The Sullivan brothers, George, Francis, Madison, Joseph and Albert, joined the U.S. Navy in January of 1942. A friend of theirs had died at Pearl Harbor a few weeks before and they wanted to do their part. There were five of them, and they only had one request. They wanted to be assigned to the same ship.
They got their wish. They were assigned to the the light cruiser, U.S.S. Juneau. In November of 1942, in support of operations on Guadalcanal, the Juneau was torpedoed and badly damaged. In retreat, around noon the next day, she was hit again, directly in the magazine. She didn’t sink, she exploded.
The explosion was so violent that the other ships in the area assumed no survivors and steamed away to safety. Approximately 100, mostly badly injured, men were alive in the water. 8 days later, 10 men were rescued. It is from them that we know that George Sullivan survived the explosion, and swam from raft to raft, to the men and bodies floating in the water, calling out and searching for his younger brothers, until a shark took him.
On January 11th, 1943, a car pulled up to the Sullivan home in Waterloo, Iowa and three men in Navy uniforms got out. Thomas Sullivan saw the car arrive and already knew it was only going to be bad news. He greeted them by asking, “Which one?”
The reply was, “All of them.”
That could be the end of the story, but it is not. There is more, and it is the important part.
Tom Sullivan worked on the railroads, running freight trains full of war supplies. A hour after hearing about the loss of his 5 sons, he went to work, telling his wife that if the trains didn’t run, more boys might be killed for need of the ammunition and equipment he was responsible for.
In April of 1943 their sister Genevieve joined the WAVES.
In September of 1943 their mother Alleta christened the destroyer U.S.S. The Sullivans.
Refusing to be crushed by their loss, they put aside their private grief and made speeches and public appearances in support of the war effort.
In short, the surviving Sullivan family displayed a strength, courage, and love of America as great as anyone who ever put on a uniform and went to war.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning,
We will remember them.