The Sullivans

The Sullivan Brothers
 
 

 

 

 

The brothers on board the USS Juneau; from left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan. 

 

On our bus tour of Washington DC we passed a grove of trees, the guide recording announced that they had been planted in honour of the Sullivan brothers. When I was young my mum had told me the sad story of five brothers lost on the same boat that had made history. Mum had not remembered their name, now I could look them up.

 

The Sullivans, natives of Waterloo, Iowa, were the sons of Tom and Alleta Sullivan. They were:

 

George Thomas Sullivan,          27 (born on the 14th of December 1914), Gunner’s Mate Second Class

Francis "Frank" Henry Sullivan, 26 (born on the 18th of February 1916),   Coxwain

Joseph "Joe" Eugene Sullivan,  24 (born on the 28th of August 1918),      Seaman Second Class

Madison "Matt" Abel Sullivan,   23 (born on the 8th of November 1919),    Seaman Second Class

Albert "Al" Leo Sullivan,           20 (born on the 8th of July 1922),             Seaman Second Class

 

The brothers are together in Arlington Cemetery

 

 

History: The Sullivans enlisted on the 3rd of January 1942 with the stipulation that they serve together. The Navy had a policy of separating siblings, but this was not strictly enforced. George and Frank had served in the Navy before, but their brothers had not. All five were assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau. Early in the morning of the 13th of November 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and forced to withdraw. Later that day, as it was leaving the Solomon Islands' area for the Allied rear-area base at Espiritu Santo with other surviving US warships from battle, the Juneau was struck again, this time by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-26. The torpedo likely hit the thinly-armoured cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship exploded and quickly sank.

Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena and senior officer present in the battle-damaged US task force, was sceptical that anyone had survived the sinking of the Juneau and believed it would be reckless to look for survivors, thereby exposing his wounded ships to a still-lurking Japanese submarine. Therefore, he ordered his ships to continue on towards Espiritu Santo. Helena signaled a nearby US B-17 bomber on patrol to notify Allied headquarters to send aircraft or ships to search for survivors. Approximately 100 of Juneau's crew had survived and were left in the water. The B-17 bomber crew, unwilling to disobey orders not to break radio silence, did not pass the message about searching for survivors to their headquarters until they had landed several hours later. The crew's report of the location of possible survivors was mixed in with other pending paperwork actions and went unnoticed for several days. It was not until days later that headquarters staff realised that a search had never been mounted and belatedly ordered aircraft to begin searching the area. In the meantime, Juneau's survivors, many of whom were seriously wounded, were exposed to the elements, hunger, thirst and repeated shark attacks.

Eight days after the sinking, ten survivors were found by a PBY Catalina search aircraft and retrieved from the water. The survivors reported that Frank, Joe and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George survived for four or five days before being driven insane with grief at the loss of his brothers, finally going over the side of the raft he occupied. He was never seen or heard from again. Security required that the Navy not reveal the loss of the Juneau or the other ships so as not to provide information to the enemy. Letters from the Sullivan sons stopped arriving at the home and the parents grew worried. The brothers' parents were notified of their deaths on the 12th of January 1943. That morning, the boys' father, Thomas, was preparing to go to work when three men in uniform, a lieutenant commander, a doctor and a chief petty officer, approached his front door. "I have some news for you about your boys," the naval officer said. "Which one?" asked Thomas. "I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five."

 

The brothers left a sister, Genevieve their only sister, served in the WAVES. She was the girlfriend of Bill Ball, whose death at Pearl Harbour prompted her brothers to join the Navy to avenge him. Albert was survived by a wife and son. The “Fighting Sullivan Brothers” were national heroes. President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to Tom and Alleta. Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret. The Iowa Senate and House adopted a formal resolution of tribute to the Sullivan brothers. Thomas and Alleta Sullivan made speaking appearances at war plants and shipyards on behalf of the war effort, raising war bonds. Grief overwhelmed Thomas and he died a broken man in 1965. Later, Alleta participated in the launching of the destroyer USS The Sullivans named after her sons.

 

 

USS The Sullivans, an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer

 

 

 

Legacy: As a direct result of the Sullivans' deaths, the U.S. War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy. (The most recent instance in which the policy was enacted is the case of the Hubbard brothers in the Iraq War. Jason and Nathan Hubbard joined the army after their brother Jared had died in Iraq in 2004. In 2007, Nathan died in a helicopter crash. Military officials ordered Jason home shortly after).

 

The brothers' hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, has "The Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center", the town also renamed a street and set aside a public park in their honour. An $11.5 museum wing completed in 2008 is a state-of-the-art facility aiming to play a role in preserving the history and service of Iowa veterans and serve as a facility for research and genealogy studies. The Brothers have a Department of Defence Dependents Schools elementary school in Yokosuka, Japan named in their honour. The song "Sullivan" by the alternative rock band "Caroline's Spine" tells the story of the Sullivans.

 

The brothers' story was filmed as the 1944 movie The Sullivans (later renamed The Fighting Sullivans) and inspired at least in part the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan, on which they were briefly mentioned.

The Sullivans were not the only brother sailors on board the ship. There were at least thirty pairs of brothers including the four Rogers brothers from New Haven, Connecticut. Before the ill-fated Savo Island operation two of the Rogers brothers were transferred to other commands. According to those who survived, had the ship returned to port safely at least two Sullivans would have also transferred.

 

The Navy named two destroyers The Sullivans to honour the brothers: The Sullivans (DD-537) and The Sullivans (DDG-68). DD-537 was the first American navy ship ever to be named after more than one person. The motto for both ships was "We stick together." Al Sullivan's son, James, served on board the first USS The Sullivans, christened by his grandmother. The second USS The Sullivans was christened by Al's granddaughter Kelly Ann Sullivan Loughren.

 

 

USS The Sullivans (DD-537) a Fletcher-class destroyer

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

ALL IN ALL SUCH A SAD STORY