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The Sullivan Brothers Myth


As a college student, I was looking through some family pictures in my parent living room. One photo stood out; my father, grubby, camo-ed, flak jacketed and fully armed, with his slightly older brother, Burt, squeaky clean in his crisply ironed uniform, arms over each other’s shoulders and smiles from ear to ear. Flipping the picture over, someone had written “Burt and Frank, Saigon, mid 60s.” I turned to my dad and asked, “I thought brothers weren’t supposed to be stationed together in a combat zone?” With one eyebrow up and that look only a parent can give, he replied, “And in a few years after more gets declassified, I can tell you lots of other supposed things.”

Even as a devil pup with several military history courses under my belt, I had fallen for the Sullivan Brothers myth. With the popularity of the movie Saving Private Ryan followed shortly by the tragic events of 9-11, many people, military and civilian included, are under the false impression that close relatives, siblings and spouses included, cannot and do not serve together in the military in combat conditions. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is true is that Department of Defense addresses these issues in Directive 1313.15, Special Separation Policy for Survivorship, last updated on June 1st¸2012. It allows the “only surviving child in the family in which the father or mother or one or more siblings” to apply for discharge under the following conditions:

  • has passed away;
  • was killed in action;
  • is missing in action;
  • is captured by then enemy; or
  • has a 100% disability rating from the military (Section 3).

It does not require the sole survivor to be discharged, nor does it guarantee discharge under certain extreme circumstances (Section 4). The directive doesn’t address spousal survival in a dual-military career marriage.

The story of the Sullivan brothers is one of patriotism and tragedy. Albert, Francis, George, Joseph, and Madison Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa enlisted together in the Navy on January 3rd, 1942. The brothers insisted on serving on the same ship, and were assigned to the light cruiser U.S.S. Juneau. On the way to Guadalcanal the Juneau and several other ships were attacked (known as the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal). Japanese torpedoes hit the Juneau  hit multiple times, eventually sinking her on November 13th, 1942. Survivors of the Juneau say that four of the brothers died immediately with the first torpedo hit, while the fifth brother, George, died five days later from his wounds, exposure, exhaustion, and possibly a shark attack.

As with everything else in the military, rules and regulations change constantly. If you find yourself in this unfortunate state of affairs, work with your commanding officer to see if this applies to you and how to resolve your situation to the best benefit of your family.

Contributed by S. E. Davidson Parker

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