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Monday the 13th is the 75th anniversary of a rather somber occurrence, seemingly forgotten by history. It also happened to be the anniversary of a series of unfortunate events. On that date in 1942 the USS Juneau was hit by a Japanese torpedo for the second time during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The ship had survived the first hit in the morning, but not the second that afternoon. It exploded and sunk to the bottom of the ocean. At the time, they were part of a small fleet of war-damaged ships heading for repair.
The senior officer of the damaged fleet, Capt. Gilbert Hoover of the USS Helena, surmised it doubtful anyone survived the explosion and subsequent sinking of the USS Juneau, elected to not send searching parties to look for survivors. Justifiably, he was also concerned that sending out a search crew might expose them to another attack from the Japanese, who were still lurking in the area. The fleet continued on towards their assignment for repair. Hoover did, however, contact a B-17 bomber on patrol to notify Allied Headquarters to send aircraft to search.
The B-17 bomber crew, under orders of strict radio silence, did not pass on the message for a search crew until it had landed several hours later. The report of the location of possible survivors accompanied other pending reports and, incredibly, sat on a desk for a couple days before being read.
Sadly, it is estimated about 100 crewmen had actually survived the explosion and were still floating around the Pacific waiting to be rescued. As soon as the report was finally discovered, a search party was dispatched. Eight days after being sunk, they found only ten remaining survivors…the others having died of hunger, thirst, and shark attacks.
Obviously, these kinds of stories are regretful, and all-too plentiful in the thousands of battles America has fought to defend herself. With apologies to the survivors and families of all those battles and wars in our history, you should understand that this particular event might have stood out some from all others.
You see, on board this particular ship were five brothers named Sullivan. They were the sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan of Waterloo Iowa. Killed in action were George (27), Frank (24), Joe (22), Matt (21), and Al (20). Earlier the same year, they had enlisted together with the stipulation that they would serve together, even though there was a “loose” policy prohibiting family members serving together. They had joined upon news of their sister’s boyfriend being killed at Pearl Harbor. Their sister, Genevieve, had also been a WAVE during the war.
To make this event even more poignant, if not convoluted, there was a policy at the time to not reveal the loss of battle ships so as not to provide information to the enemy. Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan began to become concerned when letters stopped arriving from their sons. Worried sick over the rumors flying, Mrs. Sullivan wrote to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in January 1943 to find out the whereabouts of her five boys.
Still waiting on a written response, which would eventually come from President Roosevelt himself, the anxious parents received a visit early on the morning of January 12, 1943 when three men in uniform appeared at their front door. Mr. Sullivan, getting ready to go to work, let the men into their home, as his wife joined him. The naval officer reported that he had regretful information for them about their boys. In a quavering voice, Mr. Sullivan asked “which one.”
"I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five."
When I stumbled upon this story, having never heard about it before, I wondered how parents keep moving forward after losing five sons and perhaps a future son-in-law to the war? They certainly had more resolve in them than I could ever have mustered. Oh, the "Fighting Sullivan Brothers" became nationwide heroes…at the time. President Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence, Pope Pius XII sent a silver medal and rosary with his regrets. The Iowa Legislature approved a formal resolution of tribute to the brothers, and there were even two destroyers named after them.
But, even more incredible, despite their unbelievable sacrifice to protect our nation, Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan then began touring America, making speaking appearances and participating in war bond drives, so as to continue with the war effort.
Perhaps, the Sullivan's may be the poster couple for the Greatest Generation. Perhaps the Sullivan family gave too much.