'Sullivan Rule' an informal policy that never became law

The Sullivan brothers, from left to right, Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George, are seen on the USS Juneau on Feb. 14, 1942.


By META HEMENWAY-FORBES | The Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 11, 2017

WATERLOO, Iowa — The Sullivan brothers, George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert, enlisted in the U.S. Navy after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on the condition they be allowed to serve together. They served together aboard the USS Juneau, and all went down with the ship after it was torpedoed and sunk by a Japanese submarine.

The five brothers’ deaths are considered the greatest combat-related loss of life by one family at one time in U.S. military history. The Juneau and the Sullivans earned four battle stars for engagements in which they were involved.

While there’s been a policy against military family members serving together as the Sullivans did, it’s never been formally enacted as a law.

According to the Department of Defense, the so-called “Sullivan Rule,” fully supported by the Sullivan family, was a good idea that never went anywhere.

“Early in the 1950s, legislation was introduced to ensure that family members would not serve in the same area of combat operations, however, this legislation was never passed,” according to a DOD memo.

However, an informal version of the “Sullivan Rule” went into effect Jan. 17, 1991, the day then-President George H.W. Bush officially designated the Persian Gulf area as a combat zone. Under that policy, siblings could request to serve in separate combat areas.

At the start of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Jim Sullivan, son of Albert, traveled to Washington, D.C., backing Congressional legislation — the Sullivan Act — that would prevent other families from enduring the same calamity his family experienced. The bill faced opposition from the Pentagon. It was never passed.

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