Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Sullivan Brothers

Figure 1: 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. All were lost with the ship following the 13 November 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The brothers are (from left to right): Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan. They were adamant about serving together in spite of the US Navy wartime policy to separate family members. Surviving the brothers were their parents, Thomas and Alleta, their sister Genevieve, and the youngest brothers’ wife, Katherine, and their son, James. The family today includes two grandchildren of Albert Sullivan: Kelly Ann Sullivan Loughren and John Sullivan. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 2: Letter that was sent by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the parents of the Sullivan brothers, all of whom were lost after the 13 November 1942 Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 3: USS Juneau (CL-52) photographed off New York City, 1 June 1942. She has a barge alongside her starboard quarter. Her superstructure retains its original camouflage scheme, but her hull has been repainted to a different pattern. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 4: USS Juneau off New York City, 1 June 1942, with a Lee and Simmons company barge alongside. Note differing camouflage schemes applied to hull and superstructure. Photograph from the Bureau of Ships Collection in the U.S. National Archives. Click on photograph for larger image.

Figure 5: "The five Sullivan brothers, ‘missing in action' off the Solomons, THEY DID THEIR PART," Office of War Information poster 42, number 1943-0-510254. It shows the Sullivan brothers on board USS Juneau (CL-52) in early 1942. All were lost with Juneau on 13 November of that year. Donation of the Steamship Historical Society of America, 1965. U.S. Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.

Albert, Francis, George, Joseph, and Madison Sullivan were born in Waterloo, Iowa, between 1914 and 1920. George and Francis enlisted in the Navy in 1937. Their three bothers enlisted in the Navy in early 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. All five brothers strongly requested that they not be separated, even though US Navy policy during World War II was to prevent family members from serving on board the same ship. Their request, though, was granted and all five of the brothers were assigned to the commissioning crew of the USS Juneau (CL-52), a 6,000-ton Atlanta class light cruiser built at Kearny, New Jersey. The ship was officially commissioned in February 1942 and, after a shakedown cruise in the Atlantic and the Caribbean, Juneau was sent to the South Pacific in August 1942.

Juneau took part in the massive naval battles off the coast of Guadalcanal and was near the carrier USS Wasp (CV-7) when that ship was sunk on 15 September 1942. Juneau also took part in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on 26-27 October, in which the carrier USS Hornet (CV-8) was lost. Japanese and American task forces then ran into each other in the early morning hours of 13 November 1942, and what followed was the famous “Friday the 13th” naval battle for Guadalcanal. During this vicious fight, Juneau was torpedoed and badly damaged. The ship remained afloat although a number of the crew was killed or wounded. One of the wounded was George Sullivan, but he was treated and then sent back to his battle station next to the depth charge racks. The next morning, the Japanese submarine I-26 spotted the American warships that had survived the previous night’s battle and fired two torpedoes. The first torpedo missed all of the ships but the second hit Juneau. A massive explosion ensued, blowing a few of the surviving crewmen off the ship and into the water. What was left of Juneau after the explosion sank almost immediately.

The remaining American warships saw the explosion and assumed that none of the crewmen could have survived the catastrophe. Also, since the torpedoes indicated there were enemy submarines in the area, the battered US ships decided to withdraw and not search for survivors, reasoning that any search would endanger the remaining crippled warships.

But there were survivors. One of them was George Sullivan, who had been thrown off the ship by the explosion. He swam desperately in the oil-stained sea, frantically searching for his four brothers. Approximately 100 men survived the explosion, most of them severely injured and now bobbing in the ocean in their life jackets. George swam from survivor to survivor, checking to see if any of them were his brothers. The men eventually found three life rafts in the debris field left by the sunken ship. Some of the survivors clung to the rafts, while most of the severely wounded slipped away and died. The next day, 14 November, George and a few other men were still alive. That day sharks began attacking the survivors who were nearby but still in the water. Gradually the sharks, along with the lack of water and medical attention, began claiming most of the men.

The following day, the remaining survivors were divided among the three life rafts. There were eight men in one raft, 19 in the second, and roughly 12 more in the third, including George Sullivan. After the fourth day, George became delirious and turned to Allen Heyn, one of the other men in the raft, and said that he was going to swim to shore and take a bath. George stripped off his clothes, jumped into the water, and started swimming for what he thought was land. Then Allen Heyn heard the terrible screams as the sharks attacked George and pulled him beneath the waves. The last Sullivan brother was gone.

On 20 November, seven days after the loss of the Juneau, an American destroyer found George Sullivan’s raft. Allen Heyn was the only survivor. In all, only 10 men survived out of a crew of 695 officers and men. It was the first time since the Civil War that one family had lost five sons in battle. The country was devastated by the news, but the remaining members of the Sullivan family banded together and encouraged the rest of the country to continue the war effort. Mr. and Mrs. Tom and Alleta Sullivan, the parents of the five boys, even helped to christen a new destroyer in February 1943 that was named USS The Sullivans (DD-537), in honor of their five children. The tradition continues today with the Arleigh Burke class destroyer, DDG-68, which also was named USS The Sullivans. The ship was commissioned in 1997 and still serves in the US fleet.

Memorial Day is the only day of the year on this blog where we highlight individuals and not ships. This year, Memorial Day is on 26 May and it is only fitting and proper that we take time out to remember the families who have given so very much in defense of this nation. The sacrifice made by the Sullivan boys and their family must be remembered by this and future generations of Americans. We should also be humbled by the notion that there still are families and individuals in this country who are willing to sacrifice everything for this land of ours.