“loss of the five Sullivan brothers ranks as the
greatest single blow suffered by any one family
… probably, in American naval history.”
Seventy years ago this month, one of the most tragic stories of World War II took place when Tom and Alleta Sullivan of Waterloo lost all five of their sons in battle.
The story of the five Sullivan brothers has been told in a feature film, in a variety of books and articles, and even in an alternative rock song. Their memory and sacrifice has been honored in their hometown in a number of ways, including a stunning new museum in the center of town.
But it was their upbringing in northeast Iowa during the Great Depression that shaped these young men, who paid the ultimate price in the name of family and country.
A 1995 book, We Band of Brothers: The Sullivans and World War II, by John R. Satterfield, examines in detail the family life of George, Frank, Joe, Matt and Al Sullivan.
They were not stellar students; in fact, none of them completed high school. Matt had the most education, completing 10th grade at East High School before quitting. None of his brothers went that far.
They were apparently not involved in sports or extracurricular activities, and while they proudly identified themselves as Catholics, their church attendance declined as they grew up (which was no doubt a disappointment to their mother, who was a devout Catholic).
While the nickname “The Fighting Sullivans” was used to describe their joint military service, it could just as well have applied to their formative years. Interviews conducted in the 1990s with the brothers’ contemporaries indicate that they were normal children of the Depression, not being afraid to fight in that survival-focused era. But there was one distinction – classmates soon found that a fight with any Sullivan brother typically led to a clash with all five. Satterfield tells the story of one boy who got into a fight with George Sullivan, only to soon find himself “on the bottom of a pile of Sullivans in seconds”.
That attitude was likely fostered at home. By all accounts, the Sullivan home was “an openly affectionate place”, with heavy emphasis on family. Father Tom labored as a freight conductor on the railroad; mother Alleta raised the boys and her daughter Genevieve – always holding dear the memory of her youngest, daughter Kathleen, who died before reaching one year of age.
The brothers were the prototype of young working-class men during the lean times. The only one to ever live away from the family home was Al, who was the only brother to have married. They worked at a variety of jobs, including at the sprawling Rath Packing Plant, an ice house, and, like their father, the Illinois Central Railroad.