The Fighting Sullivans

Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, of Waterloo, Iowa, had five sons and one daughter.

When the daughter’s boyfriend was killed during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, the brothers signed up with the Navy to avenge him. Although the armed services had a policy against family members serving in the same units, the policy wasn’t strictly enforced. Since the brothers asked to serve together, they were all assigned to the USS Juneau.

On the morning of November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo. Although it withdrew from the battle, it was stuck by another torpedo that afternoon and sank. Rather than risk other ships in what was sure to be a futile rescue mission, the ranking officer ordered his ships to continue its mission. Due to a radio silence orders, the location of the sunk vessel went unreported for some time. When a rescue crew finally reached the location, only ten of the approximately 100 original survivors were still alive. None of the ten were named Sullivan.

By Unknown or not provided - U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain,
By Unknown or not provided – U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, 

Tightened security required the Navy to delay informing the family of the deaths of their sons. They were finally told in January 1943.

Last week, on January 20th, the widow of Albert Sullivan passed away at the age of 93. He was the only one who had married. He and Katherine had one son. The son later served on the first of two destroyers named after the brothers. The motto for both was “We stick together.”

Public Domain,
The USS Sullivan Public Domain,

As a direct result of the Sullivan brothers’ deaths (and the later deaths of four of the Borgstrom brothers) the War Department instituted the Sole Survivor Policy. It regulates “Special Separation Policies for Survivorship” for those who have already had a family member die in military service.


Stories like this remind me of the sacrifices made by those who have fought and are fighting for my freedom. I am grateful.

2 comments on “The Fighting Sullivans

  1. The first time I heard of this event was when I watched the 1944 classic, The Fighting Sullivans. (To get the year, I did a quick Google search and learned the movie was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Story, a category that no longer exists.) It’s impossible to imagine how heartbreaking it was for the parents to lose all five of their sons at the same time. Thanks for sharing their story and for letting us know of Katharine Sullivan’s recent passing. Prayers for her family.

  2. They weren’t the first or the last to experience such a tragedy. It doesn’t make their sacrifice any less though.

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