The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, a multi-day battle that would see more than 1,700 Americans killed, began on this day in history, Nov. 12, 1942.

Guadalcanal is the largest island in the Solomon Islands, a country located in the Pacific Ocean northeast of Australia and east of Papua New Guinea. 

The Naval Battle of Guadalcanal came several months into the extended military campaign on the island, and featured intense, heavy fights that saw large amounts of casualties on both sides. 

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The fighting that began on Nov. 12 was “arguably the most unorganized and chaotic naval battle of World War II,” according to the website for The National WWII Museum. 

The attack began with Japanese aircraft launching an assault on the American ships on Nov. 12, and continued on both the air and sea until Nov. 15. 

The American forces found themselves outnumbered and outmaneuvered by the Japanese navy, said the museum. 

Despite these disadvantages, as well as “many errors,” the American forces “gave a good accounting of themselves, forcing the Japanese to abandon their mission of attacking Henderson Field,” said the museum’s site. 

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As Henderson Field was not captured by the Japanese, the Americans were able to launch aircraft that would attack the Japanese ships the day after the initial attack.

The American aircraft sank the already damaged Japanese battleship Hiei, a major strategic victory, said The National WWII Museum. 

The Hiei was the first Japanese battleship to be sunk during the war. 

portraits of navy officers

The Japanese would eventually lose another battleship, the Kirishima, in addition to a heavy cruiser, three destroyers and many other transports, said the website for the U.S. Navy. 

While the battle was considered a strategic victory for the Americans, the victory came at a cost. 

The American Navy lost two light cruisers — the “Atlanta” and “Juneau” — plus seven destroyers. 

Rear Admiral Daniel Judson Callaghan was killed aboard the USS San Francisco; Rear Admiral Normal Scott was killed on the USS Atlanta. 

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Both were posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, says the Congressional Medal of Honor Society website. 

But perhaps the most well-known casualties of the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal were the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa. 

The loss of five brothers marked the “biggest blow to any one family in U.S. wartime history,” the Navy’s website indicates. 

The loss of five brothers marked the “biggest blow to any one family in U.S. wartime history.”

As close-knit siblings, the five Sullivan brothers — George, 27; Francis, 26; Joseph, 24; Madison, 23; and Albert, 20 — had requested that the Navy keep them together, despite policy that stated they should be separated. 

Both George Sullivan and Francis Sullivan had already served in the Navy and were discharged a year before their deaths. Yet they opted to re-enlist after their good friend was killed in the Pearl Harbor attack. 

five brothers in Navy uniforms

All five brothers were killed while stationed aboard the USS Juneau, an Atlanta-class light cruiser. 

The USS Juneau was torpedoed and sank on Nov. 13, killing all but 10 of her crew.

Initially, the USS Juneau was “severely damaged” by a torpedo on Nov. 12, says the website for the U.S. Navy. The next day, she was hit again. 

“The following morning, the crippled cruiser, down by the bow and struggling to make 18 knots, retired from the battle area,” said the U.S. Navy. 

“Handling sluggishly as she limped through the glassy-calm sea, Juneau was an easy target for the nearby Japanese submarine I-26. A torpedo strike hit the damaged cruiser and detonated her magazines,” they said. 

Man and woman receiving five purple hearts

The ship sank in just 42 seconds. At least three of the Sullivan brothers were killed instantly; reports differ as to when the final two brothers perished. 

The devastating loss of the Sullivan brothers, along with similarly tragic stories of multiple siblings dying in war, prompted the U.S. military to eventually adopt the “Sole Survivor Policy.” 

The policy “provides a peacetime exemption from assignment to a combat zone to anyone whose parent or sibling was killed in action, died in the line of duty, or dies later as a result of disease or injury incurred in the line of duty while serving in the Armed Forces of the United States,” say the website for the U.S. Marines. 

The surviving Sullivan family was lauded for its bravery amid the loss of their sons and brothers, and received letters of condolences from both President Franklin Roosevelt and Pope Pius XII, said the Des Moines Register. 

Their story was made into a movie — and there have been two naval ships named “The Sullivans” in their honor. 

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