On November 13, 2013, Gerard Roncolato spoke to guests of the Bethlehem Shipyard Museum’s Maritime Historical Preservation Series about the five Sullivan brothers who lost their lives in the 1st Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942, and the historic Bethlehem Shipbuilding Corporation that launched the USS THE SULLIVANS (DD 537) in their honor on April 4, 1943
In putting together his remarks for “WE STICK TOGETHER”, he identified several interwoven threads:
- The battle
- The Sullivan brothers as emblematic of the “Greatest Generation”
- Where the battle fit into the broader context of war in the Pacific
- What that war was like
- The importance and contribution of the home front…especially shipbuilding
- Some DD 537 vignettes
- DDG 68 and the continuing connection to the Sullivan boys’ legacy
- Where the Navy is headed today… new aspects and constants.
The following remarks were presented by Captain Roncolato:
Bethlehem Shipyard Museum
Maritime Historical Preservation Series: WE STICK TOGETHER
13 November 2013
Ladies and gentlemen, good morning. It is wonderful to be back in the great city of San Francisco. More importantly, it is a great honor for me to be here today to help remember five boys from Iowa, the legacy they created, the war they were part of, the first shipyard to embrace that legacy by building a warship in their name, and those two ships that have carried their name. Thank you Dan for inviting me to come here to share some thoughts and reflections on the Sullivan boys and USS THE SULLIVANS.
This is a deeply personal topic for me, and I could probably talk about it for several hours…in fact, I have done just that in the past. But, don’t worry, I won’t do that today—though I’m more than willing to answer any questions or discuss further after we’re done here.
This is personal for me for a number of reasons, not least because I was fortunate enough to be chosen as the first commanding officer of the second ship to bear the name, USS THE SULLIVANS. It goes back to my childhood though. Like many in my generation, I grew up on my dad’s stories from World War II and, perhaps less like many in my generation, on the TV show Victory at Sea and the music that went with it.
My dad instilled in me an interest in, and eventually a love of the Navy in which he served for three years during World War II…and did so from a very early age. Part of that was building plastic models, and I remember at least twice building the old Revell model of THE SULLIVANS. Much later, the first THE SULLIVANS came to Buffalo as a memorial, where she remains today. My parents lived in Buffalo then, and I visited the ship several times early in my career. And, then, when as the prospective commanding officer of the new THE SULLIVANS, I went out to visit with the young sponsor, Kelly, whom you just saw in that video, I met the Sullivan family. Kitty, Albert’s widow, wouldn’t let go of my arm the whole night. Jim, Albert’s son, was warm and welcoming. Kelly, of course, was extraordinary, poised, and engaging as she always is. So, through a remarkable series of coincidences, me and THE SULLIVANS go way back. Their story and the ship’s they gave name to have been woven into the fabric of my life, probably in a way that could have happened to few others.
The Sullivan boys were average guys who did what they thought was right. They grew up in Waterloo, Iowa, sons of a railroad father. They were rough and tough, fun loving, and absolutely dedicated to each other. Their motto really was “We Stick Together.” The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor hit the country like cold water in the face. For the Suillivan brothers, it was personal—their friend Bill Ball had been killed in the attack.
They went off to enlist, insisting on serving together on the same ship. Men were needed urgently, and their wish was granted. They embarked in the new light cruiser JUNEAU in New York and went off to the Pacific, to war, and to their deaths.
The night of November 12th, 1942 found JUNEAU steaming as part of a pick-up team task force ordered to stop a Japanese effort to disable the all-important Henderson Field on Guadalcanal. The task force commander was Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan aboard the heavy cruiser USS SAN FRANCISCO. He had five cruisers and eight destroyers under his command…most of whom had never operated together before, and neither had he ever commanded such a large formation before. Worse, he knew that the Japanese were bringing down at least two battleships along with a host of supporting warships. As Callaghan is said to have muttered, “this is suicide.”
That’s how desperate we were at that juncture. Everything that we had was thrown into the fight…on the fly without a chance to build a battle plan or even to get the ship commanding officers together for a pre-battle huddle. The Japanese had to be stopped. Period. If it took all of Callaghan’s ships to do it, that was the price that had to be paid. It came pretty close to doing just that.
In the first hours of Friday, the 13th of November, the two forces stumbled into each other in the dark…in a place officially named Savo Sound, but to the Sailors of that generation, called Ironbottom Sound. Callaghan had no plan that anyone knew of. Some speculate that he knew he had to get in close to offset the enemy battleships’ heavier guns. Others say he was new and wasn’t prepared for the kind of street fight this became (and the same could be said for the Japanese commander, Admiral Abe).
It was a melee. In a matter of minutes, Callaghan’s formation was shredded, he and Rear Admiral Norman Scott, the victor of October’s Battle of Cape Esperance, were dead, and the survivors were withdrawing. The Japanese had fared only slightly better and they too withdrew. Callaghan’s mission was accomplished: Henderson Field was saved…but at what a cost.
Naval historian Samuel Elliot Morison provides a moving description:
“Four bells of this sinister midwatch had struck during these fifteen minutes of raw hell. A literally infernal scene presented itself to the participants. The struggle had deteriorated into a wild and desperate melee. The greenish light of suspended star shell dimmed the stars overhead. Elongated red and white trails of shell tracers arched and crisscrossed, magazines exploded in blinding bouquets of white flame, oil-fed conflagrations sent up twisted yellow columns. Dotting the horizon were the dull red glows of smoldering hulls, now obscured by dense masses of smoke, now blazing up when uncontrolled fires reached new combustibles. The sea itself, fouled with oil and flotsam, tortured by underwater upheavals, rose in geysers from shell explosions.”
But the dying wasn’t over. Near noon on the 13th a submarine torpedo, intended for Callaghan’s battered flagship, SAN FRANCISCO, hit the nine month old JUNEAU, apparently detonating her magazines. As one officer described it, JUNEAU didn’t sink, she evaporated. Of the 700 men onboard, only 100 survived, George Sullivan one of them. His four brothers went down with the ship.
Then, in one of the great tragedies that often make war even more horrible than it already is, no one came to rescue these 100 men. After drifting for eight days with almost no water, a mere ten were rescued—ten out of over 700. George Sullivan was not among them. Days before, delirious from sun and dehydration, he swam off to find his brothers. After all, they always stuck together.
It was a desperate time, and we certainly employed desperate measures. Many men lost their lives…men from both sides. And the Sullivan family lost its five boys. Learning of the loss of the five brothers, President Roosevelt ordered that the next destroyer commissioned be named after them. Rather than simply naming the new ship USS SULLIVAN, he ordered that she be named after all five brothers to convey to the country and the world the enormity of the sacrifice of this one family. So was born the destroyer, USS THE SULLIVANS…the only ship in U.S. Navy history to be named so.
President Roosevelt also sent a moving condolence letter to Tom and Alleta Sullivan. As he wrote, it could do little to ease their suffering. But, maybe it helped them push their grief aside, because they went to work spurring on the efforts of American industry…not just in terms of the hard physical work of building ships, planes, tanks, and thousands of other necessities of war, but also in raising money for the war effort through war bond drives. Their cross-country speaking tours raised awareness of just how big and terrible the war was going to be, and how the whole country needed to sacrifice if we were to prevail. Their rallying cry: “Make sure our boys didn’t die in vain.” Wow. That was true heroism!
Bethlehem Shipbuilding built THE SULLIVANS. She was one of forty-two FLETCHER class destroyers the company built…forty-two out of 175. Bethlehem, combined with other shipyards, was putting over three destroyers a month to sea by mid-1942; ten per month in 1943. Some were launched in as little as 77 days. Needless to say, this took remarkable skill and herculean effort and, sustained over months and years, it too was truly heroic.
No country in the world could equal this manufacturing juggernaut; no enemy could withstand it. It was unprecedented in history. It is hard to overstate how significant was the contribution of Bethlehem and the other shipyards. Yet, I’ve just described the charnel house that was Guadalcanal. We needed those ships to make up for losses. Because of shipyards like Bethlehem Shipbuilding, and because of the skilled and dedicated workers who performed superhuman feats in ship construction, the U.S. Navy made up its losses, and then a lot more.
Maybe that’s the key lesson of the Guadalcanal campaign. Both sides lost heavily in ships during that hard-fought struggle. The difference was we could replace our losses—eventually—the Japanese could not. I like to say that the back of the Imperial Japanese Navy was broken on the spines of the Solomon Islands; broken in part by the sacrifice of the Sullivan boys.
Bethlehem built a number of other notable FLETCHER class destroyers that I’d like to mention. HOEL and HEERMANN were among the small group of destroyers and escort aircraft carriers that fought off Japanese battleships, cruisers and destroyers off Samar Island in 1944. HEERMANN was the only destroyer to survive that battle. CUSHING and MONSSEN were named after two of the destroyers lost the night the Suillvan boys were killed. And CALLAGHAN and CASSING YOUNG were named after two officers killed in that battle—the admiral I’ve mentioned, and his flag captain and medal of honor winner, Captain Young of USS SAN FRANCISCO. Sadly, CALLAGHAN was herself sunk in July 1945…the last U.S. warship to be sunk by kamikaze attack.
DD 537 served throughout World War II, from 1943 onwards. As one of the swarm of escorts for our massive fast carrier task forces, she earned nine battle stars. She later went on to serve in the Korean War and in the Vietnam War up until her decommissioning in 1965. Through all of that—through three wars—she never lost a man in combat. And on her stack was a shamrock with the motto “We Stick Together.” I know a number of the crew of that first THE SULLIVANS…it’s a remarkable group of men. Though they may have served on other ships before and after THE SULLIVANS, it is that ship that always is the one they loved most. I think it’s because of that motto and the legacy it recalls—it drives a crew together, forging a bond that stands out even among the naturally strong bonds of seamen that have been the stuff of legend throughout history.
You can imagine how I felt when I was told that the new USS THE SULLIVANS was to be my command tour. I knew the story, and I knew the ship. I simply couldn’t believe it. The first event was laying the keel. A group of veterans from the USS THE SULLIVANS Association were present. They asked me to weld a small plate from the 537 onto the frames of the 68. I was touched and honored by the request…and more importantly, understood the solemnity of that small act. It was a tangible, real, and permanent link to the past; all the way back to the Sullivan boys. I then asked these veteran Sailors if I had their permission to take on the same motto—the motto of the boys and of the 537. Through teary eyes, they unanimously agreed. And, so the legacy continued.
Kelly Sullivan Loughren is the ship’s sponsor, and a better ambassador no ship has ever had. From her Ted Williams’-like swing of the champagne bottle against THE SULLIVANS’ stem to the frequent visits to the ship even today, and to her loving connection with the vets from the 537, Kelly is a real presence to ship and crew. And, she keeps alive the connection between those ships, their crews, and her great uncles.
Today, THE SULLVANS is deployed overseas doing what our Navy does so very well—supporting our nation’s policies and keeping the world’s seas open for all. The legacies of the five brothers and of USS THE SULLIVANS (DD 537) live on, not only in the ship, but also in the Navy as a whole. The story is well known throughout the Fleet. As the Navy looks to a future that will likely bring maritime competitors the likes of which we have not seen since World War II, what those boys did—along with thousands of others—becomes increasingly important and relevant.
I’ve tried over the years to truly understand what the Sullivans and their generation did for us—for you and for me. It wasn’t until last month that I really put it together. My friend Kathy from Minnesota escorted her World War II and Korean War Marine father to Washington on an Honor Flight. I went to meet them at the World War II memorial. While waiting, I saw groups from three other states go through. Even though there were almost no tourists on the Mall then because of the government shutdown, there was a good-sized crowd there cheering these old vets on…for hours as a steady convoy of buses and their wheelchairs came and went.
Reflecting on that day, on that generation, and on the Sullivan boys, it occurred to me that there is justification in calling them the Greatest Generation. It’s not because they went off to war or worked shift after shift in the war plants—Americans have always done that, still do, and always will. The distinction lies in the watershed that World War II became for us and the world. A huge percentage of our young men and women went to war, and in doing so, left behind their local, hometown consciousness. They came back, not so much as Californians, Texans, and New Yorkers, but as Americans.
My dad, the 1st generation American son of an Italian tile mason, learned from those around him in the Navy that there was a broader world out there with new and better opportunities to be had. It is in this way that W.W.II became a real awakening for America to a global world. It shattered class distinctions, opened opportunities previously not dreamt of, and finally completed the unification of our nation…this time at the social level. It forged a global consensus on the need for collective action to protect peace. It opened the way for a global trading system plying secure and unfettered seas that brought unprecedented standards of living around the world. And it created a global awareness in America that in hindsight was so essential to welcoming new waves of immigrants into the country and with them, new energies and new ideals.
It is because of this new culture, forged in a horrific and terrifying global conflict, that our nation enjoys the wealth and comfort it does. And this, in my opinion, is why this was the greatest generation. They went fearlessly—or better, they went DESPITE their fear. Ordinary young men and women stepping into an unknown world, stirred by need and circumstance to great deeds…not to conquer but to liberate…not because they were forced to, but because it was right. Many, like the Sullivan boys, didn’t come back, but most did. They came back changed, and as a result, changed the world. For this, we should be forever grateful. And borrowing from the movie “Saving Private Ryan,” we continuously need to “earn” what they have given us. We need to understand and to remember.
Gerard D. Roncolato, CAPT, USN (Ret.)
Commissioning Commanding Officer, USS THE SULLIVANS (DDG 68)
Commanding Officer Destroyer Squadron 26