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History and Heritage

One Family's Sacrifice

The Story of the Sullivans

It was 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal, when a Japanese torpedo hit the port side of USS Juneau. The shock buckled the deck, shattered the fire control computers and knocked out power.

Bruised, but not beaten, she rejoined the other American warships. Not long after, the task force crossed paths with Japanese submarine I-26. The submarine fired three torpedoes. One struck Juneau and the ensuing explosion blew the cruiser in half. It would be several days before rescue efforts would begin. When all was said and done, only 10 men were rescued.

Across the world in Waterloo, Iowa, the Sullivan family waited for news of their loved ones - five brothers, Albert - 20, George - 27, Francis - 26, Joseph - 24, and Madison Sullivan - 23 - who had joined the Navy on the condition they would serve together. The news was not good. All five had perished. This was the greatest military loss by any one American family during World War II.

News that the brothers had died hit their hometown of Waterloo hard.

"The loss happened early in the war," said Robert Neymeyer, the historian at the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum. "And it brought home to the whole nation, how dangerous this war was."

In their honor, the guided missile destroyer USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) was commissioned. Kelly Sullivan-Loughren, granddaughter of Albert, was there to launch the ship in 1995, by ceremoniously breaking a champagne bottle against her bow.

"I always say the ship is my first born," said Loughren, who was pregnant with her daughter at the time of the commissioning. "The only other time I felt like that, was giving birth."

After the death of her brothers, Genevieve Sullivan joined the WAVES in 1943. Loughren's father Jim Sullivan, followed in the footsteps of his late father Albert, and joined in 1957.

"I can't tell you why, but I felt that it was my calling to go into the Navy," said Jim. "My dad and my uncles were in the Navy ... to me, they were heroes. They did it, so I wanted to do it."

Jim served as an interior communications electrician and later a construction electrician. Jim is humble about his service and during his time in the Navy, most his shipmates never knew about Jim's family history.

"Because of the notoriety that my dad and my uncles got, I didn't want other Sailors to think that I wanted preferential treatment on board the ship I was on," said Jim. "I was just a Sailor like everybody else."

Jim said what makes him proud, is knowing that the Sullivan's story is one of the first Sailors learn in basic training, but he also knows his family is a small chapter in the big Navy story.

"It's not only my dad and my uncles," said Jim. "There were a lot of Sailors in World War II that lost their lives. Every one of them; we should remember all of them. It makes me feel good about the Navy, about the military and everybody that serves."

The legacy of the Sullivan brothers still runs deep, not only through the Navy, but throughout their small town. From the Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center to the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum, Neymeyer said there are two sides to honoring America's veterans in Iowa as well as nationwide.

"It's really a reminder that if it's one individual or if it's five individuals, we are still putting people in harm's way," said Neymeyer. "One: We need to support them and two: we need to recognize their service."

*Editor's Note - USS The Sullivans (DD-537) was also commissioned in honor of the Sullivan brothers. All Hands apologizes for not mentioning it in the story. The Fletcher-Class destroyer was commissioned in 1943, and was christened by Mrs. Sullivan.