The Sullivan Brothers: 80 years later, 'people do care, and people do remember'

Posted by Pat Kinney on Thursday, November 10, 2022

Note: Pat Kinney, an oral historian with the Grout Museum District, worked as a reporter and editor at the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier from 1984-2018. Much of this post is from his reporting on Waterloo's five Sullivan brothers throughout his time at the paper.

"Well, our minds are made up, aren't they fellows? And, when we go in, we want to go in together. If the worst comes to the worst, why we'll have all gone down together." 

---George Sullivan, oldest of Waterloo's five Sullivan brothers, December 1941 

WATERLOO --- Maybe they were brash. Maybe they were foolhardy. Maybe they were just five more victims in a war with hundreds of millions of victims. 

But maybe, just maybe, George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan were heroes as well. 

Heroic enough for not one, but two U.S. Navy destroyers to bear their name. Heroic enough to inspire one of Hollywood's most successful directors, Steven Spielberg, to create a 1998 Academy Award-winning movie, “Saving Private Ryan,” and acknowledge their sacrifice when accepting his Oscar. Heroic enough for their hometown library, museum and newspaper to receive inquiries from around the country and around the world. 

The 5 Sullivan Brothers, at home in Waterloo.

In short, heroic enough to be remembered 80 years after a torpedo slammed into the magazine of the USS Juneau in the South Pacific, taking all five Sullivans and all but 14 of their nearly 700 shipmates. 

The five sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan went into harm's way with their eyes open --- - just as sure as they knew their friend, Bill Ball of Fredericksburg, was on the USS Arizona when it was destroyed at Pearl Harbor, claiming the lives of 1,100 men. 

Paul Hamilton knew. A buddy of Joseph "Red" Sullivan in the Black Hawks Motorcycle Club, he was a guest at Sunday dinner at the Sullivan household on Adams Street on Dec. 7, 1941. 

"As soon as we drove up there, their mother came running out to tell us the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor," Hamilton said. "So we got in there and listened to the radio." 

George and Francis or "Frankie," the two oldest brothers, were listening intently, because each had just returned from a tour of duty in the Navy. 

"Those two boys could tell what was happening," Hamilton said, in a 1991 Courier interview. "I'm not sure whether they were on those ships, but they had part of their friends on ships that were being blown up over there. 

"So they talked right away about going into the Navy," Hamilton said, tears in his eyes. "We had dinner that day, but it wasn't a very happy occasion." 

The brothers enlisted on the condition they be allowed to serve together on the same ship, a departure from Navy policy. After some initial resistance, the military acquiesced. 

"I was talking to an ensign the other day," Red Sullivan wrote Paul Hamilton. "From the way he talked, all five of us brothers are going to get on the same ship. I wish the rest of you guys could go along." That ship was the Juneau. 

The public relations possibilities of having five brothers enlist together, and serving on the same ship, wasn't lost on the Navy. Word was spread. The five brothers appeared in newsreels and publicity photos. They were feted at heavyweight boxing champion Jack Dempsey's restaurant before the Juneau embarked from the Brooklyn Navy Yard in New York Harbor. Pictures of the five handsome brothers --- all bachelors except Albert, the youngest --- circulated around the country. Two of them --- Red and Madison, or "Matt," became engaged to be married --- Red to Margaret Jaros of Pittsburgh, Matt to Beatrice Imperato of New Jersey. 

The Juneau set sail in the early summer of 1942, after Red and Frank had visited Margaret Jaros and friends in Pittsburgh. Also, between enlistment and embarkation, Matt and Al were able to return home to see the family, including Al's wife Katherine and son Jimmy. 

USS Juneau

After some shakedown and convoy cruises in the Atlantic, the Juneau, vaunted for its speed and radar capabilities, was dispatched to the Pacific. It was designed for anti-aircraft combat, and the ship and crew acquitted itself well in the Battle of Santa Cruz, combining with other ships to shoot down some 38 Japanese planes that were attacking two U.S. aircraft carriers, according to Navy records. 

Following that battle, at the port of Noumea in New Caledonia, a shore officer came aboard and asked any members of the same family to split up and board other vessels because of high casualties in the area. Two of four Rogers brothers from Connecticut went to other ships. The five Sullivans decided to stick together, as well as two brothers named Coombs. 

The Juneau accompanied carriers ferrying U.S. planes to the island of Guadalcanal, where Japanese and American forces were locked in a months-long seesaw battle, and shot down six Japanese torpedo bombers in a 30-plane attack force. It also participated in the costly Battle of Savo Island off Guadalcanal, in which the carrier USS Hornet was sunk. A sailor from Waterloo on the Hornet, Don Kemp, said the Juneau was one of a screen of ships protecting the carrier and may have saved his life. All but 140 of the Hornet’s crew of 2,200 were saved, though the ship was lost. 

In November, word was received that a large Japanese task force, known to U.S. sailors as a "Tokyo Express," was steaming toward Guadalcanal. The outgunned Juneau and other American ships headed out to meet them. 

With personnel at battle stations, the American ships passed right in between the Japanese ships in the middle of the night. Searchlights, flares, explosions and tracers broke the darkness as the ships exchanged fire and maneuvered to avoid ramming into each other. It was known as the "Battle of Friday the Thirteenth" and compared to "a barroom fight with the lights out." 

"It was a pistol," Juneau survivor Lester Zook said of the firefight. "We lost the most .. but in a way, it was considered a victory for us, because we had delayed them from making any further inroads on Guadalcanal" until the island and American offensive strength could be reinforced. The ships are credited with saving Henderson Field on Guadalcanal, a key installation on the island. Of the Japanese force of 18 to 20 ships, three destroyers were damaged, two sunk and a battleship was left rudderless and destroyed the following day by American aircraft. 

Survivor U.S. Navy Lieutenant Commander Lester Eugene Zook II

The delaying action took a toll on the American ships. Twelve of the 13 American ships had been either sunk or damaged in some way, including the Juneau, which had taken a torpedo hit. It and five other ships that were able to leave the battle, headed by the USS Helena, had headed for Noumea by daylight. A four-person medical team was sent from the Juneau to the heavily damaged USS San Francisco to tend to wounded there. 

A Japanese submarine, I-26, fired three torpedoes that were apparently directed for the heavily damaged USS San Francisco. Two missed. According to Lt. Roger O'Neil, a Juneau medical officer on the San Francisco, a third erratic torpedo dove under the San Francisco, surfaced on the other side, headed directly toward the Juneau 800 yards away and struck the ship at about the same point as the first torpedo hit in the night battle. The Juneau exploded and sank in 20 seconds. 

"It blew up right in my face," said Juneau survivor Frank Holmgren, who was stationed at the ship's fantail. "My hand landed on a life jacket. I sort of pulled it on me ... the ship was going down ... the fantail was at a 45-degree angle. I said 'Oh my God, I'm gonna die; oh my God I'm gonna die.' Then I was gone." Holmgren blacked out. The next thing he remembered was shooting to the surface like a cork, buoyed by his life jacket. 

"It was a tremendous explosion," Zook said. The ship sank before he could take a breath. "I was in water waist deep. My battle tower was 40 feet above the water line." A "surge of water" rushed over him. "Then the ship went down. The suction took me down with the ship until I could separate myself from the suction stream, and finally feel the pressure in my ears lifting. I start swimming upward again." 

When Zook surfaced, "there was 4 to 6 inches of oil on the water," he said. "I couldn't see anything, but people on the life raft saw me and said, 'Swim over here,' and I paddled over there. The water was too oily to swim hand over hand." 

Holmgren said he and other sailors had cut loose a stack of life rafts on the fantail some time prior to the sinking, so they wouldn't have to cut them loose in a hurry if the ship got in trouble. 

The sailors used still-dry centers from roll after roll of toilet paper floating on the surface to wipe the oil out of each others' eyes. 

Zook recalled George Sullivan on the same life raft as him, calling out for his brothers, to no avail. Another survivor, Art Friend, recalled seeing an injured Red and Al after the sinking as well among the oil-covered sailors, but according to most survivor accounts, only George survived the actual sinking. 

The survivors spent several says at sea, but only a handful survived the ordeal at sea in the days that followed, dying of wounds, exposure or sharks. Some sailors would get delirious, fight with each other or hallucinate. Some who couldn't stand their pain or were delirious would swim out beyond the life rafts, only to be taken by the sharks. George Sullivan was one of them, according to survivor Al Heyn. 

Planes spotted the survivors on the third day and dropped an inflatable rubber raft. Three men, Lt. Joseph Wang, who was badly wounded, Joseph Heartney and James Fitzgerald, headed for land to try to get help. They landed at San Cristobal Island four days later. 

Those remaining on the rafts thought they could see land and tried to row for it, but the water was too rough. Eventually the rafts became separated. The largest group of survivors were on Zook's and Holmgren's raft. 

Zook, Holmgren, Wyatt Butterfield, George Mantere and Henry J. Gardner were rescued from their raft by a PBY Catalina seaplane, which risked landing in rough waters to retrieve the men. Bill Anderson, who was plane crew chief, said the rescue one of the most rewarding experiences in his time in the Navy. 

"They were covered with oil. I thought they were Japanese but they weren't," Anderson said. The plane circled for some time, waiting for a destroyer to pick up the survivors, and radioed back to base to receive orders to land but none came. 

The plane dropped a life jacket with some provisions and a note, which explained the situation and said, "cheer up lads and sit tight." The men on the raft tried to paddle toward the jacket but couldn't quite reach it. Butterfield swam out and retrieved the note, fighting off three sharks with a knife -- a deed for which he later was awarded the Bronze Star. The pilot, Lawrence Williamson, decided to land. 

"The landing wasn't bad, a little rough. The takeoff was the hard part," plane crew member Anderson said. The plane skipped from one wave to another before getting airborne. 

Anderson said he slipped into the water while loading the Juneau crew members into the plane, "but because of my fear of sharks that were reported to be in that area, I was out so fast that I didn't even get wet." 

"One thing I remember is they asked for some coffee," he said. "We didn't have any. We had some old grounds from that morning," which he reused. "They said it was great coffee," he said. The survivors had been at sea seven days. 

Friend and Heyn, the lone survivors on separate rafts, were each picked up by the USS Ballard a day or two later. Friend, wounded from a shark attack hours before his rescue in an ill-fated attempt to save a friend, said he sat on his raft alone until he saw the mast of the Ballard emerging on the horizon. 

The 10 survivors of the actual sinking plus the four-man medical crew who helped wounded on the San Francisco were all that was left of the Juneau's crew of 700. 

The Sullivan family in Waterloo received word in January 1943 that the five brothers were missing. It was Zook, while recuperating at a Chicago naval hospital, who wrote Thomas and Alleta Sullivan that "all hope is gone of your boys being found alive." The family did not receive official word from the Navy for another seven months.  

The Sullivans' deaths is believed to be the most members of a single family killed in battle at one time in American military history. 

The five brothers' deaths was used as a rallying point in the nation's war effort, and their parents and sister Genevieve, who enlisted in the WAVES, participated in numerous war bond rallies and appearances at defense plants. 

President Roosevelt ordered a new ship, the USS The Sullivans, commissioned in the brothers' memory, and it was christened and sponsored by their mother. The brothers’ uncle, Patrick Henry Sullivan of Harpers Ferry, served on the USS The Sullivans – having just missed serving on the Juneau with his nephews.  

Alleta Sullivan had requested her brother in law be allowed to serve with her sons on the ship.
Patrick Henry Sullivan, still in the Navy, "and his sister-in-law (Alleta) asked that he be assigned to the new ship," the Courier reported. That request was granted.  

The USS The Sullivans would receive nine battle stars for its World War II service, in battles in the Marshall Islands, Truk lagoon, the Philippines, the Marianas, Leyte Gulf and Iwo Jima, among others.  

The ship, sporting a " lucky shamrock" in honor of the brothers, also became known as "The Good Samaritan" according to a Warfare History Network article. The ship participated in many rescues of sailors from ships crippled in battle and searches following Typhoon Cobra in December 1944, when three other destroyers were sunk.

The USS The Sullivans saw action in World War II and Korea and is now decommissioned and docked at a Buffalo, N.Y. military park. 

A park on the site of the boys' home was dedicated in the 1960s as well as a memorial there honoring them. In the late 1980s the Iowa Humanities board turned down a grant for a series of lectures and panel discussions on the Sullivans, saying their story was not “history of a truly significant nature,” --even though President Reagan invoked the brothers' memory as he sought to console families of 37 sailors lost in an Iraqi missile attack on the Navy frigate USS Stark in 1987.  

The slight to the Sullivans created a local public outcry and also attracted the attention of an influential and highly decorated Waterloo native, retired U.S. Navy Rear Admiral James D. Ramage – like the Sullivans, a graduate of East High School, who had also attended Iowa State Teachers College in Cedar Falls. Ramage had commanded the dive bomber Squadron of the USS Enterprise in World War II and was involved in several major Pacific battles, personally sunk an enemy battleship and also commanded a carrier division in Vietnam. He and Waterloo attorney and fellow World War II Navy veteran Ed Gallagher Jr. led a drive that resulted in Waterloo's ConWay Civic Center being renamed after the Sullivans in 1988. The dedication was attended by two survivors of the USS Juneau – Lester Zook and Wyatt Butterfield. Zook and survivors Frank Holmgren, Art Friend, Orrel Glen Cecil and their rescuer, PBY plane crew chief Bill Anderson, attended a 50th anniversary commemoration of the Juneau’s sinking in Waterloo in 1992. 

In 2008, after years of planning and fundraising, the Grout opened the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, dedicated to all Iowans who served our nation. 

Thomas Sullivan died in the 1960s; Alleta and Genevieve followed in the 1970s. 

Genevieve's sons, Murray and Tom Davidson, Al Sullivan's son Jim and his children John Sullivan and Kelly Sullivan are the surviving family members. Kelly Sullivan, a Cedar Falls school teacher, has two children, and John Sullivan has two children.

A second USS The Sullivans, the DDG-68, was built at Bath Iron Works in Maine, christened in 1995 and commissioned into service in 1997. Kelly Sullivan followed in her great grandmother’s footsteps as sponsor of the new ship and has been one of the most active ship sponsors in the Navy, 30 years after the ship’s commissioning.

The second USS The Sullivans was target of a botched al-Qaida terrorist attack in Yemeni port of Aden in January 2000, prior to the one which succeeded on its sister ship, the USS Cole, in October 2000, killing 15 sailors and injuring 37. 

The USS The Sullivans deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and has been on three deployments in the past two years, including one in which it was attached the the British Royal Navy escorting the HMS Queen Elizabeth. During that deployment it was docked in Japan alongside its sister ship the USS Milius, DDG-69, named for U.S. naval aviator Paul Milius of Bremer County, whose aircraft went down over Laos in 1968 during the Vietnam War. He is still listed as missing in action. 

On March 17, 2018 the Research Vessel Petrel, on an expedition financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, found the wreckage of the USS Juneau in Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal. 

It was an emotional, bittersweet experience for the fallen sailors' descendants. 

"There's over 700 Navy families affected by this, and my heart goes out to all those people," said Kelly Sullivan. 

"For me, it's like finding my grandfather's grave," said Knute Swensen of Huntington Beach, Calif., grandson of the Juneau's commanding officer, Capt. Lyman K. Swenson, also among the Juneau dead. 

Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for the expedition, noted it was appropriate the Juneau's remains were discovered on St. Patrick's Day given the Sullivan brothers' Irish heritage. 

"The luck of the Irish was with them," Kelly Sullivan said, echoing a wish she made for the USS The Sullivans, the current Navy destroyer named for the brothers, when she christened the ship in Bath, Maine, in 1995. 

The crew of the Petrel sent a message to The Courier at the time of the discovery, saying they were "truly humbled with the opportunity to honor our fallen servicemen and provide some closure to their families." 

Ironically, Kelly Sullivan was at the USS The Sullivans on St. Patrick's Day at its home port of Mayport, Fla., attending a retirement celebration for one of its former commanding officers. 

"When this discovery happened I was sitting on the fantail of the Sullivans ... It's unbelievable," Sullivan said. 

"It's bittersweet, this feeling," Sullivan said. "There's closure. It also opens a wound." 

She said her father, Albert's son Jim Sullivan, reacted with surprise and had similar feelings. 

"My first thought was my prayers for all the Juneau families, not just the Sullivan brothers," Kelly Sullivan said, and all veterans and their families. She said her great-grandmother, Alleta Sullivan, never really had closure because her sons' bodies were never recovered. 

The RV Petrel crew came to Waterloo Nov. 13, 2019 – the 77th anniversary of the Juneau’s sinking, and presented a program to a packed house at the Grout Museum. Earlier in the day, they presented a program to Kelly Sullivan’s third graders at Lincoln Elementary School. They provided a video of their discovery of the Juneau that is still displayed at the museum.

The Sullivans’ sacrifice is remembered not just in the U.S. but worldwide. They and their shipmates are considered to have died in the defense of Australia and are heroes there. In 2018 after the discovery of the shipwreck of the Juneau, an professor of English in Sydney, Australia who had lived on Guadalcanal in the 1960s and seen the vestiges of that conflict emailed the Courier in Waterloo and said. “Please tell Kelly, on behalf of all Aussies, thank you.”

On Saturday, Nov. 12 The Irish in Europe Society, based in Brussels Belgium will recognize the Sullivan brothers as part of its 12th annual Remembrance Saturday, recognizing “all Irish and the Irish Diaspora in all armies who died in all wars and conflicts. 

“For our Remembrance Saturday wreath laying ceremony, we particularly recognize the 80th anniversary of Five Sullivan Irish-American Brothers that were killed in action during the Second World War fighting with the American Navy,” the organization announced. Waterloo Mayor Quentin Hart is submitting a proclamation to be read in Belgium as part of that observance.
As Juneau survivor Lester Zook said during one of the Waterloo commemorations, “People do care, and people do remember.”

About The Author

Pat is the Oral Historian for the Grout Museum District.