Thursday, October 9, 2014

Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York: The Buffalo and Erie County Naval Park

   Tonight, we begin a reoccuring new series, "Exploring the Dark Side of Western NY,"  where the Ghost and his haunted friend What a Witch will visit an area, place or attraction in western NY that has a dark, spooky past or lends itself to the darkness we long to explore. 

Exploring the Dark Side of Western New York: The Buffalo and Erie County Naval Park 

     The Second World War was a time of unimaginable human loss, the kind no generation since will ever be able to fully understand. While every war is a time of darkness, impossible sacrifice and tragedy, the second great war-- in terms of loss, destruction and the stakes which were on the line, fought for and defended-- has become a nearly legendary time in world history. Unlike Europe, Asia and the Pacific, where the destruction of World War II is still seen in so many buildings and throughout the land, the United States is not so physically marked. However. Some of the remnants of this horrific moment in time have come home, and some lie here in western New York, in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval Park.

     The Naval Park is home to three retired battle ships: the USS Croaker, USS The Sullivans, and USS Little Rock. These floating cities, where men lived, died, killed and fought lie in the waters off the Buffalo harbor, having become one of a kind floating museums to that dark time, a part of our past. Stepping from the vibrant, busy Buffalo waterfront and onto these ships is a feeling unlike any other; stepping from one world into the next; onto a ghost ship, a museum, a place of such history.

     It should come as no surprise that all three ships are reported to be haunted.

     Unexplained things have been happening on these ships since they were brought to the Buffalo waterfront. Tourists, naval park staff and western New Yorkers alike will tell you, yes, they believe the ships to be haunted. The stories, reports and local mythology built around the ships have attracted tourists and the likes of the Syfy Channel's "Ghost Hunters" program. 

     The first ship, the USS The Sullivans, is a World War II Destroyer named for the five Sullivan brothers from Iowa who lost their lives in the Guadalcanal Campaign. Although the Sullivan brothers never served on this ship, reports that George Sullivan, suspected to be the last brother to die, haunts the ship. Like many ghosts, there are several stories about how George died. One account says a very emotionally distraught George dove into the water and frantically tried to find his brothers in the water when their boat was sunk, and George was drowned as the ship went down. A second story sees George desperately searching for his brothers, only to be attacked by a shark. A third account says he became delirious after several days at sea, waiting to be rescued, and that he swam away from the other floating survivors, never to be seen again. However George may have died, in story and spirit, the ghost of George Sullivan has made it home to the USS The Sullivans to live. 

     We began our tour of the Naval Park on this ship. The first room entered has photos of the ill-fated brothers lining the walls. Local legend has it the photos taken of and by George's picture come out distorted. Adding to the suspense of the room where ghosts may appear were tourists, who had the misfortune of misstating World War II history within ear shot of WhataWitch. That day, and all days, she is sure to correct you.  

     Our self-guided tour took us through of the living quarters and mess hall of the ship where we were made to truly understand the feeling of what it was like to live, work and serve aboard this ship. There are countless exhibits along the way: Marine Corps Memorabilia from World War I to the present, Ex-POW Memorabilia and Contributions of Women in the Military, among them. 

     The second ship we visited was the USS Little Rock, which once allegedly was used as a hospital to care for men injured in battle on another ship. Many of those men died on the ship, taking their last breaths in the mess hall. The day we made our tour was a hot, early autumn day. When we boarded the ships, the sun was shining, beating down heat. When we emerged from one of the rooms on the Little Rock-- having spent an unknown amount of time wandering the halls and rooms rumored to house ghosts-- we noticed the skies had darkened. Almost immediately-- while we walked from a control room at the front of the vessel-- the skies opened with torrential, wind-swept downpours. Seeking shelter in random crevices and rooms on the ship as we progressed, running from the rain and further into the small abandoned city where so many people once lived, we saw the ship in an entirely new, eerie light. Another popular legend about the ship is that, in the mess hall during open hours, you can hear recordings of the faint, long-ago whistle that would proceed announcements. More than once we stopped, unsure if we had heard something. Was it the wind, the rain? Or the sound of the whistle lasting, being heard across the years. 

     In one of the rooms near the mess hall, we stopped to watch a TV playing the episode of "Ghost Hunters" featuring the Naval Park. Reacquainting ourselves with the known ghosts and reportedly haunted areas of the ship, we sought them out, looking for a feeling, a photograph that might show something. Whether it was a room where a man died, a hallway we knew nothing about or descending into the brig, the ghosts of so many years ago were there, though they may not have been photographed or seen. 

     Our tour ended on the USS Croaker submarine. Sent to the Pacific theater in World War II to fight against Japan's Merchant Marine and Navy, the Croaker boasts six World War II Pacific war patrols and three battle stars. Going down into the submarine, you are instantly thrust into the world the men who once staffed these vessels lived in, even more intimately than the first two ships. As you walk the length of the submarine, ducking and watching your head as you fit yourself through a door, and further lose yourself in a world of metal and cramped quarters, you feel a sense of unknown anxiety, as you wonder what it could possibly have been like to live in these walls, so far under the water, in an endlessly dangerous war. In a sense, you feel the ghosts of all the men who must have gone through so much, so many years ago. Additionally, submarines are creepy. Period.

     Leaving the ships and looking back at them, you are struck with the awesome feeling that in such a space, that you can see from the dock, so much history happened, so much of it so painful, difficult and noble. Like a cemetery the vessels stand, testaments to those who once lived, and who-- in stories of heroism, tragedy and ghosts-- live on. All in the Buffalo harbor. 

-by Ghost and WhataWitch

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