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Visitors to the three retired naval vessels on the Buffalo waterfront this weekend are in for some commotion. Over the sounds of buzzing grinders and banging hammers on the USS The Sullivans, four dozen former sailors are battling a new, more persistent foe: rust.

“Rust is the enemy,” said Lee Rush, a former Navy electronics technician and a veteran of the Vietnam War. “Every place you look, you see rust, so you gotta keep after it.”

Rush is member of the Tin Can Sailors, a national organization of veterans who served on destroyers, which were dubbed “tin cans” because of their thin hulls and tendency to make noise. The group donates money and volunteers to maintain retired destroyers like The Sullivans, and their support here is welcome.

When it was on duty in the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, The Sullivans had a crew of more than 300 making sure it ran properly.

Now, that it is permanently docked at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval and Military Park, The Sullivans’ full-time crew consists of a one man. Joe Kuty, a Vietnam veteran who spent 10 years in the Air Force.

The Sullivans and the park’s other vessels – the USS Little Rock, a guided-missile cruiser, and the USS Croaker, a submarine – are weathered by time, Buffalo winters and tourists.

The work of maintaining the ships adds up for Kuty and the park’s six other maintenance employees, who are also responsible for the park, a museum and a collection of other vehicles like tanks, planes and helicopters.

Kuty is grateful for the help of the 40 Tin Can Sailors, who come every year for five days to paint, fix electrical problems, weld new parts and complete a host of other projects.

Most of the former sailors who are here this weekend come to Buffalo every year. They are from as far away as Philadelphia and Ohio and stay in the ship’s quarters, or “racks,” just like in the old days.

For Rush, the enemy is rust, which he and his shipmates chip away and paint over. For Kuty, the enemy is spiders.

“I wish I could work as hard as they do,” Kuty said of the spiders. “Next day, they’re back.”

The enemy, really, is nature.

John Branning, a retired Navy senior chief, is the naval park’s superintendent of ships. He said the ships were never designed to last 70 years. He goes to the bottom of each vessel once a month to make sure water isn’t coming through cracks, which sometimes happens.

“It’s an uphill battle for seven people to maintain,” Branning said.

Kuty is in charge of maintaining The Sullivans, Branning said, and there is another employee to maintain the Croaker.

The lion’s share of the rest of the work goes toward upkeep on the USS Little Rock, a cruiser that is substantially bigger. Another group similar to the Tin Can Sailors, the Navy Cruiser Sailors Association, comes to help maintain the Little Rock at another time of year.

“These different groups make my life a lot easier,” Branning said.

The naval park, a private non-profit group, has a $75,000 annual budget, Branning said. He conservatively estimated that his crew goes through 200 light bulbs, nine cases of primer and 100 gallons of paint for the three ships every year.

And that paint is just for touch-up work.

Every five years or so, they paint the entire hulls of the ships, which requires several hundred gallons of paint per vessel. The work is important not just for maintaining the ships’ appearance but for keeping up the park’s overall image, Branning said.

“Even if it’s nothing more than getting a light board working, or just painting, it enhances the look of the ships and the sense of pride that people have on the ships,” Branning said. “Everything we do at the naval park is to promote the appreciation of the veterans.”

Branning said the Tin Can Sailors, who learned a wide range of skills while at sea during their military careers, bring a level of expertise to The Sullivans that his crew members don’t have.

Rush, who lives in Shortsville, has been volunteering on The Sullivans for 20 years. He can rewire lighting systems and reconfigure radar antennas. He said he served on the USS Ingersoll, which was similar to The Sullivans.

Other Tin Can Sailors can weld new parts for switchboards when tourists steal the knobs.

Still others are skilled plumbers who can fix broken pipes or technicians who can cool the ship by restoring faulty fans. The skills they learned more than 50 years ago are still relevant today.

“You see 1940s technology, and you go through this ship, and you wonder how they did it,” Kuty said.

One example of the Tin Can Sailors’ contribution to The Sullivans is attached to a tower on the port side of the ship – a sign displaying the ship’s symbol, a shamrock.

The ship is named for five Sullivan brothers who died while serving on the USS Juneau, which sank after being struck by a torpedo in the November 1942 Battle of Guadalcanal.

The shamrock pays homage to the brothers’ Irish heritage, which is one reason why the ship was brought to Buffalo.

Years ago, the shamrock was painted directly on the tower, but it faded over time due to weather. The Tin Can Sailors fashioned the new shamrock on weatherproof material and attached it to the tower, where it has been displayed ever since.

When the Tin Can Sailors leave Monday, there still will be work to do and tourists to work around.

Most of the major projects are completed when the ships are closed in the winter. During the cold weather, the crew has to drain all of the running water out of the pipes so they don’t freeze, and workers have to bring buckets of water aboard to clean the ship.

“We work all winter long,” Branning said.

But winter and its harsh winds and snow will only create more work to do in the summer. The battle against the rust will continue for Rush. But for him, the work brings back memories and fosters a camaraderie among the veterans.

“You get a close-knit group of guys,” Rush said. “That’s why you see more bonding on the smaller ships.”

email: lhammill@buffnews.com