Monday was the seventy-fifth anniversary of the sinking of the U.S.S. Juneau, and among its dead were the five Sullivan brothers. The news horrified the American public, and caused the United States to officially ban immediate family members from serving in the same units in the Armed Forces, known as the Sole Survivor Act. The loss became a rallying cry for Americans as well, and there were posters everywhere featuring the brothers with the words “They Did Their Part!” There have been several ships launched in the years since dedicated to the brothers as well, and the Sullivans’ story inspired a 1944 film, The Fighting Sullivans, which presented a slightly fictionalized version of what happened. It doesn’t have any big stars in it, but it still helps immortalize these brave men.
Instead of a conventional plot structure, The Fighting Sullivans is episodic until its last third or so. It opens with a series of cuts showing Tom and Alleta Sullivan (Thomas Mitchell and Selena Royle) in church, watching each of their sons get baptized. There’s George, then Francis, Joseph, Madison, and finally Albert. They also have a daughter, Genevieve, but the film skips her baptism.
Fast forward several more years, when Albert, or Al, is seven. The Sullivan house in Waterloo, Iowa is noisy, which isn’t surprising with five boys running around. Genevieve, or Jenny to the family, watches all this and tries to keep her brothers in line. She’s no jellyfish, either, and has a good pair of lungs, probably out of self-defense.
The boys all have very distinct personalities, but they’re a team more than anything. Being the oldest, George is the leader of the group. Frank wishes he was George. Joe is the baseball lover. Maddie is a cut-up. Al is a sweet guy who gets a weak stomach when he’s stressed. They’re famous around town for their “fighting walk” and one boy even ducks for cover when he sees them coming down the street. Like boys tend to do, they get in scrapes and scraps, such as smoking cornsilk in the shed or trying to build Mrs. Sullivan a woodbox by chopping a hole in the side of the house.
In one scene, the boys find an old, decrepit boat by the river, and try to fix it up so they can use it. They rig a sail that’s more hole than sail, and after a patch job and a christening, launch themselves and their dog. While they’re placidly rowing and belting out “Who Threw the Overalls In Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder,” the boat springs a leak, and the boys have to abandon ship. In an ironic bit of foreshadowing, Mrs. Sullivan makes them promise that they won’t set foot on another boat until they’re grown up. “Okay, Mom.”
The film moves ahead to 1939, when everyone’s grown up. The Sullivan house is still wild and loud, of course. George is competing in a motorcycle race in the hills outside Waterloo (which, not so oddly enough, look more Californian than Iowan–the star thistle is a huge tipoff.). Among the spectators is a pretty girl, Katherine Mary Roofe from a neighboring parish (Ann Baxter), and as soon as Al sees her, he’s gone. Hook, line and sinker.
Al and Katherine Mary start dating, and before long Al’s bought her an engagement ring. He invites her over for Sunday dinner, but he’s nervous because he wants his rambunctious clan to make a good impression. Heh. Easier said than done. Everything goes great until after dinner, when the other brothers rib Al about flirting with other girls and quoting a copy of a letter Al had written to Ruth. Not surprisingly, Ruth runs out of the house in tears.
Al is devastated, and the next day the rest of the family goes over to patch things up. Long story short, Al and Katherine Mary are married and expecting in the blink of an eye. The two of them are incredibly cute together, but not in a cloying way, and Al’s weak stomach does its thing when little Jimmy is born.
The film’s strongest scenes happen from the time the family finds out about Pearl Harbor. The brothers want to serve together in the Navy, but first they have to convince the powers that be to allow it. When they leave town, they stride down the street as one man. The neighbors remark to each other, “That’s their fighting walk.”
The ending of a film like this is something a viewer will already be expecting if they have prior knowledge of the Sullivans’ story. It’s like watching a movie about the Titanic: we all know the ship is going to hit the iceberg and sink. Even so, seeing the family find out about the deaths of the brothers is still a gut-puncher, and there’s a wish deep down that things could have been different.
Like most films based on true stories, there were aspects of The Fighting Sullivans that were changed from real life. For instance, when the brothers joined the Navy, only Al was shown to have any kind of marital attachments, when in actuality, Joe and Maddie also had fiancees. It’s hard to say how accurate the film’s portrayal of their life in Waterloo was, but it is known that Joe as well as George was into motorcycles. Since it was wartime, the film doesn’t give the real name of the Sullivans’ ship, or any name at all, which was common for films of the period. It also downplays the fact that the brothers became instant celebrities when their photo was taken aboard the USS Juneau, and therefore their deaths would have hit the public harder than it would have otherwise. The movie implies that the boys died all together while rescuing George in sick bay when another torpedo hit their ship, but four of the real brothers drowned while a wounded George languished on a raft for four days. After that, he rolled off into the sea and was never seen or heard from again. The film also shows the family being told right away about the brothers’ deaths. In reality, the War Department didn’t report them missing in action until January, although the family became concerned long before when they stopped getting letters. In August of 1943, the Sullivans received a telegram stating that their sons had, in fact, been killed. However, according to TCM, the Navy, Aleta, Tom, Genevieve, Katherine Mary, and the Sullivans’ priest were all technical advisors on the film, so this slight change in chronology probably didn’t bother them all that much.
After the deaths of the five Sullivan brothers, the surviving family members were kept busy by the war. Genevieve joined the WAVES, but only spent less than two years in the Navy as she was her parents’ sole surviving child. She got married in 1946 and died in 1975. Alleta and Tom went on speaking tours and christened battleships, dying in 1972 and 1965, respectively. Alleta was heavily involved in the Gold Star Mothers and even served at the Hollywood Canteen one night. Katherine Mary remarried, but Jimmy was her only child. She died on January 1, 2016. Jim is retired and still living in Waterloo, having had two children and four grandchildren.
Speaking of Waterloo, they’re very proud of their World War Two history. There are memorials to the five Sullivans all over town, as well as a park and a veterans museum named after them. The town also hosts a 5K/10K run in their honor every year. Since 2017 is the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Sullivan brothers’ deaths, the town has been hosting all sorts of commemorative events this year, such as a bike ride. One of the particpants was Kelly Sullivan Loughren, Al’s granddaughter.
The Fighting Sullivans is a loving and moving tribute to a family who gave more than most of us can ever imagine. May we never forget their sacrifice, as well as that of others like them, before and since.
Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll join me on Monday as I join this:
Have a great weekend, everyone!
This film is available on Amazon.