Continuing the series, this one actually caused major changes in the military’s way it detailed personnel…
And the rest of the very sad story…
The Sullivans enlisted in the US Navy on January 3, 1942 with the stipulation that they serve together. The Navy had a policy of separating siblings, but this was not strictly enforced. George and Frank had served in the Navy before, but their brothers had not. All five were assigned to thelight cruiser USS Juneau.
The Juneau participated in a number of naval engagements during the months-long Guadalcanal Campaign beginning in August 1942. Early in the morning of November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and forced to withdraw. Later that day, as it was leaving the Solomon Islands’ area for the Allied rear-area base at Espiritu Santo with other surviving US warships from battle, the Juneau was struck again, this time by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-26. The torpedo likely hit the thinly armored cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship exploded and quickly sank.
Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena and senior officer present in the battle-damaged US task force, was skeptical that anyone had survived the sinking of the Juneau and believed it would be reckless to look for survivors, thereby exposing his wounded ships to a still-lurking Japanese submarine. Therefore, he ordered his ships to continue on towards Espiritu Santo. Helena signaled a nearby US B-17 bomber on patrol to notify Allied headquarters to send aircraft or ships to search for survivors.
In the event, approximately 100 of Juneau’s crew had in fact survived the torpedo attack and the sinking of their ship and were left in the water. The B-17 bomber crew, under orders not to break radio silence, did not pass the message about searching for survivors to their headquarters until they had landed several hours later. The crew’s report of the location of possible survivors was mixed in with other pending paperwork actions and went unnoticed for several days. It was not until days later that headquarters staff realized that a search had never been mounted and belatedly ordered aircraft to begin searching the area. In the meantime, Juneau’s survivors, many of whom were seriously wounded, were exposed to the elements, hunger, thirst, and repeated shark attacks.
Eight days after the sinking, ten survivors were found by a PBY Catalina search aircraft and retrieved from the water. The survivors reported that Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George survived for four or five days before, suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia (though some sources describe him being “driven insane with grief” at the loss of his brothers), he went over the side of the raft he occupied. He was never seen or heard from again.
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 the Sullivan sons stopped arriving at the home and the parents grew worried.
The brothers’ parents were notified of their deaths on January 12, 1943. That morning, the boys’ father, Thomas, was preparing to go to work when three men in uniform – a lieutenant commander, a doctor and a chief petty officer – approached his front door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” the naval officer said. “Which one?” asked Thomas. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”
The brothers left a sister, Genevieve (1917-1975). Albert was survived by a wife and son. 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 made speaking appearances at war plants and shipyards on behalf of the war effort. Later, Alleta participated in the launching of a destroyer USS The Sullivans, named after her sons.
There have been two and only two ships named after more than one person, and was The Sullivans- DD-537 and The Sullivans- DDG-68 (still serving).
The rule change? The loss of the Sullivan brothers, along with the loss of the Borgstrom brothers, caused the military to implement what is now called the Sole Survivor Policy (effectively saying the sole surviving son would immediately be removed from combat and sent home).