The Catholic Defender: The Fighting Sullivans


Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 states, “There is an appointed time for everything, and a time for every affair under the heavens. A time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to uproot the plant. A time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to tear down, and a time to build. A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance. A time to scatter stones, and a time to gather them; a time to embrace, and a time to be far from embraces. A time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away. A time to rend, and a time to sew; a time to be silent, and a time to hate; a time of war, and a time for peace.”

Parents are called to teach and instruct their children giving them a strong foundation in the Faith. “Decide today whom you will serve… As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” (Joshua 24:15)

This is the foundation that Thomas and Alleta Sullivan had built within their family.

The Sullivans were a strong faithful Catholic family who were followers of Jesus Christ from the very beginning of their marriage. Perhaps they were the typical family living in middle America, Waterloo Iowa.

Thomas Sullivan worked as a freight conductor on the Illinois Central Railroad that gave the family support during the Great Depression, while his wife Alleta was the nest builder. She had five sons and one daughter raising them as strong Catholics.

Their sons George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert, grew up at a time when family life in America was centered on faith and patriotism. Their sister, Genevieve learned from her mother what a Christian woman was to be.

Being typical boys, they would be involved with everything, rebuilding a boat to have fun sailing, even if it did sink, running up a tower to watch their Father passing by on the train, they were close as brothers.

Philippians 3:17 states, “Join with others in being imitators of me, brothers, and observe those who thus conduct themselves according to the model you have in us.” St. Paul is giving us the call to follow holiness, first to follow the example of the Apostles, the first followers of the Lord. We are to imitate their example of proclaiming liberty setting the captives free.

Growing up, the boys worked at Waterloo’s Rath Packing Co living the American dream.

Al, the youngest son, was the only one of the brothers that married and has a young son.

On December 7, 1941 the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and with the news of a close friend’s death all five brothers enlisted in the Navy on January 3, 1942 getting the opportunity to serve together.

The ranks of the brothers were: George Thomas Sullivan, Gunner’s Mate Second Class, Francis “Frank” Henry Sullivan, Coxswain, Joseph “Joe” Eugene Sullivan, Seaman Second Class, Madison “Matt” Abel Sullivan,Seaman Second Class, Albert “Al” Leo Sullivan, Seaman Second Class.

Despite the Navy’s policy of not having close relatives serve in the same unit, the five Sullivans were granted to serve together and all five served on the light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52).

Following a number of skirmishes during the months long Battle of Guadalcanal, it was on 13 November 1942 that the Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo.

Crippled, the Juneau was forced to withdraw leaving the Solomon Islands where it was hit by a second Japanese submarine torpedo.

This second torpedo did the damage, the ship sank quickly.

Nearly 700 men aboard the Juneau died in the attack.

For eight days Sailors waited in the cold Pacific until rescue teams found ten survivors who reported of the Sullivans; Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George, badly wounded hung on to life climbed on a life raft and survive four or five days before slipping into shark-infested waters.

Despite the fact that the Sullivan Brothers had died in middle November, their parents were not notified of their sons’ deaths until January.

This news was a crushing blow to the Sullivan family, Thomas and Alleta Sullivan began touring the country to help raise war bonds making appearances at defense plants, shipyards and bond rallies so that their loss would not be in vain.

No other family in American history has suffered a wartime loss like that of Waterloo’s Sullivan family. With the aftermath of the death of the Sullivans, the US War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy.

The Sullivan Brothers were paid the highest honor by the Navy by naming two destroyers after them.

The Sullivans (DDG-68) and The Sullivans (DD-537) were the first American navy ships ever to be named after more than one person. The motto of the Sullivan brothers, “We stick together” became the motto for the crews of the Battleships.

James Sullivan, Al Sullivan’s son, would follow his fathers footsteps and join the Navy. He would serve on the USS The Sullivans and His grandmother (Alleta) christened the first ship. Thomas had passed away in 1947 just five years after his son’s deaths.

The Sullivan’s sister, Genevieve served in the WAVES. She lost all five Brothers, and also a promised husband who died at Pearl Harbor.

I just watched for the first time the 1944 movie “The Sullivans” (later renamed The Fighting Sullivans) which inspired the 1998 movie, “Saving Private Ryan.” President Franklin Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to Tom and Alleta and Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret. There have been many honors given the Sullivans for the bravery and honor the five brothers had demonstrated, but ultimately, the greatest reward comes from their Savior, Jesus Christ.

Matthew 19:29 states, “And everyone who has given up houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or lands for the sake of my name will receive a hundred times more, and will inherit eternal life.”

To give your life for your Country and pay the highest sacrifice for the love of God, family, and Country, the Lord promises, “For God is not unjust so as to overlook your work and the love you have demonstrated for his name by having served and continuing to serve the holy ones.” (Hebrews 6:10)

All Powerful God, We honor today those men and women—Our sons and daughters, Husbands and wives, Fathers, brothers, sisters, mothers—Who have laid down their life for their country. Whether weary or emboldened, quiet or defiant, Vulnerable or ready when You called them home, Their sacrifice is too humbling for words except these uttered in prayer. Loving Lord, bless them forever in Your eternal peace. Let the sounds of strife, the cries of battle, the wounds of war be calmed for all eternity in Your loving and endless grace. Let these great warriors find rest at last, Ever reminded that we who are left behind Cherish their spirit, honor their commitment, send them our love, and will never forget the service that they gave. Amen.


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