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The Sullivan Brothers and the Sinking of the USS Juneau

In September 1940, as Nazi bombs rained down on London during the Blitz, America began the first-ever peacetime conscription and enacted the Selective Training and Service Act. The country was moving closer to war and the Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa, answered the call. That fall, Joseph Sullivan, 22, registered for the draft. By the following summer, the other four Sullivan brothers – Albert, 19; Madison, 21; Francis, 25; and George, 26; also made the trip to the Federal Building in Waterloo and filled out their registration cards. The Sullivan brothers insisted they serve together. Weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, they enlisted in the US Navy.

The Sullivan Brothers

All five brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau. Juneau was part of Task Force 67 and sent to escort a resupply convoy to Guadalcanal. The Battle of Guadalcanal (codenamed Operation Watchtower) was an offensive aimed to protect critical supply and transportation links between the United States and Allies in Australia and New Zealand. It was the first major offensive against Japanese forces.

On the night of November 12, 1942, after hours of fighting off Japanese torpedo bombers, a Japanese destroyer launched a torpedo that struck Juneau on the port side. She began to list and retreated from the battle. Operating on one screw, the Juneau steamed towards Espiritu Santo for repairs. The following morning, a Japanese submarine fired another torpedo hitting Juneau in the same spot she was hit the night before. Following a loud explosion, the USS Juneau broke in two and sank in just 20 seconds. Concerned about the possibility of another submarine attack, the American task force left the scene. The USS Helena messaged a nearby B-17 search plane to report survivors in the water. Unfortunately, Helena’s message did not reach command headquarters, delaying rescue efforts for days. More than 100 men did survive the initial attack. Francis, Joseph and Madison Sullivan died instantly, but Albert may have survived until the second day before drowning. George lived for four or five days in a raft before succumbing, according to a letter from a shipmate to his parents. Eight days after sinking, ten survivors were plucked from the water. The tragedy claimed the lives of 687 men.

USS Juneau

Back in Iowa, the Sullivan family received word that all five sons were missing. As a result of their deaths, the US War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy. This policy protected family members from the draft or combat duty if they already lost family members in military service. The parents of the Sullivan boys, Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, toured the country promoting war bonds and visiting shipyards and manufacturing plants to motivate workers. The only surviving Sullivan child, daughter Genevieve, 24, joined the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and served for 21 months before being granted an honorable discharge. The US Navy later named two destroyers after the Sullivan brothers, and the Iowa Veterans Museum is named in their honor.

For 76 years, the wreckage of the USS Juneau rested undiscovered on the ocean floor. On March 17, 2018, an expedition funded by billionaire Paul Allen discovered the Juneau lying on her side about 2.6 miles below the surface of the ocean in the Solomon Islands. There are no plans to raise the ship.

If you would like to read multiple survivor accounts from the Juneau, or learn more about the Battle of Guadalcanal, search Fold3 today!  

119 Comments

  1. This political talk is really getting out of hand. This is not the place for it.

    It would be one thing to discuss the historical value of Confederate monuments, or to compare Confederate slave owners with USA Founding Father slave owners… IF this was at least an article about the Civil War. It is not an article about the Civil War.

    Then to make it openly into a political debate, Republican vs. Democrat, is way over the top. In my opinion both parties are currently disgraceful, and the proven incompetence of our nation’s news media means that none of us are able to tell when or if any of our “leaders” are ever telling the truth. I suspect that they tell the truth about as often as a broken clock points to the correct time… and that goes for both parties. Our nation is in a crisis of divisiveness, where what we are against matters more than what we are for. The major political parties are each nothing more than the opposite of the other, bizarre masses of incompatible bedfellows only held together by their shared hatred of everyone else.

    Lets us here talk about history, and the things that bind us together.

    • Well said!!

    • John L. I completely agree with you. The extremist on both sides have strong agendas and doesn’t seem to have the ability to listen what the majority of American citizens. Sad times

    • I agree with you. It was well said. It is sad today, that our history is not taught in school. I am disabled and I have a helper that comes in 3 days aweek. One day she brought her 9 year old daughter and we were talking. I ask her about her history classes. She said we don’t have history lessons and the more we talked I asked her about the presidents. She said we don’t study about the presidents. I was so shocked the more I talked to her the worse it got. I have a Confederate flag in my house, because that is my history. She called it a racist flag. It upset me so bad I tried to explain to her what it meant . She knew nothing about our country.

    • “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”
      -George Orwell

    • John L. everything you preached on was depressing and political. While you ranted for how many words? You disparaged our great nation shame on you, As any school teacher will tell you over half of teaching time is spent dealing with social issues in the home. So let us not blame the schools until you sit in a class for a while and see what teachers are up against. Also, Sheri, it is hear not here. Please look it up and correct your spelling and English that I am sure you did not listen to when you were in school.
      .

    • Fran, if you read carefully I did not say a word good or bad about our schools. Nor did I say anything bad about our nation, except for the major political parties which I attempted to criticize equally. And the press or news media, which has within recent memory proven their bias and incompetence in a way which I can’t imagine anyone denying.

      You don’t feel there is currently anything wrong with the political parties, or the political climate in our nation? Then you must be in the minority.

      I don’t so much mind someone arguing for or against policies in general terms, so long as they have some reasonable connection to the historical subject at hand. We are entitled to our opinions. What bothers me is to read “Democrats this” or “Republicans that” which goes beyond policies and into the realm of blatantly partisan politics. I find that disturbing and inappropriate here… If I get the urge to read that kind stuff I can go read YouTube comments to my heart’s content.

      The Founding Fathers certainly had their differences of opinion, but were able to lay them aside and concentrate on where they agreed rather than where they disagreed. All I’m trying to say is, lets us do likewise and enjoy history together without introducing all that current Democrat/Republican stuff that wears us down everywhere else.

    • John L. I did not read or see – understand your comment about a story being a political debate. Looks like you John L. turned it into a political debate yourself in the reply. Yes, we need to teach history in schools today. You ranted on about the news media being unable to tell the truth, ha. Our Pres does not know what :”truth” even means today. Help our already “great” country learn what the truth is. Just listen and watch what is happening today. Help us get rid of our great lying president Trump.!!
      Janis

    • Some of you seem expect in-depth history classes in grade school. It has never been so and it won’t start now. Even in HS it isn’t really taught beyond a single textbook on US history that attempts to give the highlights of important events. In some States that particular States history may be taught but it’s also a general overview. HS seniors may get a civics class on how our government works (ideally). IMO most of us have forgotten that class.
      If you want history in depth do your own reading and/or take some college courses.
      If you want your kids to know more about grandpa’s war and etc., take some responsibility.

    • So, Janis, you are against Trump? Yet you object when I complain about the news media? Well I guess you don’t have to worry about a “President Trump” because your excellent news media told you in 2016 that he was not going to win. So I guess since the news media does not lie, then we must not have a “President Trump” to worry about.

      I for one did not vote for Trump — and I hate Trump — but then I did not come here to discuss political parties.

  2. Thank you

    John L
    You have put into words what everyone needs to here and follow.
    Blessings
    Sheri

  3. Sometime in the late 1940s or early 1950s I saw the movie “the Fighting Sullivans”. The story about those five boys and their tragic loss. My life story is unremarkable, but I can say that I have thought about the fighting Sullivan’s story many times since I saw that movie.

  4. Well said John L, and unfortunately I think it has to do with our school system. When my sons started kindergarten, they learned about slave ships in the first month of school. And every month after that they seem to learn something else about civil disobedience, civil rights, the US Civil War, 1800’s slavery issues, etc. Then every year after that seems to be repetitive of the same. 4th grade seems to be varying it up a bit now.

    In short, I think it’s all people seem to know. I’m trying to teach my children a broader perspective, that issues should be understood and history respected, but hardships are not unique to one person/ race, etc. I don’t think they teach that in school. We just tell individual stories so everyone can get together and compare how hard their people had it. Do they even teach the American Dream anymore? Do we teach hard work and perseverance?

    I have a history timeline dating back to 3000 BC. Although I’ve never seen anything like it in school growing up. We seem to lack perspective, and thus we’ve done our citizens a disservice, because they don’t know any differently. We need to fix the school curriculum (and Hollywood/ Netflix content) if we want to alter the brainwashing of our citizens…and the awkward twisting of article responses to always go back to the same red herring response of slavery. Then we can work on the rest of it.

    • I had seven kids who attended various schools throughout the west and NONE of them had slavery mentioned in kindergarten.
      Once again though this article was about the Sullivan brothers.

    • What happened to parents responsibilities towards teaching their children? And if you don’t like the school system then take your children out of it. Enough people do that you’ll start seeing changes. By the way a superintendant determined a child can be taught in 2 weeks at home what it takes the public system 6 months to teach.

      And yes the originating post is about the Sullivan brothers and how the loss their parents endured changed a tiny part of how the war department worked.

  5. My Father was Henry R. Oset. He had 4 older brothers: Joseph, Stanley, Chester, and Walter. All his older brothers joined the Navy during WWII. My Uncle Stanley was a pilot in the Navy. My Uncle Joseph was not only in the Navy but afterwards joined the Army. My Chet and Uncle Walter were also in the Navy. My father was the youngest and had to wait and then joined the Army. However my Uncle Walter was in WWII and his ship USS LCT (5) – 496 went down in the Straits of Dover. He was declared missing in action on Oct. 1, 1943. On Oct. 2, 1944, the Army declared him deceased. My Father was in during the Korean War. So “The Sullivan Brothers” helped changed how the Military handled groups of siblings joining together and helping to keep other families from losing all their children or siblings in war. I thank any family and their members who have served our country to defend freedoms for all. I even had older ancestors that came from Germany that served in the Military and fought in WWI against Germany and more in WWII.

  6. My Father and Uncle, brothers, served on the same ship…after the Sullivan Brothers, they were split up ,, on to different ships..My father was wounded on the USS Enterprise…He recovered with a broken jaw, missing teeth and head wound , shooting down a Japanese plane attacking the ship…My uncle retired after 5 years..my Father served 27 plus years…retiring from the USS Midway in Mare Island..the only ship I was able to go on …the day he retired..I was a polio survivor with out a Father for years…

  7. my great grandmother was given honorary Sergeant in the Army recruiting service after she had given consent to enlistment of her youngest son age 17 the last of her eight sons to enter the armed services during WWII

  8. My mother Mardell Beneke remembered reading about the Sullivan brothers in the newspapers during World War II when she and my brother Don stayed in Waterloo, IA, while my father was stationed at Ridgewell in England. Her brother Richard Sell who worked at Rath and his wife Helga Sell were living in Waterloo, and my mother went to visit them on occasion.

  9. My father, Joseph Loeffler, and his brothers, Ernie and Bill, all fought in WWII. Ernie was injured in Germany and was reported missing twice. He was seriously injured and was sent home for brain surgery. He had a metal plate in his head. Bill received a Bronze Star and I would love to know about his bravery. My father fell ill in Palestine and was sent to Chicago to recover. My ancestors participated in the Revolutionary War and I am a DAR member.

  10. Amazing how every story gets political these days. Obviously “The Donald” is watching. My Father was a Navy flyer in the Pacific whereas I was an anti war activist. Dad was an NRA Life Member until they became a political mess. Clinging to past glory or defeat is useless but I still wish Napoleon had won. The bottom line is still the “Root of all Evil.

    • So do you appreciate your father and the other veterans who made it so you can spak out as you did? Or should we just put that all in the past and forget about them?

    • I doubt “the Donald” is actually watching this list. He is watching his ‘bottom line” to see what that goes. ha

  11. Can anyone even IMAGINE Mr. TRUMPF even enlisting? Only if there is money tobemade. What a SKUNK (or worse0.

    Bill Getson Veter of Korean War 1952-1956, Staff Seargeant, US Armeey

  12. I have lived my entire life (almost 59 years) less than 70 miles from Waterloo. In school I do not recall ever hearing about the Sullivan brothers. History was always my favorite class, and the Great Depression onward was one of my favorite eras. I could be wrong and have forgotten about this, but I don’t think so. My point is after speaking with my adult children, they have told me that WWII was barely mentioned, let alone the Sullivan brothers. I think that what is taught in history classes is less than adequate. It has been rewritten by apologists/deniers who prefer to say that the Holocaust never happened and we were wrong to drop the atomic on Japan. I was in school 25 years after WWII ended and to have not learned about the Sullivan brothers then, especially living so close to where thy were raised, was a travesty. This episode in U.S. should be in every U.S. history as an example of devotion and willingness to protect and serve your country. It also shows the willingness of the military to change the rules to protect the citizen fighters who enlist to serve their country.

    • Wow.. I understand your statement and yet am appalled at the facts..This was a known fact of WW2…the brothers serving together would never be again..I will try to upload my news paper clipping of then…of my Dad and Uncle on the same ship..they were split after …directly after…this was a fact taught in our schools and I am now 69…yes should always be taught , but history in schools is still going backwards as being taught only of the civil war…my husbands family are all teachers ,,,and it is required of the states as far as teaching requirement..sadly we are still stagnant..speak to your state, schools, teachers, government!!!

  13. My family have fought in every war starting with the American Revolution and ending with the Vietnam War. My father was in WW lIl and was in the Battle of the Bulge. My great great uncle fought at the Little Big Horn and received the metal of honor for his bravery. My family fought on both sides during the Civil Wat. My great great grandfather was a baptist preacher who worked with the Underground Railroad. He was dragged from his pulpit by southern sympathizers, tied with a wire around his neck and the other end tied to a mule. They slapped the mule on it’s rump. He died the nest day from injuries received from being dragged by the mule. I am proud of my families bravery, both sides. They fought for their own states and their property and what they believed was right.
    It is such a shame that the schools don’t teach all the history of our United States . This is my family’s history. We all have a family history and we should all be proud of our brave family members who fought and some died to protect our way of life.

    • Your family sounds much like mine! My great great grandfather was also a Southern Baptist Preacher..My fathers side of the family was involved with the Railroad! My Mothers side were French/Canadians who settled in Lousiana..But were slave owners , Im not sure to what degree , but I do know they were involved with freeing the ones in slavery and their lands confiscated..their property taken..small small world..My father served in many wars as did my family..the last being Viet Nam as well…My Uncle received the Purple Heart , my Father too many..He never would talk of it all to me..it was to painful

  14. I’m from Cedar Falls/Waterloo, Iowa. There is the Five Sullivan Brothers convention center downtown as well as the newer Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum which features the five Sullivan brothers’ story as well as different wars throughout our country’s history. Such a sad story. As a mother who has had to say goodbye to a young son, knowing the heartache and pain that comes with it, I cannot imagine losing all five sons. Unbelievable.