Five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, die when their ship, the light cruiser USS Juneau, is torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine on November 13, 1942. Raised in an Irish Catholic family, the brothers great grandfather had emigrated from Ireland.
The five brothers, the sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, are George Thomas Sullivan (27), Francis “Frank” Henry Sullivan (26), Joseph “Joe” Eugene Sullivan (24), Madison “Matt” Abel Sullivan (23), and Albert “Al” Leo Sullivan (20).
The Sullivans enlist in the U.S. Navy on January 3, 1942, with the stipulation that they serve together. The Navy has a policy of separating siblings but it is not strictly enforced. George and Frank have served in the Navy before, but their brothers have not. All five are assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau.
The Juneau participates in a number of naval engagements during the months-long Guadalcanal Campaign beginning in August 1942. Early on the morning of November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Juneau is struck by a Japanese torpedo and forced to withdraw. Later that day, as it is leaving the Solomon Islands area for the Allied rear-area base at Espiritu Santo with other surviving U.S. warships from battle, the Juneau is struck again, this time by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-26. The torpedo apparently hits the thinly armored light cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship explodes and quickly sinks.
Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena and senior officer present in the battle-damaged U.S. task force, is skeptical that anyone has survived the sinking of the Juneau and believes it would be reckless to look for survivors, thereby exposing his wounded ships to a still-lurking Japanese submarine. Therefore, he orders his ships to continue on towards Espiritu Santo. Helena signals a nearby U.S. B-17 bomber on patrol to notify Allied headquarters to send aircraft or ships to search for survivors.
However, approximately 100 of Juneau‘s crew survive the torpedo attack and the sinking of their ship and are left in the water. The B-17 bomber crew, under orders not to break radio silence, does not pass the message about searching for survivors to their headquarters until they land several hours later. The crew’s report of the location of possible survivors is mixed in with other pending paperwork actions and goes unnoticed for several days. It was not until days later that headquarters staff realize that a search has never been mounted and belatedly orders aircraft to begin searching the area. In the meantime, Juneau‘s survivors, many of whom are seriously wounded, are exposed to the elements, hunger, thirst, and repeated shark attacks.
Eight days after the sinking, ten survivors are found by a PBY Catalina search aircraft and retrieved from the water. The survivors report that Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George survived for four or five days before, suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia, he goes over the side of the raft he occupies and is never seen or heard from again.
Security requires that the Navy not reveal the loss of Juneau or the other ships so as not to provide information to the enemy. Letters from the Sullivan sons stop arriving at the home and the parents grow worried, which prompts Alleta Sullivan to write to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in January 1943, citing rumors that survivors of the task force claim that all five brothers were killed in action.
The letter is answered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 13th, who acknowledges that the Sullivans are missing in action. By then, however, the parents have already been informed of their fate, having learned of their deaths on January 12, 1943. That morning, the boys’ father, Thomas, is preparing for work when three men in uniform approach his door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” one naval officer says. “Which one?” asks Thomas. “I’m sorry,” the officer replies. “All five.”
As a direct result of the Sullivans’ deaths, and the deaths of four of the Borgstrom brothers within a few months of each other two years later, the United States War Department adopts the Sole Survivor Policy.