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Hibernian Chronicle 58 years ago: the Sullivan Brothers tragedy

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Edward T. O’Donnell

Fifty-eight years ago this week, on Nov. 12, 1942, a Japanese submarine sighted the hull of an American cruiser off the Solomon Islands. A quick volley of torpedoes and the ship was crippled and minutes later it was gone. It was scene repeated many times over throughout World War II, but this one was different. For aboard this ship were the five inseparable Sullivan brothers.

Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison Sullivan were born in Waterloo, Iowa, between 1914 and 1920. George and Francis had enlisted in the Navy in 1937, so when the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor plunged the U.S. into war, Albert, Joseph, and Madison headed straight for the local Navy recruiting office. They would enlist, they told the recruiter, if all five were allowed to serve aboard the same ship.

Informed that this was against regulations, they wrote to the Navy Department in Washington to request a waiver. They received a prompt reply: the four unmarried Sullivan brothers could serve together. Albert, married and a father, was exempt from military service.

Determined not to be left out, he wrote several more letters and the Navy again relented. In February 1942 all five Sullivan brothers were assigned to the light cruiser the USS Juneau.

In the months after Pearl Harbor, the main action faced by the Navy centered in the Pacific. The Juneau saw several smaller engagements before joining the Navy’s first major offensive around the Solomon Islands, which began in August 1942. In the Battle of Guadalcanal (Nov. 12-15), the U.S. achieved a decisive victory, but at a high cost. Seven destroyers and two cruisers were lost to Japanese planes and torpedoes, including the Juneau.

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Struck by a Japanese torpedo on the night of Nov. 12, 1942, the Juneau exploded and sank in a matter of minutes. Albert, Francis, Joseph and Madison Sullivan went down with the ship. George Sullivan, among 140 or so survivors, managed to climb aboard a raft. After days of drifting under a scorching sun, he became disoriented and decided to swim for help. He got only a few yards before several sharks finished him off.

The incident received extensive press coverage in the United States. President Franklin Roosevelt called it "one of the most extraordinary tragedies that has ever been met by any family in the U.S.A."

With America’s role in the war was less than a year old and huge casualty lists still a ways off in the future, the tragedy shocked an anxious nation. Everyone knew that war meant death and that it might include their husband, brother, or son. But five sons? The thought was so unbearable that Americans instinctively chose to see it in the most positive light possible: a symbol of brotherly love, heroism, and sacrifice. The Navy encouraged this, lest people focus on its decision to let the brothers serve together (all similar waivers were immediately rescinded).

In February 1944 the five Sullivan brothers were honored at a special Mass at New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At that Mass the Navy announced that it intended to name a new destroyer after them. Soon after if was launched Patrick Henry Sullivan, an uncle of the five brothers, was assigned to the USS The Sullivans.

When Hollywood executives first broached the idea of making a movie about the heroic brothers, their parents politely declined. They eventually consented when military officials explained that patriotic movies were needed to boost morale and future enlistments. In 1944, "The Sullivans" (later re-released as "The Fighting Sullivans") hit the theaters and enjoyed wide popularity.

The USS The Sullivans served the Navy until final decommissioning in 1965. A second USS The Sullivans was launched in 1997. Present at the ceremonies were many relatives and descendents of the five brothers. "In honor of my grandfather and his brothers," said Albert’s granddaughter Kelly Sullivan Loughren before breaking a bottle of champagne against the vessel’s bow, "I christen thee The Sullivans. May the luck of the Irish always be with you and your crew."

HIBERNIAN HISTORY WEEK

Nov. 9, 1954: Brendan Behan’s first play, "The Quare Fellow," debuts at Dublin’s Pike Theatre.

Nov. 12, 1936: Eugene O’Neill is awarded a Nobel Prize for literature.

Nov. 13, 1775: Gen. Richard Montgomery leads American forces in taking Montreal during the American Revolution.

Nov. 14, 1889: Nellie Cochrane Bly commences her sensational Round-the-World journey.

HIBERNIANS BIRTHDATES

Nov. 8, 1900: author of "Gone With the Wind," Margaret Mitchell, born in Atlanta.

Nov. 8, 1847: author of "Dracula," Bram Stoker, born in Dublin.

Nov. 10, 1879: nationalist Padraic Pearse born in Dublin.

Nov. 11, 1899: actor Pat O’Brien born in Milwaukee.

Nov. 12, 1929: actress and princess of Monaco, Grace Kelly, born in Philadelphia.

Readers may contact Edward T. O’Donnell at odonnell@PastWise.com.

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