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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. May all the brave men and women who served and gave their lives be honored by those survived. Without them there would not be a USA. God Bless.

  2. We forgave the Germans for starting two World Wars, and the Japanese for their adding to the last. Why can’t one race in the USA get past what was ended in The Civil War?

    • Laina, because of one very simple reason: contrition. Germany and Japan (eventually) accepted their defeat, and took extreme measures to ensure their crimes are not repeated. Fans of the Confederacy still fly its flags and celebrate its leaders. Their victims forgiving or “getting past” requires first an acknowledgement that the conflict is over and the losers were wrong.

    • History we can’t control what happened in the civil war learn from it

    • Because it didn’t end with the Civil War. Because for decades afterward blacks were denied the opportunity to go to school, denied access to whites only bathrooms and whites only restaurants, or lynched for owning property or running for office or falling in love with a women who happened not to be black. Because over a hundred years later blacks still were unable to exercise their right to vote. Because even today, if you are stopped by a police officer for any reason your chances of being killed are many times greater if you are black than if you are white. Because another race also can’t seem to get past what should have been ended in the Civil War – racism.

    • Thank you for stating what has needed to be said. Thousands of soldiers have died to defend our freedoms and their sacrifice should not be dishonored by the continuing controversy.

    • Never gonna happen…disgusting

    • Why would you hijack a tragic story of the Sullivan bros ?

    • I never though of that. Your’s is one overlooked point that is so obvious and I might add logical.

    • Perhaps because the fallout continues to this day. Tell us – are you of that “one race” or some “other race?” As for forgiving others, well let’s just say, some have and some haven’t. Might I kindly suggest that you study history a bit more indepth to obtain a firmer grasp of the various moments you speak of.

    • ain’t going to happen. the democrats will never let it go

    • I think the civil war was not the issue. It was what had happened prior to that which is the issue

    • Because the Civil War did not end things. African-Americans have been discriminated against since first being brought into slavery here into our country. They are still discriminated against. I also do not see how your comment at all relates to the content of this article.

    • David, wonderfully stated.

    • Mainly because of the fact that one political party, and I won’t say which one, won’t allow it.

    • I do not think that it is one race that has not forgiven, but people in one political party. some of them are not of that race. My family were abolitionist, we have paid the bill already and have been in the other political party since the Civil War days. PS The other party lost that war. They continue to be poor losers.

  3. My aunt told me that the Sullivan Brothers were cousins of hers/ours on my mother’s side of the family. I think of them often and how they changed history and their patriotism.

    • Yes the brothers and all the men and women and all of the races, who have served to protect our country in any of America’s wars, or in peacetime….are hero’s to me. Please stop with taking sides with current politics. The topic doesn’t belong in the same paragraph with just honoring our men and women who have died for us.
      Randy

  4. It’s impossible to imagine what the parent’s of these young men experienced when learning of their four son’s deaths. Just reading this account of the Sullivans instilled a feeling of loss and sadness. The sole surviving son policy is a good one. The young men and women of our country who serve in the military are the real American heroes.

    • Five sons – not four. No one would ever have believed that all would be lost at one time, even if they were on the same ship. A truly patriotic family, including the daughter, and parents who sacrificed so much for our country.

  5. One of my mom’s sisters(my aunt) dated one of the Sullivan brothers, but I cannot remember which one. I was born and raised in Waterloo and remember going to the premier showing of the movie made about them in the 1940s. Their loss was a sad event locally.

    • If I remember correctly the name of that movie was THE FIGHTING SULLIVANS. Because I remember it, I was thinking it must have been made in the early ’50s, so I googled, and sure enough…1945. That’s a pretty good memory for a 5-year-old.

  6. It was a major mistake to assign all five brothers to the same ship. A disaster waiting to happen

    • John Overby,
      The five brothers insisted they serve together. they were not forced to be on the same ship.

    • Correct! I thought that was common requirements to not put all siblings together. Parents should have protested….such a loss!! The boys were not thinking of the future.

    • It had been a tradition in the Navy for brothers to serve together. Dad said initially his ship had several sets of brothers and fathers and sons together. Dad and his brother were both serving on the USS Helena CL-50 when the Juneau was torpedoed. Dad was an eye witness to the explosion on the Juneau. He said, “It went up like a powder key, they never had a chance. Portions of the Juneau flew over our ship”. After the Sullivan brothers were lost the Navy started breaking up the brothers serving on the same ship.

    • Hindsight says it was a major mistake. The brothers when they enlisted insisted on being on the same ship. The Navy should have learned after Pearl Harbor, there were multiple cases of brothers being assigned to the Arizona both brothers were lost.

      Thank you to all who served in our military and the families whose loved ones never made it back home.

  7. I have been privileged to watch the movie several times and cried each time. My Daddy survived the WW2 war, my brother and husband both survived the Vietnam war. I personally thank each and every man or woman serving our great country in uniform. I desperately wanted to join but my Daddy was totally against his daughter serving in uniform and back then children obeyed their parents…no questions asked. May God bless each man and woman serving in uniform defending our great country and defending others.

  8. I remember watching the movie made about this account. I watched it everytime it came on. And now wish my children and grandchildren could see it too.
    God bless the families for their sacrifices so many years ago. And please watch over those that have gone through, going through and will be facing in the name of our great military forces.

  9. And yet DPAA claims that the Five Sullivan Brothers are ‘missing’ and ‘unaccounted for.’ Remarkable

    • Officially, until the body, or at least a part of it, is recovered that is the “official” designation. There is always hope, though in this case I don’t suppose that it is reasonable.

    • Arthur: My father, a B-25 pilot, was killed in action on 9 Jan 1945 in the Philippines. His crash site was eventually found – but not till May 1963 in very rugged terrain high up on a mountain side. A search team found the remains of his plane (identified by the plane number and insignia of the 345th Bombardment Group on the tail), as well as five “incomplete bones” – which could not be identified (pre-DNA) so were cremated by the Army in 1965. Other efforts were made in Dec. 1963 and Sep. 1973 to find the crash site, but the written record is inconclusive on whether the searchers ever reached the same site. Records of the three search teams “locate” the sites they visited as being on the northeast, northwest, southeast, and south sides of what was claimed to be the same mountain – depending on which report you read and where in the report you look. Since my father’s remains have still not been located and identified, he is still listed by DPAA as “Missing in Action.” I’m still trying to cajole them into making another search attempt – with no luck so far.

  10. My father Olaf Tjemsland and sisters Chris and Mabel brothers Tom, Earl and Arnold, brother in law Karl Jacobsen, and my uncle Morgan Bulman my mothers brother all in at the same time.
    Love My Vets

  11. As a young man living in Buffalo, NY, where the first of destroyers named after them rests at the Naval Park, I used to drill as a Sea Cadet on board the ship during the Summer months. I too think of them often as I grew knowing about them and the pain their parents must have felt when learned of the their tragedy.

  12. Tragic for the family indeed. Absolutely horrific but as an English person who was born in 1935 and grew up during WW2 I really do appreciate these brave men (and women) who came to our aid. We were nearly starving on three occasions in 1942 (I believe it was) because the U boats were sinking so many cruisers crossing the Atlantic with food for us)and now I learn that the Japanese were also involved at that time too as a result no doubt of Pearl Harbour.Shirley Forde

  13. It was not policy before the Sullivan tragedy to separate siblings, but after this it was. However, there was a provision that twins could serve together in peacetime, so when my father’s twin brother enlisted shortly after my father in 1953, he requested to serve with his identical twin and the request was granted (my uncle had orders to go to Korea after bootcamp, but instead was sent to Germany where my father was stationed when the request was put in).

  14. I served in the US Navy in the early 1960’s, which included a tour on the USS Harwood DD861. My twin brother and I were stationed together throughout our enlistments. We were allowed to remain together because we had an older brother who was not connected with any of the armed services.

    • (2) twin brothers from my hometown of Sterling, IL were both KIA in Korea in July 1950 while serving in the US Army.

      George and John Krebs were both orphans who had been adopted. Johns remains were not recovered and identified until 2019. Both now lie side by side

  15. that is the most emotional and sad thing I have ever read. I honestly am hurt for the family. It reminds me of how much God has protected my family in war times. my parents had five boys that served too. but not one was killed in a war zone. My Dad was in the 1st war. (ended up disabled for life). They had two in the 2nd war. three in Korea, and three in Viet Nam. I will tell you of their luck. one was on a ship that was blown in to. one was torn up bad from shelling, one the VA has in a home, for all he talks about is caves he was in, another has a back messed up for life. But all three made it out of the military. my family and I are most thankful for that. Knowing how lucky we are and that some families lost their loved ones. We know God is the only one that can stop war. Now there are four grandsons disabled from war. I pray for all that has suffered because of war. I pray it all is stopped and the world lives in peace. But we know , fighting has gone on since the starting of mankind. I am just thankful people are willing to serve to keep USA safe.

    • Your thoughtful words and family service are inspiring and wonderful to hear! Thank you Mr. Carter – Lynn Cooper Jr. / Colorado Eighth Air Force Historical Society, Videographer.

  16. I have been around confederate history buffs all my life and never heard one of them say anyone needed to be back in slavery. Leave the monuments alone and shut up if you don’t know the truth. Stop rationalizing or blaming others for things that are untrue. Democrats are so terrible about that. Just shows a simple mind needing to mature to fit into our great big society. OR just maybe they have an evil power hungry agenda. Hmmmmm. Either way they are soooooo ugly in thought.

    • Hello Cecil, this article is about honoring the sacrifice of the Sullivan brothers. Not about political parties. I am a Democrat and patriotic to this great country, and believe this story helps us all regardless of political party. Why do you feel you need to lash out here in this comment section? Suggesting I (as a Democrat) am ‘so terrible’ or have ‘a simple mind’ or ‘evil power hungry agenda’

      I bet if we met face to face we could have a nice time together. Fishing. Barbecue. Talking war stories. I would respect your beliefs. And maybe you could respect mine.

    • Christopher D Gray not sure but I would think that her reply had to do with what DAVID from 10/16/19….wrote.

    • Agree, it is as if the majority of black people want to keep pulling off the scab and remain the victims forever. Many blacks have been able to resist that and have gone on to live successful and admirable lives. The white people of the current generation had nothing to do with slavery. It is over. Let it go! Also practice what Jesus taught: forgiveness.

  17. My uncle Bob, a radio operator served aboard the cruiser Houston; it was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sank. Several persons survived that, though many were lost. He and those survivors were in the water for two days; many were lost to sharks.

    When the cruiser Helena came to rescue them, it too was torpedoed, also sinking. In the water again, they were finally rescued by another ship. Uncle Bob was in the Walla Walla Veteran’s hospital for a time, though fortunately he recovered soon.

    He then took a job at Hanford, helping make U-235, and was quite pleased to see the first use of that material in the bombing of Hiroshima. He married and fathered a daughter.

    • Hi Michael. I was part of the archaeology team that surveyed the B Reactor at Hanford in 1993. The B Reactor is now part of the Manhattan Project National Park. Thank you for sharing Bob’s story.

  18. Many families have stories heroic, tragic or like mine – blessed. WWII saw 8 brothers (all army though not all in the same unit) on my mother’s side serve with only one being sufficiently injured to be released before the war’s end. On my father’s side 3 brothers and a sister served (with all forces covered) with only one minor injury.

  19. This was made into a movie and some day I am going to pull out the VHS tape I have of it and look at again.

  20. Some seem to think the War of Northern Aggression was over slavery. The South was fighting a continuation of the Revolutionary War against an oppressive central government. They lost, but they were not wrong. That’s why we have the oppressive central government we have today.

  21. Great blog post…I heard about these brothers years ago, and the ultimate sacrifice that they made, although I never knew the sad details. This is a fine example of a group of brothers that served together for the cause of our nation. In the past couple of years, I’ve discovered another group of brothers that defended the City of Baltimore and Ft. McHenry in September of 1814, also serving in the cause of our nation. The six Timanus brothers. I’ve included my blog posting. Thank you Fold3 for your continued and unswerving diligence in uncovering the past of our military ancestors.

  22. A sad story but needed to be told over and over again about these very gallant and brave Sullivan brothers. Thank you, Kathy Sullivan

  23. If you are ever near downtown Waterloo IA, just off I380 in east central IA, visit The Sullivan Brothers Veteran Museum. It is a large modern interactive museum dedicated to The Sullivans as well as IA veterans of all our nations conflicts. Also their old family home at 98 Adams St is close by.

  24. Waterloo and Iowa are very proud of the Brothers the parents !!

  25. Because of this tradegy, my father and his brothers were split

  26. Wars and the aftermath will never solve anything. Only a true change of heart on a mega scale will make for lasting change. As long as any and all sides hold onto their divisive views, things will not change. Retribution will not work. Violence will not work. Reparations will not work. Holding onto bankrupt. Moral codes will not work.

  27. Allegedly, John Hill, perhaps a resident of Ohio, had five sons kill in the Civil War, presumably in the Union Army.

  28. The American Cemetery in the Philippines has a monument with names of those lost on the USS Juneau … including my father’s best friend from Michigan Lt. Cmdr W.Osborn. Osborn’ wife and daughter never accepted that he was dead and hoped he had made it to a nearby island. With no body to confirm death and being forever listed as MIA or presumed dead, some families always clung to the hope of survival somewhere.
    The deaths of the Sullivan brothers serving … and dying … together changed military policy going forward.
    There is a book about the Sullivans and the USS Juneau …”Left to Die”.

  29. How devastating for not only the Sullivan family, but for all the families impacted by that loss. Our freedom, certainly has not come freely or without sacrifices that ache to the very core of family and friends of those lost. God Bless America and all those involved in keeping our shores safe, as well as their families.

  30. My 3rd Great Grandmother Had six brothers that were all killed in the Civil war. It is the most from one family and they also came from Iowa. Google “Littelton Brothers” to learn more.

  31. This may have been discussed previously.

    Saving Private Ryan was fictional but based upon the (4) Niland brothers from Tonawanda NY. (3) were KIA while serving in various theaters with the US Army. The surviving brother was rescued after D-Day.

    As a homage to the Sullivan brothers, Steven Spielberg changed the script to reflect the Ryan family were from Waterloo IA

  32. It is hard to hear about any loses during any war and I am glad the services made the change. Isn’t “Saving Private Ryan” part of that same thinking and not allowing one family to lose so much? My husband’s uncles on his mom’s side all 6 of them served during WW II and chose different branches of service. Our Marine saw a lot of fighting in the Pacific. We too were blessed that they all came home. Unfortunately the transition into civilian life is not easy for all of them. We lost one to suicide and it was many years afterwards, and he had a family of his own. My dad also served in WW II and back during the Korean conflict was a blimp pilot along the east coast. His brother was in Korea and served in the Army. He would only tell me is was awful cold and he was from Maine! He passed yesterday peacefully at home and in his sleep 5 days before his 90th birthday. I am so very proud of all the veterans in my family including those who served in Viet Nam, Desert Storm and are serving now. This includes husbands, sons, brothers, nephews and grandsons.

  33. Read this story years ago and I think it is one of the saddest ones I have ever heard. Glad the military no longer allows siblings to serve in the same unit.

    • I am also saddened by the Sullivan story which I saw when it came out. I think it is one of the most inspiring stories ever told, representing the way patriotism should be and I do agree with the policy of not putting the family members together. I would also like to offer my feeling about this case. I would like to think that it was a great comfort to the Sullivans to have they’re brothers with them at such a terrible time. They fought together all the time they were growing up, protecting each other, and they went out together side by side. I know I would have been sad that my brothers were there but they would still have been a comfort to me to not be alone.

  34. lived in Germany as a child, came to the US when I was 14. our train pulled into Hot Springs AR at 2 am, we had to wait for daybreak before we were able to get off, We walked across the street to Woolworth. As we sat at the counter my sister asked me what is a colored bathroom I didn’t know so we walked over to see the color, next there was “colored water, again no color I had to ask my Dad do they have special water for the Jews? What did we just leave.
    Sandra Petersen

  35. In the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” which took place on D-Day 1944, it’s mentioned that when the Ryan brothers signed up to serve together, they were separated because of the Sullivan brothers being killed on the Juneau in 1942. Saving Private Ryan was based on a true story of 4 brothers last name Niland. But separating the Niland brothers still didn’t prevent them from being killed.

    • I am not positive but I believe it is military policy to allow the last surviving member of the family name to be exempt from serving in a combat area if so requested. I’m sure there is something to this effect or there used to be.

  36. The sacrifice of the Sullivan brothers and their family and the families of all those who have given their lives needs to be remembered and honored. All those who have served our country in uniform deserve our thanks and praise. My uncle Bob served in the U.S, Army during World War II and was wounded in Italy. Fortunately, he is the only close family to have served in the military. My dad and grandfather were exempt from service because they worked for the railroad, which was considered a critical industry. I have many friends who served in the Pacific during WWII, including a man who was in the second wave of marines to land during the invasion of Iwo Jima. A visit with him to that tiny island about 15 years after the end of the war is among my most memorable and humbling experiences. He was a wonderful gentle man. I can’t begin to imagine the horrors he and all those who served in combat must have seen. Those who have served in other combat theaters in Korea, Vietnam, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria and elsewhere deserve our thanks and our eternal gratitude.

    It is because of their sacrifice that we are free to express our opinions, even those with which I may not agree.

  37. Two brothers served on the uss Tolavana AO-64 in the late 50s.One was killed in a accident on there.

  38. The comments are all very interesting and Sad…I am a Canadian, and I know our Canadian military have served along with the Americans…I find American History Very Interesting…I would love to have been on the First Wagon Train going to Oregon…How many Americans (and Canadians) have actually studied their own History?

  39. Oh, man, I just want to say something about the Civil War… I just can’t control the overpowering urge…

    Considering how more Americans were killed in the Civil War than any other war, and considering how the population was VERY much smaller in 1865 than it is today (or even in WW2) and considering how it was so typical for military units in the Civil War to be drawn from limited areas like individual states or smaller, and considering how the average family in those days usually had a lot of children, and considering how certain specific Civil War battles were so deadly, I’m supposing there must have been a ton of cases where more than one brother was lost on the same day in that conflict. And beyond that, there must have been some cases where entire towns lost almost a whole generation of young men in one battle. The fact that those young guys were out on the battlefield with their neighbors and cousins, and knew that what happened at Gettysburg was not going to stay at Gettysburg, probably influenced them to be braver than they really should have been in some circumstances.

    It seems like every so often we unlearn the lessons of war, and are only too happy to send our kids off on some glorious new adventure. Sometimes the conflicts were necessary or at least logical, but sometimes not — and the war fever seems to hit just as hard in either case.

    • Rich guys could by their way out of conscription during the Civil War. Another poor guy would take their case.

  40. There were still cases of brothers on a Navy vessel long after the Sullivans. I was stationed on-board a submarine in the late 70’s and we had three brothers in the same crew, the Kimmels. It was unusual. If I recall correctly there was a waiver that allowed it.

  41. How did it get from WW2 to a thing about race. Someone always has to play the race card!!

  42. I spent 21 years in the USAF. As a fighter pilot, I KNEW, my squadron mates would willingly give their life for me as I would for them. I mourn the losses of my friends all these years later. You see, all men are Brothers on the battlefield. All blood runs red on the battlefield there is only Brotherhood as those who face death are not provided the luxury of debate as that is reserved for those who are protected. It seems to me that it is easy to pontificate while one sits in front of the tv in the comfort of their home or tapping a few keys on their computer. You have no idea of the meaning of sacrifice! It is another thing entirely to engage an enemy trying to kill you and all you have is each other. Each of you who have responded to this owe your life to someone who gave his. Think about it!

  43. My grandmother played the Sole Surviving Son card on me as I was headed for VN. I knew nothing until I was rerouted to Guam and a YN filled me in. After I signed a letter stating I did not want that designation, I was allowed to continue. My Dad was killed in Okinawa, and I was the last male in our family capable of passing our family name. Now I have 3 backups!

  44. This is similar to a program Britain had during WWI. They allowed entire villages to enroll in the same company etc.. Doing so, some villages lost nearly all their young men in one battle.

  45. I remember. And it still brings tears to my eyes.

  46. There is also an Elementary school in Yokosuka, Japan, Yokosuka naval base, named Sullivans after the brothers.

  47. I saw the movie of that family tragedy. After that they made it so no family would have to go through the same thing,

  48. Wow, with my own family having lost members fighting in Europe ( as in English in both WW1 and WW2) I have to say how much respect I have for you US guys such as that whole family who never hesitated to serve their country.

  49. The hatred toward Blacks come from one group and they are DEMOCRATS. They passed the laws that were against Blacks following the Civil War and also was the party that started the KKK. That is the source of the hatred.

  50. All gave some… This family have ALL.. God bless America