The tragedy of the five Sullivan brothers

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The five Sullivan brothers were World War II sailors who, serving together on the USS Juneau (CL-52), were all killed in action on its sinking around November 13, 1942.

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The five brothers, the sons of Thomas (1883–1965) and Alleta Sullivan (1895–1972) of Waterloo, Iowa, were:

  • George Thomas Sullivan, 27 (born December 14, 1914), Gunner’s Mate Second Class (George had been previously discharged in May 1941 as Gunner’s Mate Third Class.)
  • Francis “Frank” Henry Sullivan, 26 (born February 18, 1916), Coxswain (Frank had been previously discharged in May 1941 as Seaman First Class.)
  • Joseph “Joe” Eugene Sullivan, 24 (born August 28, 1918), Seaman Second Class
  • Madison “Matt” Abel Sullivan, 23 (born November 8, 1919), Seaman Second Class
  • Albert “Al” Leo Sullivan, 20 (born July 8, 1922), Seaman Second Class

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The Sullivans enlisted on January 3, 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.

Leaving behind their family and friends in Waterloo, including Albert saying goodbye to his wife and baby, James, the brothers: George-Gunner’s Mate Second Class, Francis-Coxswain, Joseph-Seaman Second Class, Madison-Seaman Second Class, and Albert-Seaman Second Class, were assigned to the U.S.S. Juneau.

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The Juneau participated in a number of naval engagements during the months-long Guadalcanal Campaign beginning in August 1942. Early in the morning of November 13, 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.

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The torpedo likely hit the thinly armored light cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship exploded and quickly sank.

Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena

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and senior officer present in the battle-damaged US task force, was skeptical 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.

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But in fact, approximately 100 of Juneaus crew had survived the torpedo attack and the sinking of their ship and were left in the water. The B-17 bomber crew, under 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 realized 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.

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The survivors reported that Frank, Joe and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George survived for four or five days, before suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia (though some sources describe him being “driven insane with grief” at the loss of his brothers), he went 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 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, which prompted Alleta Sullivan to write to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in January 1943, citing rumors that survivors of the task force claimed that all five brothers were killed in action.

This letter was answered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 13, 1943, who acknowledged that the Sullivans were missing in action,but by then the parents were already informed of their fate, having learned of their deaths on January 12.

That morning, the boys’ father, Thomas, was preparing for work when three men in uniform – a lieutenant commander, a doctor and a chief petty officer – approached his 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 (1917–1975).Genevieve served in the WAVES. She was the girlfriend of Bill Ball whose death at Pearl Harbor prompted her brothers to join the Navy to avenge him.

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Albert was survived by a wife and son. The “Fighting Sullivan Brothers” became national heroes. President Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to their parents. Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret.

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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. Later, Alleta participated in the launching of a destroyer USS The Sullivans, named after her sons.

USS_The_Sullivans_(DD-537)_off_Ponape_1944As a direct result of the Sullivans’ deaths (and the deaths of four of the Borgstrom brothers within a few months of each other two years later),

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the U.S. War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy.The policy was enacted as law in 1948. No nominally peacetime restriction was in place until 1964 during the Vietnam War; in 1971, Congress amended the law to include not only the sole surviving son or daughter but also any son or daughter who had a combat-related death in the family. Since then, each branch of the military has made its own policies with regard to separating immediate family members.

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.The Sullivans were also briefly mentioned in Saving Private Ryan.

Wartime poster featuring the Sullivan brothers

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