More than two and a half miles deep in the sea near Guadalcanal lay the scattered remains of the USS Juneau (CL-52) — a light cruiser that protected other ships from air attack during World War II.
On board were five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, serving together on the same ship. They were Joseph (“Red”), Francis, Albert, Madison and George, whose ages ranged from 20 to 27.
On Dec. 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and their buddy Bill Ball serving aboard the battleship Arizona was killed when the ship was struck.
The five boys would avenge his death, and pledged to do it together by joining the Navy.
Their mother, Alleta Sullivan, cried when she heard of their plans, but didn’t stand in their way. “We Stick Together” was their family motto.
Then George, the eldest said, “Well I guess our minds are made up, aren’t they fellows? And … if the worst comes to the worst, why we’ll all have gone down together.”
What a dark prophecy that was.
The Sullivans’ hometown paper, The Waterloo Iowa Courier featured a series of stories of about what the boys were planning to do.
With their motto “We stick together!” the five brothers headed for the Navy recruiting office, asking to join up and serve in the same outfit.
The Navy balked, but eventually relented and sent all five off to boot camp.
After completing the training, they were assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau and sailed from New York to the South Pacific.
On Nov. 8, the Juneau left Nouméa, New Caledonia, as part of Task Force 67 under the command of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner. Their mission was to provide protection for transports headed for Guadalcanal.
Four days later, the convoy was attacked by Japanese torpedo bombers in the historic Battle of Guadalcanal.
The Juneau shot down six of the Japanese planes, but one bomber dropped a torpedo aimed at the tight formation of three cruisers. It struck the Juneau on the port side — taking the ship out of combat.
On Nov. 14, 1942, while limping to Espiritu Santos Island in the Solomons for repairs, the Juneau was hit by two more torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-26 and broke in two.
There was a great explosion and clouds of black smoke darkened the sky when the magazine blew up.
Within 20 seconds, the doomed warship was headed for the bottom — taking some 600 lives with it — and more in the days that followed.
Five of those lives were the Sullivan brothers.
Frank, Joe and Matt were killed instantly in the attack, and Al drowned the next day. While awaiting rescue, grief-stricken George abandoned his raft and drowned himself.
The other two cruisers were also badly damaged and couldn’t come to the rescue — fearful of sailing into waters where the Japanese submarine was still lurking.
For eight days, more than 100 survivors floated in the water waiting for rescue. Men died every day from fatigue, hypothermia and ingesting too much saltwater. Others died from shark attacks — like on the USS Indianapolis three and a half years later.
Then a PBY Catalina seaplane spotted them.
American and Japanese naval forces lost two dozen ships that day. Only 100 of 700 on the Juneau survived.
The War Department kept the tragedy under wraps, lest the Japanese use the information for propaganda purposes.
Months passed with no word from the boys, so Mrs. Sullivan wrote a letter to the Navy:
“I am writing you in regards to a rumor going around that my five sons were killed in action in November. A mother from here came and told me she got a letter from her son and he heard my five sons were killed …
“It has worried me so that I wanted to know if it was true. So please tell me. It was hard to give five sons all at once to the Navy, but I am proud of my boys that they can serve and help protect their country.”
On Jan. 12, 1943, a Navy lieutenant commander, doctor and chief petty officer knocked at the Sullivans’ door to report the sad news.
The following day, a letter arrived from President Roosevelt. “The knowledge that your five gallant sons are missing in action against the enemy inspires me to write you this personal message. I realize full well there is little I can say to assuage your grief.
“As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I want you to know that the entire nation shares in your sorrow. I offer you the condolences and gratitude of our country. We who remain to carry on the fight must maintain spirit, in the knowledge that such sacrifice is not in vain.”
America mourned when the news hit the headlines.
Stricken with grief when she heard of the loss of all her brothers, their sister, Genevieve, then 26, immediately enlisted in the Navy to become a WAVE — Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service — a women’s branch of the Navy Reserve during World War II.
“They said if that was what I wanted, it was all right with them,” she said.
After graduating from training, she was sworn in by Capt. C.L. Arnold. “I welcome you into the service of your country,” he told her.
A United Press report said, “After the ceremony Tuesday night, the sister of the Sullivans donned a trim WAVE uniform. The suit jacket, size 10, fits perfectly. She arranged her thick, black hair to fit under a perky new WAVE hat, because regulations forbid a WAVE’s hair to hang down on the collar of her uniform.”
On St. Patrick’s Day, 75 years after the Juneau went down to its watery grave, Microsoft co-founder Paul G. Allen and his high-tech deep-sea research vessel R/V Petrel used a remote controlled deep-sea autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV) and found the wreck 13,800 feet deep in “Ironbottom Sound” north of Guadalcanal — duly noting that the Sullivan brothers were Irish descent.
The next day, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) was sent down to take videos and verify the find. On the wreckage of the ship’s stern was the name “Juneau.”
The crew of the Petrel sent a message to The Courier newspaper in Waterloo that said, “Our team is comprised of professional subsea operators and engineers with years of experience in the industry who are truly humbled with the opportunity to honor our fallen servicemen and provide some closure to their families.”
Posthumously, the Sullivan brothers continued serving their country when their sacrifice was used to urge everyone to buy war bonds; and 20th Century Fox made the heart-wrenching movie, “The Fighting Sullivans” — honoring the brothers and what NBC’s Tom Brokaw would later call “The Greatest Generation.”
Tom and Alleta devoted the rest of their lives serving the nation. Alleta volunteered at USO Canteens, speaking across the nation, and was invited to christen the new destroyer, USS The Sullivans (DD-537). Tom continued his work as a railroad man, and in 1944, both of them and Genevieve shared a radio interview with FDR in Chicago after he made a campaign speech at Soldier Field.
By January 1944, the Sullivans had spoken to more than a million factory and shipyard workers in 65 cities — and millions more on radio.
Two Navy ships were named after the Sullivans, and Warner Brothers made a movie “The Sullivans,” later renamed “The Fighting Sullivans” starring Anne Baxter and Thomas Mitchell. It was a box office hit and boosted the morale of a war-weary nation.
A final word:
The Sullivans lived during a time when we were emerging from the gloom of the Great Depression, only to face the most devastating war in history. It was a time when Americans rose to the challenge — united in a just and noble cause. Wives, Moms and sweethearts across the nation went to work in the defense factories while the men were at war. The kids collected scrap metal, rubber and bacon grease to do their bit. Food, gasoline and other items were rationed or not available, so everyone simply tightened their belts.
To the Sullivans and all the Gold Star Moms and Dads whose loved ones were lost or wounded in the field of battle — Thanks from a grateful nation …
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Contact Syd Albright at email@example.com.
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New military policy…
As a direct result of the death of the five Sullivan brothers, followed months later by deaths of four Borgstrom brothers, the U.S. War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy in 1948 regarding families serving together in the military. The rule has been amended several times since then. It now includes not only the sole surviving son or daughter, but also any son or daughter who had a combat-related death in the family. Each military branch has its own variations.
Honor movie or PR?
“The Sullivan boys joined the armed forces after Pearl Harbor, and the US Navy accepted that they would all serve on one ship, the light cruiser USS Juneau. The five brothers gave the navy great publicity, but when the ship went down and survivors were not rescued, the service faced a serious problem. The Fighting Sullivans examines the campaign that followed, as the navy and its partners in Hollywood turned a tragedy of errors into a public relations victory.”
— Bruce Kuklick, professor (ret.) University of Pennsylvania
Microsoft’s Paul Allen legacy…
“I have the unique honor of leading Paul Allen’s multi-disciplined team of researchers, engineers, and explorers searching for lost artifacts. They are dedicated to the work; as it takes time, patience and technology to search the deepest parts of the ocean for lost ships. The opportunity to be the first to uncover these pieces of history is thrilling, but more importantly, our missions are deeply rooted in Paul Allen’s dedication to preserving our past, honoring those who were lost and sharing what he finds with the world.”
— Robert Kraft, director of sub-sea operations, Vulvan Inc.
Toasting the Irish…
It was a coincidence that finding the wreck of the USS Juneau happened on St. Patrick’s Day. The Sullivan brothers may have liked that because they enjoyed downing a few. All of them left school around age 16 and were often unruly — snitching Dad’s moonshine and following him around downtown backstreets, hoping for another shot.
— Irish Central
Four days after the Juneau went down, a badly wounded George Sullivan was lying in a raft awaiting rescue, when he stripped and said he was going to swim to shore and take a bath, and then jumped into the water. But Gunner’s Mate Second Class Allen Heyn told a different story, claiming he saw George start to swim away when “a shark came and grabbed him and that was the end of him.”
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Invitation to readers…
Everyone has a story. Press readers are invited to submit their Popcorn History stories (“Tasty little morsels of personal history”) for possible publication. Keep them 600 words or less. The stories may be edited if required. Submission of stories automatically grants permission to publish. Send to Syd Albright at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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