The Sullivan Brothers

The Sullivan brothers on board the USS Juneau; from left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George, February 14, 1942. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo.
The Sullivan brothers on board the USS Juneau; from left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George, February 14, 1942. U.S. Naval Historical Center photo.

"There was nothing especially outstanding about the Sullivan brothers, except their family loyalty," according to a contemporary press report about the five brothers. The bonds between the Sullivan boys -- George, Frank, Red, Matt, and Al -- were strong enough to help them convince the World War II Navy to let them all serve together on one boat.

"When we go in, we want to go in together," said George, the eldest. "If the worst comes to the worst, why, we'll all have gone down together."

On Nov. 13, 1942, his words became grim reality when the already damaged USS Juneau was torpedoed as it limped away from the first battle of Guadalcanal. The supply cruiser "didn't sink, she blew up with all the fury of an erupting volcano," Lt. Cmdr. Bruce McCandless recounted in "The San Francisco Story." The ship essentially vaporized, and was gone within minutes.

George Sullivan, wounded in the first attack on the Juneau, had just returned to duty near the depth-charge racks, while Al and Matt were in the loading room and Frank and Red with the damage control parties. When their ship disintegrated, four of the brothers perished with it. The accident was so terrible that most Navy officials assumed there were no survivors.

They were mistaken. At least 100 men survived the blast, floating on bits of debris and in battered lifeboats, tormented by sun, salt water, and sharks. Of the 10 who were eventually rescued, all remembered George Sullivan's repeated cries of "Al, Matt, Red, Frank? Where are my brothers?" as he searched the rafts and wreckage for any sign of his siblings.

By the fourth day, George's cries had weakened. In delirium, he told a comrade he was going to swim to shore and take a bath. Stripping off his clothes, George plunged into the ocean and was never seen again.

Eight sets of brothers on the Juneau gave their lives that Nov. 13, but the magnitude of the loss to Thomas and Aleta Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa, captured the public's sympathy and interest. President Franklin D. Roosevelt told the grieving family, "An entire nation shares your sorrow," and ordered a destroyer commissioned and named for the "Fighting Sullivans." Their mother Aleta christened that ship, with a large shamrock painted on its smokestack, in 1943. The lone surviving Sullivan child, Genevieve, chose to honor her brothers by joining the WAVES.

More recently, another Sullivan christened the newest USS The Sullivans (DDG 68), an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, on April 20, 1997, at Staten Island, N.Y. "The Sullivans were common men who made an uncommon sacrifice," said Kelly Loughren Sullivan, granddaughter of Albert, the only one of the five brothers to marry. For the Sullivans of Waterloo, family loyalty is a way of life.

While ships and stories are part of the brothers' legacy, the mythical "Sullivan law" prohibiting siblings from serving together on the same ship is not. Today, Navy policy remains the same as in 1942: while siblings are not encouraged to serve together, exceptions can be made as long as the ship is not in a hostile firing zone.

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Military History World War II