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The Sullivan Brothers of Waterloo, Iowa

Discussion in 'United States at Sea!' started by Jim, Nov 4, 2007.

  1. Jim

    Jim Active Member

    Sep 1, 2006
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    via War44
    A large U.S. Navy task force left New Caledonia on November 8, 1942 to bring reinforcements and supplies to the beleaguered Marines at Guadalcanal. At the same time the Japanese had sent a contingent of their navy to resupply their army on the other side of the Island. On November 12th the American ships and Marine aircraft destroyed an attacking Japanese group of aircraft. One of the U.S. vessels was the light Cruiser, the Juneau.

    Waterloo, Iowa had a population of less than 50,000 in 1942. Among that number were the eight members of the Sullivan family who lived at 98 Adams St. Thomas F. Sullivan, the head of the family, worked for the Illinois Central railroad. He was named after his grandfather who had been born in Ireland. Tom Sullivan married Alleta Abel in 1914 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. As was typical of Irish-Catholic families of that generation, they lost no time in starting a large family.

    December 14, 1914—George Thomas
    February 18, 1916—Francis Henry
    February 19, 1917—Genevieve Marie
    August 28, 1918—Joseph Eugene
    November 8, 1919—Madison Abel
    July 8, 1922—Albert Leo
    April 1, 1931—Kathleen Mae (Kathleen died of pneumonia just five months later)

    On the evening of November 12th, air reconnaissance discovered the approach of the Japanese task force. It was considerably larger than the American force. The transports fled and the warships prepared for the coming battle. Despite having radar, the American ships almost collided with those of the enemy. The engagement began about 1:45 A.M. There was no moon that night and there was instant chaos as searchlights suddenly illuminated the two adversaries at close range to one another. All ships unleashed their barrage of heavy armaments at point blank range. Within 30 minutes the engagement was essentially over. The Japanese lost a battleship and two destroyers. Five of the 13 U.S. ships had been sunk or were heavily damaged. Many men were lost, including the task force commander, Rear Admiral Callaghan. The Juneau had just barely survived, having received a torpedo hit on it’s port side which left a gaping hole and an almost severed keel.

    The Sullivan family led lives much like other middle class families of the 1920s and 1930s. It was Depression time and Tom Sullivan was fortunate that he had a job. Not all of his children were able to finish high school. A few of the boys found it necessary to help out meeting the household expenses. The vacant lot next to their home provided space for various sports activities. Most of the family found work at the Rath meat packing plant. When the two oldest, George and Frank, returned home from a hitch in the Navy, all five Sullivan brothers were working together again, just as they were when playing sports on that lot next door to their home. The youngest, Albert was the first to get married. He and his wife Mary became parents when their son, James Thomas, was born on May 11, 1940. The other brothers would probably have done the same, but World War II got in the way. When reports were received about the death of their friend, Bill Ball, who was on the battleship Arizona when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbour, they decided to enlist in the Navy. They did insist, however, that the Navy allow them to stay together throughout their service. The Navy agreed. On January 3, 1942, less than a month after Pearl Harbour, they were sworn in at Des Moines, and left for Great Lakes Training Center.

    The Sullivan Brothers


    At daybreak the surviving American ships huddled together and headed back to their base. Late that morning, a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine, struck the Juneau near the storage area of its ammunition supply. “When the torpedo hit, there was a single explosion and the air was filled with debris, much of it in large pieces. The whole ship disappeared in a large cloud of black, yellow black and brown smoke. Debris showered down among ships of the formation for several minutes after the explosion to such an extent as to indicate erroneously, a high level bombing attack.” Thus Captain Gilbert, the acting Commander of the task force, described what he saw when the U.S.S. Juneau was struck. The captain of the U.S.S. San Francisco, H.E. Shonland, reported that: “It is certain that all on board perished.” Captain Hoover decided that rather than delay the escape of the other ships, he would request that an Army aircraft in the area report the position of the Juneau. The pilot did send in a report but it did not get to the proper authorities. And, even more tragically, Captain Shonland was wrong — there were survivors from the Juneau. It was not known exactly how many made it into life rafts; there were at least 80. Among them was George Sullivan, the oldest brother.

    Gunner’s mate Allen Heyn was one of the survivors that was finally rescued from the sinking of the Juneau. He reported that there were 10 days of intense suffering as, one by one, the men succumbed to the intense heat, their wounds, and sharks. Many were badly burned and died a painful death. They became delirious from hunger and thirst. Heyn recalled how George Sullivan decided to take a bath one night. He took off all his clothes and swam around the raft. His movement attracted a shark…and that was the last Heyn saw of him. Only ten men survived the ordeal.

    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 their sons stopped arriving at the Sullivan home and the parents’ anguish began as they awaited word. One of the survivors of the Juneau wrote to Tom and Alleta, but they still clung to the hope that their sons, or at least one of them, survived. Soon an outpouring of sympathy ensued. 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, in spite of the intense pain of losing their five sons all at once, made speaking appearances at war plants and ship yards in behalf of the war effort. They hoped that they could help prevent the loss of other American boys. Their daughter, Genevive, often accompanied them, until she joined the WAVES on June 14, 1943. In April of that year Mrs. Sullivan christened a new destroyer, U.S.S. The Sullivan’s, in San Francisco. This ship is moored at Buffalo, New York as a memorial to the five brothers. Today there is a park and playground where the Sullivan house once stood. To prevent a tragedy of this magnitude from happening again, Congress passed the Sullivan Law, which would prevent brothers from serving on the same ship.

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