table across the room were covered with paranormal investigating equipment. Cool air flooded in from the open door.
There was an immediate response on the K2 meters as soon as everything was set up. One of the participants pointed to the sailor hat and said to Gurnett, "They’re probably wondering why you don’t have the hat on."
"I can’t do that," Gurnett replies. "That would be stolen valor."
The K2 meters lit up all the way to red. The room buzzed with excitement at the power of the connection the group had made with a spirit.
The K2 meters continued to light up as the participants talked about family members currently serving in the Navy and Marines. Finally, the group tried to identify the spirit.
They asked a series of questions: Are you an officer? The captain? A crew member? George Sullivan himself?
The K2 meter lit up.
George Sullivan, the younger brother of the Sullivans the ship was named after, never set foot on the ship, but it is said his spirit is connected to it through his brothers.
The conversation with George Sullivan continued. After asking if it was OK that there were women on the ship, a knock was heard on the wall. One spirit confirmed there was at least three other ghosts in the room with the group. Another communicated through the K2 meter that he wasn’t very fond of Gurnett. When someone brought up the sailor’s hat, a flashlight turned on by itself, it’s red light casting an eerie glow over the room.
This was, by far, the most haunted room on all three ships.
The next room was one the group had anxiously awaited – the sick bay on the USS Little Rock. The World War II missile cruiser is the only survivor of the 29 U.S. Navy’s Cleveland class of light cruisers. She was decommissioned in 1976.
The sick bay held a lingering feeling of sadness in the dim lighting. Bunks stacked in one corner, a bed in the other, and a metal box were the only furniture in the classroom-sized space. With the only confirmed death on the ship reported in this room, the group littered K2’s and flashlights across the room, hoping to make a connection.
Besides a few weak spikes on the K2, the paranormal activity of the room was underwhelming.
The group decided to leave, planning on continuing onto another room. They tried a few more questions, including, "Do you need help?" and "Can we leave?", but no spirits reached out.
That is, until they tried to leave.
As Gurnett approached the metal box to remove the flashlight he had placed there, it switched on. Gurnett jumped back and everyone in the room followed suit.
"Do you need help? We can help," one person offered.
"Are you trapped here?" another asks.
"Do you want us to stay?"
Once again, the spirit fell quiet.
"Do you want us to leave?"
The K2 meters spiked up to red. Knowing how to take a hint, the group departed.
There were plenty of other strange experiences on the ship – a black shadow passing a door in the Bunk Room in The Sullivans, a document in the Korean War museum aboard the Little Rock that made K2 meters go off, a growl heard in the Engine Room of the Croaker – but one experience still lingered in the ghost hunter’s minds.
Did they really hear a spirit crossing the deck of the Croaker, or did the footsteps come from a lost group member or Canalside visitor?
At the end of the tour, the group entered the Game Room once again to determine whether or not the strange sounds they had heard could have been a ill-spirited prank or a lost group member searching for the rest of the group.
After discussing what the footsteps might have come from, reviewing the clearly locked gate, and talking to the other group, who claimed that no one left the group at any time throughout the investigation, Gurnett nor anyone else in the group could draw any other conclusion than that the footsteps belonged to the spirit of a Croaker crew member.
It’s important to be skeptical when ghost hunting, Gurnett explained.
Even John Crocitto, the president of Beyond Ghosts, is a self-proclaimed skeptic.
With a degree in biology, Crocitto began to take interest in the paranormal by doing internships at hospitals and working at the morgue for a short time, where he started doing a radio show about the paranormal with a friend. That eventually lead to doing some work on television and eventually starting Beyond Ghosts in 2010.
Both Gurnett and Crocitto know the importance of being factual regarding their paranormal investigations, as they are both dedicated to driving away negative stigma regarding their careers.
Crocitto doesn’t claim to be a scientific investigator, but he knows enough about the way living things work to believe that ghosts do, in fact, exist.
"I understand certain nuances about living things," Crocitto said. "… All living things have energy signatures whether we like to admit it or not. If things are dead or alive they leave those signatures behind. We have an understanding about energy, and the way things work with living things helps me to transfer that to paranormal research."
Many of the events on the Croaker, The Sullivans, and the Little Rock still remain unexplained. Skeptics will credit the ghostly encounters to overactive imaginations and natural phenomena, but one thing is clear – ghost hunters are actually giving back to Buffalo in a huge way.
Beyond Ghosts’ mission is to restore historical places through the funds raised through ghost tours, "parahistory" tours and horror conventions.
"We have a really rich history, and that’s really great when you’re talking about ghosts. Anytime you have a really good ghost story, it’s always based in the history," Crocitto said.
Hannah Johnston is a senior at Mount St. Mary Academy.