Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Sullivan Brothers

The five Sullivan brothers pictured on board the newly commissioned USS Juneau

Following on from my promise to do more posts on various World War Two anecdotes I want to do a piece on the famous fighting Sullivans. The Sullivan brothers where an Irish American family from Iowa. After Pearl Harbour Joe (24), Matt (23) and Al (20) decided to follow their older brothers George (27) and Frank (26) into the navy. The only condition was that they all serve together. Their wish was granted and in February 1942 the five brothers set sail for the Pacific on board the freshly commissioned USS Juneau.


The story of the USS Juneau is one of the wars most tragic naval incidents. In November 1942 the Juneau was part of a massive American Armada headed for the Solomon Islands in order to confront the Japanese Navy. On the 12th of November Juneau found itself escorting reinforcements to the war ravaged island of Guadalcanal (above). During the unloading the Japanese attacked and Juneau's crew spent most of that day fighting off attacks from enemy planes. In the early hours of the 13th Juneau was struck on the port side by a torpedo from an unclear source. She was severely damaged but able to flee. Along side the Helena and San Francisco who were also damaged the three ships set off for repairs at Espiritu Santos Islands. Just before 11pm on the night of the 13th the three ships came under attack from a Japanese submarine. Three torpedoes were fired at the Juneau. Two missed their target but the third struck Juneau in exactly the same place as it had been hit the day before. The Juneau broke apart instantly and sunk in less than 30 seconds. The wounded Helena and San Francisco, fearing further attacks from the Submarine continued on course and did not stop to look for survivors.


There were 725 men were aboard the Juneau. Nobody knows how many exactly survived the sinking but its thought that only 100 escaped the ship and made into the water safely. Among those killed when the torpedo struck were Frank, Joe, and Matt Sullivan. For the survivors an unbelievably hellish eight day ordeal was about to begin as due to some mix up somewhere the eventual rescuers were unsure where she had gone down. Some survivors were injured and did not last long. The youngest Sullivan brother Al was such a person. It is believed he drowned one day after the sinking. Extreme heat during the day, extreme cold at night took others and as the men began to weaken they fell victim to shark attack. As insanity kicked in some men left their rafts thinking they could see land. Around day five George Sullivan was seen swimming from raft to raft calling out for his missing brothers. He drowned sometime that day. On day eight a sea plane spotted three life rafts in the water. It landed and picked up a mere ten survivors.

The story of the Juneau and the Sullivan brothers has gone down in US naval history as one one of its darkest episodes. At the time everybody knew who the Sullivan brotheres were and avenging the Juneau became a big rallying cry. The story itself has inspired many including Stephen Spielberg who came up with the idea for Saving Private Ryan after reading about the Sullivans. The incident also resulted in the US naval decision, still standing today to separate siblings in order to prevent a repeat of Juneau. There has also been parks, school, roads and even a warship named after the Sullivans. Of the 725 men on board the Juneau when the Japanese torpedo struck on the night of the 13th there is only one living today. Frank Holmgren, pictured attending a memorial earlier this year lives in New Jersey and was one of the ten men rescued by the sea plane. What can I say, this story has overwhelmed me somewhat. The purpose of this blog is to try and make some sense of the GUBU times we are living through. But Frank Holmgren and the Sullivan brothers experienced an era more extreme and brutal that anything the 20th century has thrown at us yet. I hope it stays that way.

6 comments:

Tom said...

Reminds me of Quint's story of the USS Indianapolis in jaws. Nasty way to go...
howaryeh Ted

Ted Leddy said...

Hey Tom

The sinking of the Indianapolis in July 45 is a very similar story to the sinking of the Juneau. Over 300 survived the Indianapolis though.

That scene with Quint is one of my favourite all time movie scenes. An absolute classic. Makes me afraid to go swimming.

Interesting website you have Tom. Thanks for the visit and feel free to visit anytime.

Annie said...

Looking forward to reading some more of these stories, Ted

JakeBooze said...

Hey Ted, My Uncle Lawrence Dumper was also on the ship USS Juneau... Just wondered if you knew if Mr Holmgren is still around and living in New Jersey... Just a note, but my uncle was the town of Lindenhurst's first loss and is honored every year... Would be interesting to know if he knew of him...

Rod Hodge said...

My uncle Burnell Hodge also went down on the Juneau. From my research, there were 7 men picked up in open water and 3 men made it to land in a rubber raft. The 3 in the raft were Robert C. Fay, Lt. (JG)C.N.Wang and Victor James Fitzgerald. The 140 or so survivors of the sinking (except the 10),all died at sea after the Navy abandoned them. BTW, there had been 4 brothers aboard the Juneau, Rogers brothers, in addition to the Sullivans. Two of the Rogers brothers,Joey and Jimmy transfered to the USS Antaries and two brothers, Louis and Patrick stayed and perished.They are not as famouse as the Sullivans.
Good site, thanks for the Juneau story. Rod

Rod Hodge said...

I said Robert C.Fay in above post, but should have said Joseph Patrick Hartney. My mistake! Rod