In the tumultuous days following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, young men whom would later be called “America’s Greatest Generation” streamed into recruiting offices across the country eager to defend their country. Even amongst the hundreds of new recruits streaming in, one must suspect that the recruiting officer as the Des Moines Naval Recruiting Station must have been taken aback on January 3, 1942 when before him stood five brothers who had come to enlist in the U.S. Navy, but with the stipulation that they would not be split up, but would “stick together”.
George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan were born to an Irish- American family of seven children (one sister dying in infancy) in Waterloo, Iowa. News of their friend William Ball’s death aboard the USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor prompted them to enlist in the U.S. Navy. George and Francis Sullivan had only recently been discharged from the U.S. Navy less than a year before, having served together on the USS Hovey. The U.S. Navy discouraged siblings serving together, however George had written a letter to the Secretary of the Navy, citing his own and Francis’ recent service and asking if he and his brothers could “stick together”. George Sullivan closed with the phrase “We will make a team together that can’t be beat.” The Secretary of the Navy granted the request.
After training, the Sullivan’s were assigned to the newly christened light cruiser USS. Juneau. In November of 1942, U.S. and Japanese forces were locked in the deadly struggle for Guadalcanal, with both sides putting forth a maximum effort to take control of the Islands. Shortly after Midnight on the 13 of November occurred one of the most dramatic naval engagements of the war in straight between Guadalcanal and Florida Island as American and Japanese naval tasks forces engaged each other at point blank range. The Juneau was an early casualty, hit by a Japanese torpedo that buckled her deck, destroying her fire control systems and knocking out power. She limped away from the battle, but was able to rejoin her task force at dawn, where unfortunately a Japanese torpedo intended for the USS San Francisco struck the Juneau in her magazine and blew the ship in half.
Because of the risk of further enemy action, the remaining U.S. ships did not search for survivors, the commander of the task force believing that no one could have survived the blast. He did ask that a reconnaissance plan in the area report the ships location, which it did, but the message was lost and rescue efforts did not begin for several days. Francis, Joseph and Madison were killed in the initial attack and Albert drowned during the second attack. George was one of 80 men who made it to life rafts, but who would die a few days later from shock, exposure or sharks. Subsequently only 10 men from the Juneau would be rescued.
The sacrifice and devotion of the Sullivan Brothers touched the hearts of the American people with an out pouring of grief and sympathy. Franklin Roosevelt sent a personal letter of condolence to their parents, Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret and the Iowa Senate and House adopted a formal resolution of tribute to the Sullivan brothers. In continuing the family tradition of duty and devotion, their parent made speaking trips across the nation despite their grief and advancing years. Their sole surviving sibling Genevieve later enlisted in the Waves. Hollywood later remembered them directly in the file “The Fighting Sullivans” and as one of the inspirations for “Saving Private Ryan”.
The Sullivan brothers were and are remembered by the Navy by the christening of the destroyer USS The Sullivans in 1943 by their mother, the first time a U.S. Navy ship was named after more than one individual. Albert’s son James would later serve aboard the ship named for his father and uncles. The ship would earn 9 battle stars for WW II and 2 in Korea before she was decommissioned in 1965. However, the Navy accorded the Sullivan brothers and their sacrifice the honor of naming a second ship USS The Sullivans, a modern Aegis class destroyer still on active service. Both ships adopted the Sullivan Brothers own motto “”We Stick Together””. The words and devotion to country and family of the Sullivans are well worth remembering by all Americans.
Note: Several sources make mention of the tragedy of the Sullivans as being the cause for enactment of “The Sullivan Act” or “The Sullivan Law” that bans siblings from serving together. This is a misconception, “The Sullivan Act” is a piece of NY State legislation passed in 1911 and named for its sponsor Timothy Sullivan. It is one of the oldest gun control laws in the United States and regulates the carrying of concealed weapons; it has nothing to do with The Sullivans or the service of siblings in the U.S. Armed Forces. While the armed forces strongly discourage siblings serving in the same unit and councils against it, there is no law that bans siblings serving together.