Thursday, September 07, 2017 - Updated: 9:00 am
The five Sullivan brothers, young Catholics who died together in World War II during the Battle of Guadalcanal, inspired the 1944 movie “The Fighting Sullivans” and, to some extent, Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” After the young men’s deaths, their parents embarked on a speaking tour that inspired workers at hundreds of factories and shipyards, including a stop in Pittsburgh.
On Sept. 16 at noon, Kelly Ann Sullivan, a granddaughter of Albert Sullivan, will speak at Peters Place Ball Room in Bridgeville about “Pittsburgh’s Connection to the USS Juneau and the Five Sullivan Brothers.” The event is free, but reservations are required. To make them, call or text 412-508-2706.
“If you know anything about World War II, you know about the Sullivan brothers,” said Father Vincent Kolo, chaplain at UPMC Passavant Hospital and a history buff who helped organize the event for the Robert M. Rodrigues History Series.
“I can remember my grandparents talking about them when we were little,” he said. “As Kelly Sullivan herself says, they represent the sacrifice of all Americans in World War II. They represent the willingness of men to go and fight for your country and for freedom.”
The brothers enlisted after a friend of theirs died in the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Although the Navy preferred to separate siblings, they insisted on serving together.
Albert, Madison, Joseph, Francis and George Sullivan, ages 20-27, all perished after their light cruiser, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed on Nov. 13, 1942. Witnesses on ships nearby did not think anyone survived the explosion. However, about 100 of the 700 men were alive in the water, including George Sullivan. Due to confusion and multiple errors, rescuers didn’t arrive for a week. By then, just 10 men were alive.
The Sullivans were from Waterloo, Iowa, but have Pittsburgh ties. Joseph Sullivan was engaged to a young woman from Lower Burrell. Father Kolo has discovered that about 30 men from western Pennsylvania and West Virginia served and died with the Sullivans on the ill-fated ship. One of the survivors, Wyart Butterfield, also made Pittsburgh his home until his death in 1991.
The other organizer of the event, Robert Rodrigues, is a retired history teacher from Chartiers Valley High School whose students researched a memorial to all graduates who had served or died in the military. Among them was Alexander Asti from Bridgeville, who perished on the Juneau.
The Sullivans’ deaths made worldwide news. Pope Pius XII sent a rosary to their parents, Tom and Alleta. Within a year, the parents had dedicated the USS The Sullivans, a destroyer that served in WWII and survives today as a museum ship in Buffalo, New York. In 1995, Kelly Sullivan dedicated the second USS The Sullivans, and it remains on active duty, with the motto “We stick together.”