Waterloo, Iowa had a population of less than 50,000 in 1942. Among that number were the eight members of the Sullivan family who lived at 98 Adams St. Thomas F. Sullivan, the head of the family, worked for the Illinois Central railroad. He was named after his grandfather who had been born in Ireland. Tom Sullivan married Alleta Abel in 1914 at St. Joseph’s Catholic church. As was typical of Irish-Catholic families of that generation, they lost no time in starting a large family.Alleta gave birth to 7 children, 5 sons and 2 daughters.The youngest child, a daughter, died of pneumonia in infancy.The Sullivan family led their lives much like other middle class families of the 1920s and 1930s. It was Depression time and Tom Sullivan was fortunate that he had a job. Not all of his children were able to finish high school. A few of the boys found it necessary to assist in meeting the household expenses. Most of the family found work at the Rath meat packing plant. When the two oldest, George and Frank, returned home from a “hitch” in the Navy, all five Sullivan brothers were working together again, just as they played sports together in the empty lot next to their house. The youngest, Albert was the first to get married and have a child. The other brothers would probably have done the same, but World War II got in the way. When reports were received about the death of their friend, Bill Ball, who was on the battleship Arizona when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, they decided to enlist in the Navy. They did insist, however, that the Navy allow them to stay together throughout their service. The Navy agreed. On January 3, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbor, they were sworn in at Des Moines, and left for Great Lakes Training Center.
On November 8, 1942, a large U.S. Navy task force left New Caledonia to bring reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered Marines at Guadalcanal. At the same time, the Japanese had sent a contingent of their navy to re-supply their army on the other side of the Island. On November 12th, the American ships and Marine aircraft destroyed an attacking Japanese group of aircraft. One of the U.S. vessels was the light Cruiser, the USS Juneau, the ship on which the five Sullivan brothers were serving their duty.
On the evening of November 12th, air reconnaissance discovered the approach of the Japanese task force. It was considerably larger than the American force. The transports fled and the warships prepared for the coming battle. Despite having radar, the American ships almost collided with those of the enemy. The engagement began about 1:45 A.M. There was no moon that night and there was instant chaos as searchlights suddenly illuminated the two adversaries at close range to one another. All ships unleashed their barrage of heavy armaments at point blank range. Within 30 minutes, the engagement was essentially over. The Japanese lost a battleship and two destroyers. Five of the 13 U.S. ships had been sunk or were heavily damaged. Many men were lost, including the task force commander, Rear Admiral Callaghan. The Juneau had just barely survived, having received a torpedo hit on its port side, which left a gaping hole and an almost severed keel. The captain of the U.S.S. San Francisco, H.E. Shonland, reported that: “It is certain that all on board perished.” Captain Hoover decided that rather than delay the escape of the other ships; he would request that an Army aircraft in the area report the position of the Juneau.
The pilot did send in a report but it did not get to the proper authorities. In addition, even more tragically, Captain Shonland was wrong there were survivors from the Juneau. It was not known exactly how many made it into life rafts; there were at least 80. Among them was George Sullivan, the oldest brother. Gunner’s mate Allen Heyn was one of the survivors that were finally rescued from the sinking of the Juneau. He reported that there were 10 days of intense suffering as, one by one; the men succumbed to the intense heat, their wounds, and sharks. Many were badly burned and died a painful death. They became delirious from hunger and thirst. Heyn recalled how George Sullivan decided to take a bath one night. He took off all his clothes and swam around the raft. His movement attracted a shark and that was the last Heyn saw of him. Only ten men survived the ordeal.
Security required that the Navy not reveal the loss of the Juneau or the other ships so as not to provide information to the enemy. Letters from their sons stopped arriving at the Sullivan home and the parents’ anguish began as they awaited word. One of the survivors of the Juneau wrote to Tom and Alleta, but they still clung to the hope that their sons, or at least one of them, survived. Soon an outpouring of sympathy ensued. The “Fighting Sullivan Brothers” were national heroes. President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to Tom and Alleta. Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret. The Iowa Senate and House adopted a formal resolution of tribute to the Sullivan brothers.
Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, in spite of the intense pain of losing their five sons all at once, made speaking appearances at war plants and shipyards in behalf of the war effort. They hoped that they could help prevent the loss of other American boys. Their daughter, Genevieve, often accompanied them, until she joined the WAVES on June 14, 1943. In April of that year, Mrs. Sullivan christened a new destroyer, U.S.S. The Sullivan’s, in San Francisco. This ship is moored at Buffalo, New York as a memorial to the five brothers. Today there is a park and playground where the Sullivan house once stood. To prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again, Congress passed the Sullivan Law, which would prevent brothers from serving on the same ship.
The second The Sullivan’s (DDG-68) was laid down on 14 June 1993 at Bath, Maine, by Bath ron Works Co.; launched on August 12, 1995; sponsored by Kelly Sullivan Loughren, granddaughter of Albert Leo Sullivan; and commissioned at Staten Island, N.Y., on April 19, 1997, Commander Gerard D. Roncolato in command. In February 2002, DDG-68 deployed with the Kennedy Battle Group to the Arabian Sea in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. The motto of the ship, honoring the five Sullivan brothers, is "We Stick Together." Home ported in Mayport, Florida, The Sullivan’s currently serves in the Atlantic Fleet.