The five Sullivan brothers were born in Waterloo, Iowa, between 1914 and 1920. George and Francis enlisted in the Navy in 1937, and the three younger brothers in early 1942. All five were assigned to the commissioning crew of USS Juneau (CL-52) in February 1942 and remained with the ship through her Atlantic operations and subsequent combat actions in the Guadalcanal Campaign. They died when the Juneau was torpedoed and exploded on Nov. 13, 1942. Only 11 of the crew of 700 survived at the end of a longer, more horrific ordeal - though many had survived the sinking of the ship, they perished days later when sharks attacked them. According to most survivor accounts, George, the oldest of the brothers, was one of these victims. It is said by some that this fact was (unfairly) kept from the parents for years and that their tireless Military work after their son's deaths might not have happened if they had been told the "real" story.

Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, in spite of the intense pain of losing their five sons all at once, made speaking appearances at war plants and ship yards in behalf of the war effort. Their daughter, Genevive, often accompanied them and herself joined the WAVES on June 14, 1943. In April of that year Mrs. Sullivan christened a new destroyer, U.S.S. The Sullivans, in San Francisco. This ship is moored at Buffalo, New York as a memorial and there is now a park and playground where the Sullivan house once stood.

President Franklin Roosevelt personally wrote to the Sullivan family to inform them of the deaths of their sons. Contrary to belief, there was no "Sullivan Act" put in place to prevent siblings from serving aboard the same ship because of this incident.

Steven Spielberg said that the story of the Sullivan brothers and the Niland brothers was his inspiration behind the movie "Saving Private Ryan", with a good dose of Hollywood poetic license taken with both family's actual accounts to make the movie. The Sullivans grew up in the city and not on a farm as depicted in the movie and by some accounts were area "bullies" who insisted they be put on the same ship in spite of the prior incident with the Niland brothers making different assignments among family members the military norm.

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