CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — When James Sullivan was a boy, his great-uncles would swap stories at family gatherings about their service in World War II.
“Rather than remember the horror and anguish of what they’d seen and experienced,” he writes, “they talked about what was funny or improbable. One great-uncle’s most frequently told story involved an ice cream machine he’d dropped in the Pacific when he was trying to transfer it by haul line from his supply ship to another Navy vessel.”
Another of his great-uncles was assigned to the destroyer U.S.S. Plunkett, and Sullivan has now written a book, “Unsinkable,” about five men who served aboard the Plunkett, “perhaps the only Navy ship to participate in every Allied invasion in the European theater.” The most harrowing day of their lives occurred in January of 1944 when German bombers tried to sink the Plunkett in an attack of unrelenting ferocity. At the heart of the saga are the men whom Sullivan profiles, although at the time they were barely men. One of them weighed just 117 pounds when he joined the Navy at the age of 17.
Writing the book came with a sense of urgency because Sullivan keenly wanted to interview any sailors from the Plunkett who were still alive when he started the project in 2016. So he began calling. Often when the men—who by then were in their late eighties and nineties--heard his voice and didn’t recognize it, they hung up on him.
“They figured I was telemarketer,” Sullivan says with a laugh. After a few calls, he learned to mention the word “Plunkett” almost as soon as he introduced himself. “The name of that ship was holy in my family,” he says. “And it was the same with these men….they began to talk.”