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March 16, 2018 / iDriveWarships

St. Patrick’s Day and the U.S. Navy: The Story of USS The Sullivans


The five Sullivan brothers onboard Juneau (CL 52) at the time of its commissioning ceremonies at the New York Navy Yard, Feb. 14, 1942. All were lost with the ship following the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal. The brothers are (from left to right): Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George Sullivan. George survived Juneau’s sinking on 14 November, but died in the waters off San Cristobel Island five days later. (U.S. Navy photo/Released)

UPDATE: When this blog was published on March 16, 2018, the final resting place of the Sullivans and their ship, USS Juneau (CL 52), had been lost for 76 years. It was discovered just one day later on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 2018 and publicly announced shortly afterward. Read about the amazing find, here.


St. Patrick’s Day is a time to celebrate Irish heritage. One Navy ship, USS The Sullivans (DDG 68), has a unique tie to Irish America, carrying with it a legacy that has lasted through generations.

There is no doubt that Irish ancestry plays a significant part of the makeup of the American population, where nearly 10% of Americans identify as Irish-American. Irish-Americans played an important role in the development and growth of the early United States, and U.S. Navy as well. Nine signatories of the Declaration of Independence were Irish, 253 Irish-born men have received the Medal of Honor, and one of the Fathers of the American Navy (John Barry) was of Irish descent.


Letter to Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan from then-President Roosevelt in regards to their sons.

During World War II, the U.S. Navy lost the five Irish-American Sullivan brothers – Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George – when their ship USS Juneau sank following the Battle of Guadalcanal. Upon enlisting, the brothers had insisted upon serving together, keeping true to their motto “We Stick Together.” The deaths of the Sullivan brothers is considered to be the greatest loss by any one family in World War II, and cemented a legacy of service that would connect the family to the U.S. Navy for generations to come.

The nation poured out condolences. Hollywood produced a feature film entitled “The Fighting Sullivans.” Shipmates who survived the sinking of USS Juneau came forward to share their stories about the boys’ final moments.

In honor of their sacrifice, then-President Roosevelt directed DD 537 to be assigned the name USS The Sullivans. Mrs. Alleta Sullivan, the mother of the five brothers, commissioned the ship on Sept. 30, 1943, nearly a year after the loss of her sons. The Sullivans was the first ship ever commissioned to honor more than one person.

The Sullivans served the Navy until decommissioning in 1965, where it was donated to the city of Buffalo, New York, to serve as a memorial in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Servicemen’s Park. However, the story of the Sullivan family did not stop with just the ship.


Alleta Sullivan, left, mother of the five Sullivan brothers who lost their lives in the sinking of the cruiser USS Juneau, works alongside actress Marlene Dietrich as they serve servicemen in the USO Hollywood Canteen, Calif., Feb. 9, 1944.

The Sullivan family, who hail from Waterloo, Iowa, but whose family emigrated from Cork County, Ireland, in 1850, maintain close ties with the Navy and the ship named after their family.

In the years following her sons’ deaths, Mrs. Alleta Sullivan, a grieving mother, visited more than 200 manufacturing plants and shipyards to offer encouragement to employees working to support the war effort.  She spoke to more than a million workers in 65 cities, reached millions more over the radio, and was overall an important part of the war effort.

Long after the war ended, Alleta would receive house calls from Sailors who either knew her sons or wished to stop by and extend their condolences. She would often cook them a hot meal and offer them a place to stay for the evening or the weekend.

“Helping others in sorrow helps your own sorrow,” she said.

Albert’s widow, Katherine, went on to raise their son Jim, and remarried to a U.S. Marine who served in the Pacific during the war. Jim’s daughter, Kelly Sullivan Loughren, continued the family legacy of support and connection to the U.S. Navy.

Untitled.pngIn 1995, the second USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) was commissioned at Staten Island, New York. The ship’s crest highlights its connection to the Irish ancestry of the Sullivan family, featuring the traditional green shamrock, and the ship’s motto is “We Stick Together.” The destroyer is sponsored by Kelly, whose grandfather, Albert, was the only Sullivan brother to marry and have a child before the brothers deployed to the Pacific in support of World War II.

Kelly, a third grade teacher in Waterloo, considers her connections with the crew of The Sullivans to be an important part of her life. Her students are pen pals with Sailors from The Sullivans.

In 2003, under the command of then-Cmdr. Richard Brown, the ship visited Ireland to pay respects to the ancestral lands of the Sullivan family. Kelly was there to meet them. Brown, an Irish Catholic from Boston, was a perfect fit for The Sullivans and has since promoted to the rank of vice admiral in charge of Naval Surface Forces.

“In 2003, I was honored to be assigned as the commanding officer of USS The Sullivans, named after the five Sullivan brothers George, Frank, Joe, Matt, and Al, from Waterloo, Iowa,” said Brown during a recent visit to the ship in Mayport, Fla. “I was the fifth commanding officer of a ship named for five brothers. My mother’s maiden name is Sullivan. Her mother’s maiden name is Sullivan. I was the first Irish commanding officer of the ship, and the first to take the ship to Ireland. It seems like I was destined to command that ship.”

USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) in Ireland at anchor

USS The Sullivans (DDG 68) in Ireland at anchor

Brown said that his memories on The Sullivans are some of his most cherished.

In a blog post from November, Kelly said, “I always wondered what it would be like to have the big Irish Catholic family that I would have had if even one of the boys had survived. But, I also know that my life is incredibly blessed with my fantastic Navy family.”

Every St. Patrick’s Day, members of the Waterloo community gather at Sullivan Park to honor its five namesake Waterloo brothers killed together during World War II. Last year, Kelly read a letter from The Sullivans’ commanding officer, Cmdr. S.F. De Castro.

“As we celebrate St. Patrick’s Day, remember our Irish heritage and tradition, it is appropriate that we also remember the selfless sacrifice of the fighting Sullivan brothers and their family,” wrote De Castro. “The story of the Sullivan brothers is as much about their devotion to family as it is service to country.”


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