The Boys and the Bull (Part One)

by John Delach

Thomas Sullivan and his wife, Alleta, raised their family in Waterloo, Iowa. Mr. Sullivan worked for the Illinois Central Railroad as a freight conductor while Mrs. Sullivan kept house and raised their five boys and one girl. George was born in 1914, Francis in 1916, Genevieve, a year and one day later in 1917 (Irish twins?), Joseph in 1918, Madison, (a boy’s name back then) in 1919 and Albert not until 1922. (Perhaps Alleta received a three-year pardon for good behavior?) An eighth girl, Kathleen was born in 1931 but died just five months later.


The five boys were troublemakers with a capital “T” and every one of them dropped out of school in junior high. In keeping with their pack mentality and Tom-foolery, they enlisted together in the Navy after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.




William F. (Bull) Halsey, Jr. was born in 1882, the son of Captain William F. Halsey, Sr. and the former Anne Masters Brewster. Halsey attended private schools and graduated from the Naval Academy in 1904. In 1935, he became a Navy pilot earning his wings at 52 years old so that he could command a carrier group. He was at sea on December 7, 1941 returning to Pearl Harbor on board his carrier flagship, USS Enterprise, after a re-supply mission to Wake Island.


The Sullivans convinced Naval bureaucrats to assign them to the same ship after completing basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Center. They reported to the USS Juneau, CLAA-52, a brand-new cruiser then being fitted-out at the Federal Shipbuilding Company in Kearney, New Jersey. Juneau, had been built side-by-side with her slightly older sister, USS Atlanta, and the Sullivan boys stood at attention in their dress blues part of the crew of 63 officers and 785 enlisted men as Juneau was commissioned on Valentine’s Day, 1942.

Captain Lyman Swenson sailed his new command down the East Coast and into the Caribbean where its crew, including those five greenhorns from Iowa could drill, drill and drill again until ordered to the southwestern Pacific on August 22, 1942.

Atlanta and Juneau were a new concept in warship design, a multi-purpose platform primarily designed and armed to protect the fleet from attack from the air –  an anti-aircraft cruiser. Their eight, 5-inch twin-turrets, (three forward, three aft and two amid-ships) plus numerous 40mm and 20mm cannons could let loose a magnitude of deadly steel to kill or deter the most determined attacker. Both ships performed as expected shooting down numerous Japanese aircraft during several battles off Guadalcanal.


Unfortunately, these lightly-armored steeds, built for speed and air defense, were poorly designed to withstand the big guns of the Imperial Navy’s cruisers or the revolutionary, monster, oxygen-fed torpedoes carried by their destroyers and submarines.


Marines successfully landed on Guadalcanal and Tulagi on August 7, 1942 establishing secure beach-heads and pushing inland seizing a Japanese airstrip soon to re-christened, Henderson Field…So far, so good.

The Japanese reacted with all hell two nights later. Admiral Gunichi Mikawa ordered his task force to destroy the landing fleet. Standing in his way off Savo Island, Vice Admiral Robert Ghormley had positioned two cruiser squadrons, one, north and one to the south of the island. Mikawa took the southern route the one closest to Guadalcanal sinking the USS Astoria, USS Quincy, USS Vincennes and the HMAS Canberra. Mikawa inflicted the greatest loss of men and ships America ever suffered in a battle at sea. But Mikawa blinked. He didn’t continue forward to sink the supply ships; he returned home. Hindsight sucks, but that moment was the best shot the Japanese had to reverse what was almost impossible to reverse…Japan was finished.

The next six months witnessed a war of attrition, a terrible struggle. Each side would go on to lost a total of 24 ships and thousands of young lives. The difference was America had undertaken an enormous building program and every carrier, cruiser and destroyer lost would be replaced with five to ten new ships in less than a year. The Japanese didn’t have the same luxury enjoyed by the Arsenal for Democracy.

But that was all in the future. After Savo, circumstances became desperate and it became clear to Chester Nimitz, commander of the Pacific Fleet, that Ghormley wasn’t capable of carrying on. Halsey understood that the battles had to be fought with the “navy you have to fight with” and he was pragmatic enough to understand he had to send his officers, men and their ships into harm’s way for as long as it remained necessary.


(To be continued)