Editor’s note: The Courier’s Pat Kinney is in New York through Sunday with Kelly Sullivan and others observing the 75th anniversary of the death of the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo. The Courier is publishing a special section marking the anniversary in today’s paper.
STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Seventy-five years ago, George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan of Waterloo sailed out of New York harbor on the USS Juneau. They and nearly 700 shipmates never returned. A Japanese torpedo sealed their fate just 10 months later.
On Thursday, the current U.S. Navy ship named for those five brothers, their only granddaughter and friends returned to that same harbor to remember and reflect on their sacrifice and that of countless others.
The USS The Sullivans returned for a special commemoration at the place where it was commissioned 20 years ago on a Staten Island pier. It is across the harbor from where the Sullivan brothers’ ship, the USS Juneau, was commissioned 75 years earlier in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. The Juneau was sunk following the naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter of Albert Sullivan, the only brother who married, is the official Navy sponsor of the current USS The Sullivans, as her grandmother, Alleta, was of the first namesake ship, now decommissioned and docked at a Buffalo, N.Y., military park.
For Kelly Sullivan, the brothers’ spririt lives on. She found it in her own moist eyes and the quiver in her voice as she read a letter from her great-grandmother inquiring about the brothers’ fate.
She also sees it in the eyes and the spirit of the sailors who have served on their namesake ship.
“I have years of special memories on this ship. And the most important thing to me is the crew. And I want you to to know how much you mean to me and how important you are,” she said, her voice breaking. “To all of you sailors you need to know there’s so many people who honor and respect you. ... Being a sponsor of a ship is the best gig I ever had, and I hope I did you proud. This crew inspires me to be the best that I can be, because I want you to know how much I admire and respect you.
“And when we honor the five Sullivan brothers, we’re not honoring just my family, we’re honoring all who have sacrificed,” she said. “And the Sullivans represent all veterans and all who have sacrificed.”
Sullivan joked that she calls the USS The Sullivans her “firstborn,” much to the chagrin of her children, Kelcie and Luke. But the emotional tie is apparent. Her voice quavered again as she spoke of The Sullivans being the target of a botched 2000 attack by al-Qaida terrorists in Yemen. It was just prior to the attack that killed 17 sailors aboard a sister ship, the USS Cole, and less than a year before attacks that felled the World Trade Center across the harbor from Thursday’s ceremonies.
Sullivan’s voice continued to tremble as she spoke of her great-grandmother.
“She helped pave the way for me. And I know she’s looking down from heaven and she’s proud that I took over the reins for being the sponsor of the USS The Sullivans. And I know that the boys are proud, too, of all that these sailors do. I want you guys to know how much I honor and respect you. Keep up the great work. And just know there’s always lasagna and cold beer for you in Waterloo!”
Earlier Thursday, she welcomed the ship to port as it and the ship USS Hue City pulled into port to the strains of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.”
“Sully sailors in the house! Woohoo!” she shouted at the crew, wiping back tears. “This is your pier! Now and forever!”
Current USS The Sullivans Cmdr. Russ Moore said the brothers’ motto, “We stick together,” has pervaded the crew throughout the ship’s 20-year existence. It’s a legacy established by the Sullivan brothers’ valor during the Battle of Guadalcanal and the sacrifice of their deaths afterward. A flag with five gold stars, symbolizing the five brothers, flew overhead on the ship.
“During that day there were not any celebrations. There was an abundance of violence and close-quarters vicious naval combat. The crew of the Juneau were thousands of miles away from home, fighting not only for their survival but for our country’s survival. On that day, five brothers put out to sea. The enemy they were facing in the Pacific was unrelenting, fanatical and merciless.” But the Juneau and her crew “headed to parts unknown, knowing most likely their safety was in jeopardy and likely not guaranteed.”
More than 1,400 sailors were lost in the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, nearly half of them on the Juneau.
During Veterans Day week, Moore said, “We need to reflect. And I hope we all reflect on the character it took for five brothers to step forward and head out to sea knowing they may not come back. Because it takes someone very special to do that and to continue to do that. They did that in a very uncertain age. And all of you do that now,” he told his crew. “And it is a character that is not common.
“Kelly, I’m glad you’re here with us today,” Moore told Sullivan. “And I hope you, as we, are unbelievably proud of the high bar your family set for the best fighting organization in the world — that’s as old as your nation.”
The Sullivan’s crew also is anticipated to participate in the New York City Veterans Day Parade on Saturday in Manhattan.
Also attending Thursday’s ceremony was Knute Swenson, the grandson of USS Juneau commander Lyman K. Swenson; retired U.S. Navy Capt. Gerard Roncolato, first commanding officer of the current USS The Sullivans; and Hal Burke of the USS The Sullivan’s Association, a group of Navy veterans who served on the first USS The Sullivans as well as the current ship. Staten Island residents involved in the 1997 commissioning also were there.