There are many stirring tales of Irish and Irish-American military heroes in the long history of the United States. From the first days of American colonies through the Revolution, the Irish who came to America and their descendants have often given the last full measure of devotion to the land that gave them sanctuary. Few are as well-known as the five “Fighting” Sullivan brothers who died together in the sinking of the USS Juneau on November 12, 1942 during WWII. This, however, is not a retelling of their oft-told story.
(Righ: Thomas and Alleta Sullivan reading the message from Vice President Henry Wallace.)
This is the story of other heroes of that same Sullivan saga, who endured a blow that would have crushed most people under such a shattering personal tragedy: Thomas and Alleta, ill-fated parents of the fallen brothers, their daughter, Genevieve, and Katherine Mary, wife of the youngest Sullivan brother, Albert, and their infant son, James. Not all courage required by a nation at war involves a person facing the guns and bombs of the enemy. Sometimes it requires one to endure the unendurable, the nearly unthinkable, and not lose faith in your nation. Such was the amazing sacrifice of those Sullivan’s who did not die off the coast of the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific. As even President Franklin Roosevelt had admitted in his letter to Alleta, “I realize full well there is little I can say to assuage your grief.” There was not anything he or anyone else could say; that strength had to come from somewhere inside those grieving parents.
(Below: The Sullivan's home in Waterloo.)
It was said that Thomas Sullivan’s grandfather had emigrated from Castletownbeare, in west Cork, Ireland, the ancient stronghold of the Sullivan clan, with his wife Bridget and his brother Owen, in 1849. Thomas Sullivan and Alleta Abel were married in Waterloo, Iowa in 1914 at St. Joseph’s Catholic Church. They would settle in the town, living at 98 Adams Street. This was in the days before “cafeteria Catholicism” led many Catholics to disregard the Church’s teachings on birth control. As a result, most Irish Catholic families were large, and the Sullivan family was no exception. They would have seven children over the next 17 years. George was born on December 14, 1914; Francis Henry on February 18, 1916; Genevieve Marie on February 19, 1917; Joseph Eugene on August 28, 1918; Madison (Matt) Abel on November 8, 1919; and Albert Leo on July 8, 1922. Their last child, Kathleen Mae, was born in April 1931, but died of pneumonia five months later. That was a horrible family tragedy, and may have helped prepare them for what was coming.
(Below: Postcard of a railroad bridge in Waterloo.)
Though their oldest son was just 15 when the Great Depression hit, the family was lucky. Thomas never lost his job as a freight conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad. Every Sunday the Sullivan brood would fill a pew at St. Mary’s Catholic Church. The boys played baseball and football in the vacant lot next to their house. They also learned to hunt and fish with their dad. They were even said to have learned a few Irish ballads. And they loved their sister Genevieve’s chocolate walnut drop cookies. They lived an idyllic mid-western pre-war American childhood there in the heart-land of America.
The family was not totally unaffected by the economic problems of Depression America, however. With jobs hard to come by, George and Frank (Francis) joined the navy after leaving school. One of their good friends, William Ball from Fredericksburg, who was rumored to be “sweet on” Genevieve, also joined. By 1941 the economy was improving and youngest son Albert had gotten married and he and his wife, Katherine Mary had a son in February. George and Frank left the navy and came home in May. Some of the brothers got jobs at the Rath Meat Packing plant. Life was good for Thomas and Alleta Sullivan and their large family, but for them and the world, dark clouds were gathering on the horizon. The Sullivan’s friend, Bill Ball, had stayed in the Navy. He was stationed on the USS Arizona, based at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii.
When America was transformed into a nation at war by the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941, the Sullivan family was transformed as well. When word arrived that their friend William had died on the Arizona, the brothers did not hesitate. Elder brother George said, “Well I guess our minds are made up, aren’t they fellows? And, when we go in, we want to go in together.” They made the fateful decision to enlist in the navy to ask to serve on the same ship. “We Stick Together” would be their motto. And George had prophetically added, “If the worst comes to the worst, why we’ll all have gone down together.”
Five brothers going off to serve together was big news in Waterloo. The Waterloo Iowa Courier, in a story about local boys going off to war, asked Alleta Sullivan how she felt about all five of her sons going to war together. “I remember I was crying a little,” she said. No doubt it was far more than “a little.”
(Above: The Sullivan brothers on board USS Juneau: Joe, Frank, Al, Matt, and George.)
Though the navy was already working on a policy prohibiting brothers serving on the same ship, when the five Sullivan brothers requested it in January 1942, the navy agreed. All five were assigned to the USS Juneau, the first US ship to be camouflage painted, and sailed off ‘into harm’s way” in the Pacific later that year. One can only imagine the anguish Alleta and Thomas felt waiting for each letter to arrive to confirm that their sons were still alive. But then suddenly, after a letter dated November 8th, the letters stopped. Because the government did not want to give the Japanese any information on any battle losses, the Sullivan’s did not know for some time that the Juneau had been sunk.
(Above: USS Juneau)
Weeks passed, it must have seemed like years for the distraught Sullivans. Rumors began to circulate around Waterloo about a disaster involving the brothers, but still the family heard nothing from the navy. Then the family got a letter from one of the ten survivors of the sinking, who had been a good friend of George’s on the ship. “I am afraid all hope is gone for your boys,” he wrote. “I don’t know whether a letter of this sort helps you or hurts. But it’s the truth. I saw it.” When the “Waterloo Daily Courier” published a headline “SULLIVANS MISSING,” it included an interview with the distraught mother. She had hope that they would “show up somewhere someday soon, but if they are gone it will be some comfort to know that they went together, as they wanted, and gave their lives for their country’s victory.” Each day of waiting for word must seemed like a life time.
Still there was no official word, and they held on to their faint hope that at least some of their sons may have survived. In January Alleta could simply not wait any longer for information and wrote to the Navy about her sons. Imagine if you can, ever starting a letter with this: “I am writing you in regards to a rumor going around that my five sons were killed in action in November.” Later in the letter she said, “I hated to bother you, but it has worried me so that I wanted to know if it was true. So please tell me.” It “has worried me so,” what an incredible understatement. On January 11th they got a knock on their door. When Alleta opened the door, she saw Lt. Commander Truman Jones in full dress uniform, grim faced. She must have known the news she dreaded had arrived.
(Left: The Waterloo newspaper headline on January 12, 1943.)
Though Jones could only say for sure that all five of their sons were missing in action, he must have also let them know that they were “presumed dead.” "Loss of the five Sullivan brothers ranks as the greatest single blow suffered by any one family since Pearl Harbor and probably in American Naval history,” the Navy’s public statement would later say. Shortly after Jones saw them, they received a letter from President Roosevelt. “I want you to know the entire nation shares your sorrow,” he said, and indeed, the entire country was now reading of their family’s catastrophe. As much as the country was getting used to the heartbreak of families losing a loved one, to lose five at once was inconceivable to most Americans. “I send you my deepest sympathy in your hour of trial and pray that in Almighty God you will find the comfort and help that only He can bring,” FDR wrote at the end of his letter. Their faith would certainly be strained by this tragedy but they held to it, helped perhaps by the fact that Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret. Alleta, with five gold stars hanging in the window of the family, attained a status just short of sainthood with many. Some called her "today's Mrs. Bixby," after a woman who had lost 5 sons during the Civil War, but to most she was now known as “the champion Gold Star mother,” not a crown any woman would aspire to.
They began to receive more information from the few survivors, but it may have only made the family’s anguish worse. They discovered that at least one of their sons, George, was among the handful of sailors who originally survived the rapid sinking of the ship. “The other boys were below at the time,” a Juneau survivor later told them. “They went down with the ship and did not suffer.” But he said that George had survived and been on one of the life rafts. “It was a sad and pathetic sight,” he said, “to see George looking for his brothers, but all to no avail.”
But the story got much worse. After several days, as often happened to such survivors from lack of food and water, George apparently became disoriented and swam away from the raft. “A shark came and grabbed him and that was the end of him.” There were also some reports that Al was alive on one of the rafts, but was severely wounded and died shortly after.
I suppose one would think they would want all the information they could get about the loss of their sons, but many men might have chosen not to pass this on at all. It was far worse for the family than believing all five has simply gone down with the ship.
The Sullivan brothers had already become celebrities before they even left the US. Their stories had been told around the country and Alleta had been invited to christen a Navy ship, the USS Tawasa in Portland in February 1943. It’s hard to believe that most mothers would be able to get out of bed for months after such devastating news; but in her letter to the Navy, Alleta told them that regardless of fate of her sons, “I will still christen the ship as it was their wish that I do so” and that her husband and daughter would accompany her to Portland.
Perhaps throwing herself into the cause her sons had died for was her way to cope and accept the unimaginable nightmare they were living. Two months later Alleta christened another ship, a new destroyer named, “The Sullivans.” The ship’s motto was “We Stick Together.” It was the first US ship ever named for more than one person.
(Left: Genevieve, Tom and Alleta at the christening of the USS The Sullivans)
Some said that Alleta suffered bouts of depression before the war. If so, she was certainly now experiencing something that could have put nearly any person into a deep, long depression. In fact, she said, “Your first temptation when the news comes is to lock your door and retire into your own private grief. You want to sit alone in your room and cry your heart out."
Alleta later said "The boys always wrote me to ‘keep my chin up’. After their ship went down, I remembered what they said and made up my mind to see what I can do to help win the war—to kind of carry on for their sake." Tom and Alleta were invited to Washington, where First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Vice President Henry A. Wallace met with them.
The Navy, realizing how revered Tom and Alleta now were in the country after the incredible sacrifice their family had made, and seeing that they willing, asked them to tour defense plants in order to help speed production and they agreed to do it. They would speak at 235 bond rallies and defense plants nationwide over the next four months. The Illinois Central Railroad agreed to pay Tom's salary while they toured. Though many have said the government was exploiting their family tragedy, for the Sullivans it seemed to have been cathartic. “The trip has kept me from thinking…,” she told a reporter. “It’s bad to think too much.”
They threw themselves into task and by all accounts it was one of the most effective campaigns of the war. “The Navy told us that every time we appeared at a defense plant,” Alleta Sullivan later wrote, “the production record of the plant went surging magically upward.”
In a radio broadcast from New York on Jan. 31, 1943 Thomas Sullivan said, “We’ve all got to get into this fight, every one of us. And we feel we have the right to ask, ‘What have YOU given to win this war?” Coming from the parents who had given so much, it had the desired effect. As one woman told the Associated Press after hearing the Sullivans: “And now I wonder how the sugar and coffee hoarders feel.”
The couple took time out from their first tour to attend a solemn Mass in New York’s St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Greeting them, Monsignor Joseph F. Flannelly said, “I have received kings and queens and premiers, but no one has been more welcome here than Mrs. Sullivan.” When the tour was over, they still continued to do other events the reset of the war. By the end of the war they had visited over 200 factories and shipyards in 65 cities and spoken to more than a million workers.
In April 1943, Genevieve, who had gone from being one of six siblings to an only child in the blink of an eye, enlisted in the Navy. It was another PR bonanza for the Navy. The Sullivan family was making yet another sacrifice for the war effort.
It was not until eight months after the loss of the Juneau that Navy Secretary Frank Knox finally sent an official letter announcing, "This lapse of time, in view of the circumstances surrounding the disaster as officially reported by close witnesses, forces us reluctantly to the conclusion that the personnel missing as a result of the loss of the JUNEAU, were in fact killed by enemy action." By then they could not have had much hope, but whatever tiny bit may have been left was extinguished. In February 1944 Alleta wrote an article in "The American" magazine full of advice for mothers who lost sons in the war as a recognized "voice of experience" on the subject.
The final step making the Sullivan brothers an American icon was the movie of their lives, “The Fighting Sullivans,” in 1944, while the war was still going on. As was the case with most movies made during the war, when everyone, including Hollywood, was expected to get behind the war effort, it was part fact and part fiction. No fictionalizing was needed to convince the country that the Sullivan family had paid an incredible cost in defense of the country, of course. And the movie did not include the amazing story of Tom and Alleta’s service to the nation in the aftermath of their family tragedy; so many know how the sons died, but far fewer now know the story of how their parents served the country in its aftermath.
After the war there were a few more honors for the Sullivans and their sons. In 1948, when the first Gold Star Mothers stamps were issued, the first sheet of stamps were presented to Alleta Sullivan. In Waterloo, The Five Sullivan Brothers Conventions Center and the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum were named for their sons, along with a street and a public park.
When the war was over, and the celebrity faded, the Sullivans, must have had many quiet days at home, and especially during holidays, where they contemplated how, if life had taken a different path, the house might have been overflowing with their children and grandchildren and filled with the sound of their laughter.
(Right: Madison, Alleta, Albert and baby James, Albert’s son. Matt & Al visited home shortly before embarking on the Juneau. This is probably the last time Alleta saw any of her sons.)
Tom passed away in March 1965 and Alleta in April 1972. They lived alone with their tremendous loss through those final decades, with the media no longer beating down their door. Through those years, however, they did sometimes have unexpected visitors. Sailors who had known their sons, and other sailors who simply knew of them, would sometimes stop by to give their condolences. Often Alleta would insist they stay for a while and she would make them a home cooked meal. And perhaps as they sat there at the table in their uniforms, her mind wandered back to those five young sailors who had once sat around the same table so many years ago.
The Sullivan Brothers: Alleta Sullivan's Letter to the Bureau of Naval Personnel (Video)
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