The Sullivan brothers were raised in an Irish-Catholic family, the brothers great-grandfather had emigrated from Ireland.
Early on the morning of 13 November, during the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, the SS Juneau was torpedoed and badly damaged. Late that morning, while south of San Cristobal Island withdrawing with other survivors of the 13 November action, Juneau was torpedoed by the Japanese submarine I-26, exploded and sank very rapidly. Only ten crew members survived to be rescued several days later. The five brothers, George Thomas, Francis Henry, Joseph Eugene, Madison Abel, and Albert Leo had expressed a desire to serve on the same ship.
Approximately 100 of Juneau’s crew had 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 realised 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 to 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.
In 1942, the US Navy commissioned ‘The Sullivans’ (DD-537), to honour the brothers, the first American Navy ship ever named after more than one person.
In 1997, the US Navy commissioned ‘The Sullivans’ (DDG-68), the second ship to be named after the five Sullivan brothers. The motto for both ships was “We stick together.
The brothers’ story was filmed as the 1944 movie The Sullivans (later renamed The Fighting Sullivans) and inspired, at least in part, the 1998 film Saving Private Ryan (Ballinesker Beach, Curracloe Strand, Ballinesker, Co Wexford, were used for the filming of the D-Day sequence in Saving Private Ryan, due to similarity to Omaha Beach in Normandy). The Sullivans were also briefly mentioned in Saving Private Ryan.
Photo: The Sullivan brothers on board the USS Juneau; from left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George.