The five Sullivan brothers grew up in Waterloo, Iowa. Before World War II, two of the boys had served hitches in the U.S. Navy. After Pearl Harbor, the five brothers agreed to enlist in the Navy on the condition they be allowed to serve of the same ship. When notified about the possible danger, the brothers said, “if we go down, we go down together.”
Unfortunately, on November 13, 1942, their ship, the USS Juneau, which had already been damaged in the Naval battles around Guadalcanal, took a torpedo from a Japanese submarine that set off a massive secondary explosion. Astonishingly, the Juneau sank in twenty seconds. The commander of the Juneau’s task force decided that there could not be any survivors. Rather than risk losing another ship to submarine attack, ordered the ships in the task force not to make any attempt at rescue. For that decision, Admiral Halsey later relieved him of his commission. The task force commander had ordered a message sent for a plane search of the area. Unfortunately, that search was conducted ten days later.
Over 600 men died immediately. They might have been the lucky ones. Eighty men made it into the water, where all but ten died of thirst, exposure or shark attack. At least two of the Sullivan brothers were in that group.
Back in the States, Hollywood made a 1944 film called The Fighting Sullivans. This film, to a modern viewer, comes across like Ozzie and Harriet Go to War. The very last shot of the film depicts the fifth Sullivan brother, the one who was always left behind, scrambling upstairs to the Pearly Gates, “Hey! Wait up for me!”
The truth about what really happened out the South Pacific was far more than Hollywood could handle. Only years later did the ten survivors relate that George Sullivan managed to survive for five days in the water. As horrible as that experience was, one of the worst aspects of this was hearing George call out the names of his four brothers, never getting a response.
The USS Juneau