USS The Sullivans DD-537
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USS The Sullivans DD-537 — Named for Five Fallen Heroes of World War 2

On October 10, 1942, almost exactly 10 months after Pearl Harbor, at the San Francisco yard of the Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation, a keel was laid for the USS Putnam, a destroyer in the new Fletcher class. Just one month later, something happened that would inspire President Roosevelt to issue a command that this ship would be named after five brothers, who had lost their lives. This ship, unique in all the navy, would become not only a fighting war ship, but also a memorial to the Sullivan Brothers, the only ship to be named after more than one person. DD-537 served extensively in the Pacific Theatre.
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January 3, 1942, less than a month after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, George and Frank Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa, who had already served in the Navy, signed up again, this time to take the fight to the Japanese, and this time their three younger brothers, Joseph, Albert, and Madison, signed up with them. The Navy had a policy against brothers serving on the same ship, but the policy was overlooked because the brothers wanted to stick together.
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February 14, 1942, two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, USS Juneau (CL-52), an Atlanta class light cruiser was commissioned with Captain Lyman Swenson in command. Swenson, who had been born and raised in Utah, was a 1916 graduate of the Naval Academy and an experienced seaman, having served on a number of naval war ships. A couple of months later Captain Swenson stopped at Annapolis, where he had lunch with his son, who, in his father’s footsteps was enrolled in the Naval Academy. His son later recalled his dad expressing concern over a couple of things: First, the Juneau, being a light, cruiser was built for speed at the expense of a heavier armor belt, and would be vulnerable to torpedo attack. Second, his crew included all five sons of one family. The younger Swenson would never see his father again.
Captn. Lyman Swenson, USS Juneau
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August 7, 1942, exactly nine months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, U.S. marines went ashore at Guadalcanal, kicking off one the most hard-fought battles of World War 2. The Japanese had built an airfield on Guadalcanal that would give them a significant strategic advantage and a base for disrupting Allied shipping in that part of the Pacific. After losing the airfield, the Japanese were determined to retake the island. Major land and naval battles as well as almost daily aerial attacks culminated in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal in early November, 1942.
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After serving valiantly in several engagements with the Japanese, USS Juneau, having been severely damaged by a destroyer-launched torpedo was heading toward Espiritu Santo with only one propeller operational, when she was struck a second time by a submarine-launched torpedo causing a massive explosion that broke the ship in two. She went down in 20 seconds with the Captain and most of her crew,. A hundred men survived the sinking, but only ten of that number survived the next eight days in the water awaiting rescue. Three of the Sullivan brothers, Frank, Madison, and Joseph, went down with the ship. Albert and George did not survive the eight days.
Sullivan Brothers
The Sullivan Brothers. From left to right: Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison, and George.
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Sullivan Brothers Poster

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April 4, 1943, Sponsored by Alleta Sullivan, grieving mother of the five brothers, the new Fletcher class destroyer, USS The Sullivans (DD-537) is launched in San Francisco. Over 7,000 men died in Guadalcanal, but the Sullivan Brothers were recognized by the nation as representing the devotion of our fighting forces and the sacrifice of their families. Thomas and Alleta Sullivan went on to to speak for the cause of the war effort, making numerous appearances at shipyards and manufacturing facilities. The War Department circulated a poster to encourage the American people to contribute to the War effort. Read More.
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Summer, 1943. Twenty-year-old George Mendonsa, having completed Navy boot camp, reported for duty in San Francisco, where he was assigned to the new ship USS The Sullivans. George had been raised in a Rhode Island fishing family and knew the ways of the ocean since childhood, working with his dad. He wanted to join the Navy on December 7, 1941 to take the fight to the Japanese but was restrained because he was needed in the family business. Following sea trials, The Sullivans was commissioned on September 3, 1943 with Commander Kenneth M. Gentry in command and young George Mendonsa already raised to the rank of quartermaster because of his knowledge of the sea and his skill in navigation.
George Mendonsa
George Mendonsa in 1945
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Convoy of the Cripples

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Admiral Halsey had dispatched The Sullivans and other destroyers to escort and protect cruisers Houston and Canberra, which had been badly damaged in the Battle of Formosa, as they made their way to the American base at Ulithi for repairs. The convoy served as a decoy because Halsey’s fighter aircraft were ready to decimate the Japanese planes that came in for a kill. A few enemy planes got through and attacked the convoy. Artist Ray Massey’s painting at left shows The Sullivans coming to the aid of Houston. George Mendosa was manning the helm. On August 23, 2014 the original painting was donated to Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park by Horton Spitzer, who had served aboard destroyer escort USS Tabberer as gunnery/ASW officer in the 1950’s.
Read more.
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December 18, 1944 TYPHOON COBRA
Task Force 38 with carriers, battleships, cruisers, and destroyers, under the command of Admiral Halsey was caught in a powerful typhoon. Working with faulty weather info, Halsey had steered the fleet into the middle of the storm. The destroyers, being the lightest ships were the most vulnerable. The Sullivans attempted to refuel as the winds grew stronger but had to pull away before finishing. The winds were so fierce and the waves so steep that many ships were damaged, and three destroyers sank in that storm with heavy loss of life. The Sullivans, with George Mendonsa at the helm, was able to stay into the wind and make it through. She later took on survivors from the other destroyers.
Typhoon Cobra
Oil Tanker in Typhoon Cobra
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USS Bunker Hill under attack
USS Bunker Hill under attack.
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While supporting the invasion of Okinawa, Essex class aircraft carrier Bunker Hill found herself in weather that was less than clear. A seriously dedicated young Japanese pilot, willing to face certain death, piloted a Mitsubishi A6 “Zero” loaded with with bombs. His plane appeared from the clouds too close for effective anti-aircraft defense and unloaded a bomb that penetrated the flight deck before the plane itself hit the carrier. This attack was followed by another with similar effect. Within moments, there was shrapnel and flame and wounded men everywhere. USS The Sullivans was nearby and quickly closed in to pick up casualties. The seamanship instincts of George Mendonsa, quartermaster at the helm, were critical to the success of the mission. Coming in close, The Sullivans pulled 166 men from the water and later transferred those men to a hospital ship. It was then that young George Mendonsa, a fisherman from Newport, Rhode Island, witnessed the courage and compassion of the nurses who served on the hospital ship. He never forgot how they cared for those men.
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August 14, 1945 TIMES SQUARE, NEW YORK.
George Mendonsa, on shore leave after two years of active sea duty in the heart of the battle, was enjoying a day in New York with his finance, Rita. They were in the Radio City Music Hall when they heard the commotion in the streets. Everyone was going bananas. It had just been announced that the war was over. It is hard to imagine the sense of joy and relief that filled the crowds who moments earlier were dreading the planned invasion of Japan, which promised to be most deadly battle of the war in the Pacific. Almost everyone had already lost a friend, neighbor, or family member. George saw a nurse and instantly remembered how nurses had cared for the men from the USS Bunker Hill. Alfred Eisenstadt was there with his Leica. It became the moment that symbolized the end of the horror that had been the most destructive war in the history of the world.
The Kissing Sailor
George Mendonsa in 1945
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Kissing Sailor George Mendonsa in 1980
George Mendonsa hauling in the catch in 1980 Click on image to enlarge.
August, 1980 George and his brother Manny had a trap fishing business. I had some friends who worked on his boat and invited me go out with them one morning to take pictures. I met them at the Handy Lunch on Thames Street in Newport. It was still dark. We were fairly far out before the sun came up. At left is a photo of George and his men hauling fish from a trap. A couple of months later George came over to my studio so I could help him blow up photos of the kissing sailor so he could prove that he was the one. Life magazine had used the photo for publicity, inviting the question of who the real sailor and nurse were. It was 35 years after that famous moment, and what impressed me most about George was how solid and strong he was. The famous picture was one of five or six that Alfred Eisenstadt took within a matter of seconds. Somehow George had obtained copies of the other shots, and I blew them up so we could see the evidence close up. George told me about the tattoo on his arm and about chevrons in his pocket. We looked at other evidence. It was enough to convince me that George was the one.
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© 2017 Phil Dickinson
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