Thomas Sullivan was getting ready for work in Waterloo, Iowa, when three men in Navy uniforms walked up to his front door.
“I have some news for you about your boys,” one of the officers said, according to an excerpt of the conversation in the Red State blog.
All five of Sullivan’s sons had enlisted in the U.S. Navy after the Pearl Harbor attack, and on that January morning in 1943, he wanted to know which one wasn’t coming home.
“All five,” the officer said.
The Sullivan brothers — George, Madison, Albert, Francis and Joseph, who was also known as “Red” — were already famous for insisting on serving together.
They were honored 11 months after a Japanese torpedo sank their ship, the USS Juneau, in the southwestern Pacific. Some called their deaths the greatest sacrifice of the greatest generation. Others said their story was exploited by a U.S. government desperate to get a nation to accept the sacrifices of war.
Either way, people across the country pored over the Sullivan brothers’ story, examining the smallest details of their lives, their service, their violent deaths.
But one thing has remained hidden until now:
Their final resting place.
A team funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen recently discovered the wreckage of the USS Juneau 2.6 miles below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, near the Solomon Islands.
For years, Allen’s team has been combing the Pacific for ships that sank decades ago.
The team has used advanced technology such as side-scan sonar and submersible drones to locate several ships, including the USS Indianapolis and the USS Ward.
But finding the final resting place of the USS Juneau connected their endeavor with a part of U.S. history that still reverberates today in both memory and policy.
The Sullivan brothers have been memorialized with a museum wing, a school and two Navy ships. And the brothers’ deaths led to “sole survivor” policies, which exempt people who have lost a family member from the draft or military service. They were the subject of a 1944 war movie, “The Fighting Sullivans.”
It all began with an emotional Sunday dinner in 1941.
The brothers had heard about the attack on Pearl Harbor over the radio during dinner on Dec. 7, 1941, according to the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Their thoughts immediately turned to Bill Ball, a friend stationed in Hawaii who, they later learned, died in the attack. The Sullivan brothers, all in their 20s, wanted to take up the fight.
The Navy at first balked at their request to serve on the same ship but ultimately relented.
“I was talking to an ensign the other day,” Red Sullivan wrote a friend, according to the Courier. “From the way he talked, all five of us brothers are going to get on the same ship. I wish the rest of you guys could go along.”
That ship was the USS Juneau: a ship that carried nearly 700 men and was almost as new to the war effort as Red Sullivan was. It was commissioned about a year before it sank.
The USS Juneau specialized in defending other vessels from warplanes. It performed patrol and escort duties in the North Atlantic and Caribbean and then was dispatched to the Pacific, where it was involved in several battles, including the naval battles of Guadalcanal. In its final battle, it served as part of a protective screen for cargo vessels and transports as U.S. forces tried to keep their grip on the Pacific foothold.
The Juneau held its own during fierce, nighttime fighting.
But it was badly damaged by a torpedo during the costly American victory. (In total during the naval battles near Guadalcanal, American and Japanese forces lost two dozen ships apiece). Badly listing to one side, it limped away with other ships.
But the Japanese submarine I-26 was lurking nearby. One of its torpedoes missed the USS San Francisco but struck the USS Juneau near where it had been previously hit — and near the compartment where munitions were stored.
The rest happened in a flash, according to declassified documents obtained by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier:
I saw the spot where the Juneau had been. The only thing visible was tremendous clouds of grey and black smoke. … The men told me that the Juneau appeared to explode instantaneously and appeared to break in two, both segments of which sunk in 20 seconds. … The signalman on the bridge of the Helena was in the process of taking a message from the Juneau and had his glass trained on the signalman of that ship and reports that the signalman was blown at least 30 feet in the air.
Three of the Sullivans died in that initial blast. Two made it into life rafts but died in the ensuing days at sea, waiting for rescue.
In death, they went from being a famous footnote to national heroes. Their mother christened a new destroyer with the Sullivan name, and the U.S. government alluded to the family’s sacrifice when asking people to buy war bonds.
The appeal was both simple and effective: The Sullivan family gave so much. Can the rest of us pitch in, too?
As one woman told the Associated Press, according to a recounting of the Sullivans’ story: “And now I wonder how the sugar and coffee hoarders feel.”