“All engines ahead full for twenty five knots! Left standard rudder,” I hear the Conning Officer order as USS The Sullivans’ gas turbine engines spin up. The ship shakes as she heels to starboard, and we accelerate away from the oiler on our starboard side.
Looking back at the ship’s wake, I see the bright green shamrock crest emblazoned on our aft stack. The sound of canvas pounding against the wind prompts me to look up at the flag. Flying from a halyard on the starboard yardarm, this flag is massive. It has a thick red border and, in the middle, a rectangular white field with five gold stars. This breakaway flag of ours is a much larger version of the flag that hung in the window of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan’s home in Waterloo, Iowa after they lost their five sons. The same flag that now hangs in a frame in the crew’s mess aboard USS The Sullivans (DDG 68).
We fly our five-star flag at every underway replenishment breakaway, and especially when the ship departs on or returns home from deployment. Every time I look at that flag, I am reminded of the sacrifices made by the Sullivan family during World War II. No family sacrificed more for their country and no family endured a greater hardship, and I know I am privileged to have the honor to command the second ship to carry their names.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, the son of a naval officer who served during Korea on a heavy cruiser. As a boy, I spent much time on the Buffalo waterfront, a waterfront decorated with USS The Sullivans (DD 537), the first ship to carry the Sullivans’ name. There she still sits, in the Buffalo Naval and Serviceman’s Park. She no longer serves her country at sea, but serves as a museum and a tool for education. I grew up looking at that ship, and on many a tour, often imagined what it had been like to serve on her. While she is decommissioned, many who served on her throughout her magnificent career return annually to help clean and paint the ship. Both DDG 68 and DD 537 sailors feel a strong sense of loyalty to the ship and to each other because we are inspired by the loyalty and dedication to family and country demonstrated by the Sullivans.
After the sinking of USS Juneau (CL-52), Alleta Sullivan, the mother of the boys, wrote a letter to the Navy. I find it most difficult to read because I can not imagine the level of grief and concern she must have felt at the time. I have copied the contents of the letter here:
Bureau of Naval Personnel
I am writing you in regards to a rumor going around that my five sons were killed in action in November. A mother from here came and told me she got a letter from her son and he heard my five sons were killed.
It is all over town now, and I am so worried. My five sons joined the Navy together a year ago, Jan. 3, 1942. They are on the Cruiser, U.S.S. JUNEAU. The last I heard from them was Nov. 8th. That is, it was dated Nov 8th, U.S. Navy.
Their names are George T., Francis Henry, Joseph E., Madison A., and Albert L. If it is so, please let me know the truth. I am to christen the U.S.S. TAWASA, Feb. 12th, at Portland, Oregon. If anything has happened to my five sons, I will still christen the ship as it was their wish that I do so. I hated to bother you, but it has worried me so that I wanted to know if it was true. So please tell me. It was hard to give five sons all at once to the Navy, but I am proud of my boys that they can serve and help protect their country. George and Francis served four years on the U.S.S. HOVEY, and I had the pleasure to go aboard their ship in 1937.
I am so happy the Navy has bestowed the honor on me to christen the U.S.S. TAWASA. My husband and daughter are going to Portland with me. I remain,
Mrs. Alleta Sullivan
98 Adams Street
Thomas and Alleta Sullivan received the following response from President Franklin Roosevelt:
My Dear Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan,
The knowledge that your five gallant sons are missing in action against the enemy inspires me to write you this personal message. I realize full well there is little I can say to assuage your grief.
As Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy, I want you to know that the entire nation shares in your sorrow. I offer you the condolences and gratitude of our country. We who remain to carry on the fight must maintain spirit in the knowledge that such sacrifice is not in vain.
The Navy Department has informed me of the expressed desire of your sons, George Thomas, Francis Henry, Joseph Eugene, Madison Abel, and Albert Leo, to serve in the same ship. I am sure that we all take heart in the knowledge that they fought side by side. As one of your sons wrote, “We will make a team together that can’t be beat.” It is this spirit which in the end must triumph.
Last March, you, Mrs. Sullivan, were designated to sponsor a ship of the Navy, in recognition of your patriotism and that of your sons. I understand that you are now even more determined to carry on as sponsor. This evidence of unselfishness and of courage serves as a real inspiration for me, as I am sure it will for all Americans. Such acts of faith and fortitude in the face of tragedy convince me of the indomitable spirit and will of our people.
I send you my deepest sympathy in your hour of trial and pray that in Almighty God you will find the comfort and help that only He can bring.
Very sincerely yours,
Franklin D. Roosevelt
After the loss of George (28), Francis (27), Joseph (24), Madison (23) and Albert (20), Alleta sponsored DD 537, whose name was changed during construction from Putnam to The Sullivans. She also traveled around the country the following year, making speeches to raise war bonds in support of war effort. I cannot imagine the level of grief she must have felt having lost five children simultaneously and the burden she carried from speech to speech.
The Sullivan family has maintained a close relationship with both ships throughout their service lives. Alletta would write letters to the crew, telling them to “keep their chins up” during long deployments. Albert Sullivan’s son, James, joined the Navy and served aboard USS The Sullivans (DD 537). Today, Kelly Sullivan Loughren, Albert’s granddaughter and Alletta’s great granddaughter, serves as the sponsor of USS The Sullivans (DDG 68). Kelly writes us often and sends words of encouragement. She visits the ship annually and actively participates in the ship’s reunions.
Images of the Sullivans and reminders of their service decorate our crew’s mess decks, the wardroom, and many bulkheads throughout the ship. They serve as constant reminders of their sacrifice and inspire those of us assigned to this great ship to serve in their memory and to work every day to honor them. The ship’s motto, “We Stick Together,” personifies the tight camaraderie between shipmates.
Every year on the November 13, the crew gathers on the flight deck to pay tribute to the brothers. This year, we will read the letter that President Roosevelt sent to Thomas and Alletta Sullivan, striking five bells as we cast five white covers, one for each brother, into the sea. We shall never forget their sacrifice.
Have you visited USS The Sullivans (DD 537) in Buffalo, N.Y.? What did you think of your visit?