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The Five Sullivans

The five Sullivan brothers -- George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert of Waterloo, IA -- enlisted together in the U.S. Navy on 3 January 1942, motivated to avenge the death of a friend killed on the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. George and Francis had been in the Navy before, so they all decided to again choose the Navy. The brother' early lives had been built on a strong family and religious ethic and commitment to one another. Their motto was "We Stick Together," so naturally they requested to serve together. Navy policy was to separate family members, but, after training at the Naval Training Station. Great Lakes, IL, they won approval to serve on the same ship and were assigned to anti-aircraft light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52) on 15 February 1942.

Letter to the Sullivan parents from US Presidnt Franklin Roosevelt, 13 January 1943.  Click for larger size
Letter to the Sullivan parents from US Presidnt Franklin Roosevelt, 13 January 1943. Click for larger size.

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The Loss of the Five Sullivan Brothers on USS Juneau

The five Sullivan Brothers on board USS Juneau (CL-52) at the time of her commissioning ceremonies at the New York Navy Yard, 14 February 1942. From left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan
The five Sullivan Brothers on board USS Juneau (CL-52) at the time of her commissioning ceremonies at the New York Navy Yard, 14 February 1942. From left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan.

Following their enlistment in the Navy in January 1942, the Sullivan brothers were in the news right away. They were the largest group from one family serving in the war, making a good story to promote the patriotic duty of military service. In March of 1942, their mother was asked by the Navy to sponsor a new ship as a way to capitalize on the publicity. She readily agreed.

Ten months after joining the Navy, the Sullivans were on board the Juneau during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. In the early morning hours of 13 November 1942, in the short, but ferocious battle in Iron Bottom Sound near Savo Island, a number of American ships were lost. Just a few minutes into the battle, Juneau was hit by a Japanese torpedo on the port side near the forward fire room. The shock wave from the explosion buckled the deck, shattered the fire control computers, and knocked out power. The cruiser limped away from the battle, down by the bow and struggling to maintain 18 knots. She rejoined the surviving American warships at dawn on 13 November and zig-zagged to the southeast in company with two other cruisers and three destroyers, heading for safe anchorage at Espiritu Santo. About an hour before noon, the task force crossed paths with Japanese submarine I-26. Juneau was again torpedoed port side very near the previous hit. The ensuing magazine explosion blew the light cruiser in half. To observers, Juneau suddenly disappeared in a cloud of smoke and fire, vanishing below the waters as bits of the ship rained down.

A message from USS Helena to a nearby B-17 search plane reported that Juneau was lost at latitude 10 degrees South and longitude 161 degrees East and that survivors were in the water. The sinking location was subsequently modified to 10 degrees South and 161 degrees East. Owing to the risk of another submarine attack and because the sections of Juneau sank in only a few minutes, the American task force did not stay to check for survivors. However, approximately 115 of Juneau's crew did survive the explosion. Unfortunately Helena's message was mishandled and there remained uncertainty about the number of Japanese ships in the area, delaying rescue efforts for several days. Exposure, exhaustion, and shark attacks whittled down the survivors and only ten men from the Juneau were found alive in the water or on nearby islands, eight days after the sinking.

Juneau survivors reported that four of the Sullivan brothers died in the initial explosion or right afterward. The fifth, George Thomas, despite being wounded the night before, made it onto a raft where he survived for five days. He finally succumbed either to wounds and exhaustion or a shark attack.

Aftermath of the Loss of The Five Sullivan Brothers

As was the practice during WW II, news of the sinking of the USS Juneau in the Solomons was withheld from the public until the information could not benefit the Japanese enemy. The Sullivans' parents, Thomas F. Sullivan and Alleta Sullivan, had no idea what had happened. In January 1943, Mrs. Sullivan wrote to the Bureau of Naval Personnel regarding rumors she was hearing that her sons had been killed. Although desperately fearful, she nonetheless expressed confidence in the Navy and her desire to continue as the sponsor of a new ship.

Early in the morning of 12 January 1943, Tom was preparing to leave home for his railroad job when he saw three Navy officers come to his front door. In a scene immortalized in the 1944 biographical movie, The Fighting Sullivans , the ranking officer said to him, "I have some news for you about your boys." "Which one?" asked Tom. "I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five."

The brothers received the Purple Heart Medal posthumously and were entitled to the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp; Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with four engagement stars and the World War II Victory Medal. They had also earned the Good Conduct Medal.

At the time of their deaths, George was 28 years old; Francis, 27; Joseph, 24; Madison, 23; and Albert, 20. They were survived by their parents, a sister, Genevieve Sullivan, and by Albert Leo Sullivan's wife, Katherine Mary Sullivan. Their son, James Thomas, was twenty-two months old at the time of his father's death.

Their deaths shook the nation and attracted international support for the parents. President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to Tom and Alleta, shown at the top of this page. Pope Pius XII sent a personal message along with a silver religious medal and rosary. The Iowa Legislature adopted a formal resolution of tribute to the Sullivan brothers. The 1944 movie of their story was widely popular. Military regulations were revised to prohibit multiple siblings from serving together and to force return of remaining siblings to the U.S. in the event of the death of two or more members of the same family. The plot of the film Saving Private Ryan was loosely based on the Sullivans' story, trying save the last son.

In response to the Sullivan tragedy, proposals were made to prohibit brothers from serving together on the same ship, but Congress did not pass any such law, nor did the President issue an Executive Order to that effect. In response to a similar tragedy which occurred at Pearl Harbor (three brothers serving aboard the USS Arizona perished during the attacks) the Navy did issue a policy forbidding commanding officers from approving requests from brothers to serve together, but the policy was apparently not enforced and did not prohibit the Navy from assigning the Sullivan brothers to the same ship. After the Sullivan loss, the policy has been more strictly observed in all the services.

In April 1943, the Sullivans' courage and dedication was honored by the Navy with the launching of the destroyer USS The Sullivans (DD 537), christened by Alleta Sullivan, the boys' mother, the first US Navy ship to be named for multiple persons. USS The Sullivans was in service 1943-1965, seeing combat during the rest of World War II and in Korea before she was decomissioned. She earned nine Battle Stars during World War Two and two more during the Korean conflict. She continues to serve as a Naval museum moored at Naval Park in Buffalo, NY.

The Sullivan Brothers Crabapple Tree was planted on the US Capitol Grounds in Washington, DC on 12 June 1952, to honor the family that gave the ultimate gift to their nation. Many civic buildings and facilities have been named for The Sullivans, especially near their hometown or on US Navy installations.

The second USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) was laid down on 14 June 1993 at Bath, Maine, by Bath Iron Works Co. and launched on 12 August 1995, the eighteenth Arleigh Burke class Aegis destroyer stuffed full of the latest electronics and weapons systems. This USS Sullivans was sponsored by Kelly Sullivan Loughren, granddaughter of Albert Leo Sullivan. Commissioned on 19 April 1997 at Staten Island, NY under the command of Commander Gerard D. Roncolato, the motto of the ship is "We Stick Together." The pier where the ship was commissioned has been renamed for the Sullivans.

See also the World War II Navy Recruiting Poster featuring the Five Sullivan Brothers.

Recommended Books about the Five Sullivan Brothers

Recommended Videos about the Five Sullivan Brothers

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