Honoring Veterans: The Famous Sullivan Brothers Say Goodbye

The attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 killed more than 2400 people and wounded another 1200. It also inspired a group of brothers to avenge their friend’s death. One of those who died was U.S. Navy Seaman Bill Ball, a talented baseball player from Waterloo, Iowa who had high hopes of becoming a big league player. He was also a boyhood friend of the five Sullivan brothers. When they heard about his death, George (27) and Frank (26) Sullivan, who had been honorably discharged in May 1941, both reenlisted on January 3, 1942 with their three brothers Joe (24) , Matt (23) and Al (20). They insisted they serve together and while the Navy had a policy of separating siblings, it was not strictly enforced.


(L-R, Joseph, Frank, Albert, Matt, George)
(L-R, Joseph, Frank, Albert, Matt, George)

The brothers served on the USS Juneau (CL-52) and were engaged in combat on Guadalcanal. Less than a year after the Sullivans were deployed, on November 13, 1942, the Juneau was struck by a torpedo. As it withdrew, it was struck again, it exploded and sank.  Frank, Joe and Matt died instantly, Al drown in the water the following day. According to Wikipedia, George survived, but was so grief stricken, he jumped over the side of a raft and was never found.

At the time, the location of the ship was classified. The Sullivan boys’ mother, Alleta, stopped getting letters and then someone in Waterloo had read about the sinking of the Juneau in the paper. She wrote to President Roosevelt to ask about the rumors.

letterThe Waterloo Cedar Falls Courier did a story last year with Albert’s wife, Katherine. She remembers the military officer first notifying the family the boys were missing. “They came to the house,” she said. That was January 1943.  It wasn’t too long after we got the news that they were gone, dead. ”

It was three men in uniform who showed up at to deliver the news, “A  lieutenant commander, a doctor and a chief petty officer – approached his front door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” the naval officer said. “Which one?” asked Thomas. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five,” according to  Wikipedia

Following their deaths, it is believed the Navy instituted a policy that siblings could not serve on the same ship. The policy was actually already in place and there is actually no “act” or policy that came out of their deaths other than perhaps adherence to the rule.

There have been two ships named in honor of the Sullivan boys. Their parents traveled the U.S. following their deaths and asked people to buy war bonds. Thomas Sullivan’s grief was so deep that he died in 1947. Katherine remarried in 1946. A movie called The Fighting Sullivans came out in 1944.

Katherine told the paper, “Everything seemed so different, like it didn’t really happen, you know what I mean?” Katherine said. “I don’t know how come it felt that way. And of course you didn’t see them. You never saw a body, somebody in a casket,” affording closure. “It just seemed not right. You can’t believe it.”

And that is what it’s like for many of us who don’t have a loved one serving. We see the soldiers, pass the uniformed men and women when we’re out, but it’s like nothing is really happening. But something is happening. Men and women choose to have a career in the United States Military to serve our country and protect our freedoms. They choose to serve in some areas of the world where, if captured, they will be tortured and killed. This is their job. When they return and their time of service has ended, give them a job. Can you imagine a better employee?

Ready to hire a veteran? Email me at 1000Girlfriends@gmail.com. I’ll get you connected. Happy Veteran’s Day, today and everyday.