On November 13, 1942, brother Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George Sullivan all died aboard the USS Juneau (CL-52) following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Their deaths remain the greatest disaster to befall one family in wartime and changed the rules governing siblings serving together.
George and Francis Sullivan were the first leave their Waterloo, Iowa, home and enlist in 1937. Less than a month after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they re-enlisted, joined by their younger brothers Joseph, Madison, and Albert. They pledged to avenge the death of a friend (and, reportedly, their only sister Genevieve’s boyfriend) William V. Ball, who was killed in action on the battleship USS Arizona (BB-39) on December 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor.
Following Boot Camp at Great Lakes, all five brothers requested they served together and joined the crew of the Juneau in February 1942.
In October that year, the Juneau served in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands and then got torpedoed off Guadalcanal. The ship wasn’t dead in the water, but made its way slowly the rear-area base at Espiritu Santo. Limping along, the Juneau was struck with devastating effect by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-26. The torpedo reached the ship’s ammunition magazines, and the ship exploded and sank in 42 seconds.
Four of the brothers went down with the ship, but one, Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class George Sullivan, managed to get to a life raft. He survived several days before succumbing to his wounds.
Weeks passed before the brothers’ parents were notified. The loss of the Juneau was a military secret, so death notices weren’t delivered. Mother Alleta Sullivan suspected the worst when letters from the boys stopped arriving. She wrote to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in January 1943, asking what had happened to her sons.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt himself answered the letter, but not before three Navy men knocked on the door of the Sullivans’ home in Waterloo. “I have some news for you about your boys,” one officer said. “Which one?” asked father Tom Sullivan. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”
Glenn Flickinger marks the grim anniversary of the sinking of the USS Juneau and the deaths of the Sullivan Brothers with a discussion of that infamous event with Jeff Ballard, Guadalcanal naval historian, Knute Swensen, grandson of Captain Lyman K. Swenson of the USS Juneau, and Pat Kinney, Oral Historian at The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum. Sponsored by D&D Auto Salvage and Tobacco Free Adagio Health. Simulcast to Facebook and YouTube.