The Sullivan Brothers: the ultimate American sacrifice

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Many tragic incidences characterized the World War II. However, one event stood out and touched the hearts of Americans. When the United States decided to join the World War II, five brothers from one family felt it was their patriotic duty to fight for their country. The five brothers, known as the Sullivan brothers, enlisted together in the navy. One evening, a Japanese torpedo struck and sunk their ship. Many sailors perished including the Sullivan brothers. This was a massive loss to the Sullivan family, and the whole nation could not imagine the pain that the family experienced. This tragic event caught the attention of the public, the naval authorities, and even the President who offered his condolences to the bereaved family. The sole survivor policy also known as the Sullivan Act was put in place to prevent such a thing from ever happening again. This paper attempts to establish whom the five brothers were, how they enlisted in the army and the tragic event that led to their deaths and the aftermath of those deaths and the meaning of the Sullivan Act.

Who were the Sullivan brothers?

The Sullivan brothers were five brothers who served in the World War II as sailors and died together on November 13, 1942, when the USS. Juneau DD-537 they were on sunk. A Japanese torpedo hit the U.S.S- Juneau close to the South Pacific’ Solomon Islands and ended the lives of the five brothers. Thomas and Alleta Sullivan were the parents of these five boys. The names of the Sullivan brothers were George Thomas Sullivan, Francis or Frank Henry Sullivan, Joseph or Joe Eugene Sullivan, Madison or Matt Abel Sullivan, and Albert or Al Leo Sullivan. George Thomas Sullivan (the son) was born on December 14, 1914, and was 27 years at the time of death. He was Gunner’s Mate Second class. Francis Henry Sullivan was born on February 18, 1916, and died when he was 26 years old. Frank had earlier worked as Seaman First Class before he was discharged in May 1941. He then became a Coxswain. Joseph Eugene Sullivan, Madison Abel Sullivan, and Albert Leo Sullivan were Seaman Second Class. Joseph died at the age of 24. His date of birth was August 28, 1918. Madison was born on November 8, 1919, and died while he was 23 years old. Albert was born on July 8, 1922, and was 20 at the time of his death. This family lived in Waterloo, Lowa, on 98 Adams Street.

Their father, Thomas Sullivan was a train conductor and their mother, Alleta Sullivan was a homemaker. This was an Irish-catholic family, and their father was a first-generation American. The Sullivan family lived just like any other family during the early 1900s. The family consisted of six siblings, the five boys, and one girl, Genevieve Madison. Genevieve was the third born in the family and was born on February 19, 1917, after Francis and before Joseph. During an interview with Kelly Sullivan-Loughren, (the family spokesperson), the five boys became inseparable while growing up and people called them “The Fighting Sullivans”. Kelly said that the boys lived up to the name.

How the Sullivan brothers became sailors

Information on Pearl Harbor was announced over the radio, and many men felt it was their duty to defend their country. The Sullivan brothers were not left behind. George and Francis had been in the navy for four years earlier on where they lost a friend (Bill Ball) on the U.S.S. Arizona. Apart from exercising the spirit of nationalism, the five brothers felt that they would be honoring Bill by enlisting. On January 3, 1942, the Sullivan brothers enlisted together. They had a family motto, which they followed, and this was, “We Stick Together”. At the time, the navy did not allow brothers to serve in the same command. However, the Sullivan brothers insisted. George went as far as writing a letter to the Navy Department requesting the department to allow them to serve together in the war. He told them that they always fought for each other as brothers and they wanted to continue doing so side by side. George also asked the navy department to allow them to serve with two of their friends too who were part of their motorcycle club. According to him, the seven of them would be an unbeatable team.  The navy finally agreed to their request.

The brothers left their loved ones in Waterloos and joined the U.S.S. Juneau. Albert had a wife named Katherine Mary and a baby named James at the time. The boys went through physicals just like all the other people who enlisted. This exercise took place at the Des Moines, which was the recruiting headquarters. The five brothers passed the activity. The Register newspaper published an article about them that read “five husky waterloo brothers” whose friends had perished at Pearl Harbor are recruited. They had taken a photo together during their physicals, and this photo appeared alongside the story. The recruits started their training in January 1942, and this included the five Sullivan brothers and their two Harley Club friends. The training ground was the Great Lakes Naval Training Center located close to Chicago. This training went on for a month. George and Frank had been in the navy previously and so they managed to become gunners’ mate second class and coxswain respectively. The remaining three brothers became together with their two friends became seaman second class. On February 14, 1942, the brothers were assigned to USS Juneau, and they took a photograph smiling on the ship. This photo was later used after their deaths to tell people who the Sullivan brothers were and the sacrifice they made.

The Sullivan family was recognized for the fact that they had five brothers in the navy and they frequently appeared on the front pages in Waterloo. The five brothers became known as “the navy’s five Sullivans.” Frank Knox who was the secretary of the Navy at the time requested AlletaSulivan, the boy’s mother to “sponsor” a ship and she obliged. She was supposed to christen USS Tawasa, which was a fleet tug. During the first few months, the USS Juneau sailed in the Caribbean and went to the North and South Atlantic where it engaged the Germans in combat. It was a brand new vessel. The Juneau had specialized variety of anti-aircraft guns, and it was very light which enabled it to move at great speed. The ship was perfect for protecting the naval forces from enemy planes. However, its hull and deck were lightly armored which could become a deathtrap if the vessel was required to attack surface ships or if the surface vessels attacked it. The ship’s armor also made it very vulnerable to torpedoes. Many naval authorities agree that the anti-aircraft cruisers were easy to wipe out if they engaged in ship-to-ship combat. They got into this type of battle with the Japanese vessel in November 1942.

The boys’ mother, Alleta, frequently wrote them letters and she ended these letters by always telling them to keep their chins up. The boys always replied her letters and that is how she knew they were all right. The fall season of 1942, Alleta did not receive letters from her boys, and her mother’s intuition told her not everything was all right. In addition, she heard a neighbor talking about how terrible the fate that had befallen the Sullivan brothers was. The neighbor had gotten a letter from her son talking about the sinking of the ship on which the Sullivan brothers were. The Sullivan family became anxious on hearing the talk. News about the sinking ship spread through Waterloo. Alleta Sullivan wanted to know the truth, and she wrote a letter to the Navy Department seeking answers. In her letter, she said she had had rumors that her five sons died in battle in November. The mother continued by saying that a friend had given her the news after receiving a letter from the son. Alleta told the Department of the Navy that even if something had happened to her sons, she would keep her promise of christening the U.S.S. TAWASA because they wanted her to do that. The exercise was meant to take place in Oregon on February 12, 1943. However, she wanted to know the truth.

The family received a reply on January 11, 1943. Three men in naval uniforms went to the Sullivan home on January 11, 1943, to break the news to the family. The boys’ father, Thomas Sullivan asked the Lieutenant Commander Truman Jones which one of his boys had died. The Lieutenant told him that all the five boys were missing in action. They were lost in the South Pacific. The naval authorities did not say anything about the incidences that had occurred after the original attack of the American vessel. When George Sullivan wrote a letter asking the navy to allow them to serve together as brothers, he had commented saying, “If we go down, we’ll all go together.” Sadly, it happened.

The tragic accident that led to the death of the Sullivan brothers

1942 was a year characterized by World War II. The United States of America and Japan started fighting each other from the late evening of November 12, and it continued up to the early morning of November 13, 1942. The war between the two nations went down as one of the most brutal in the history of World War II. Some minutes after the war started, a Japanese destroyer named Amatsukaze released a torpedo, which ripped apart the American light cruiser named USS Juneau. This American ship had on board many sailors including the Sullivan brothers. The impact from the torpedo was so significant that it cleared guns and the ship’s steering and claimed the lives of 19 men who were in the forward engine room. The ship’s keel gave way, and its propellers refused to work. A battle then followed for about 10-15 minutes in which the sailors aboard the USS Juneau tried to fight for their lives. The sailors wept and vomited from the barrage they saw. They tried to get to the steel belly of the ship. The USS Juneau listed to port. The bow’s ship was very low in the water, and the sailors found it challenging to breathe below deck because of the smell of fuel. The American vessel could not continue fighting anymore, and so it withdrew on the morning of November 13, 1942. Later on, the ship joined five other American warships that had survived the fight. They headed to the Allied harbor at Espiritu Santo, which was safer. While at this harbor in the New Hebrides, the American ships continued to give out fumes, which fouled the air. The USS Juneau initially had 697 sailors, and most of them were crowded together when the torpedo hit. Majority of the sailors perished during the fight, including the Sullivan brothers.

The fight was not over. The Japanese had another submarine that was tracking the American ships. This sub released another torpedo into the USS Juneau that was already in bad shape. The second explosion ripped the vessel apart resulting to an underwater blast that followed as its boilers burst. The first half of the USS Juneau disappeared. The sea then swallowed its stern. The explosion threw much material into the atmosphere, and some fragments of the USS Juneau fell on its sister ships. The turret from its antiaircraft gun traveled from the sinking USS Juneau up to 100 yards where it met another ship. Different body parts were falling from the sky. The impact was so significant that the men who were below deck nearly drowned immediately. The effects of the explosion moved the majority of the men on deck to the bottom. The blast too blew other sailors to bits. Many more sailors died after that. Some succumbed to their injuries, others died of scalding water, and flying metal, and the black fuel oil poisoned others. The vast oil slick consisted of dead sailors, dying men and a variety of human carnage.

After witnessing the sinking of the USS Juneau, the rest of the crippled American ships moved away because the Japanese Submarines were still in the locality. An officer aboard one of the vessels said that he was sure that no one survived the wreckage on the USS Juneau. There was no sight of anything in the water after the smoke had lifted. Half an hour after the American ship sank, a US B-17 that was flying overhead noticed some men out in the waters. The number of sailors in the sea was around 100-200 and majority had sustained severe injuries. These men were holding on to debris from the ship, and these included life jackets, mattresses and oval rafts that had wooden slats and ropes for the hangers. When the B-17 saw the men in the sea, it radioed Captain Gilbert Hoover (in charge of the Flotilla of Helena, which was a light cruiser. The captain, however, did not understand the message and did not want to risk the lives of more of his men. Therefore, he continued his journey. The aircraft circled over the surviving sailors another time and dropped them some supplies. However, the navy did not do anything to help the sailors who were still in the sea. As time passed, the number of survivors decreased, and the surviving sailors of the USS Juneau were attacked by sharks, died of dehydration, or succumbed to their injuries. Admiral William F. Halsey was the commander of the South Pacific at the time.

When he learned that the surviving sailors did not get help, he was furious, and he instantly stripped Captain Hoover of his command. After a week, on November 19-20, attempts were made to save the remaining survivors. However, by that time, only ten men were found alive.

There were reports that one or two of the Sullivan brothers survived the first explosion that hit the USS Juneau. Two survivors of the ship said they remembered how George, the eldest son died. According to them, after the initial attack, George got on one of the small life rafts that were floating around. He was on it for about three or four days before he became weak and started hallucinating. Allen Heyn who was also Gunner’s Mate Second Class recalled George telling him he was going a bath one night. He took off his uniform before jumping into the water. He got into the water a little distance from his raft. Shortly after, a shark grabbed him, and that was how he died. No one ever saw him again.

The navy spoke with President Franklin D. Roosevelt who sent his condolences to the boys’ mother, Alleta, through a letter. It was important because Roosevelt was the Commander in Chief of the army. He offered his sympathy and gratitude on behalf of the military and the entire nation. President Roosevelt told the Sullivan family and country as the whole that the sacrifice the five brothers and other sailors had made was not in vain. After communication with the naval authorities, the Sullivan parents traveled to Washington where they met Eleanor Roosevelt, who was the first lady at the time and Henry A. the Vice President.

Aftermath of the death of the Sullivan brothers

The death of the five Sullivan brothers caught the attention of the entire country, and everyone felt sympathy for the family. The parents of the boys followed the advice they gave to their sons of keeping their chin up. They went on a War Bond Tour where they spoke at various war factories. They did so with the intention of promoting the war effort and asking people to support them to make sure that the deaths of their sons had not been in vain. Alleta, the Sullivan brothers’ mother, served the service members in different areas alongside others.

The Sullivan brothers received a great honor for their contribution. The army named two ships after them, U.S.S. The Sullivans (DDG-68) and USS, the Sullivans (DD-537) Fletcher class destroyer. The ships’ motto was “We Stick Together” just as the boys did. Kelly-Sullivan-Loughren continued to support U.S.S ship by writing letters to the sailors on the vessel. In her letters, she always repeated the words of her great-grandmother by telling the sailors to keep their chin up. The Sullivan’s sense of patriotism lived on for years. The death of the five brothers was considered the most significant wartime sacrifice that any American family had even given.

The Sullivan boys inspired the entire nation to support their country during the World War II. Their story was an inspiration to defend one’s country, honor their veterans and always to keep their chins up. A movie was produced to honor the Sullivan brothers, and it was titled, “The Fighting Sullivans”. There were various facilities and institutions named after the brothers and examples include a museum located in downtown Waterloo, Lowa, numerous buildings and memorials and a Department of Defense Dependents Schools somewhere in Yokosuka, Japan.

The Sole Survivor policy/ The Sullivan Act

The considerable loss of the five brothers at once prompted the authorities to come up with the Sole Survivor policy also known as the Sullivan Act policy or law. The 1948 Sole Survivor Policy has different aspects preventing families from facing such tragedies. According to this system, if a family only has one surviving sibling in the military, he or she is discharged immediately.

Besides, desert Shield soldiers who are the only surviving children in a family are reassigned to areas that do not have imminent danger. Examples of areas considered as imminently dangerous include Persian Gulf, United Arab Emirates, Yemen, Gulf of Oman and Saudi Arabia among others. This part of the sole surviving policy was enforced on September 19, 1990. This rule applies to soldiers who are the only surviving children in a family or to single surviving sons and daughters who have lost a parent or sibling while serving in the United States Army. It also applies to single surviving children whose parent or sibling succumbed to their injuries, was captured, died of a disease or an accident or is physically disabled. When a commanding officer notices that a member who has been identified as the sole surviving child is on his unit in an area with the possibility of combat happening, he or she has the duty of reporting the matter to the Bureau of Naval Personnel. The commanding officer presents a report providing information about the member. The Bureau of Naval Personnel then transfers or removes the soldier from the unit before the rest proceed. If the Bureau of Naval Personnel does not receive the report on time, the commanding officer has the responsibility of taking the soldier to the closest naval shore activity where they will be given temporary duties as they await further instructions from the Bureau of Naval Personnel.

Soldiers who were the only surviving sons or daughters in a family are informed of the Sullivan Act before they enlist. Some soldiers go ahead and join or reenlist or extend their enlistment period of their own free will. In such a scenario, the soldier will be considered to have waived their rights to be discharged under this act.


Wars are characterized by many unfortunate events even if a nation wins at the end. However, the sacrifice the Sullivan family made was more than what was expected of one family. The five boys offered to serve their brothers and hopefully come back home with a victory. However, that did not happen, and they died together just like their motto “If we go down, we go down together.” These brothers knew the meaning of patriotism, loyalty and courage and their sacrifice continues to inspire people to do better. One good that came out of their sacrifice was the Sullivan Act or the Sole survivor policy. Many families send their children into the military and do not know if they will ever see them again. This policy had protected many families from suffering the same fate as the Sullivan brothers. They continue to inspire the nation in their absence. The Sullivan Act is a law that controls guns in New York State. The law became effective in 1911 and it required people possessing guns to have licences. The law demanded that people without guns license to be arrested because it was a felony possessing a gun without license. Political pressure at that time led to the Sullivan law. Letters from George Petit, a worker in the coroner’s office became public after a murder in Gramercy Park. The law prohibited carrying of blackjacks, sandbags, bombs, daggers and brass knuckles. All these were categorised as weapons because they could be used to harm other people.

The Sullivan brothers disagreed with some assessments of the laws and saw the law as a way of disarming lawful citizens. However, those with weapon licenses were allowed to carry their weapons plus their licenses. Today, New York City residents practice the law because most gun holders have licenses. New York City licensing authority does not grant weapon license to anyone. Most people with gun licenses include retired police officers and people with proper information on their employment. Most wealthy people abide by this law because they need weapons for their personal safety. Prominent people like celebrities, businesspersons and women, sports people and other rich people have licensed guns that are given to them and their bodyguards. Some security companies offer their employees with guns as a security measure. However, despite the law being successful in New York City, some states in United States are against this law. Most people in Texas state possess guns of all kinds, therefore is such a law is introduced to Texas most people will lose their weapons. Gun licenses require renewal; therefore, it is expensive for people with more than one gun to renew their licenses every year. The law on gun control has the helped the society because the number of people with guns can be counted. In addition, the number of crimes done has reduced due to inability to access guns. The Sullivan brothers were important, because their law has helped to control guns within a large population.

Did you like this sample?
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