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Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum's 10th Anniversary: Honoring the Sullivan Brothers

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posted on Wednesday, November 7, 2018

The deaths of Waterloo’s five Sullivan Brothers during World War II is considered the greatest combat-related loss of life by one family at one time in U.S. military history.

Five Sullivan Brothers in Navy
The Five Sullivan Brothers: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George.

George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert Sullivan were the sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan. They lived near the yard of the Illinois Central Railroad, for which their father worked as a conductor.

The boys attended St. Mary’s elementary school and East High School, along with their sister Genevieve.  They worked at the Rath Packing Co.; George and Francis had previously served in the Navy.  Albert, the youngest, was married with a son.

The brothers enlisted in the Navy to avenge the death of friend, Bill Ball of Fredericksburg, killed on the USS Arizona in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

They insisted they be allowed to serve together, a departure from military policy. George said the brothers would make “a team that can’t be beat” and that “if the worst comes to the worst, why, we’ll all have gone down together.” Their motto was, “We Stick Together.”

They were assigned to the USS Juneau, a light cruiser dispatched to the Pacific. It saw action at The Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands and other engagements in the Solomon Islands near Guadalcanal.

In the early hours of November 13, 1942, the Juneau and other American ships intercepted a “Tokyo Express” Japanese task force planning to attack U.S. forces on Guadalcanal. A fierce nighttime ship-to-ship battle ensued – the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The Americans turned back the task force but sustained heavy damage and casualties. The Juneau had been torpedoed once and was listing.

The U.S. ships were returning to base when the Japanese submarine I-26 fired two torpedoes at the USS San Francisco. They missed, but one struck the Juneau. It exploded and sank in 20 seconds. Commanders, fearing additional submarine attacks and presuming no survivors from the devastating explosion, ordered the other U.S. ships out of the area.

However, more than 100 sailors of the Juneau’s crew of 700 survived the actual sinking. Most died at sea in the days that followed from exposure, wounds or shark attacks. Several Sullivans may have been among them. But according to most survivor accounts, only George Sullivan survived the actual sinking but died in a shark attack days later. Ten sailors and a four-person medical crew sent to the San Francisco to tend to wounded prior to the sinking were the Juneau’s only survivors.

The Sullivan family was informed in January 1943 all five sons were missing. Juneau survivor Lester Zook, recovering in a naval hospital, wrote Alleta Sullivan her sons had died.

SBIVM_Sailor and Ship
Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum

The government used the tragedy to promote the nation’s war effort. The family participated in war bond rallies. Genevieve Sullivan joined the Navy WAVES. A namesake new destroyer, the USS The Sullivans, was commissioned and it saw considerable service in World War II, Korea and through the 1970s. A popular but highly fictionalized movie, “The Fighting Sullivans,” played in theaters across the U.S.

Albert Sullivan’s son Jim joined the Navy in the late 1950s. Sullivan Brothers Memorial Park was dedicated on the site of their former home in the mid-1960s. Waterloo’s convention center was renamed for them in 1988. A new Navy destroyer USS The Sullivans, sponsored by Albert’s granddaughter, Kelly Sullivan, began service in 1997 after the first ship was decommissioned and docked at Buffalo, New York. Five memorial markers for the Sullivans were placed at Arlington National Cemetery.

Director Steven Spielberg honored Sullivans as he accepted an Oscar for the 1998 movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” partially inspired by the brothers. The $11.5 million Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum was constructed and opened in Waterloo in 2008.

On St. Patrick’s Day 2018, an oceanographic crew with the Research Vehicle Patel of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen found the wreckage of the Juneau scattered over a mile on the ocean floor where it sank.

SBIVM_Exterior Lone Sailor
Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum

The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum is dedicated to all Iowa veterans, because, as John Rooff III, a Sullivan cousin and former Waterloo mayor, once said, “I think we have to recognize our heroes are always ordinary people,” doing extraordinary things.

The Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum is celebrating their 10th Anniversary this month and honors not only the Sullivan Brothers but all Iowa veterans who have served from the Civil War through the current conflicts. For more information about the museum and to see their upcoming events, check out their website and Facebook page.


- Pat Kinney, Grout Museum District
- Photos credit: Grout Museum District

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