Off Savo Island, Solomon Islands, South Pacific November 13, 1942

Commissioned on February 14, 1942, the light antiaircraft cruiser USS Juneau (CL‑52), named after the capital city of Alaska, first saw ser­vice in the Carib­bean, where it per­formed block­ade patrol in early May off Marti­nique and Gua­de­loupe Islands to pre­vent the escape of Vichy French naval units. On August 22, 1942, the cruiser departed for the Pacific Thea­ter assigned with providing pro­tec­tive screening and es­cort ser­vices for, as it happened, the carriers Hornet, Wasp, and Enter­prise. On arrival, it was involved in a num­ber of naval engage­ments during the months-long Guadal­canal Cam­paign, the first major offensive by Allied forces against Japan. The Juneau’s comple­ment of offi­cers and sea­men saw their first combat on October 26, 1942, in the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands (Octo­ber 25–27, 1942). That engage­ment, the fourth carrier battle of the Pacific Campaign, inflicted damage on Japa­nese carrier forces suffi­cient to limit their further involve­ment in the battle for Guadalcanal (August 7, 1942, to February 9, 1943).

The next month, on this date, November 13, the 541‑ft Juneau was cut in half by one of three tor­pedoes fired by Japa­nese sub­ma­rine I‑26. Hours earlier the thinly armored cruiser had been in a fierce night­time battle (the Naval Battle of Guadal­canal) and had been hit by a Japa­nese torpedo in the for­ward fire room on the port side. Badly damaged, possibly with a broken keel, limping on one screw at 13 knots, down 12 feet by the bow, the Juneau charted course with other battle-damaged U.S. war­ships for the Allied rear-area base at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides (South Pacific). When tor­pedoed in broad day­light the second time at or near its ammu­nition maga­zines (roughly in the gen­eral area where it had been pre­viously hit), the cruiser went down in 20 seconds, taking with her three of five Sulli­van brothers and 85 per­cent of their crew­mates in the initial explo­sion. A search-and-rescue request made hours later was ignored for days before being discovered and acted on.

Despite being wounded, George Sullivan, the oldest brother at 27, made it onto a raft where he sur­vived for several days before suc­cumbing to his wounds and exhaus­tion or to a shark attack when he left the rela­tive safety of the raft. Albert, married, already a father, and the youngest brother at 20, drowned within a day of the Juneau’s sinking. Of a crew of nearly 700 men, only 10 survived the cruiser’s final mis­sion when plucked from the water eight days later by a PBY Cata­lina search air­craft. The “Fighting Sullivan Brothers,” as they became known, had enlisted together eleven months earlier, insisting that they serve aboard the same ship. The brothers received Purple Heart Medals post­hu­mously along with several cam­paign and ser­vice medals. Presi­dent Franklin D. Roose­velt and First Lady Eleanor Roose­velt sent letters of con­do­lence to the Sullivans’ parents, and Pope Pius XII sent a rosary along with a mes­sage of regret (the Sulli­van family was Roman Cath­o­lic). The Sulli­vans (DD‑537), a U.S. Navy Fletcher-class destroyer (not a replace­ment cruiser), was named in honor of the five brothers. On launch day, April 4, 1943, in San Fran­cisco the boys’ mother, Mrs. Alleta Sullivan, broke a bottle of champagne on the warship’s bow.

The Five Sullivan Brothers Aboard USS Juneau, February 1942

Five Sullivan brothers, February 14, 1942

Above: Sullivan brothers on the USS Juneau, Febru­ary 14, 1942: Joseph (left), Francis, Albert, Madison, and George. Aged 20 to 27, the Sulli­vans enlisted in the U.S. Navy on Janu­ary 3, 1942, with the stipu­la­tion that they serve together. The brothers lost their lives when their ship, USS Juneau, was sunk by Japa­nese sub­marine I‑26 during the Naval Battle of Guadal­canal on Novem­ber 13, 1942. This picture of the five brothers was turned into war­time poster with the caption: “They did their part.” As for sub I‑26, just over two years later it dis­appeared east of Leyte Island in the Philip­pines, taking with it the distinc­tion of having sunk more than 51,500 tons, the third-highest scoring Japanese submarine in terms of tonnage sunk.

USS The Sullivans off Ponape, Micronesia, May 2, 1944

Above: The 376-ft USS The Sullivans (DD-537) off Ponape, Micro­nesia, May 2, 1944. The loss of the five insep­a­rable Sulli­van brothers is reput­ably the greatest mili­tary loss by any one Amer­i­can family during World War II. The Sullivans, whose keel was laid down on Octo­ber 10, 1942, even before the tragedy, was the second ship com­mis­sioned in the Navy that honored five brothers. (The first was the USS O’Brien, com­mis­sioned in 1940.) The Fletcher-class destroyer was launched on April 4, 1943, and saw ser­vice in the Pacific with Fast Carrier Task Force 58, part of Adm. Ray­mond Spru­ance’s Fifth Fleet. The ship, recipi­ent of four battle stars for World War II ser­vice and, since 1986, a National His­to­ric Land­mark, is berthed in Buffalo, New York, and now serves as a memo­rial open to the public. A second war­ship named The Sulli­vans (DDG‑68), an Arleigh Burke-class Aegis guided missile destroyer, was com­mis­sioned in April 1997 and homeported in Florida.

A Tribute to the Five Sullivan Brothers