The supreme sacrifice made by those honored on Memorial Day is and has always been felt by Americans at home. Many American families have endured the misfortune of losing a family member in war, and those who have not know of families that have suffered this extreme loss.
Perhaps the greatest such recorded tragedy befell a family in Waterloo, Iowa, a city that shares the same name as the village in New York that observed the first Memorial Day celebration in 1866.
Thomas Sullivan, a freight conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad, and his wife, Alleta, a homemaker, and their six children were a happy, close-knit Catholic family during the years prior to World War II. Sons George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert and daughter Genevieve were the pride of their parents and were popular in the Waterloo community. The brothers were inseparable and their reputation in Waterloo was that if you fought one Sullivan, you had to fight them all.
Shortly after Japanese planes bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the Sullivan brothers marched to the local Navy recruiting office to enlist. When informed by Lt. Cmdr. Jones that he could not guarantee their demands to serve together, due to a Navy tradition that separated members of the same family during wartime, the brothers left the recruiting station.
George then wrote a letter to the Navy Department in Washington, D.C., requesting that they be allowed to stay together. The Navy granted this request in writing and the Sullivan brothers, with the Navy document in hand, returned to the recruiting office and enlisted.
The Sullivan brothers were assigned to the USS Juneau, a cruiser assigned to duty in the Pacific Theater in 1942. After the boys departed, Thomas and Alleta turned their attention to an everyday life that was quite different.
On Nov. 13, 1942, the USS Juneau and other vessels of the Pacific fleet became engaged in a sea battle with Japanese fighter and torpedo planes near Guadalcanal. The Juneau was hit by a torpedo and exploded. Some 700 men, including the five Sullivan brothers, were lost.
A few weeks later, at seven in the morning, three men in Navy uniforms called at the Sullivan home. Thomas answered the door and was greeted by the recruiter, Lt. Cmdr. Jones.
Thomas summoned the family after being informed that there was news about the boys. Jones then produced a telegram and from it read, “The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your sons Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison Sullivan are missing in action in the South Pacific.”
Although devastated by shock and grief, Mrs. Sullivan later recalled that the family maintained composure until the men left. Once alone, the family tried to deal with the magnitude of their loss. Then, within a half-hour after receiving the news, Thomas Sullivan, who had a record of 33 years without an absence from work, departed for the railroad.
Mrs. Sullivan gained strength from the hope that the boys might yet be alive, since they had officially been reported “missing.” Because of her unparalleled loss, she believed that she could provide inspiration and boost morale of those involved in the the war efforts at home.
Mrs. Sullivan was afforded this opportunity in February of 1943, when the Navy’s Industrial Incentive Division requested that she and her husband tour Eastern shipyards and war plants to tell about their sons and inspire war production. In June of 1943, they received official notice that their sons were dead.
When asked by the Navy for permission to do a motion picture about their sons, the Sullivans were hesitant. They finally agreed when convinced that the movie could reach more people than their speaking engagements ever could. The movie, “The Fighting Sullivans,” was released in 1944. The reaction of the U.S. War Department to this event is a theme of the 1998 movie, “Saving Private Ryan.”
The story of the Sullivan family is not just the heroism of the five brothers who refused to be separated and died together fighting for their country. It is also a story of how two parents courageously faced an unfathomable loss and assisted the American war effort in the memory of their sons.