Editor’s note: The Courier’s Pat Kinney is in New York through today with Kelly Sullivan and others observing the 75th anniversary of the deaths of the five Sullivan brothers.
NEW YORK — It was a week of contrasting emotions. Celebration and solemnity. Camaraderie and consolation. Revelry and remembrance.
Through it all, the crew of the USS The Sullivans, its veterans, the family of its five namesake Waterloo brothers lost 75 years ago during World War II and all who hold them dear savored “the blessings of liberty” and carried forward some lessons for posterity.
Those lessons came full circle at one place in lower Manhattan — ground zero.
“Once I got there, I knew I was going to lose it,” said Kelly Sullivan, the brothers’ granddaughter and grandniece.
After shipboard ceremonies marking the 75th anniversary of the brothers’ deaths and 20th anniversary of the ship’s commissioning at Staten Island, the Sullivan sailors and Kelly Sullivan, the ship’s sponsor, were regaled all over town.
More than half the crew marched in the Veterans Day parade in Manhattan. They were among 300 entries with some 40,000 marchers up Fifth Avenue, with Apollo 11 astronaut Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin, the second man to walk on the moon, serving as grand marshal. The parade also marked the 70th anniversary of the U.S. Air Force and 100th anniversary of America’s entry into World War I.
There were many individual acknowledgments as well. Some sailors got a free tour of the New York Stock Exchange, courtesy of a friendly New York Police Department officer who flagged them down, shouting “Hey Navy!”
Others got to scrimmage with members of the NBA’s New York Knicks basketball team. Some simply received handshakes and personal thanks from total strangers.
Sullivan, of Cedar Falls, was in high demand.
She was interviewed by a local New York City television station. She attended a fundraiser for the USS The Sullivans Foundation in Staten Island supporting the ship and crew. She went to a naval historical group’s formal “Pickle Night” ball with representatives of British Royal Navy on the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar in the Napoleonic Wars. It’s named for the schooner HMS Pickle, which delivered news of the British victory to England.
And, in one simple illustration of her family’s reputation, Sullivan was stopped by a Philadelphia-area Navy veteran and his family who saw she was with a group from the USS The Sullivans. The veteran knew the brothers’ story from childhood and was thrilled to have his photo taken with an actual Sullivan heir.
And the sailors were regaled at some of the city’s plethora of microbreweries.
However, nothing could have prepared Sullivan and USS The Sullivans crew member Roger Schnitker, the lone Iowan on the ship, for what they saw at ground zero.
Nothing could prepare anyone for their first visit to ground zero — the two gaping holes in lower Manhattan where the World Trade Centers once stood.
Those square holes are now filled with cascading fountains – a starkly peaceful contrast to the unspeakable horror that brought those buildings down Sept. 11, 2001, costing nearly 3,000 innocent lives in a diabolical act of terror and hatred. The names of the dead are engraved on the dark-stone polished tops of retaining walls surrounding the foundations.
The spectacle visibly shook both Sullivan and Schnitker as they viewed it for the first time on the same weekend as the 75th anniversary of George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan’s deaths during World War II.
Sullivan, Schnitker and many of the crew’s sailors visited the 9-11 Memorial and Museum. There, the revelry was replaced with reflection. The impact was immediate and profound.
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Navy man Schnitker stood stiffly erect, his cheeks flushed, slightly trembling, his eyes watering in what looked like a combination of grief and rage. Sullivan, all too aware of her own family’s incredible loss, had to step back from the memorial several paces as she wiped tears from her eyes.
There were no words between them. Only an embrace of shared grief and consolation. After a time they shared their thoughts as the water from the foundation fountains softly rushed in the background.
“Back then I was home schooled. I was in third grade,” said Schnitker, 25. “I knew something happened. Didn’t understand it, you know? You hear about everything, but being here. ... Everyone should see this. Just one time. And then really think about all the small stuff we bicker and fight about.”
“It just takes your breath away,” Sullivan said. “It’s not something you can describe because it’s just that powerful. I just keep looking around, thinking about what that day was like. I’m looking at the streets, thinking about what people were doing. You go back in time and try to put yourself in that position.”
Twenty years ago, she noted, when the USS The Sullivans was commissioned, “those towers were up.”
In fact, the USS the Sullivans itself was the target of a botched al-Qaida terrorist attack in Yemen in 2000. A similar attempt later resulted in the deaths of 17 sailors aboard its sister ship, the USS Cole less than a year before the Twin Towers were felled and the Pentagon was attacked by skyjacked airliners.
“It’s beautiful though.” Sullivan said. “They’ve done a wonderful job. It’s a beautiful tribute.”
“The fact they put the new one up,” the Freedom Tower – One World Trade Center, the tallest building in the Western Hemisphere — is a symbol of hope, Schnitker said.
“Pulling in (to port) yesterday, we could see the skyline. The first thing you see is the World Trade Center,” he said.
Asked if there was a tie between the memorial fountains and her grandfather and great-uncles’ sacrifice at sea, Sullivan identified the water.
“I think what I see when I look at the water is that it reminds me just of peace,” she said.
Schnitker, of Council Bluffs, who’s served four years on the Sullivans and plans on a Navy career, feels a special pride in his service on the the ship. He’s visited Waterloo and Kelly Sullivan twice, including a 2015 visit with several crew members.
“When I got orders to the ship, I knew something about the Sullivans just being from Iowa,” he said. “There’s a lot of pride being from the Midwest, hard working. Especially from Iowa.
“There’s a lot of emotions. I was tearing up a little bit, actually,” during an emotional speech by Kelly Sullivan as part of the 75th anniversary commemoration of the Sullivans’ deaths on board ship.
Shipmates, particularly those on the USS The Sullivans, are like a family, and Schnitker found that literally to be true with one former crew member, Drew Frink. “He was from southwest Iowa. We started talking about people we knew, and we figured out we were third cousins,” he said. Frink transferred off the ship just a week before the commemoration.
“Sticking together even brings family together,” Schnitker said, referring to the ship’s motto. He’ll soon transfer off the ship himself and become a trainer.
“I’ll be back around,” Schnitker said. “Even after transferring, I don’t think I’ll be able to stay away from Waterloo.”