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The Fighting Sullivan Brothers of World War II

Brothers George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan all lost their lives on the same Navy ship in 1942. It was one of the worst family tragedies of World War II.

The Sullivans (l-r) aboard the USS Juneau 1942: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, George, image courtesy U.S. Navy

Thomas and Alleta Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa, lost five Navy sons in World War II. All five brothers perished in the November 1942 sinking of the American cruiser USS Juneau off the Solomon Islands.

The Sullivans of Waterloo, Iowa

In 1941, the Sullivan family resided in a white frame house at 98 Adams Street in Waterloo, Iowa. The head of the household, Thomas, was employed as a freight conductor for the Illinois Central Railroad. Thomas’ family was comprised of his wife Alleta, sons George (27), Francis (26), Joseph (24), Madison (23) and Albert (20) and daughter Genevieve (24). Of the six siblings, only Albert was married at the time, the father of a one-year-old son named James.

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, plunging the United States into World War II, all five Sullivan brothers were civilians, working at the giant Rath meat packing plant in Waterloo. Both George and Francis (Frank), however, were already U.S. Navy veterans, having served four-year hitches after enlisting in 1937.

With the coming of Pearl Harbor, George and Frank were eager to get back into the Navy – “the sooner the better” in Frank’s words. Joining them in their enthusiasm were Joseph (Red), Madison (Matt) and Al. All five Sullivan brothers then marched to the Navy recruiting center to voluntarily enlist, with the one condition that they not be separated during their military service. The Navy, however, could not honor that request, for it had a policy of breaking up family members during wartime in order to minimize one family’s loss if a ship was hit.

Following a protest letter to the Navy Department, however, the rule was waived. On January 3, 1942, the Sullivan brothers, along with other volunteers from Waterloo, were given a rousing send off as they departed for boot camp at Great Lakes Training Center.

The Sullivans Assigned to the USS Juneau

While at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Sullivan brothers requested that they be assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau, which had just been commissioned. The Juneau was a brand new light anti-aircraft cruiser weighing 6,000 tons and armed with 16 five-inch .38 caliber guns, four quadruple 1.1-inch gun mounts and eight 21-inch surface torpedo tubes. Built for speed and maneuverability, the ship’s steel armor was relatively thin – only three and three-quarters inches thick – making it easy prey for enemy torpedoes.

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