The Fighting Sullivans
How Hollywood and the Military Make Heroes
In November of 1942, the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa, were killed when a Japanese torpedo sank their ship during the most ferocious naval engagement fought in the South Pacific. The family's loss, the most extraordinary for the United States in its military history, was immortalized—and valorized—in the 1944 film The Fighting Sullivans. This book tells the story of how calamity, with the help of Hollywood and the wartime publicity machine, transformed a family of marginal and disreputable young men, intensely disliked in their hometown, into heroes.
The Sullivan boys joined the armed forces after Pearl Harbor, and the US Navy accepted that they would all serve on one ship, the light cruiser USS Juneau. The five brothers gave the navy great publicity, but when the ship went down and survivors were not rescued, the service faced a serious problem. The Fighting Sullivans examines the campaign that followed, as the navy and its partners in Hollywood turned a tragedy of errors into a public relations victory. Bruce Kuklick shows how the myth of the Sullivan family was created using bits and pieces of real events, but with twists that turned the boys into superhumans and their beleaguered parents into self-sacrificing patriots. He explores the close relationship between Hollywood studios and the military, which aimed to boost morale and support for the war.
“An unusual and interesting book about mythmaking.”
“This is a much-needed collective biography of a classic World War II story. It blends traditional biography with important concepts of memory. It clearly adds to our understanding of the important period and the efforts of the government and media to create heroes and write the story of the “Greatest Generation.” Highly recommended. ”
—Kyle Longley, author of The Morenci Marines: A Tale of Small Town America and the Vietnam War
“Who gets celebrated as a “hero,” and why? The Fighting Sullivans probes such questions by tracing the creation and renewal of mass media and popular stories about the Sullivans. An engrossing and timely book!”
—Emily S. Rosenberg, author of A Date Which Will Live: Pearl Harbor and American Memory
“Bruce Kuklick’s The Fighting Sullivans is not just a readable account of the tragic brothers and how they were made them into national heroes. It is also a case study of public mythology and historical memory that reflects the complicated relationship between film, society, and history.”
—Scott Alan Metzger, co-author of Teaching History with Film: Strategies for Secondary Social Studies
“Covering a family, town, nation, and war theater, Bruce Kuklick inquires into how we remember heroes, but most critically, how they are manufactured. This story of sacrifice is also one of incompetence and lies, with an overlay of crass promotionalism, official duplicity, oversimplification and misleading narratives, and mawkish spin. In short, the glamorizing of the famous so-called “Fighting Sullivans” is an American story— converting tragedy into triumph, no matter how hollow and deceptive the result. War sells, especially when involving such American tropes as a small-town upbringing, brotherhood, enshrining tragedy, and a cover-up of mistakes by those in power. The Fighting Sullivans provokes us into an uncomfortable, unvarnished exploration into myth-making and historical verity. Kuklick compels us to see the past within our present-day affliction with individualism, military worship, and Hollywood-made heroicism. This book is about us, a nation that often turns the ordinary into cynical ploys for fame, influence, and profit. A masterful and keen-eyed rendering of history and culture, by a master historian.”
—Thomas W. Zeiler, author of Unconditional Defeat: Japan, America, and the End of World War IISee fewer reviews...
A study in mythmaking, The Fighting Sullivans offers a behind-the-scenes look at the manufacture of heroes in twentieth-century wartime America.