The Five Sullivan Brothers Perished with the Cruiser USS Juneau
When Hollywood re-created the sinking of USS Juneau, the cruiser was shown being torpedoed and sunk at night to heighten the drama.
The fact of the matter is that Juneau was sunk in broad daylight, but the horror needed no accentuation. Nearly 700 American sailors died in a grim epilogue to the naval battle fought off Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942. Aboard Juneau were all five Sullivan brothers, from Waterloo, Iowa: George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert.
All five had enlisted in the Navy on January 3, 1942, when they heard that their mutual friend, Bill Ball, of Fredericksburg, Iowa, had been killed aboard USS Arizona at Pearl Harbor. For George and Francis it would be their second hitch in the Navy.
When the five brothers enlisted, they gave their naval recruiter a tough condition–all five Sullivans had to serve together. The Navy agreed, and nine months later the Sullivans reported aboard USS Juneau, a new 6,000-ton warship equipped for anti-aircraft warfare with 12 high-angle, 5-inch guns.
Dawn on November 13 found Juneau badly damaged by an enemy torpedo in the port fireroom. The crew was nursing the ship to safety.
By 11 a.m., the force was sailing along at 18 knots. Everybody was taking a breather from the strain of battle and damage control. On the destroyer Fletcher, Lt. Cmdr. J.C. Wylie, the ship’s executive officer, sat with his skipper, Commander Bill Cole, discussing the after-action report. Both were exhausted and were breaking the rules by indulging in a cup of medicinal whiskey from sick bay stores.
Aboard the cruiser Helena, Lieutenant William Jones was sitting in the main battery control. He stepped outside on deck to get some air.
At that moment, on Juneau, Gunner’s Mate Second Class Allen Clifton Heyn prepared to relieve a shipmate on a 1.1-inch anti-aircraft gun on the fantail. Heyn said to his shipmate, “Are you all ready?”
The sailor “just looked at me,” Heyn said later, “with his mouth open. I didn’t know what it was…everybody was just standing there and then [there was] an explosion.”
On Fletcher, Cole and Wylie had just finished dividing the whiskey when they heard “the most tremendous explosion I could have ever imagined,” Wylie said later. The two officers dashed out of the chart house and looked aft to see an enormous mushroom of smoke rising from where Juneau had been. A 5-inch gun mount came flying at Fletcher. Cole and Wylie called for emergency flank speed and hit alarm bells. Wylie said to Cole, “My God, the welders must have touched off a magazine.”
On Helena, Jones saw Juneau explode. He later said it looked like pictures of an atomic bomb blast. As he started to step into the main battery to avoid being hit by flying debris, he was blown right against the bulkhead by the shock wave. Jones watched a 5-inch gun mount from Juneau sail overhead and hit the water behind Helena.
Aboard Juneau, Heyn was thrown against his gun mount, one foot painfully pinned by the gun shield. He grabbed a nearby life jacket and took a deep breath as water closed over him. Suddenly, the sheet of steel pinning his foot was removed, and Heyn floated to the surface.
In less than a minute Juneau had disappeared, leaving behind a pall of smoke, hurling debris half a mile.
On Helena the officers trained a battery of binoculars in Juneau’s direction. An officer said, “There are no survivors.” But the men aboard Fletcher were less certain. Cole ordered right full rudder to look for possible survivors.
On Helena, Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, in overall command, was doing some quick figuring. He had only one destroyer capable of tracking a submarine, there was at least one enemy sub nearby, and his other ships were damaged. The heavy cruiser San Francisco and the destroyer Sterett were cripples. Helena was the only combat-ready cruiser in that part of the Pacific. If Hoover stayed in the area, more ships might be sunk. And there just did not seem to be any survivors from Juneau in the water.
Hoover flashed a visual signal to Fletcher to resume screening. Wylie and Cole returned to their chart house to work on their reports and finish off the whiskey, but the whiskey was gone. Some alert quartermaster or signalman had seen his chance. Neither officer replaced the drink.
On Helena, Hoover was taking additional action. A Boeing B-17 swooped down to check on the fuss, and Hoover sent it a visual signal, “Ship down…send rescue.” The B-17 flew off to Henderson Field. Hoover’s shrunken force headed south but did not toss rafts or boats over the side. There seemed no point.
But Hoover was wrong. About 100 Juneau sailors were bobbing in the water, including Heyn and George Sullivan. Many of those men were severely burned and afloat in a thick layer of oil. Three life rafts had popped to the surface, and the men headed for them. By nightfall, the rafts were hooked together.
At first, the survivors were not worried. The American-held island of San Cristobal was visible, and they were sure, since they had been sunk among friends, that help would soon be on the way.
But it was not. Hoover did not break radio silence. The B-17 landed on Guadalcanal, but the information did not get past the base operations staff. No help arrived the next day. Or the day after that. Or the day after that. The survivors suffered sunburn by day, chill by night. The sea rubbed salt into wounds and washed away improperly secured food and water. The food ran out in three days. Men weakened and died.
Heyn, together with signalman Lester Zook and George Sullivan, squatted forlornly in a raft. Then one night, Sullivan, exhausted and delirious, took off his clothes to take a bath. He jumped away from the raft and was instantly pounced upon by a shark. The lieutenant in command struggled to maintain discipline, but collapsed himself, swimming off in a delirium into the sharks.
Meanwhile, Hoover’s force arrived at Espiritu Santo in the New Hebrides Islands on the 14th, and Hoover passed the word on Juneau’s loss. Navy rescue planes got to work, but, based on erroneous reports, searched the wrong sector.
Seven days after Juneau went down, a U.S. plane spotted some survivors by chance and hurled rafts into the sea. Two days after that, Heyn, Zook and eight other survivors were pulled out of the water. Along with four men who had left Juneau before she was sunk, there were only 14 survivors of the ship. Some 683 sailors had perished.
Hollywood reacted in typical fashion, making a movie about the five brothers. The Sullivan parents toured war plants and shipyards, urging workers to increase production. Mrs. Sullivan launched a new ship, USS The Sullivans, a Fletcher-class destroyer named after the five. One of the boy’s uncles, 43-year-old Patrick Sullivan, served aboard her.
That ship, after two years of service in the Pacific during World War II, ultimately became an enduring monument to the five brothers. It is now a museum, permanently moored in Buffalo, N.Y. One of her compartments is a memorial to the Sullivan brothers.
The Sullivans have left another legacy in Navy regulations. Brothers are no long allowed to serve on the same ship.