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Remembering the Sullivans

One of the most poignant stories of World War II, and the inspiration behind the film Saving Private Ryan, is the story of the five Sullivan brothers, who served together aboard the cruiser Juneau.  All five brothers died when the Juneau was sunk in November 1942 during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.


A UNION railroad worker -- member of the Order of Railway Conductors -- was revealed this week to have made the greatest sacrifice of the war for the sake of his country's victory.

He is Thomas F. Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa, a freight conductor on the Illinois Central and a member of the O. R. C. for two decades.  He lost all his five sons in the battle of the Solomons, the Navy Department disclosed.

The five, all employees of a Waterloo meatpacking firm, had enlisted in the Navy together and insisted on serving together.  The wanted to go to the south Pacific, where the fighting was fiercest, to avenge the death of "a buddy", an Iowa boy, who had been killed at Pearl Harbor during the Japanese attack.

Ordinarily the Navy tries to divide members of the same family among different ships, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox explained.  But the Sullivan boys were so determined to remain united that the navy relented and let all sail on the cruiser Juneau.

George T., 29, the oldest, was a gunner's mate, and Francis H., 26, a coxswain.  The other three -- Joseph F., 23; Madison A., 22, and Albert L., 20 -- were seamen, second class.

Last fall, the Juneau, with the Sullivan brothers aboard, defeated the Japs in a blazing battle off Guadalcanal, but in November the ship was sunk, and all five boys were listed by the Navy as "missing in action," which, barring some miracle, means they lost their lives.

Navy officials declared that this was "the heaviest blow suffered by any family since Pearl Harbor and probably the worst in American naval history."

From Waterloo there come word that both parents are trying bravely to "buck up" under the loss.

"If they are gone," said Mrs. Sullivan, through tear-dimmed eyes, "it will be some comfort to know they went together -- as they wanted -- and gave their lives for their country and victory."

This original news story was published in a railroad workers union newspaper.  My grandfather was a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers at the time, and saved the article.

The Navy waited two months before informing the Sullivan family of their loss, probably in part to verify the deaths of the brothers, and probably in part to spare the family the grief of the loss at Christmas.  A special Naval envoy was sent to relay the news to the family.

In honor of the brothers, the Navy commissioned two ships as namesakes: a Fletcher-class destroyer (DD-537) that served during WWII and Korea before being decommissioned in 1965, and an Arleigh Burke-class "Aegis" guided missile destroyer (DDG-68) currently in active service.

In a final act of patriotism that today's media commentators would be stymied to explain, the Sullivan's remaining child, Genevieve, enlisted in the Navy and served as a WAVE.

The Sullivans were typical of so many families who lost their precious sons and daughters in the service of their country.  Although they became national symbols of heroic sacrifice, they neither sought fame or held animus toward the US government.

As you enjoy Memorial Day at home with your family, please remember the Sullivan family and say a prayer for those who serve our nation, selflessly, so that we remain free.

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Comments (5)

With all due respect, Savin... (Below threshold)

With all due respect, Saving Private Ryan was based on the story of four brothers from New Hampshire. The fanily name was Nye or Niland. I'm unsure. That being the case, I was at the commissioning ceremony for the US Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans, and Madison's grandaughter gave the order to "Man our ship and bring her to life." It was inspiring.

I hope there will be a USS ... (Below threshold)

I hope there will be a USS The Sullivans in commission as long as there is a U.S. Navy. The movie always chokes me up.

It was the empowered and prosperous working class (union), which had a stake in this country which gave birth to such as the Sullivans.

Transnational financial lords and an oppressed and alienated proletariat won't save the the USA.

Thought you were t... (Below threshold)

Thought you were told to sit down, shut up and respect your betters, Chico.

Be nice if in THIS day, at least, you did just that.

When I joined the navy (bac... (Below threshold)
Don L :

When I joined the navy (back in 52) They wouldn't allow me to be on my brother's ship because of those five brothers. What a tragedy for those parents - yet good comes though evil's back door.

Look how many lives have been saved by new rules brought about because the sinking of the Titanic was so shockingly bad.

Then there's that Crucifixion thing....

The movie about the Sulliva... (Below threshold)
Dodo David:

The movie about the Sullivans is one that I'll never forget.






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