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
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
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
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.