The Sullivan Brothers: 75 Years Later
Friday, November 10, 2017
Active duty Soldiers, Sailors and Marines usually say they fight to protect our Nation and the people they serve with. Most of them are also protecting their families and lovers, the people that support their service and who will suffer most directly if the serviceperson dies.
Our Nation has especially honored the mothers of those who perish, recognizing the horrible lifelong loss these brave women suffer by designating them as “Gold Star Mothers,” a name derived from the banner they hang in their window. This recognition is given to those who lost a son or daughter in active service in the U.S. military (regardless of the place or time of the military service, regardless of whether the circumstances of death involved hostile conflict or not, and including mothers of those missing in action.)
During World War II, few such stories are as poignant as the five Sullivan Brothers. After Pearl Harbor, they wrote the Navy requesting they be allowed to serve together on the same ship. The Navy granted the request and featured this patriotic and courageous family as an image of the American sprit necessary for Victory. They were heralded in news stories and even on a recruiting poster.
George Sullivan's letter requesting the brothers stay together.
The brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau. On November 13th, 1942, two Japanese torpedoes destroyed the Juneau while patrolling off Savo Island, killing most of the crew including all five Sullivan brothers.
In January of 1943 after months of not hearing from her sons and hearing rumors about their death, Alleta Sullivan wrote a letter to the Bureau of Naval Personnel requesting the truth about her sons. President Roosevelt, touched by the tragedy of the Sullivan family, responded personally in a letter to Alleta.
Alleta Sullivan's letter.
After the tragic loss of their sons, the Sullivan family continued to support the war effort. In 1945 the navy commissioned a destroyer – The Sullivans, which served the last year of World War II until 1965. It was then decommissioned and is on exhibit today in Buffalo New York. In 1997 a new guided missile destroyer was commissioned with that proud name and still serves today.
Though the loss of the Sullivan brothers is accredited with the enactment of a “Sullivan Law” this is incorrect. No law prohibits siblings from serving together, however there is a law known as the “sole surviving son” law, which applies only to the military draft status of those who lost one or more siblings as a result of military service.
Franklin D. Roosevelt's letter to Alleta.
During the development of the George H.W. Bush Gallery in 2009, we created an exhibit to focus on the Sullivan Brothers’ story to honor all those who gave the ultimate sacrifice to our Nation. This exhibit is among those with the most dramatic impact on visitors.
Our exhibit features the voice of Kelly Sullivan reading her great grandmother’s letter with background music specially composed by Justin Durbin. Jeff Bowen of Bowen Productions, who produced the audio track, said there wasn’t a dry eye in the studio during the recording.