The Sullivans enlisted in the US Navy on January 3, 1942 with the stipulation that they serve together. The Navy had a policy of separating siblings, but this was not strictly enforced. George and Frank had served in the Navy before, but their brothers had not. All five were assigned to the light cruiserUSS Juneau.
The Juneau participated in a number of naval engagements during the months-long Guadalcanal Campaign beginning in August 1942. Early in the morning of November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and forced to withdraw. Later that day, as it was leaving the Solomon Islands' area for the Allied rear-area base at Espiritu Santo with other surviving US warships from battle, the Juneau was struck again, this time by a torpedo from Japanese submarine I-26. The torpedo likely hit the thinly armored cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship exploded and quickly sank.
Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena and senior officer present in the battle-damaged US task force, was skeptical that anyone had survived the sinking of the Juneau and believed it would be reckless to look for survivors, thereby exposing his wounded ships to a still-lurking Japanese submarine. Therefore, he ordered his ships to continue on towards Espiritu Santo. Helena signaled a nearby US B-17 bomber on patrol to notify Allied headquarters to send aircraft or ships to search for survivors.
In the event, approximately 100 of Juneau's crew had in fact survived the torpedo attack and the sinking of their ship and were left in the water. The B-17 bomber crew, under orders not to break radio silence, did not pass the message about searching for survivors to their headquarters until they had landed several hours later. The crew's report of the location of possible survivors was mixed in with other pending paperwork actions and went unnoticed for several days. It was not until days later that headquarters staff realized that a search had never been mounted and belatedly ordered aircraft to begin searching the area. In the meantime, Juneau's survivors, many of whom were seriously wounded, were exposed to the elements, hunger, thirst, and repeated shark attacks.
Eight days after the sinking, ten survivors were found by a PBY Catalina search aircraft and retrieved from the water. The survivors reported that Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George survived for four or five days before, suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia (though some sources describe him being "driven insane with grief" at the loss of his brothers), he went over the side of the raft he occupied. He was never seen or heard from again.
Security required that the Navy not reveal the loss of the Juneau or the other ships so as not to provide information to the enemy. Letters from the Sullivan sons stopped arriving at the home and the parents grew worried.
The brothers' parents were notified of their deaths on January 12, 1943. That morning, the boys' father, Thomas, was preparing to go to work when three men in uniform - a lieutenant commander, a doctor, and a chief petty officer - approached his front door. "I have some news for you about your boys," the naval officer said. "Which one?" asked Thomas. "I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five."
The brothers left a sister, Genevieve (1917-1975). Albert was survived by a wife and son. The “Fighting Sullivan Brothers” were national heroes. President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to Tom and Alleta. Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret. The Iowa Senate and House adopted a formal resolution of tribute to the Sullivan brothers.
Thomas and Alleta Sullivan made speaking appearances at war plants and shipyards on behalf of the war effort. Later, Alleta participated in the launching of a destroyerUSS The Sullivans, named after her sons.
As a direct result of the Sullivans' deaths (and the deaths of four of the Borgstrom brothers within a few months of each other two years later), the U.S. War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy.
A museum wing has been built in honor of their service in World War II. The museum is located in downtown Waterloo, Iowa, their hometown. It was completed in 2008. The grand opening occurred on November 15, 2008. The $11.5 million, state-of-the-art facility aims to play a role in preserving the history and service of Iowa veterans and serve as a facility for research and genealogy studies.
Al Sullivan's son served on board the first USS The Sullivans. His grandmother christened the first ship. The second USS The Sullivans was christened by Al's granddaughter Kelly Ann Sullivan Loughren.
Thomas and Alleta Sullivan toured the country promoting war bonds and asked that none of their sons died in vain.
Genevieve, their only sister, served in the WAVES. She was the girlfriend of Bill Ball, whose death at Pearl Harbor prompted her brothers to join the Navy to avenge him.
The brothers' hometown of Waterloo, Iowa, has a convention center named "The Five Sullivan Brothers Convention Center", and the town also renamed a street and set aside a public park in their honor. The park is the location of their childhood home.
The Sullivans were not the only brother sailors on board the ship. There were at least thirty pairs of brothers including the four Rogers brothers from New Haven, Connecticut. Before the ill-fated Savo Island operation two of the Rogers brothers were transferred to other commands. According to those who survived, had the ship returned to port safely at least two Sullivans would have also transferred.
The Sullivans Association, an organization of veterans who served on both US Navy ships named after the brothers, conducted a reunion on 25 September 2011 in Waterloo, Iowa. The attendees gathered at Sullivans Park, visited Calvary Cemetery and laid flowers at the graves of the Sullivan brothers' parents and sister, and visited the neighborhood where the family had lived.
Holbrook, Heber A. (1997). The loss of the USS Juneau (CL-52) and the relief of Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the USS Helena (CL-50) (Callaghan-Scott naval historical monograph). Pacific Ship and Shore-Books. ASINB0006QS91A.