In 1942 five brothers made a sacrifice that showed just how much a family could give to the war effort.
January 3, 1942: After ringing in the New Year, the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, enlisted in the Navy. The brothers were George, 28; Francis, 27; Joseph, 24; Madison, 23; and Albert, 20.The brothers all joined the Navy, which (along with the rest of the military) discouraged family members from serving together in a highly dangerous area. It was not forbidden, though, and the brothers wanted to stay together. So they requested permission to serve on the same ship, the USS Juneau, a new light cruiser. It first took them to fight in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean, and then set off for Guadalcanal in September.
The Battle of Guadalcanal was one of the most important fights of World War II. Japan wanted control of the island to build a strategic base, and U.S. and Allied forces waged a campaign to stop them. The entire battle lasted two months, and the USS Juneau was just one of the ships involved.
An intercepted Japanese message revealed that a large battalion of enemy ships were coming. The Allies prepared themselves for their arrival -five cruisers, including the Juneau, and eight destroyers stood ready. On November 13, just after midnight, the Japanese brigade arrived: one light cruiser, two battleships, and 11 destroyers. Outnumbered and outgunned, the Allies also suffered poor radar reception that failed to show the location of the enemy ships.
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DAMN THE TORPEDOES
The intense battle that followed didn't take long. It was only 15 minutes before two Japanese destroyers, a Japanese battleship, and five American destroyers were felled. The Juneau was hit by a torpedo, so it cruised away to seek repairs at Pearl Harbor.
But the massive boat could only make speeds of 18 knots, and reaching Pearl Harbor seemed impossible. So a few hours later, the Juneau turned around and rejoined the battle. The bloody confrontation raged until almost noon, when the Allied forces retreated. The Juneau limped along at a speed of 13 knots before it was hit again. The time, the torpedo split the cruiser in half; it sank almost immediately.
About 600 men on board were killed right away, including Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert Sullivan. The eldest brother, George, was severely wounded but made it into a lifeboat. More than 100 men from the Juneau were also still alive, but the odds were greatly stacked against them.
IN THE WATER
Finally, the Japanese left, and with the surviving men of the Juneau in need of rescue, the captain of the USS Helena radioed the sinking ship's position and asked for aircraft assistance. Unfortunately, that message never reached its intended audience.
For a full week, the remaining servicemen had to fight exposure, exhaustion, and sharks. Many died from the wounds they had already suffered. Only three crowded lifeboats were available for the entire remaining crew, and sharks circled each of them, waiting for anyone to fall overboard.
George's wounds were serious but not life-threatening. He might have made it, but was attacked by a shark when he attempted to quickly clean himself in the ocean. The last remaining Sullivan brother had perished. And by the time a rescue ship returned to the area, just 10 survivors remained.
Back in Waterloo, Iowa, the Sullivans' parents did not know of their sons' deaths. The U.S. military, in an effort to keep the Axis from knowing how much damage its forces had sustained, did not make the cruiser's destruction public. The Sullivan parents suspected something was wrong only when they stopped receiving letters from their sons. They did not receive an official notice until January 12, 1943.
The nation mourned the loss of all aboard the Juneau, but especially the sacrifice of the Sullivan family. The brothers' parents, Thomas and Alleta, were left behind, as was a sister, Genevieve, and Albert's widow and son. Pope Pius XII sent his condolences. President Franklin D. Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Sullivan parents in which he said, "I am sure that we all take heart in the knowledge that they fought side by side." President Roosevelt also asked Mrs. Sullivan to christen the new naval destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, in San Francisco in April.
The Navy awarded the brothers several posthumous medals, including the Purple Heart; the American Defense Service Medal, Fleet Clasp; the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal; the World War II Victory Medal; and the Good Conduct Medal.
Thomas and Alleta remained staunch supporters of the war effort, and they began a tour to promote the buying of war bonds. Genevieve joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), a female service corps employed by the Navy during the war.
The house the Sullivan brothers grew up in has since been torn down. In its place stands a park dedicated to the family. Waterloo, Iowa, also hosts the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center, and the city's Grout Museum opened a wing called The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veteran's Museum in 2004.
THE LEGACY LIVES ON
The first USS The Sullivans served the U.S. Navy through the Korean War. After the conflict, it was decommissioned and now resides in Buffalo, New York, as a tribute to the brothers. A second USS The Sullivans was launched on August 12, 1995, and is still in service.
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A movie about the Sullivan brothers' sacrifice, The Fighting Sullivans (originally titled just The Sullivans), was released in 1944 and was nominated for an Academy Award. The film Saving Private Ryan, which won five Academy Awards, was partially inspired by the brothers' deaths but did not directly tell any part of the story.
The Fighting Sullivans (segment 9 of 9)
Today, there's a widespread belief that a law was enacted after the death of the five Sullivan brothers to prevent family members from serving together on the same ship, but that's not true. The Navy does, however, continue to recommend against it, as do the other branches of the military. Still, if enlisted servicemen and women fill out a request form, the rule can be bent.
__________The article above is reprinted with permission from Uncle John's Bathroom Reader Salutes the Armed Forces.
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