I learned about the Sullivan brothers when I was 9 years old, their story told in a black-and-white movie I watched on TV with my mother beside me.
I laughed through most of it. George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al were five boys born within seven years in Waterloo, Iowa, early in the 20th century, their lives full of adventure. They found an abandoned, leaky boat, plugged its holes with mud, climbed in, went sailing. And the boat capsized. They took a saw to their mother’s kitchen to improve it and cut through a water pipe.
They fooled around when they should have been serious, wisecracked, teased, got in fights and came home with black eyes. They got caught smoking. They were boys typical of the time, who grew into fine young men.
I wish to this day that the story had ended here.
But it didn’t. In December 1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and their sister’s boyfriend was killed. The five brothers, all men now, marched down to Navy headquarters and enlisted, with the sole provision that wherever one went, they all went. That they would never be separated.
The Navy complied.
George was 27, Frank 26, Joe 24, Matt 23, and Al just 20 on Nov. 13, 1942, when their ship, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed by the Japanese in the South Pacific. Damaged, the Juneau was inching its way back to base when it was hit again and exploded.
All five brothers died.
In the movie, after the explosion, a Navy officer comes to the Sullivan home and says he has bad news. “Which one?” their mother asks. “All five,” the officer says.
In real life, it was two months after the the ship sank that the parents were notified and three men in uniform showed up to break the news. Alleta Sullivan, whose five sons were dead, was only 47 years old.
In the movie, the boys died together. In reality, survivors say that George lived through the blast and spent days in shark-infested waters searching for his brothers.
In the movie, all five were reunited in heaven.
On earth, the war continued.
The boys’ parents promoted war bonds. The US War Department restructured its policy on siblings serving together. Later, two destroyers were named after the Sullivans. The Five Sullivan Brothers Conventions Center and the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum were built in Waterloo, and a street and a public park bear their name.
But now, 70 years later, few remember this big, happy Irish clan — who they were and who they would have been. Seventy years later, their loss remains staggering.
Only Al, the youngest, was married. He left his wife, Katherine Mary, and a toddler, Jim.
Katherine is still living. She’s 90. She remarried but had no more children. Jim grew up and married and had a son, John, and a daughter, Kelly. Kelly Sullivan Loughren is a third-grade teacher in neighboring Cedar Falls. For 19 years, she has taught her students the story of her great uncles. The kids watch “The Fighting Sullivans.” They visit the museum. They draw pictures. They talk.
Loughren has a son and a daughter. Her brother, John, has two girls. The Sullivan brothers’ sister had two sons, but they never married.
“The Sullivan name is gone,” Loughren says. “When we get together, it’s just my dad, my brother, my grandmother, and me.”
She thinks about the clan that they were, five boys, who filled a house with love and laughter, who would have married and had kids. How big her family would be.
And she tells their story. She answers letters that people write. She travels to events. “I’m going to Little Rock for the 70th anniversary’’ of their deaths.
On the other side of the state, in Shenandoah, another teacher tells the story, too. Kyan Kirkholm learned about the Sullivan brothers when he was in college. Now, every year, he teaches his ninth-grade social studies class about them.
In my front hall hangs a poster of the Sullivan brothers.
“Forever Grateful,” it says. I am, to them and to all the men and women who sacrifice so much to serve.