Alleta Sullivan: A “Navy Mom” Like No Other

From Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

On the second Sunday in May in the U.S. and in other parts of the world, there is cause for celebration. Flowers, greeting cards and a trip to a nice restaurant for lunch or dinner are in order for that special woman that has taken care of her children through thick and thin. The day is Mother’s Day and it is a day on which we honor with gifts those who have given the most precious gift: life.

For Navy Moms, both those who wear the uniform and those whose children wear the uniform, Mother’s Day can be a bittersweet time as they are often separated from their children. Additionally, since America’s Sailors operate forward in harm’s way, there are bound to be Mother’s Days on which Navy Moms are reminded of the ultimate sacrifice of their loved ones.

Mother’s Day 1943 was not a day of celebration in the Sullivan house in Waterloo, Iowa.  Just four months earlier, Alleta Sullivan along with her husband Tom, her daughter Genevieve, and her grandson James received official word that all five of her sons had been lost after the ship on which they all served, USS Juneau, was sunk Nov. 13, 1942, during the Battle of Guadalcanal.

The Sullivan brothers, Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George, are pictured on board USS Juneau (CL 52) at the time of her commissioning at the New York Navy Yard, Feb. 14, 1942. All were lost with the ship following the Nov. 13, 1942, Battle of Guadalcanal.

The Sullivan brothers, Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George, are pictured on board USS Juneau (CL 52) at the time of her commissioning at the New York Navy Yard, Feb. 14, 1942. All were lost with the ship following the Nov. 13, 1942, Battle of Guadalcanal.

 

News spread across the country of the enormous sacrifice made by the Sullivans and honors were heaped onto Alleta and her family including posters honoring the brothers’ sacrifice, extensive media coverage and even a 1944 motion picture based on their story.

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.

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.

Alleta became an important figure in the war effort. She volunteered at the United Serviceman’s Organization (USO) to help make life easier for troops stateside and abroad. With her husband and daughter, Alleta visited more than 200 manufacturing plants and shipyards offering encouragement to employees in the hopes their efforts would bring the war to an end sooner. By January 1944, Alleta and her family had spoken to more than a million workers in 65 cities and reached millions of others over the radio.

On Sept. 30, 1943, Alleta was present as the ship’s sponsor when the Navy commissioned USS The Sullivans (DD 537). The ship served the Navy until final decommissioning on Jan. 7, 1965. In 1977, the destroyer was donated to the city of Buffalo, N.Y., as a memorial in the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Servicemen’s Park.

The second ship to be called The Sullivans (DDG 68) was commissioned April 19, 1997, and was sponsored by Kelly Sullivan Loughren, Alleta’s great granddaughter.  The ship’s motto is “We Stick Together.”  Today the ship, which returned home from a six month deployment just in time for the holidays on Dec. 22, 2013, is based at Naval Station Mayport, Fla.

Kelly obviously admires her great-grandmother’s courage and continued service to the nation in the face of the most devastating loss a mother can suffer. But the story that sticks with her the most is that long after the war, after the movie, the media and the ceremonies had faded, Alleta would receive house calls from Sailors that either knew her sons or who just wanted to stop by and extend their condolences. Kelly said her great-grandmother would often cook them a hot meal and offer them a place to stay for the evening or the weekend.

On this Mother’s Day, America’s Navy salutes the quintessential Navy Mom – Alleta Sullivan, as well as all the mothers who have served, or who have stood on the shore as their sons and daughters went down to the sea in ships!

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