During the night of November 12, 1942, and into the early morning hours of November 13, a pitched battle between the navies of the United States and the Empire of Japan occurred off the coast of Guadalcanal. It was a confused and bloody fight. By the time it was over, both navies had taken a beating. But onboard the sunken U.S. cruiser Juneau, the singular tragedy of the five Sullivan brothers would take place. 

The deaths of the Sullivan brothers, along with eight other brothers on board the ship, caused the U.S. military to change the way it manned its units henceforward.


The Sullivan Brothers Insist on Serving Together

The family of five brothers, and one sister (Genevieve), grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. The boys all left school early and sought work because of the Depression. The two eldest, George and Frank, joined the Navy in 1937, serving for four years before returning to Iowa in the spring of 1941. 

When the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, the five brothers went to enlist together. George wrote to the Department of the Navy asking if the five brothers and two friends from Waterloo be allowed to serve together. 

“We had five buddies killed in Hawaii. Help us,” George wrote adding that they “would make a team together that can’t be beat [sic].”

“When we go in, we want to go in together,” said George. “If the worst comes to the worst, why, we’ll all have gone down together.”

The Navy, while not encouraging siblings serving together, didn’t discourage it either, and the brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau. 

The USS Juneau (CL-52) was a United States Navy Atlanta-class light cruiser. It was launched on October 25, 1941, and commissioned on February 14, 1942, two months after the U.S. entered WWII. Captain Lyman K. Swenson would be Juneau’s first commander.

On the day of commissioning, photographers took pictures of the five Sullivan brothers, not knowing that several months later the photos would be used as a testament to the family’s sacrifice. 


USS Juneau, A Glass Cannon

After a quick shakedown cruise, the Juneau served in the Atlantic. She was part of the naval patrols blocking the escape of Vichy French units off the Martinique and Guadeloupe Islands.

The Juneau was fast. It carried an array of 16 five-inch antiaircraft guns, 16 1.1-inch (28mm) antiaircraft guns, and eight 20mm antiaircraft guns, as well as eight torpedo tubes. She provided the fleet with outstanding covering fire from approaching aircraft. But she was woefully under armored and was particularly susceptible to torpedo attacks. 

USS Juneau
USS Juneau early in World War II. (U.S. Navy)

After returning to New York to complete alterations, and conducting a further operation in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean until mid-August, the Juneau was ordered to the Pacific Theater. It departed on August 22. 

Juneau was escorting the aircraft carrier Wasp that was ferrying fighter aircraft to the ongoing battle at Guadalcanal. The Wasp was sunk on September 15 after taking three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19. After helping rescue nearly 2,000 survivors from the Wasp, Juneau was assigned to Task Force 17 (TF-17) with the aircraft carrier Hornet. There, the Juneau took part in three separate actions that blocked the Japanese from reinforcing their troops at Guadalcanal

Watch: USS Juneau wreckage is discovered — the ship on which the Sullivan brothers were lost

Read Next: Watch: USS Juneau wreckage is discovered — the ship on which the Sullivan brothers were lost

During the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, Juneau and other escort ships of the Hornet shot down 20 Japanese aircraft that were approaching the carrier. Despite this, the Hornet was badly damaged in the battle and sunk the next day. 

On the 27, the Japanese launched another large raid on the carrier USS Enterprise. The Juneau and other escorts shot down another 18 Japanese planes. During that action, American carrier planes badly damaged two Japanese carriers, CVL Zuihō and CV Shōkaku. Though very costly in terms of ship and personnel losses, the battles stopped the Japanese from reinforcing the Solomons and would eventually lead to the American victory at Guadalcanal. 

During an operation to resupply Guadalcanal, Juneau was escorting transports when the convoy was attacked by 30 Japanese aircraft. All but one of the attackers were shot down by the American ships and aircraft that arrived from Guadalcanal.


The Juneau Sinks in Less Than 20 Seconds

The next morning, on November 12, just before 0130, the American and Japanese fleets nearly ran into each other because of bad weather and total darkness. This set off a wild melee at point-blank range. The Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze launched a torpedo that struck Juneau on the port side. It caused a 12-degree list. She was forced to withdraw along with the cruisers San Francisco and Helena. 

Operating on only one screw, Juneau was able to maintain 13 knots about 800 meters aft of the San Francisco. At 1100 hours the Japanese submarine I-26 launched two torpedoes at San Francisco. They missed and struck Juneau, exactly where the first torpedo had struck her the night before. There was a terrific explosion, followed quickly by underwater blasts which were probably her boilers exploding. Then the ammunition exploded and one of the large five-inch turrets blew into the sky. This caused Juneau to break in two. The bow and forward part of the ship sunk immediately, then the stern followed. She sunk in under 20 seconds. 

Helena and San Francisco, believing that no one had survived and fearing more attacks from the submarine, left the area. “It is certain that all on board perished,” an officer noted. “Nothing could be seen in the water when the smoke lifted.”

However, an American B-17 bomber flying overhead spotted men in the sea. There were 100 to 200 sailors, many badly wounded. They clung to whatever flotsam had survived the explosion.


The Fate of the Sullivan Brothers

The B-17 radioed the captain of the Helena that there were survivors from the Juneau in the water. Yet, rather than turning back to pick up survivors, the ships sailed on to Espiritu Santo for repairs. In a bizarre sequence of events, the Navy did nothing for eight days to help the Juneau’s stricken survivors. During these eight days, all but 10 of the men died from their wounds, exposure, drowning, and shark attacks.

When Admiral Halsey learned of this, the commander of the Helena was sacked.

The dead included the five Sullivan brothers:

  • George Thomas Sullivan, 27, Gunner’s Mate Second Class (George had been previously discharged in May 1941 as Gunner’s Mate Third Class.)
  • Francis Henry “Frank” Sullivan, 26, Coxswain (Frank had been previously discharged in May 1941 as Seaman First Class.)
  • Joseph Eugene “Joe” Sullivan, 24, Seaman Second Class
  • Madison Abel “Matt” Sullivan, 23, Seaman Second Class
  • Albert Leo “Al” Sullivan, 20, Seaman Second Class

Other survivors reported that Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly in the explosion. Al survived the sinking but drowned the next day. Survivors recalled George Sullivan’s repeated cries of “Al, Matt, Red, Frank? Where are my brothers?” as he searched the rafts and wreckage for any sign of them.

George survived for four or five days more before suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia. Gunner’s Mate 2nd Class Allen Heyn told naval investigators that George told his shipmates that he was going to take a bath. He removed his uniform and jumped into the water.

A little way from his raft, “a shark came and grabbed him and that was the end of him,” Heyn said. “I never [saw] him again.”


A Change in Policy

On January 12, 1943, their father Tom, was preparing for work when three men in uniform – a lieutenant commander, a doctor, and a chief petty officer – approached his door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” the naval officer said. “Which one?” asked Tom. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”

The death of Tom’s sons was the single greatest wartime sacrifice of any American family.

President Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Sullivan brothers’ parents which arrived the next day.

Roosevelt letter Sullivan familiy brothers
The letter that President Roosevelt wrote to the Sullivan family. (U.S. National Archives)

Survivors recall that two of the brothers would have been transferred off the ship had it made it to the U.S. naval base at Espiritu Santo.

Following the incident, the Navy would enforce its policy of separating siblings and then the Pentagon would institute the Sole Survivor Policy.

The Sullivan brothers story was mentioned in the film Saving Private Ryan which was based on another set of brothers.

Later, the Navy would christen not one but two ships after the Sullivan brothers, USS The Sullivans (DD-537), and USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer.

The wreck of the Juneau was found on March 17, 2018, by Paul Allen’s research crew onboard RV Petrel. The cruiser rests 4,200 m (13,800 ft) below the surface off the Solomon Islands in several large pieces with the stern resting on the bow. The wreckage was spread out over a mile on the ocean floor.