The Fighting Sullivans (1944)




Director:    Lloyd Bacon.

Starring:    Anne Baxter (Katherine Mary Sullivan),  Thomas Mitchell (Mr. Thomas F. Sullivan),  Selena Royle (Mrs. Alleta Sullivan),  Edward Ryan (Albert Leo 'Al' Sullivan),  Trudy Marshall (Genevieve 'Gen' Sullivan),  John Campbell (Francis Henry 'Frank' Sullivan),  James Cardwell (George Thomas Sullivan),  John Alvin (Madison Abel 'Matt' Sullivan),  George Offerman Jr. (Joesph Eugene 'Joe' Sullivan),  Roy Roberts (Father Francis),  Ward Bond (Lt. Cmdr. Robinson).

five brothers serving on the same ship die while fighting at Guadalcanal


Spoiler Warning:  below is a summary of the entire film. 

Over time there is a baptism for George Thomas Sullivan, Frances Henry Sullivan, Joseph Eugene Sullivan, Madison Abel Sullivan and Albert Leo Sullivan.   The five boys have an elder sister Gen.  She helps her mother keep the boys under control.  The fellows are very lively and argue a great deal.  The boys run down to see the steam engine train pulling in.  Coming back from fishing, they bring a dog home with them. 

Little Al goes to confession on the eve of his first communion.  Some boys from the neighborhood start insulting the Sullivan's dog and a fight breaks out.  In his nice suit in church Al runs out to help fight the other boys.  He winds up getting a black eye and ruining his suit.  Mother is mad at the boys for fighting and for doing it so close to the church.  She sends them all down to tell Father Francis what they did.  Father Francis makes sure the boys hold no grudges against their opponents so there won't be another such fight. 

The boys find an old boat and start repairing it.  They use mud to fill some of cracks. They take the boat out onto a lake, but very quickly water starts seeping into the boat.  The boat starts sinking and they all have to abandon ship.  Al doesn't know how to swim and is saved with the help of the dog and one of his brothers.  

Dad comes home one day to find the boys smoking in the shed.  The boys say they were only smoking corn silk.  He gives the boys cigars to smoke and they soon are coughing.  They start getting sick and run to the bathroom to throw up.

Al has a loose tooth.  Dad tries to get Al to loop a piece of string around the loose tooth, but Al doesn't want to.  So dad shows him how to do it by looping it around the gold tooth in his own mouth.  The other end of the string is tied to the door.  When mom pulls the door open coming into the house, Dad's gold tooth is yanked out.  The boys have a good laugh.   

Dad mentions a man who build a wood box and filled it to the brim with wood for the fire in the chimney.  Then he cut a hole in the wall and could just reach into the wood box and pull some wood in and put it on the fire.  So the boys, to save themselves some work, decide to spend $2.80 on credit for some wood to build the wood box.  Frank tells the oldest brother George that he is in charge of this project.  This makes George mad, so he decides not to participate in the project.  Frank is happy about that.  The boys start cutting a huge hole in the side of the house where the kitchen is.  They run into something hard and start using a hammer and chisel on it.  The something hard is a water pipe and Frank soon puts a hole in it.  Water starts spurting into the kitchen and out into the yard.  George hears all the commotion and runs down to check on it.  He criticizes Frank and the two get into a fight.  Dad and mom arrive and see the mess.   Dad is really angry at the boys and wants to spank all of them.  Mother, however, intervenes to try to get him to calm down.  She tells him he can't spank the boys while he's mad.  He get angry at her and does what George did.  He leaves to find a carpenter and lets his wife sort it out.

Everyone sits down at dinner, but George has snuck out of the house.  Mom worries about George.  Dad says he's going out to get some tobacco, but he really goes out looking for George.  Mom makes up an excuse to go out and she starts looking for George.  Finally, Al sneaks out looking for George.  A little later all the rest of the boys go out looking for George.  None of them find him.  They all go to bed. 

In the morning Al goes out again and finds George.  George goes home with his little brother because the small boy started crying.  Mom is very happy to see George, who says that he's not staying.  He is still angry at his father for slapping him around a bit when George took a boxing stance ready to hit his father.  Mom tries to explain to George that fathers make mistakes, but his dad is his father and it is a sin to hit your father.  Mother asks George to apologize to his father when he comes in for breakfast.  Dad comes in and stops in front of George, who apologizes.  Then dad apologizes to George.  He kids his son telling him he shouldn't lose his temper.  Dad laughs and says:  "Every Irishman sees red once in awhile."   

Years later, July 1939.  The boys are all grown up and now have jobs.  Their sister Gen is now a very pretty young lady.  She went out with a fellow to what the brothers call a high tone place.  So when they see her coming in for breakfast, they tease her about it by treating her like royalty. 

George loves motorcycles and is a member of the Black Hawk Motorcycle Club.  He participates in a cross-county race and wins.  After the race, Al meets a pretty girl named Katherine Mary Roof.  He goes out to a dance with her.  She calls him Mr. Sullivan and he calls her Miss Roof.  Al kisses her.  He is crazy about the girl.  When he sees his brother George he asks about getting a job at the factory where he works.  George tells him no, he's going to stay in school and graduate, unlike his brothers.

Al shows Gen the ring he is going to give to Katherine Mary.   Al tells her to keep it a secret, but Gen manages to spill the beans to her mother, who then tells father. 

Al brings Katherine Mary to the house for dinner.  The brothers start teasing Al about fictitious women he has been with.  They go way too far and upset Katherine Mary so much that she runs out.  Al runs after her after telling his brothers he could kill them.  Mom is furious and she really scolds all the men of the house.  Al catches up with his girl, but she is so upset that she won't listen to anything he says.  She throws his letter and the ring on the ground.  When Al returns to the house, he refuses to retaliate against his brothers.  He just silently goes up to his room.  The brothers now realize that their brother is really, truly upset with them.

The next day Al leaves the house for school without eating with the family.  Mom tells the other brothers that they have to get spruced up and go and apologize to Katherine Mary.  The guys don't want to face Katherine Mary.  The entire family winds up going to see Katherine Mary. 

With Katherine Mary, the whole family returns.  They ask Al to come down, but he won't come out of his room.  Katherine Mary goes up to his room by herself and they embrace. 

Al and Marry get married. 

Ten months later, Katherine Mary is pregnant and Al loses his job at the plant.  He tells his brothers the bad news, but not his wife.  His brothers are going to help him get his job back or get him a new one.  They also give him some money to tide him over. 

Katherine Mary gives birth to a seven-pound boy.  The brothers are ecstatic, partly because they are now all uncles.  Al goes into see his wife and child. 

The Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor and the USA is in the war.  The brothers go upstairs to talk about what they should do.  Army, Navy or the Marines?  They come down and dad asks them:  "Army or Navy?"  Navy.  They all decide to go over to the church and light a few candles. 

The four brothers says goodbye to Al and head for the Navy office.  Al talks to his wife about the Fighting Sullivans, saying his own right cross was the best.  Katherine Mary sees how he wants to go with his brothers, so she tells him to go.  It's always been the five of them together.  She gives him a big kiss and sends him on his way.  He runs to catch up with his brothers.  The five of them walk shoulder to shoulder to the recruiting office.  The recruiting fellows can't get over that there are five brothers joining up all at the same time.   The guys all go together to talk to Lt. Cmdr. Robinson.  He says the Navy cannot guarantee that they will be together.  So the guys tell him if they can't be together, they won't join the Navy.  Robinson cannot guarantee that, so the boys all go home.   

George writes to the Navy Department about the guys wanting to stick together.  He gets a letter back saying they can stay together.  The five brothers march back to see Lt. Cmdr. Robinson.  He is shocked that they got the permission to stay together. 

Dad will take in Katherine Mary and the grandson Jimmy.  He will also get a mortgage on his place to pay off the debts of his sons.  Al says goodbye to his son Jimmy.  The brothers now say goodbye to mom, pop and Katherine Mary. 

On the mantle there are five photographs of five brothers in the Navy.  Katherine Mary gets a letter from Al and mom gets a letter from George.  The guys are all on the ship Juneau.  In the newspaper the talk is of a battle raging in the Solomon Islands (of which Guadalcanal is one of the islands).  George mans an anti-aircraft gun and gets wounded in battle. He is taken down below to sickbay.  The ship is hit by a torpedo and the fire is heading toward the ammunition supply.  The men are told to prepare to abandon ship.  The brothers go below to get George as other sailors jump off the ship.  They grab George and take him with them. 

Back home the family waits for a naval officer to come to the door.  It's Lt. Cmdr. Robinson.  He tells the family that he brings them very bad news.  All five brothers have been killed.  Dad has to sit down.  Robinson reads the telegram:  "The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your sons Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison Sullivan were killed in action in the South Pacific."   Gen and Katherine Mary  run out crying.   Mom just sits there frozen.  Dad starts to go to work on the Illinois Central as a freight conductor.  He touches his wife's shoulder and out he goes.  With his head bowed low, he climbs on to the caboose and gives the signal to pull out. 

The family attends the launching of the USS The Sullivans.  Mother breaks the bottle for the ceremony and the ship slides into the water.  It is filled with a large crew.  Mom says:  "Tom our boys are afloat again."  The last scene is of the four older brothers heading for heaven calling to their little brother Al to hurry and join them. 


Good movie.  I saw this film on television when I was just a kid and thought it was wonderful.  The story is fictionalized but the basic facts are true. The story is not that much about the brothers' stint in the Navy, but about the close ties they had to each other.  It's a feel-good movie and it does make you feel good and then sad.  Thomas Mitchell and Selena Royle are very good as Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan respectively.  Anne Baxter is very good too and very lovely. 

Patrick Louis Cooney, Ph. D. 


Historical Background:


The Sullivans were five brothers from Waterloo, Iowa who went into the US Navy and served on the same vessel, the USS Juneau commanded by Captain Swensen. The Juneau served at the battles for Guadalcanal. 

September 5, 1942  -- the carrier Wasp was struck and sinking.  The Juneau rushes to the carrier's aide, taking on many of the survivors. 

Concerned about casualties, the US Navy issues a directive advising family members in the same units to split up rather than risk losing all the family members in battle.  The four Sullivan brothers split up.  The Sullivans intended to split up, but when they got back to port. 

Japanese Admiral Yamamoto calls for a night action against the US Navy.  US Admiral Halsey throws everything he has into the battle. 

November 13 -- in Iron Bottom Sound, the US fleet is taken by surprise.  Fighting is at point black range.  Ten minutes into the battle the Juneau is hit by a torpedo, buckling the deck and knocking out power.  There were nineteen dead and many injured, including George Sullivan.  His brothers were below deck.  The USS Juneau withdraws to the open sea. 

In the battle, the Japanese sank seven American ships, the Americans sank five Japanese ships. Strategically, the Americans prevailed, preventing further Japanese action against the now American airfield on Guadalcanal. 

George Sullivan returns to his work station.  The ship was in bad shape and could have been sunk even by rough water.  Five warships of the original thirteen reunite and head for port on the island of Espiritu Santo.

A Japanese torpedo from the I-26 submarine destroys the Juneau.  (The submarine had previously sunk the carrier Wasp.)  The torpedo smashes into the area where the munitions were stored.  It catapults many of the men into the water.  Sailor Holmgren was one of the survivors.   There were only three rafts of men left.  Some 600 officers and crew went down with the ship.

The commander of the group of vessels was Gilbert C. Hoover. He thinks that no one could  have survived.  Does he stay or tow the vessels to safety; he decides to leave the Juneau

The survivors were shocked.  They wondered why no one came to their aide.  A B-17 bomber flies over.  Send a blinker message to the bomber.  But the airman can't call for help.

Four hours later the ships arrive at Espiritu Santo.  They tell the intelligence service about the men still out at sea.  But they take no action on the message because it was set aside in the confusion of two more battles having been fought at sea. 

George Sullivan is on the raft. He searches for his brothers continually calling out for them.  But they all went down with the Juneau

There were 60 survivors on the three rafts and they were quickly dying.  Admiral Halsey on Caledonia receives word about the survivors.  He was furious and sent a ship to search for them but they could not find the men.  He reassigns the negligent intelligence officer.  He relives Hoover of his command.  He says Hoover should have transmitted word more quickly.  There was no need not to break radio silence because the Japanese already knew there were ships in the area.  Officially the case is closed.

George succumbs to exposure and delirium.  He said he was going to take a bath and dove into the water.  He dies from a shark attack. 

After six to eight days in the water the remaining survivors are finally rescued, but only ten remain alive.

January 1943  -- the Sullivan family learns from a neighbor of a rumor spreading around town that the boys are dead.  She writes to the Navy asking if the rumor is true. The Navy only says the boys are missing in action and says nothing about the sinking of the Juneau, probably because of the still ongoing battle for Guadalcanal. 

The first reliable information comes from a Juneau survivor in a letter to the family.  The US Navy later confirms the death of the five brothers.  President Roosevelt writes a letter to the Sullivan family sending condolences for the loss of their sons. 

The mother tells the nation's mothers "to keep your chin up."  The Sullivans go on a national tour helping to sell war bonds.  They christen a destroyer renamed "the Sullivans."

Family members are not prohibited, but are discouraged, from serving in the same military units.


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