Admiral Nimitz made his decision to replace Ghormley with Halsey on October 15, 1942 and Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, concurred the next day. On October 18, Bull Halsey received this terse order from Nimitz: “You will take command of the South Pacific Area and South Pacific Forces immediately.”
A new buzz of confidence arose as soon as Halsey landed on the island of Noumea, headquarters (HQ) for South Pacific operations. A staff officer painted a sign in two-foot letters repeating Halsey’s mantra: “KILL JAPS, KILL JAPS, KILL MORE JAPS.”
Two weeks later fate brought both sides together. Halsey and his opponent, the brilliant Isoroku Yamamoto, Marshall Admiral of the Imperial Fleet, decided to re-supply their own armies slugging it out on Guadalcanal and hopefully destroy the other’s fleet. Accurate intelligence on both sides put combat plans into motion. Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan on board USS San Francisco and Rear Admiral Norman Scott on board USS Atlanta would lead the American task force into battle. They were destined to die in the upcoming battle. So were all five of the Sullivan boys.
Callaghan, or, as his men fondly referred to him: “Uncle Dan,” would lead the task force bent on stopping the Japanese fleet. Scott’s flagship and two destroyers were absorbed into Callaghan’s task force. The Japanese task force centered around two battleships, Hiei and Kirishima intent on bombarding Henderson Field, the American air base with their big guns. The Japanese were loosely formed as they steamed toward the Americans on the night of November 13th. Callaghan arranged his ships into a battle line, four destroyers in the van followed by the cruisers, Atlanta, San Francisco, Portland, Helena and Juneau followed by four trailing destroyers.
Cushing, the lead destroyer in his battle line reported first contact with a Japanese destroyer at only 3,000 yards at 0140. Five minutes later the battle was joined. The Japanese concentrated on Atlanta with devastating results. A hit on the bridge killed Admiral Scott and most of his staff as two salvos knocked the light cruiser out of action. Cushing and the destroyer Laffey were also sunk in short order by the battleship Hiei, but other USN tin cans let loose their torpedoes that together with pounding fire from their cruisers killed Hiei.
In the “fog of war,” San Francisco may have mistakenly killed Atlanta and ordered a cease fire that didn’t last long. At this point, the Japanese battlewagon, Kirishima and other ships raked San Francisco, killing Admiral Callaghan.
Samuel Eliot Morison, described what happened on board Juneau, home to the Sullivan brothers:
“Juneau, last cruiser in column, fired along with the rest of the task force during the hectic quarter-hour between 0148 and 0203. In common with other ships, she had difficulty in identifying targets; Callaghan’s Cease Fire order belayed a brief spraying of Helena. An enemy torpedo sundered Juneau’ forward fireroom with a shock which put the ship completely out of action, dead in the water and probably with a broken keel. From that moment her main concern was to clear out and keep afloat.”
Atlanta, Cushing and Monessen succumbed to their wounds that morning. The wounded warriors, San Francisco, Juneau, O’Bannon, Sterett and Fletcher formed up to exit the battle zone. A Japanese submarine, I-26, sighted the cripples and fired a spread of torpedoes. “One enemy torpedo traveled toward Juneau and at 1101 detonated against her port side under the bridge. Horrified sailors in San Francisco saw the light cruiser disintegrate instantaneously and completely, sinking with apparently no trace except a tall pillar of smoke and little debris. Nobody waited to look for survivors.”
A B-17 flying over the scene later that morning spotted about 100 survivors. The crew radioed a message requesting rescue forces. “Unfortunately, this message never got though. Of more than a hundred men who miraculously survived the eruption and who clung pitifully to the flotsam that marked their ship’s end, all but ten perished.”
George, the oldest son, was one of those survivors who didn’t make it. He lasted four days part of it searching for his dead brothers calling out their names before he succumbed to exposure and delirium.
Bull Halsey stayed the course despite this heavy price he continued to send his men and ships into harm’s way over-and-over again until the enemy quit.
Mrs. Sullivan received a personal message from FDR and the dubious distinction of being a five-time Gold Star Mother. She also sponsored the new destroyer USS Sullivans DD-537 at the ships launching in San Francisco on April 4, 1943. The Sullivans participated in both World war 11 and Korea before being decommissioned in 1965. It is now a floating museum on Lake Erie outside Buffalo, New York.
A second USS Sullivans DDG 65 was commissioned in 1997 at Bath Iron Works in Maine and has been in service ever since.
“There is many a boy here who looks on war as all glory, but, boys, it is all hell.”
William Tecumseh Sherman