USS Juneau discovery links Sullivan granddaughter and Microsoft billionaire
Kelly Sullivan stood among the bustle of Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. Her phone buzzed with an incoming text message.
A third-grade teacher from Cedar Falls, she received the text Sunday, March 18, from Richard A. Brown, a Navy vice admiral in the Pacific Fleet.
That might sound like an unlikely connection, but then this story is full of them.
The text from the admiral read: “Paul Allen’s research team found the Juneau. CPF PAO reached out to me for a statement which I provided. Kind of neat.”
“CPF PAO” is military shorthand for the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet Public Affairs Officer.
And Allen is the billionaire co-founder of Microsoft, long since split from that landmark computer firm and Bill Gates. But one of his current companies, Vulcan Inc., had just discovered the USS Juneau. The World War II ship was torpedoed by the Japanese and sank in 1942 in the Battle of Guadalcanal. Among the 687 men on board who died were the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa.
Kelly is the granddaughter of Albert Sullivan. He and his brothers George, Francis, Joseph and Madison already were famous Iowa patriots when they enlisted as sibling sailors.
The Jan. 3, 1942, edition of the Des Moines Tribune touted the Sullivans with the headline, “Five husky brothers go to the Navy.” The reporter interviewed them in the capital city as they lined up for their military physicals.
“A buddy of ours was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack,” George Sullivan said. “Bill Ball of Fredericksburg.”
The article described the reaction: “Five faces grew serious as Joe and Albert recalled they had been with Bill when he was home on leave a year ago.”
So it was a bookend tragedy, from the surprise air attack in Hawaii that killed Ball to the underwater tomb for the Sullivans who had been determined to avenge their friend.
Kelly Sullivan has lived with this legacy, partly in the absence of what otherwise would have been her large Irish Catholic family filling the house during the holidays. But out of the tragedy she also has gained a surrogate Navy family in the form of the crew of the USS Sullivan, a destroyer named in honor of her grandfather and great uncles. She’s its civilian sponsor.
In 1995 in the harbor in Bath, Maine, she christened the ship with a shattered bottle of champagne.
Brown texted Kelly because he had been a captain of the USS Sullivan. What’s more, Kelly was in O’Hare because she was flying back from a weekend spent on the destroyer, a retirement ceremony for yet another former captain of the vessel.
There’s no shortage of enduring sentimental ties to the story of the Sullivans.
So as Kelly stood there in O’Hare, reading the text, her mind reeled. While she had been aboard the USS Sullivan in Florida on St. Patrick's Day, her Irish red hair falling over the shoulders of her blue Navy uniform, the site of her family's sacrifice inspiring it had been discovered.
“I always feel very emotional,” Kelly said of her time spent on the ship. “It’s like you can feel the presence of the five boys and you can also feel the spirit of their shipmates that were lost at sea.”
When she returned to Iowa, she thought her father summed it up best.
I don’t know how to explain how I feel, he told his daughter. Because I don’t understand how I feel.
'That's when I got the chills'
He has pledged to give away most of his fortune. To that end he funds an incredibly diverse array of experiments. There’s Stratolaunch, the world’s largest airplane. He’s also a lifelong guitarist and Jimi Hendrix fan with his own Seattle music festival, Upstream.
And in recent years Allen has paid to scour the ocean for World War II artifacts.
“He looks at things with an eye toward sharing and educating the public, and then using technology for good,” said spokesperson Janet Greenlee.
She and David Reams, Vulcan’s senior director for maritime operations, help manage daily operations out of the Seattle offices.
Reams signed on with Allen to oversee the billionaire’s yacht fleet. That quickly strayed into these deeper waters of historical research.
“Mr. Allen really is honoring his father’s service in World War II," Reams said, "the men and women who have served in the past and that are currently serving."
Allen's primary tool is the Petrel, a 250-foot-long former repair and maintenance vessel for offshore oil rigs. It carries a full-time crew of 21. Nine more specialists join the search missions.
After Allen bought it in 2016, the ship traveled from Norway to the Mediterranean for a test run before wading deep into the Pacific.
The Juneau was discovered off the Solomon Islands in an area known as Iron Bottom Sound because of its wealth of wreckage.
But keep in mind it’s not as if the Juneau was found among an easily visible scrapyard ripe for the picking. The ocean floor lies about 2½ miles down. So first a drone is deployed to comb the depths with sonar scans. When it returns to the ship, the crew downloads the data and looks for man-made objects among the imagery — unusually sharp angles or other telltale signs.
Then a remotely operated vehicle is dropped in the vicinity of the promising evidence, sending a live video feed back not only to the ship but also to desktop computers at Vulcan headquarters.
“It’s like we’re party to the hunt,” said Greenlee, who was cheering through tears during last year's discovery of the USS Indianapolis.
Human remains have long since eroded from these sites, but the stray coffee mug or plate can be a poignant reminder of the human cost of war.
Each mission begins with a priority list approved by Allen, plus extensive archival research on shore. This year's expedition has been fruitful, also including recent discovery of the aircraft carrier Lexington.
Data are donated to national archives as well as to museums — perhaps including the Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in Waterloo.
Sometimes an expedition can help complete or correct the historical record, such as pinpointing precisely why or how a ship sank.
But more important, it takes millions of dollars to bring this history back to life, back into modern consciousness. Generations later, the sacrifice of the Sullivans and their fellow sailors feels present and real.
Last fall, Kelly attended an event in Pittsburgh with about 100 people who represented families in the nearby region connected to the Juneau sinking. Sharing a room with so many descendants drove home for her
So when the Juneau was discovered, she couldn’t help but think of all these connections — Pittsburgh to Florida to Iowa to Seattle and to the middle of the Pacific.
She watched video from the Petrel on Tuesday with her classroom full of third-graders.
They marveled with her: Miss Sullivan! Look at the letters! You can see!
“That’s when I got chills,” Kelly said.
At that moment, the Juneau wasn’t just history. The teacher leveraged it for a life lesson for her students about how we live in an amazing world where one philanthropist's decision could recover her family's legacy from the murky depths.
Both the Sullivans and the Petrel ended up at that same spot in the ocean because of a noble cause in pursuit of a better world.
“I told my third-graders," she said, "'You’re 8 years old, but you can find the things that interest you and the passion in your life — and make that your career.'“
The spirit of the Sullivans lives on in more ways that we can imagine.
Kyle Munson can be reached at 515-284-8124 or firstname.lastname@example.org. See more of his columns and video at DesMoinesRegister.com/KyleMunson. Connect with him on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@KyleMunson).