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It is much better to understand little than to be misunderstood a lot.

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2019 U.S. Army Retired Soldier Handbook

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Freedom Is Not Free

 The Sullivans enlisted in the US Navy on January 3, 1942, with the stipulation that they serve together.  The Navy had a policy of separating siblings, but this was not strictly enforced. George and Frank had served in the Navy before, but their brothers had not.  All five were assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau.

Juneau participated in a number of naval engagements during the months-long Guadalcanal Campaign beginning in August 1942.  Early in the morning of November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Juneau was struck by a Japanese torpedo and forced to withdraw.  Later that day, as it was leaving the Solomon Islands' area for the Allied rear-area base at Espiritu Santo with other surviving US warships from battle, the Juneau was struck again, this time by a torpedo from the Japanese submarine I-26.  The torpedo likely hit the thinly armored light cruiser at or near the ammunition magazines and the ship exploded and quickly sank.
 
Captain Gilbert C. Hoover, commanding officer of the light cruiser USS Helena, and the senior officer present afloat (SOPA) of the battle-damaged US task force, was skeptical that anyone had survived the sinking of Juneau and believed it would be reckless to look for survivors, thereby exposing his wounded ships to a still-lurking Japanese submarine.  Therefore, he ordered his ships to continue on towards Espiritu Santo.  Helena signaled a nearby US B-17 bomber on patrol to notify Allied headquarters to send aircraft or ships to search for survivors.
 
But in fact, 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 realized 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 or 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. He was never seen or heard from again.
 
Security required that the Navy not reveal the loss of Juneau or the other ships so as not to provide information to the enemy.  Letters from the Sullivan sons stopped arriving at the home and the parents grew worried, which prompted Alleta Sullivan to write to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in January 1943, citing rumors that survivors of the task force claimed that all five brothers were killed in action.
 
This letter was answered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 13, 1943, who acknowledged that the Sullivans were missing in action, but by then the parents were already informed of their fate, having learned of their deaths on January 12.  That morning, the boys' father, Tom, was preparing for work when three men in uniform – a lieutenant commander, a doctor and a chief petty officer – approached his door.  "I have some news for you about your boys," the naval officer said.  "Which one?" asked Tom.  "I'm sorry," the officer replied.  "All five."
 
The "Fighting Sullivan Brothers" became national heroes.  President Roosevelt sent a letter of condolence to their parents.  Pope Pius XII sent a silver religious medal and rosary with his message of regret.  The Iowa Senate and House adopted a formal resolution of tribute to the Sullivan brothers.  As a direct result of the Sullivans' deaths (and the deaths of four of the Borgstrom brothers within a few months of each other two years later), the U.S. War Department adopted the Sole Survivor Policy.
 
On Saturday, March 17, 2018 the wreckage of the USS Juneau was discovered by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen off the coast of the Solomon Islands. 
 
The Navy named two destroyers The Sullivans to honor the brothers: USS The Sullivans (DD-537) and USS The Sullivans (DDG-68). DD-537 was the first American Navy ship ever named after more than one person.  The motto for both ships was/is "We stick together."
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