In a hallway at the Sag Harbor Firehouse, there are four photographs of department members who lost their lives in World War II: Edwin Bill, Arthur Browngardt Jr., Edward Olszewski and Joseph Dysken.
It always troubled Ed Deyermond, a department member with an interest in military history, that nobody seemed to know much about Seaman Dysken, whose name is often spelled Dyskin— even on the village’s World War II monument and the name plaque on his photo in the firehouse — although his few remaining local relatives insist the name is spelled D-y-s-k-e-n.
Mr. Deyermond set off to learn more and discovered last year that Seaman Dysken lost his life when his ship, the USS Helena, a light cruiser, was sunk by Japanese torpedoes early on July 6, 1943, in the Battle of Kula Gulf in the Solomon Islands. “It was like he had just vanished from memory,” Mr. Deyermond said.
But last month, while Mr. Deyermond waited to board a flight in Florida, he glanced at his cell phone to see a news alert that informed him the Research Vessel Petrel, which is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen, had discovered the ship’s wreckage on the floor of New George Sound, about 2,800 feet below the surface.
“That’s our guy,” Mr. Deyermond remembered thinking of the man who had left Sag Harbor as a young man never to return.
Kathleen Lyons of Prospect Street in Sag Harbor was born seven years after her uncle Joe died in the war, so she never got a chance to meet him. “I just can’t believe it,” she said. “That’s the last ship I thought they would ever find.”
Ms. Lyons said she remembered her father, William Dysken, who suffered serious wounds in the D-Day landings in Normandy in 1944, telling her that Joe, the youngest of 11 children, had made it clear he was ready to leave Depression-era Sag Harbor for good when he joined the Navy before World War II.
“It was tough going for the Dyskens,” added Bruce Winchell, 71, a nephew who was also born after his uncle’s death. The family came from Lithuania and settled in Sag Harbor, drawn by the promise of work at the Fahys Watchcase Factory, and lived in a house on Division Street that is now a village parking lot, he said. When he was a child, Mr. Winchell said he remembered the family talking about the uncle who never made it back from war.
“There was never anything done for the man,” he lamented. “If it weren’t for the fire department, he would have drifted into oblivion.”
Betty Spitz, 72, of North Haven, Mr. Winchell’s cousin, said she also knew little about her uncle, other than that he had died in the war.
Katherine Babcock, 94, who now lives in East Hampton with her daughter, Encie Peters, was one of Seaman Dysken’s oldest nieces. She was unable to speak directly to a reporter, but her daughter relayed the information that Seaman Dysken, who was 25, had graduated from Pierson High School, had a talent for art and was single.
She said her mother also confirmed that he was onboard the Helena on December 7, 1941, when the ship was docked at Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, plunging the nation into war.
“The last time my mother remembered seeing him was after Pearl Harbor, when he was on leave,” she said. “She said her father asked about Pearl Harbor, but he wouldn’t talk about it. He said he was told not to talk about it, but my mother says she thought it wasn’t that, but because it was too terrible.”
At Pearl Harbor, the Helena was struck by a plane-launched torpedo, which disabled many of its guns, but crewmen quickly moved a diesel generator into position, which allowed them to provide power to them and go on the offensive, fending off further attacks from Japanese dive bombers. Seaman Dysken, who had been assigned to a gunnery unit, helped in that effort, his niece said.
After repairs on the Helena were completed in mid-1942, the ship saw significant action right until her sinking in 1943. In the Battle of Kula Gulf, American ships sought to block a Japanese troop convoy. In the first night of fighting, on July 5, the Helena used up all of her flashless powder, which was used during nighttime operations to reduce visibility. The following night, when the battle was rejoined, she was forced to use smokeless powder, which was typically used during daylight. As a result, the bright flashes of her 15 six-inch main guns made her an easy target for Japanese destroyers, and she was struck by three torpedoes in a matter of minutes shortly before 2 a.m., sinking soon afterward.
Although it took 10 days to rescue all survivors, many of whom took refuge on a nearby island until they could be picked up, 732 members of the ship’s crew of 900 survived.
Mr. Allen’s team has also discovered the USS Indianapolis, the cruiser that was torpedoed shortly after delivering components of the atom bomb, and recovered the ship’s bell from the HMS Hood, the British battle cruiser that was sunk by the German battleship the Bismarck on May 24, 1941. In March of this year, the team recovered the wreckage of the USS Juneau that exploded after being struck by torpedoes and sank with almost its entire crew, including the five Sullivan brothers, who had received special permission from the Navy to serve on the same ship.
David Reams, the director of Maritime Operations for the R/V Petrel, said the research team typically searches through naval archives to obtain the coordinates of where ships were when they went down. It searches the sea floor with sonar and sends down a remote-controlled submarine when it gets back a promising ping. “It’s a mixed emotion” when a sunken ship is found, he said, because the thrill of discovery collides with the knowledge that wrecks are also gravesites.
He said the Helena was in surprisingly good condition, given the damage the three torpedoes caused, with much of its gray paint intact and its identification number, “50,” plainly visible on the side.
Back in Sag Harbor, the discovery was bittersweet for Ms. Lyons. “It’s amazing,” she said, “but I have nobody to tell.”