Thomas Sullivan was a first generation American and he worked as a train conductor for the Illinois Central Railroad. His wife Aleta was a homemaker. Thomas and Alleta, like most of the Irish-Catholic families of that generation, had a large family: George born December 14, 1914, Francis born February 18, 1916, Genevive born February 19, 1917, Joseph born August 28, 1918, Madison born November 8, 1919, and Albert born July 8, 1922. Their last child, Kathleen Mae, was born in April 1931 but died of pneumonia five months after her birth.
There were hard times for the Sullivan family, but the boys had a good childhood. Some of them had to quit high school in order to help the family survive and they worked at the Rath Meat Packing plant. George and Francis, who were the oldest, served a stint in the Navy and then returned home.
Their childhood friend William Ball joined the Navy and was assigned to the Naval Base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. It was December 7, 1941, when Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor. Hundreds of servicemen were killed during the attack, and, unfortunately, William was one of them. This is the day that changed the lives of every member of the Sullivan family.
When they heard that their friend died at Pearl Harbor, Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George Sullivan went straight into the Naval recruiting office together. They told the recruiter that they wanted to avenge their friend.
The Sullivans insisted on serving in the same command, but the Navy discouraged the practice of brothers serving in the same command and had a policy of separating brothers in service. Eventually, all five brothers enlisted January 3, 1942, following their family’s motto, “We Stick Together.” They were all selected to crew the Light Cruiser USS Juneau, an Atlanta-Class Cruiser.
The youngest of the brothers got married first and he and his wife Katherine Mary had a son, but he had to say goodbye to his family – the country was counting on him and his four brothers.
On January 3, 1942, the Sullivan brothers were sworn in at Des Moines, Iowa, and left for the Great Lakes Naval Training Center in Illinois. They were all assigned to the U.S.S. Juneau: George-Gunner’s Mate Second Class, Francis-Coxswain, Joseph-Seaman Second Class, Madison-Seaman Second Class, and Albert-Seaman Second Class.
Things were going well for the Sullivan brothers until November 12, 1942. It was a tense night and Naval fight for Guadalcanal was about to begin. Juneau was one of the four destroyers that provided an escort for the other ships when a torpedo exploded in the engine room and Juneau was put out of action. The Juneau was hit by another torpedo fired by Japanese submarine I-26. Only 10 out of 700 sailors managed to survive the Sullivan brothers weren’t among them.
The survivors reported that Frank, Joe, and Matt Sullivan died instantly, Al drowned the next day and George was eaten by a shark after four days.
There weren’t any more letters for Aleta and Thomas from their sons. The Waterloo Daily Courier reported that the Sullivans were missing. But this wasn’t official information and Aleta and her husband prayed that at least one of their sons had survived. Unfortunately, in mid-January 1943, the tragic message arrived by a special naval envoy.
Aleta and Thomas began a War Bond Tour, speaking at war factories, promoting the war effort and requesting support so their sons’ deaths had not been in vain.
It was a great loss to a family, but inspired the 1948 Sole Survivor Policy: “Special Separation Policies for Survivorship.”
Their story inspired the nation to stand behind their country during World War II.
Here is another WWII story from us: The psychological trauma that Rod Serling suffered after WW2 inspired him to create “The Twilight Zone”
Their legacy continued in the 1944 movie, “The Fighting Sullivans”, as the namesake of two Navy destroyers, and countless buildings and memorials.