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The Sullivan Brothers

George, Frank, Red, Matt & Al

 

 

The Sullivan Brothers

Des Moines "Register", January 4, 1942

  Five husky Waterloo brothers who lost a "pal" at Pearl Harbor were accepted as Navy recruits yesterday at Des Moines.  All passed their physical exams "with flying colors" and left by train last night for the Great Lakes (Ill.) naval training station.
  "You see," explained George Sullivan, "a buddy of ours was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack, Bill Ball of Fredericksburg, Iowa."

  "That's where we want to go now, to Pearl Harbor," put in Francis, and the others nodded.


 

"Which one?"  Thomas Sullivan asked.  It was early on the morning of January 11, 1943 and Tom was the only one moving about the kitchen of the house at 98 Adams Street in Waterloo, Iowa.   He had awakened that morning to prepare for work and, while fixing breakfast, noticed the black sedan arrive.  The three men in Naval uniforms had been welcomed inside.  The Sullivan patriarch knew before they spoke that they were bringing news of his sons.  He also knew the news wouldn't be happy news.

Lieutenant Commander Truman Jones swallowed hard.   It was the saddest, most disagreeable task of his Navy career.  "I'm sorry.  All five."  he said matter of factly.  There was no other way to break this kind of news.

As the rest of the family gathered in the living room, mother Alleta, sister Genevieve, and Katherine Mary, wife of the youngest of the five Sullivan brothers; it was a moment filled with sorrow and grief.  Commander Jones steeled himself to finish his unenviable task. 

"The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your sons Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison Sullivan are missing in action in the South Pacific."

 

The news wasn't completely unexpected.  Over the last month there had been hints of something amiss.  The lack of mail from boys accustomed to writing home regularly, the neighbor  a week earlier who had received a letter from her own sailor son stating "Isn't it too bad about the Sullivan boys?  I heard that their ship was sunk.", and perhaps even the sense of a mother's intuition had left the family with reason for concern. 

Within the hour the Naval officers were gone.   Thomas Sullivan began to deal with the impact of the statement that morning while going about his tasks aboard a train load of war supplies headed east.  It had been a difficult decision, leaving for work, but Tom Sullivan had seldom missed a single day of the important freight runs.  If Tom's trains didn't run on time, important war supplies might be delayed, and other American boys might die.  "Shall I go?"  he had asked his wife that morning.

"It's all right, Tom," Alleta had replied.  "It's the right thing to do.  The boys would want you to...There isn't anything you can do at home." 

The big house at 98 Adams Street seemed suddenly very empty.   Only the women and 22-month old Jimmy Sullivan, son of the youngest Sullivan brother Albert, remained.  The Sullivan women pulled together as the  family always had.  "Commander Jones only said 'missing in action'," Alleta struggled through her own doubts to reassure her daughters.  It was a shallow hope, but it was a hope just the same.  If only one survived then perhaps there would be hope for a second, a third....who knew for sure.  One thing was certain, if hope existed for even one, hope existed for all.  The Sullivan Brothers had been close, looking out for each other, enlisting together, and living by the family motto they had echoed to a Naval recruiter only a year earlier:


"We Stick Together"

 

 

 

 

Friday, November 13, 1942
Off the shores of Guadalcanal

The yellow-black smoke of battle had cleared from the skies as the sun set in the South Pacific on that fateful day in November.  The deep swells of the ocean, however, still bore the scars of the previous night's battle and the early morning of death and disaster.  A thick, black layer of oil moved with the currents, and in the midst of the oil floated the debris of an American light cruiser, the last remnants of the U.S.S. Juneau.  Desperate sailors clung to the debris, most of them wounded, all of them frightened.  They were all that remained of the Juneau's crew of 698 American boys.  It was impossible to count the survivors, probably somewhere between 90 and 140, but such a count would have been worthless anyway.   Wounds, injuries, and the unforgiving sea diminished their numbers with each passing hour.

The heat of the tropical sun gave way to a bone chilling night, pierced by the moans and cries of men suffering unimaginable horrors.   The cries and moans added an eerie atmosphere to a scene already beyond human comprehension.  The sounds would haunt the dreams of survivors for the rest of their lives, assuming that any of the men should survive.  And then, across the waters, could be heard another desperate voice crying hopelessly into the darkness:   "Frank?"  "Red?"  "Matt?"   "Al?"  It was the voice of George Sullivan, the oldest of five brothers who served on the Juneau.  George had survived and now sought desperately for his younger brothers.


Born and raised in Waterloo, Iowa; the five Sullivan brothers had always stuck together.  From George, the oldest, to Al, the youngest; there was only a 7 year age difference.  They had lived together at the plain but large house at 98 Adams Street, along with one sister Genevieve, and their parents Thomas and Alleta and grandma Mae Abel.  The longest period of time the boys had ever been separated had been the four years prior to World War II when George and Francis Henry, second oldest of the quintet and usually called "Frank", had served in the Navy.  Even then, the two brothers had served most of their hitch together, on the same ships.

George Sullivan was discharged after fulfilling his four year commitment on May 16, 1941.  Eleven days later Frank received his own discharge and both boys returned to the family home.  Six months later they listened intently to reports of the attack at Pearl Harbor.  Former ship mates and friends still on active duty and serving in the Hawaiian port, not to mention two brothers from nearby Fredericksburg, were under fire and both Sullivan boys felt both a sense of helplessness and anger.  They determined that night to return to service.  This time Joseph Eugene whom they all called "Red", Madison Abel "Matt", and even Albert Leo "Al", insisted on joining them.  Their resolve was further strengthened when, just prior to Christmas, they learned the fate of the Fredericksburg brothers, Bill and Masten Ball.  Masten had survived the day of infamy, but Bill, who had frequented the Sullivan house and perhaps even "been sweet" on sister Genevieve, had gone to a watery grave aboard the U.S.S. Arizona.

The five brothers who had always done everything together, walked into the local Navy recruiting station together.  Though Al, just nineteen years old and married less than two years would have qualified for a deferment from combat service, he insisted on being with his brothers.  He would leave behind not only a young wife, but little Jimmy Sullivan, his ten month old son.  The Navy was desperate for men in the early days after the destruction at Pearl Harbor, and quickly welcomed the Sullivan brothers.  Until the determined young men threw a new "wrinkle" into their enlistment plans.  George had echoed the sentiment the night of December 7th when the five young men had made their decision.  "Well, I guess our minds are made up...when we go in, we want to go in together.  If the worst comes to worst, why we'll all have gone down together." 

Now, as they stood in the recruiting office, they demanded that the Navy assure them that they would be allowed to serve together...on the same ship.  When they couldn't get the guarantee that day, they took their demands all the way to Washington, DC.  In a letter to the Navy Department they explained their desire to defend their Country, but insisted that if the Navy wanted the Sullivan brothers, it would have to be a package deal.  "WE STICK TOGETHER!"  Finally, the Navy agreed.  The transcripts of all five Sullivan brothers reveal that each was "Enlisted in the U.S. Naval Reserve on 3 January, 1942" and together they were "Transferred to the Naval Training Station, Great Lakes, Illinois."  Exactly one month later the individual orders for each of the five sailors read, "Transferred to the receiving ship, New York, for duty in the USS Juneau detail and on board when commissioned."

Eleven days later, on February 14, 1942, the USS Juneau was commissioned.  The five Sullivan brothers became instant celebrities when photographers captured the photo seen in the background of this page, a photograph that symbolized not only the sense of brotherhood among those who volunteered to defend our Nation, but the commitment of an entire family from the heartland of America.  George, Frank, Red, Matt and Al enjoyed the spotlight that day.  They also shared the spotlight with four other brothers, Joseph, James, Louis and Patrick Rogers.  In time, a total of 9 sets of brothers would serve on the USS Juneau.  But no family in America could match the record of the five Sullivans.

Late in May, George, Matt and Al came home one last time.  It gave Al the opportunity to say farewell to his young wife, Katherine Mary.  For her it must have been a time of mixed emotions.  She had lost her mother at the age of seven.  Now she was losing her husband, if even for a brief few years...possibly forever. 

In order to survive on Al's small Naval salary she had moved in with Tom and Alleta.  She could have kept her husband out of harms way, used his role as husband and father to defer him from combat.  But she knew the Sullivan brothers well, loved Al enough, not to come between the brothers.

"Don't worry," perhaps he reminded her,  "WE STICK TOGETHER!"

sullivans_jimmy.jpg (25578 bytes)

Albert Sullivan with 15-month old Jimmy, Thomas and Alleta, and brother Matt.  (Photo courtesy of the Grout Museum, Waterloo, IA)

A sixth Sullivan joined the Navy that day, though he was only 15-months old.   Little Jimmy donned his uniform cap to pose with his father and uncle Matt for local media.  Then it was time for a final farewell.  On June 1st the USS Juneau sailed out of New York and into history, carrying nearly 700 sailors including:

Joseph, James, Louis, and Patrick ROGERS
(James & Joseph Later transferred to another ship)
William and Harold WEEKS
Russell and Charles COMBS
Albert and Michael KRALL
George and John WALLACE
Curtis and Donald DAMON
Richard and Russell WHITE
Harold and Charles CAULK
&
THE FIVE SULLIVAN BROTHERS

 

The USS Juneau

 

 

 

 

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