By Irish America Staff
August / September 2000
In Steven Spielberg’s film Saving Private Ryan, a troop of World War II soldiers sets out to find a fellow grunt who is missing. Already, several of his brothers have been killed in battle, and the military fears a public relations nightmare if the story gets out that a Midwestern mother has lost all of her boys in battle.
Sadly, the true-life story that served as something of an inspiration for Saving Private Ryan is actually worse. Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, of Waterloo, Iowa, lost all five of their sons following a fierce battle that took place on November 13, 1943. Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George Sullivan were all serving on the U.S.S. Juneau when fighting broke out in Guadalcanal. Though Navy policy discouraged siblings from serving together, there were no actual restrictions, and the Sullivans requested they serve as a group. “We would like to stick together,” eldest brother George wrote when the boys enlisted. “As a bunch, there is nobody that can beat us.”
They were, however, planning to split up. But they hadn’t by the time two Japanese torpedoes tore through their ship that fateful November day. Four of the Sullivans died almost instantly. George was among the handful of survivors who floated for days in shark-infested waters, until hunger, thirst, and delirium took their toll.
George announced he was “taking a bath,” went into the water and was quickly devoured by sharks.
The Sullivans’ harrowing story is the subject of a new History Channel documentary entitled The True Story of the Fighting Sullivans, which premiered Monday, May 29 at 8 p.m. to rave reviews. It will be rebroadcast Tuesday, August 29 at 8 p.m. Eastern and Pacific time.
The hour-long documentary, hosted by journalist Arthur Kent, efficiently tells the Sullivans’ story, with a worthy focus on the boys’ parents, who threw themselves into the war effort on the home front, almost as a way of coping with their loss. But when they finally returned home, grief set in.
The Sullivans were a thoroughly Irish-Catholic clan – the documentary even unearths a recording of the boys singing “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” At a christening of one of the battleships that later bore the boys’ name, Alleta announces, “May the luck of the Irish be with you and your crew.” A solemn memorial to the boys in the small factory town even bears a shamrock.
The documentary attempts to use the Sullivans’ tragedy as a springboard into two larger issues – the fact that the U.S. military still has not banned sibling service, and the fact that the U.S.S. Juneau survivors were left to float at sea for days, rather than quickly rescued. As the informative experts who are interviewed make quite clear, it was a tough call, but understandable given the battle conditions. Also particularly interesting are the comments of Frank Holmgren – the last surviving member of the U.S.S. Juneau tragedy. All in all, this is a solid treatment of a dark, compelling Irish-American story. ♦