Saving Private America

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No one ever decreed the virtue: “Sacrifice the many to save the few.” And yet, that was the mandate following an incontrovertible tragedy for an Iowan family and community. In the December 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor attack, George and Francis Sullivan lost five friends with whom they had formerly served on the USS Hover. As was the case with countless other young American boys, the two immediately decided to rejoin the armed forces for the cause. But first, they convinced their three brothers and two friends from a motorcycle club to enlist with them. The group of seven penned a letter to the Navy asking that they train and serve together. The wish was granted, and the merry band joined the Navy out of Waterloo, Iowa on January 3, 1942.

The seven were assigned to the USS Juneau, an Atlanta-class light cruiser completed in October 1941. While the first action seen was in the Atlantic, the ship was soon deployed to the Pacific theater where it duly protected the USS Wasp, USS Hornet and USS Enterprise in fierce combat. On November 13, 1942, a Japanese torpedo struck the hull of the Juneau in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Of the crew of more than 700, only 10 survived. The boys from Iowa were not among them.

In a February 13, 1943 letter to Mr. & Mrs. T.F. Sullivan of 96 Adams Street in Waterloo, Iowa, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered his condolences for the brave sons who had been lost – George Thomas, Francis Henry, Joseph Eugene, Madison Abel and Albert Leo: “I am sure that we all take heart in the knowledge that they fought side by side. As one of your sons wrote: ‘We will make a team together that can’t be beat.’ It is this spirit, which in the end, must triumph.”

Triumph the Allied Forces did in the end. But a repeat of the loss of so many from one family had clearly left its mark. In November 1942, Edward and Frederick ‘Fritz’ Niland of Tonawanda, New York joined the war effort by signing with the U.S. Army. The two middle brothers – Preston and Robert – had already enlisted prior to beginning of the War. Because of the Sullivan tragedy, the brothers were split up and assigned to different units throughout the Army.

When does Fate not intervene? Before mainland Europe was invaded, Edward was shot down over Burma and listed as Missing in Action, which almost always conveyed lost, not missing. The other three brothers were preparing for the “Great Crusade” to liberate Europe. In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, Robert and Fritz joined more than 23,000 Allied paratroopers. Dropped far off the mark, Fritz joined ad hoc forces who grouped to secure causeways, bridges and locks allowing the 4th Infantry Division, including Preston Niland, to exit Omaha Beach that day.

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