How Five Brothers Perished at Sea and Inspired an American Legend

On St. Patrick’s Day, 2018, the team of the #RVPetrel found the wreckage of one of the most iconic Navy ships of WWII – the USS Juneau (CL-52). The famous “Fighting Sullivans” were killed when this light anti-aircraft cruiser was hit by the second torpedo in less than 24 hours. USS Juneau sank in less than 20 seconds.

The Fighting Sullivan brothers of WWII

The story began when Alleta Abel married Thomas Sullivan in 1914. The young Irish American couple moved into a home in Waterloo, Iowa, at 98 Adams Street. They quickly started a family. Their oldest was born late that year.

The seven Sullivan Children, in order of birth:

  • George Thomas, December 1914
  • Francis Henry “Frank”, February 1916
  • Genevieve Marie, February 1917
  • Joseph Eugene “Joe”, August 1918
  • Madison Abel “Matt”, November 1919
  • Albert Leo “Al”, July 1922
  • Kathleen Mae, April 1931

Kathleen May died of pneumonia five months after her birth. The remaining six Sullivan children grew strong and healthy, despite the Great Depression and the onset of war in Europe in 1939.

Thomas was a railroad conductor, and Alleta was a busy homemaker and mother. The boys frequently played ball together in the empty lot next to their home. As young men, the five brothers were scrappy, and were known for keeping order in their neighborhood.

The Attack on Pearl Harbor

America was stunned when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. The Sullivans knew a young man, William “Bill” Ball, who was serving on the USS Arizona when it was hit. The brothers resolved to join the Navy to avenge him.

Both George and Frank had only recently returned from four years of service in the Navy. This did not deter them, however, and with their three younger brothers they presented themselves at a Navy recruiting office on January 3, 1942. They had only one condition: they would serve together.

Although placing siblings on the same vessel was discouraged, the Navy relented, and all five brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau. The Sullivan men adopted the motto: “We Stick Together”. George stated: “If the worst comes to the worst, why we’ll all have gone down together“.

The USS Juneau was commissioned on February 14, 1942, with Captain Lyman K. Swenson in command. A press photographer snapped a photo of the smiling brothers on board the cruiser. In August of that year, USS Juneau headed for the Pacific theater, where she would meet her demise in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

Ironbottom Sound

Five American cruisers and eight American destroyers were involved in the deadly Battle of Guadalcanal, from which the Allies emerged bloodied but victorious. USS Juneau was in the narrow waters of what Allied sailors now call Ironbottom Sound, between Guadalcanal, Florida Islands, and Savo, early on the morning of November 13, 1942. Allen Heyn, gunner’s mate second class, was at his post on the Juneau when the sky lit up with searchlights and mortar fire.

The Juneau suddenly found herself facing the Japanese battleship Hiei, which began firing. Captain Swenson ordered Juneau‘s gun crews to open fire. Heyn later told of how he and fellow gunner Joseph Hartney fired madly at the target, Heyn at his rapid-fire 5-inch gun turret and Hartney at his 50-caliber machine gun.

As Juneau cleared the Hiei she received a radio message from the USS San Francisco that she was blocking a target. Juneau slipped in next to San Francisco neatly, but the two ships were sighted by the Japanese destroyer Murasame. Juneau and Murasame traded fire for a few tense moments.

In a flash, a torpedo meant for the San Francisco hit Juneau, knocking Heyn and his fellow sailors to the deck as it buckled and the cruiser seemed to momentarily rise from the water. Rapidly assessing the damage, Captain Swensen ordered the crew to disengage and leave the raging battle.

The crew began repairing her immediately. When dawn finally came, the Juneau began limping back alone toward the American base at Espiritu Santo for further repairs.

As USS Juneau was struggling along, the crew spotted a friendly formation. She was able to slip in aside the cruiser USS Helena, and the crew began to feel hopeful. Allan Heyn remembered “It was kinda quiet and it was sort of a lull for a few minutes, and everybody was talking and breathing a little easy.”

Suddenly, Heyn was thrown against his gun mount as Juneau was once more hit by a torpedo aimed at San Francisco. The lookouts on USS San Francisco had seen them approaching, and she was able to edge away just in time to be missed. Their radio was no longer functioning, and they had no way to warn the Juneau.

Eugene Tarrant was on board the San Francisco and recalls watching the Juneau explode. Many years later he would tell an interviewer “We couldn’t do nothin’ about it…it was meant for us.” He describes the explosion, saying pieces of Juneau rained down on his ship.

Roger W. O’Neil, Senior Known Survivor, watched from USS Helena where he had been transported to assist with medical care. His report dated November 17, 1942, details the events leading to the utter destruction of the Juneau. Concluding, O’Neil writes: “I wish to state emphatically, that during the operations described above, my shipmates conducted themselves magnificently.”

Frank, Joe, and Matt died immediately. Tom and George survived, but Tom was gravely wounded and died shortly after the explosion. It took nine days for a rescue team to locate the ten remaining survivors of the USS Juneau.

Heyn recalls that five days after the ship was destroyed, George Sullivan stripped off his clothing and announced he was going for a bath. Mad with grief and elevated sodium levels, George slipped off the lifeboat and quickly became another victim of the sharks that had decimated the roughly 100 survivors.

The Creation of the Legend: The Fighting Sullivans

Many ships were lost in Battle of Guadalcanal, and many sailors buried at sea. However, the war was not yet won. The Navy could not disclose information about ongoing operations, and was eager to redirect the nation’s attention.

They were quick to pounce on the opportunity to use the smiling Sullivan brothers to drum up support for the war. The Office of War Information co-opted the photo taken when the Juneau was commissioned. A propaganda poster displayed the photograph with the text: “THEY DID THEIR PART” and “the five Sullivan brothers missing in action off the Solomons”.

The Sullivans waited to hear news about the five brothers for so long that Alleta began to despair. She finally wrote to President Roosevelt, saying she had heard rumors the brothers were killed in action. By the time she received a response, Lt. Commander Truman Jones had already visited and confirmed her sons were dead.

Roosevelt did personally respond, however, and wrote: “I want you to know that the entire nation shares in your sorrow.” Indeed, all of America grieved for the five brothers who had perished at sea.

Thomas, Alleta, and Genevieve Sullivan redirected their pain into the war effort. Genevieve enlisted in the WAVES. Tom and Alleta toured more than 200 shipyards and defense plants, expounding on the need to produce materials for the brave men who were fighting for freedom.

Alleta Sullivan volunteered for the United Service Organization, and was photographed with actress Marlene Dietrich serving men at the Hollywood USO. Thomas spoke to the nation in a radio broadcast in which he stated: “And we feel we have the right to ask, ‘What have YOU given to win this war?”

In 1944, 20th Century Fox released the major motion picture originally known as “The Sullivans”, rebranded as “The Fighting Sullivans”. The tragic story of the brothers’ sacrifice boosted moral as the war raged on.

When the war was over, the Sullivan family was able to regain a sense of normalcy, although Alleta continued to receive visit from sailors long after the war had ended. The extended family continues to be involved in the legacy.

The Legacy

The Sullivan’s deaths resulted in the adoption the Sole Survivor Policy.

Two Navy destroyers have been named The Sullivans, DD-537 and DDG-68. Their motto: We Stick Together. The son Al Sullivan left behind grew up to serve on DD-537, USS The Sullivans.

The convention center in their hometown of Waterloo, Iowa was renamed in honor of the brothers in 1988. Waterloo is also home to park named for the brothers, located at the site of their childhood home on Adams Street.

A Department of Defense Dependents Schools named a school in Yokosuka, Japan, in honor of the brothers.

Alternative band Caroline’s Spine released “Sullivan” in 1995, a hit song about the brothers’ story.

The Sullivans Association is an organization of veterans who served on the ships named after the five brothers.

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