Widow of 1 of 5 brothers killed in WWII dies at age 93
By Pat Kinney | Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier | Published: January 2, 2016
WATERLOO, Iowa (Tribune News Service) -- The widow of one of Waterloo's five Sullivan brothers killed during World War II has died.
Katherine McFarland, 93, the widow of Albert Sullivan, youngest of the five brothers and the only one who married, died New Year's Day at the Western Home Communities in Cedar Falls, where she had been staying the past several months, said her granddaughter, Kelly Sullivan, a Cedar Falls elementary school teacher.
Sullivan said her grandmother passed peacefully, fulfilling her granddaughter's wish to see in the New Year with her. "She was my best buddy," Sullivan said.
McFarland was popular at the Western Home cottage where she stayed, sang karaoke and was referred to as "Kate the Great" by staff.
That's also what Albert "Al" Sullivan thought too, on May, 11, 1940, when he married McFarland, then Katherine Rooff, the daughter of Bulgarian and Irish immigrants, known as "Keena" to family. However, Al Sullivan passed out cold at the altar at their wedding Mass, at Sacred Heart Catholic Church.
"No kidding. Balk! Down he went. He was so nervous," Katherine recalled with a laugh in a 2012 interview.
Albert was standing next to his best man, Leo Rooff, Katherine's cousin, who 30 years later would become mayor of Waterloo. Albert's sister, Genevieve Sullivan, was maid of honor.
"We just looked at him, What could we do?" she said. But Albert came to and the ceremony went on without incident from that point.
Albert, or Al as he was known to friends, and Katherine had wed after about a year's courtship. They had met during outings at a park in the Riverview area off what is now La Porte Road and East Mitchell Avenue.
"It really was nice at that time. It was nice and clean years ago. That was really a nice place to live," McFarland recalled. The sand pits there, now part of the Riverview Recreation Area, were a popular area for recreation and swimming. She went for bike rides there.
Katherine went to West High School; Albert attended crosstown East High. The school rivalry did not impede their courtship.
"I don't know, we just got acquainted," she said, adding modestly. "You know how things go." She paused a moment before breaking out laughing.
They both worked at The Rath Packing Co. in different areas of what was then Waterloo's largest employer. "I worked in the lard room," she said. "That was a mess." Albert also worked for a time in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal-era jobs program, doing construction work at Backbone State Park.
"They were a real close family," Katherine said of the household of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan, the boys' parents. "Every Sunday around Sunday dinner, everyone was there, just a lot of fun. They were really a happy-go-lucky family."
One Sunday dinner in late 1941 was different. "We had the radio on Dec. 7," Katherine recalled, and the family heard of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Some mention was made of Bill Ball, a friend of the brothers from Fredericksburg, who was on the battleship USS Arizona. It was later learned he died in the attack.
"My goodness sakes, that was something. It wasn't too long after that that they enlisted in the Navy," Katherine said.
Katherine and Albert hadn't yet been married two years when Albert and his brothers enlisted, and they now had their son, Jim. Albert, with a young family and older brothers enlisting, had the option of not going. Katherine encouraged him to go.
"They really wanted to go, those boys. They wanted to be together. He wouldn't have been happy at all with his brothers gone in the service. You don't think anything is going to happen to them," Katherine said. "That's the sad part of it. Being young you don't know what it means to be in war. You think, 'Oh they're going to be back.' And all of a sudden, they're not back."
Katherine recalled the day a military officer notified the family the brothers were missing.
"They came to the house," she said. That was January 1943. "It wasn't too long after we got the news that they were gone, dead."
George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert Sullivan died Nov. 13, 1942 when their ship, the USS Juneau, was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine and sunk while returning with other battle-damaged American ships from the naval Battle of Guadalcanal. All but 13 of the Juneau's crew of 700 perished.
The surviving Sullivans never got over the loss. Katherine carried on. "When you're young, you say, 'what the hell,' " she said. "I went on with my life. Gotta go on."
For years McFarland remained in the background during various events honoring the five brothers, because she had a full life after their passing. She raised her and Albert's son, Jim, now retired and living in Waterloo. And she enjoyed a nearly 40-year marriage to Dean McFarland, a World War II veteran and United Auto Workers Local 838 president, who died in 1986.
However, Kelly Sullivan said she brought crew members of the USS The Sullivans, the second of two Navy destroyers named for the brothers, to visit McFarland earlier this year, as she had in previous years. She also participated in the dedication of the Grout Museum District's Sullivan Brothers Iowa Veterans Museum in 2008.
During a 2012 interview, McFarland was critical of the 1940s-era Hollywood movie about the brothers, "The Fighting Sullivans." She indicated it was overly dramatic. She also said, only half jokingly, that the actress who played her wasn't pretty enough.
"She was a looker," Kelly Sullivan said of her grandmother.
(c) 2016 Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.