I believe these days, young people have a very different idea of what “sacrificing everything” means. Most of them have never known real, actual sacrifice, real want or “true” need…. Some have…. But the overwhelming majority have not. So let me tell you about the Sullivan brothers, these brothers were, for the most part, one of the inspirations the movie saving Private Ryan was based on.
Who were the Sullivan Brothers?
Near the beginning of America’s entry into World War II, the family of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan from Waterloo, Iowa endured a tragedy so all-encompassing that it made national news. In November 1942, all five of their sons, George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al Sullivan, died after the sinking of the light cruiser USS Juneau in the Pacific. The youngest of them, Al, was aged 20, with oldest brother George being one month shy of his 28th birthday.
Before their deaths, the U.S. Navy already made it a policy to separate siblings upon enlistment, but it was never strictly enforced. And as George and Frank had served in the Navy before, they wanted to take the three younger brothers under their wing. All five volunteered to enlist in January 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But they did so only upon the written stipulation that they serve on the same ship.
“We will make a team together that can’t be beat,” George Sullivan wrote to the military. “We had 5 buddies killed in Hawaii. Help us.” The Navy granted that wish, putting them on the Juneau, which soon headed to Guadalcanal where an Allied campaign began in August to wrest the island from the Empire of Japan.
The Juneau participated in a series of naval engagements before the ship was struck by a Japanese torpedo on Nov. 13 during a naval battle near the Solomon Islands. The cruiser was forced to withdraw, and later that day it traveled with other damaged U.S. warships toward the Allied rear-area base on Espiritu Santo. The Juneau was the lone vessel not to make it there. Torpedoed again, this time by Japanese submarine I-26, the cruiser’s ammunition magazines were struck by the blast and the ship exploded, sinking immediately.
It would be several days before there was any attempt to search for survivors.
At the time of the sinking, Capt. Gilbert C. Hoover of the USS Helena deemed it unlikely anyone survived the Juneau’s explosion and considered it reckless to look for survivors, thereby exposing more wounded ships to the unseen Japanese submarine. The other ships did not turn back. Instead the Helena signaled a nearby B-17 bomber to tell headquarters to send other aircraft out to search for survivors. However, the bomber could not break radio silence and did not report the sinking until the plane landed.
The bomber’s report went unnoticed for more than 48 hours under paperwork. By the time naval staff realized the clerical error, the more than 100 initial survivors of the Juneau’s sinking had long begun to see their numbers dwindle. This included several of the Sullivan brothers.
Of the 100 or so men who went into the water after the Juneau sank, only 10 were alive when a PBY spotted them eight days later. All five Sullivans were gone. According to those who did survive, Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly on the second torpedo’s impact. Al drowned the next day. George, meanwhile, survived for four or five days before delirium set in, apparently caused by hypernatremia (a high concentration of sodium in the bloodstream). As a result, he jumped off the raft he was sharing and was never seen again. He was one of many who died from exposure to the sun, starvation, dehydration, and of course shark attacks.
Their parents Tom and Alleta did not know any of this for months. The U.S. Navy deemed it necessary to keep the Juneau’s loss classified, so as to not provide crucial information to the Japanese. But as days became weeks, and then months, parents of all the sailors grew fearful when communication with their children stopped.
After one anxious letter by Alleta was sent to the Bureau of Naval Personnel, inquiring about a rumor that all five Sullivan boys were dead, no less than President Franklin D. Roosevelt responded.
“As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I want you to know that the entire nation shares in your sorrow,” Roosevelt wrote. “I offer you the condolences and gratitude of our country. We who remain to carry on the fight must maintain spirit, in knowledge that such sacrifice is not in vain.”
The day before the letter arrived on Jan. 13, 1943, the Navy informed the Sullivans their sons were dead. When Tom Sullivan asked the approaching chief petty officer which son had died, the Navy man responded, “I’m sorry. All five.”
The brothers left behind a younger sister named Genevieve, as well as Al’s widow and son (Al was the only brother married). It became an international story, with Roosevelt sending another letter, and Pope Pius XII sending a silver religious medal and rosary with a message of condolence to the Catholic family. Alleta was there when the Navy launched a new destroyer, USS The Sullivans, in 1943. She and her husband also became regular speakers for the war effort in the following years.
As a result of the Sullivans’ sacrifice, plus another family’s suffering, the newly named Defense Department soon implemented the Sole Survivor Policy.