This sea battle claimed the lives of 5 brothers in World War II

On Nov. 13, 1942, the USS Juneau went down in the Pacific Ocean after being struck by a Japanese torpedo in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. Only 10 members of the over 700-man crew survived. Onboard were the five Sullivan brothers. They all perished in the battle.

George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert Sullivan joined the U.S. Navy out of Waterloo, Iowa in Jan. 1942. George and Francis were prior service enlistees, serving on the USS Hover before the war. During the attacks on Pearl Harbor, the brothers lost five friends in combat.

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The Sullivan brothers pose on the USS Juneau. Photo: US Navy

George and Francis immediately began preparations to rejoin the Navy and convinced their brothers and two friends from a motorcycle club to enlist with them. They wrote a letter to the secretary of the Navy asking to be allowed to train and serve together.

The boys went through training together and the Sullivans were later assigned to the USS Juneau, an Atlanta-class light cruiser completed in Oct. 1941. Meanwhile, back home, the Sullivans bonded with each other and the Navy. Albert’s wife and son lived with the Sullivan parents and Alleta Sullivan, their mother, sponsored a ship for the Navy, the USS Tawasa.

As the U.S. Navy tried to halt Japanese advances in the Pacific and began pushing them back, modern cruisers like the Juneau were needed to protect carrier groups from air attack as well as bombard shore positions. The Juneau saw action first in the Atlantic but was sent to the Pacific where it protected the USS Wasp, USS Hornet, and USS Enterprise in fierce combat against the Japanese.

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The USS Juneau in 1942. Photo: US Navy

The Juneau was tasked with protecting reinforcements being ferried ashore to Guadalcanal on Nov. 12, 1942. In the early afternoon, 30 Japanese planes attacked the ships and the Juneau went into action. The gunners picked off six torpedo planes and helped drive off the Japanese attacks.

The American ships prepared for a surface attack. The next day, 18-20 Japanese ships bore down on the small U.S. force. Juneau and the USS Atlanta teamed up and successfully brought down a Japanese ship but the Juneau was struck by an enemy torpedo shortly after. The Juneau withdrew with the damaged USS San Francisco but was engaged again by Japanese torpedoes.

A Japanese sub fired a three-torpedo spread and the Juneau avoided two of them, but the third either passed through the earlier damage into the center of the ship or struck in almost the same spot.

Witnesses described a massive explosion that nearly disintegrated the center of the ship. The two remaining pieces sank in only twenty seconds while the captain and most of the crew, including at least two of the brothers, were killed.

Around 100 sailors made it to the life rafts, including George Sullivan and possibly two other Sullivans. Over the next eight days, sailors died as sharks, exhaustion, and dehydration claimed them. According to a survivor on the same raft as George, he fell into the ocean and was claimed by the sharks.

Only 10 survivors were found and rescued from the USS Juneau and none of the Sullivan brothers were among them. Back home, rumors of the Juneau’s sinking had reached Waterloo and Alleta was desperate to learn whether or not her sons had survived. She wrote to the Bureau of Naval Personnel.

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National Archives and Records Administration

Only days later, she received a personal letter from President Franklin D. Roosevelt that expressed his condolences for her sudden loss.

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National Archives and Records Administration

The Sullivan Brothers were survived by both of their parents. Albert also left behind a wife, Katherine, and a son, Jim.

Alleta Sullivan continued to be a friend to the Navy after the death of her sons, christening the USS Tawasa as promised but also participating in war bonds drives, encouraging ship builders, and volunteering with the USO to make service members’ lives easier.

USS The Sullivans fires a Standard Missile 2.

USS The Sullivans fires a Standard Missile-2 during a training exercise. Photo by US Navy Information Specialist 1st Class Steven Martel

The Navy was since named two ships for the Sullivan brothers. USS The Sullivans (DD 537) was a destroyer that now serves as a museum in Buffalo, New York. USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) is an Aegis-class guided missile destroyer that served in Operation Enduring Freedom.

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