Monday, April 15, 2013

Military Monday -- And Then There Were Four: The O'Kane Brothers Service in WWII

Raymond C. O'Kane (1925 - 1988)

I posted here on March 11, 2013 about the O'Kane brothers of Great Neck, New York and their service during World War II.  My late father-in-law, Daniel J. O'Kane, Jr. (1919 - 2007), was the eldest of four O'Kane brothers.  On March 11th I stated, "The fourth O'Kane brother, Raymond O'Kane, was born in 1925.  I do not know if he served in the military during WWII; but in any event, I do not have a photo of him in uniform."  Just within the last couple of days, I received confirmation from a sister of the O'Kane brothers that indeed all four of the brothers served in WWII. 

Raymond O'Kane was the youngest of the four sons [Daniel, Edward, Thomas and Raymond] of Daniel J. O'Kane, Sr. and his wife, Nora C. (Hayes) O'Kane.  Daniel and Nora also had two daughters, [Mary and Grace] who were their fifth and sixth children.

Raymond served as an officer in the Navy as the photograph above shows.  The date of the photograph and the ship on which it was taken are presently unknown.

One can imagine not only the pride, but also the persistent worry that Daniel and Nora must have experienced with all four of their sons off to war during World War II.  Nora, of course, would have qualified for membership in the "Blue Star Mothers" [1] by virtue of having children in active service during the war.  It is presently unknown, however, whether or not she was actually a member.  While neither of the photos posted here on March 11th (showing Nora with her sons outside their home in Great Neck, NY), depict a display of "Service Flags" on the door or windows, Nora was entitled to display four such flags -- one for each son who was in the service.

A "Service Flag" being displayed in a window to indicate
an active service member in the household.
I have never seen any statistics on how many mothers had four or more children in active service in the armed forces during WWII, but the famous case of the Sullivan brothers must always come to mind when the service of multiple family members during WWII is mentioned.  The sacrifice of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa stunned the nation.  The story of the Sullivans' loss must have also been a nightmare that Daniel and Nora O'Kane -- and many parents like them -- constantly fought to hold at bay.

The five sons of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan all enlisted in the Navy on January 3, 1942, but with the requirement that they all had to serve together.  Even though the Navy had a policy of separating the service assignments of siblings, the policy was not strictly enforced and somehow the five Sullivan boys -- George, Francis, Joseph, Madison and Albert -- were all assigned to the USS Juneau (CL-52), a light cruiser.  

The Juneau participated in the Battle of Guadalcanal and sometime in the morning of November 13, 1942 it was torpedoed by a Japanese vessel.  Juneau had to leave the battle due to the damage it suffered and while it was headed to an Allied base with other ships from the battle, it was struck again by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.  The ammunition magazines of the Juneau were hit and exploded.  The ship had no chance of survival and quickly sank.  Other Navy ships were ordered to continue toward the safe harbor of the Allied base because it was thought no one could have survived the explosion and quick sinking -- and because it was too dangerous to other ships to remain in the area looking for survivors.  It is thought some 100 sailors actually did survive the explosion and sinking, but they were left in the water to fend for themselves against the elements, hunger, lack of water and shark attacks.  Eight days following the sinking of the Juneau only ten survivors were rescued after being spotted by a search aircraft.  

The survivors of the Juneau sinking reported that Francis, Joseph and Madison Sullivan died almost instantly as a result of the explosion.  Albert Sullivan drowned on the first full day in the water.  The last of the brothers and the eldest, George Sullivan, was said to have survived for up to five days after the sinking of the Juneau.  Suffering from either delirium or grief at the loss of his four brothers, George was reported to have slipped over the side of raft he was in and was never seen again.  All five Sullivan brothers were dead, but for security reasons their parents never received notice until January 12, 1943. [2]  

The only surviving child of Thomas and Alleta Sullivan was their daughter, Teresa, who died in 1975. 

(L to R) Joseph, Francis, Albert, Madison and George Sullivan.
Taken on board the USS Juneau 14 February 1942 -- nine months
almost to the day before the Juneau was torpedoed. 
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The photograph of Raymond O'Kane in uniform aboard ship during WWII courtesy of his sister, Grace (O'Kane) Herbert.

[1]  Blue Star Mothers of America, Inc. is an organization founded in the U.S. in March 1942 to provide support for mothers who had children in active service during World War II.  There was a custom that a family with members in the service would hang a "Service Flag" in a window of the home (see the photo above).  A Blue Star indicated a living service member and a Gold Star represented  a family member in the service had given his or her life during service.  The idea for the Blue Star mothers was conceived by Army Capt. George Maines in January 1942.  He put out an inquiry for information regarding family members (usually sons) serving in the military and he got 1,000 replies.  By March more than 600 mothers had organized to form what became known as the Blue Star mothers.  At its height during WWII, membership in the Blue Star Mothers reached about 30,000.  Today there are about 7,000 members in over 200 chapters.   Read more about the Blue Star mothers here

The photograph of a Service Flag being displayed in a home window is from Wikimedia Commons. The author/creator has given permission to use, share and adapt the image so long as attribution is provided.  Necessary information on the image is available at

[2]   Read more about the "Fighting Sullivan Brothers" here and here.  Two Navy ships have been named the USS The Sullivans: the Fletcher-class destroyer DD-537 and the Arleigh Burke-class "Aegis" guided missile destroyer DDG-68.

The photograph of the five Sullivan brothers on Valentine's Day 1942 is in the public domain as a work created by an officer or employee of the United States as part of his or her official duties. 
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Copyright 2013, John D. Tew
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  1. My father-in-law was the youngest of three brothers who served in WWII. His two older brothers died. See A Jewish Genealogy Journey for more about them.

    1. Hi Elizabeth! Thank you so much for sharing your family's story. I read your post and realized yet again how very lucky my wife's grandmother and grandfather were to have four sons serving in WWII and to have all of them arrive back home unharmed! I have two children -- both sons -- and I cannot even imagine losing both of them The pain caused to the Sullivans and the Handlers is one of the cruelest of the cruelties caused by wars.