STATEN ISLAND, N.Y — Many generations of families in Waterloo feel a special connection to the city’s five Sullivan brothers killed during World War II.
But a California man feels such a strong connection he traveled all the way across the country to honor them — and his own grandfather.
Knute Swensen of Huntington Beach, Calif., is the grandson of U.S. Navy Capt. Lyman K. Swenson, commanding officer of the USS Juneau on which George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan served. Capt. Swenson, the Sullivans and nearly 700 shipmates perished after the Juneau was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank Nov. 13, 1942.
Swensen traveled to Staten Island, N.Y., to attend a 75th anniversary commemoration of the Juneau’s sinking aboard the USS The Sullivans this Veterans Day week and weekend in New York.
“It’s amazing to honor these men 75 years later,” he said. “It makes me think about my grandfather. Almost 700 of them were on the ship. Most of them were lost. To honor them now is really something.”
He sat quietly in the audience during a commemoration ceremony until Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter and grandniece of the Sullivans, asked that he stand and be acknowledged.
His sisters attended the USS The Sullivans commissioning 20 years ago on the same pier. The anniversary of that ship’s commissioning also was observed.
Swensen’s grandfather, a posthumous recipient of the Navy Cross for valor, also had a ship named for him.(tncms-asset)43049a46-a14e-11e6-8755-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
Just as Kelly Sullivan said being a sponsor of the ship inspired her to be a better person, Swensen drew the same inspiration from his grandfather.
“It kept me a little bit on the straight and narrow. I guess the guilt beause he was such a fine man,” Swensen said, his voice trembling. His late father attended many reunions of his grandfather’s namesake ship, the USS The Sullivans sailor reunions and a commemoration in Juneau, Alaska.
This week’s events marking the anniversary of the Juneau’s sinking had the same effect, Swensen said. “ It was just special to have my grandfather’s name still brought up along with the Sullivan brothers and all the other men,” he said. The Juneau was commissioned across New York harbor in the Brooklyn Navy Yard.
Swensen’s surname differs from his grandfather’s due to a misspelling at the United States Naval Academy that his grandfather chose not to correct when he studied there.(tncms-asset)32e94d4a-a14f-11e6-b9ee-00163ec2aa77(/tncms-asset)
Swensen spoke years ago with one of the Juneau’s handful of survivors, the late Lester Zook, who told him his grandfather was a stern disciplinarian but respected naval commander.
In fact, Swensen said, according to stories passed on through his family, his grandfather encouraged the Sullivans and several other sets of brothers on the ship to break up and some head for other ships. “My grandfather was very fearful the ship wasn’t going to make it. It was a thin-skinned cruiser. And to have these five brothers and all these brothers on the ship, it was rough.”
Swensen visited the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo about a year ago. “To me it was just thrilling to go to Waterloo. The town has so much to be proud of,” he said. “From afar, the town is just known for the Sullivans.”
He said when the block containing Waterloo’s convention center is renovated and renamed Sullivan Brothers Plaza, “What I would hope in the plaza is that there’s a memorial to the Juneau with all the men’s names.” He offered his services to help.
“It’s like the Sullivans are part of my family,” he said, noting that, as a child, he was allowed to stay up past his bedtime when the movie “The Fighting Sullivans” was on television.
The camaraderie among the ship, its veterans and the families of the Sullivans and the Juneau “is kind of neat to see,” Swensen said.