By Arif Patani, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
When it comes to the history of our Navy – or the history of our nation for that matter – there are not too many families that have sacrificed more than the Sullivans. Shortly after the devastating Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor, the family would send all 5 of their sons to sea to serve their country together. Not one of the sons – Albert, Francis, George, Joseph, or Madison – would return, following the sinking of their ship in the Pacific in November 1942.
Growing up in an era that saw both the first world war in Europe, as well as the crash of the stock market and following Great Depression here at home, life for the Sullivan brothers was anything but easy. But like many tough, hardworking Americans of the time, the brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, found ways to get by.
School was probably not a top priority for the Sullivans, which was also pretty common for young men in small-town America at the time. Not one of the brothers completed high school, and according to the Bruce Kucklick’s novel, The Fighting Sullivans, the brothers most likely jumped around from school, to odd job, to unemployment, and back to school.
In 1937, perhaps after having a tough time finding consistent work at home, the two oldest brothers, Frank and George, joined the peacetime Navy. The brothers were 21 and 22 when they left Iowa, and thanks to standard practice of the Navy at the time, they were able to get stationed on the same ship, USS Hovey (DD 208).
Although the ship spent most of its time at anchor in California, the brothers were able to see the coast of Mexico; they sailed the coast of Central America and even went through the Panama Canal. Hovey also made it to port in Hawaii on a number of occasions where Frank and George were able to link up with family friends and a fellow set of Iowan brothers, Bill and Masten Ball, of Fredericksburg, Iowa.
During the four years the two brothers served in the Navy, a lot changed in the world. In 1939 World War II broke out in Europe and by the time the Sullivans returned home to Waterloo, the threat of American involvement was nearing a tipping point.
Shortly before 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941, Japanese forces launched an attack on Pearl Harbor. The surprise attack lasted nearly two hours and resulted in heavy U.S. casualties and extensive damage to the battle fleet. American deaths numbered more than 2,000 with more than 1,000 military and civilians wounded.
Although all of the Sullivan brothers were home safe in Waterloo on December 7th, they had a very personal connection to what happened in Hawaii – Bill and Masten Ball were in Pearl Harbor, stationed aboard USS Arizona (BB 39), on the day of the attack. Although Masten survived, the Ball family soon learned that Bill had lost his life aboard the ship.
Seeking to avenge the death of Bill Ball, the Sullivans enlisted in the U.S. Navy, the day after Christmas, 1941.
The brothers, along with two friends from Waterloo, requested to serve together. After Boot Camp in Great Lakes, Illinois, the group got their wish when the Navy gave them orders to join the light cruiser USS Juneau (CL 52) at the New York Navy Yard.
All five brothers were there on Valentine’s Day, 1942, for the commissioning of Juneau. The Sullivans’ service, along with that of the four Rogers brothers, was highlighted during the ceremony as it dispalyed the patriotism the country was still feeling after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. The Navy took the opportunity to take the now-famous photo of the five brothers:
Following a hurried shakedown cruise along the Atlantic coast in the spring of 1942, Juneau took part in a couple of small operations before being transferred to the Pacific Theater in August, 1942.
In early November, as the struggle for control of Guadalcanal remained undecided, both the Allies and the Japanese were desperately trying to reinforce the island with troops, food, and ammunition while trying to prevent the other side from doing the same. Although two American convoys arrived safely on November 11-12, they had only partially unloaded their cargoes when intelligence and reconnaissance reports indicated strong Japanese naval forces were approaching the island on a shore bombardment mission. As the American transports steamed eastwards for safety, an American force of five cruisers and eight destroyers took up station in the strait between Guadalcanal and Florida Island (a stretch of sea Sailors later gave the name “Ironbottom Sound” owing to the many sunken ships littering the sea floor from the World War II naval battles fought there).
After midnight on November 13, a Japanese formation of two battleships, a light cruiser, and eleven destroyers steamed past Savo Island, heading toward Guadalcanal. At 1:24 a.m. the ships appeared on American radar and the two forces closed rapidly. Poor radar coordination, however, left the American warships hopelessly trying to pin down the location of the Japanese warships. The leading destroyers of both forces sighted each other briefly in the darkness and at 1:45 a.m. USS Juneau received the order, “Stand by to open fire.” A few minutes later, just after a Japanese searchlight flicked on, the lead American destroyers opened fire at the Japanese warships at a mere 1,600 yards. The Japanese fired back and the two formations quickly mingled together, firing into each other at point-blank range in the darkness.
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 and zig-zagged to the southeast in company with two other cruisers and three destroyers.
About an hour before noon, the task force crossed paths with the Japanese submarine I-26. At 11:01 a.m., the submarine fired three torpedoes, all aimed at USS San Francisco (CA 38). None hit that cruiser, but one passed beyond and struck Juneau on the port side very near the previous hit. The ensuing magazine explosion blew the light cruiser in half, killing most of the crew. According to one witness: “the entire ship seemed to explode in one mighty column of brown and white smoke and flame which rose easily a thousand feet in the air.”
A message from USS Helena (CL 50) 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.
Because there was still 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. Approximately 115 of Juneau’s crew survived the explosion, but as Helena’s message did not reach South Pacific Force headquarters, in Noumea, New Caledonia, and there remained uncertainty about the number of Japanese ships in the area, rescue efforts did not begin for several days. Exposure, exhaustion, and shark attacks whittled down the survivors and only ten men were rescued from the water eight days after the sinking. None of the Sullivan brothers survived.
Unfortunately, communication back to the brothers’ hometown in Iowa at the time was anything but instant, and even after hearing rumors of the death of her five sons, Mrs. Sullivan continued to support the war effort as evidenced by a letter she wrote to the Bureau of Naval Personnel. President Franklin D. Roosevelt sent the following personal letter to Mrs. Sullivan expressing his and the nation’s sorrow.
News of the brothers’ deaths became a rallying point for the war effort, with posters, speeches and even a movie honoring their sacrifice. Extensive newspaper and radio coverage of the incident made the loss of the brothers a national story, and condolences poured in on the Sullivan family from around the country.
The Sullivan’s mother, Alleta, eventually became a very important figure in the war effort herself. She volunteered at the United Service Organization (USO) to help make life easier for troops stateside and abroad. The brothers’ sister Genevieve also enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve as a Specialist (Recruiter) Third Class and, with her parents, visited more than two hundred manufacturing plants and shipyards offering encouragement to employees in hopes their efforts would bring the war to an end sooner. By January 1944, the family had spoken to more than a million workers in 65 cities and reached millions of others over the radio.
The story of service and sacrifice in America is as old as the country itself, and the story of the Sullivan brothers, in many ways, is very similar to that of the men and women who choose to raise their hands and serve today: they exude characteristics that made the nation great — integrity, accountability, toughness and initiative; they seek to be a part of something larger than themselves; and their purpose is the defense of freedom.
Links of Interest
Naval History and Heritage Command Sullivan’s Content: https://www.history.navy.mil/content/history/nhhc/browse-by-topic/disasters-and-phenomena/the-sullivan-brothers-and-the-assignment-of-family-members.html
Learn more about USS Juneau (CL 52): https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/j/juneau-i.html
Alleta Sullivan: A “Navy Mom” Like No Other: http://navylive.dodlive.mil/2014/05/09/alleta-sullivan-a-navy-mom-like-no-other/
Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum: https://www.groutmuseumdistrict.org/sites-exhibits/sullivan-brothers-iowa-veterans-museum/