Sailors by and large are a very superstitious lot.
The things that set a sailing man or woman on edge are as ancient as the sea itself. I am not sure if it is the dangers they know they will face once they are divorced from the shore or just a strong feeling that fate will reach out and touch them in return for all they did on their last liberty.
One of the oldest traditions that causes sailors to be concerned is setting sail on a Friday. In a few old books (including Lovette’s Naval Customs and Traditions) this is alluded to a number of times. It’s just bad luck to sail on a Friday. As someone who spent more than a few weeks at sea, I can assure you that being underway on any Friday had its down side but on a rare occasion, you would add weight to the day when it happened to fall on the 13th day of the month.
From Legends and superstitions of the sea and of sailors. Bassett, Fletcher (1885):
Ancient Irish chronicles record that a certain king was not allowed to sail on a marauding expedition on Tuesday, or to go in a ship the Monday after Bealtaine (May-day).
Wednesday was consecrated to Odin, who, as Hnickar, was the Northern mariner’s chief deity. Hence it was a lucky day to undertake a voyage. And so with Thursday, which was also dedicated to a favorite deity (Thor) with the Northern warlike mariner.
Saturday seems also to have generally borne a good character. But we are told in an old English work,* ” Certayne craftsmen will nocht begin their worke on Satterday; certain schipmen or mariniers will not begin to sail on the Satterday — quhilk is plane superstition.”
But Friday is of all days the one proverbially unlucky for sailors. Its bad character on shore is well known, and we should not wonder that it also obtained such at sea.
As Marryat says of one of his heroes: “His thoughts naturally reverted to the other point, in which seafaring men are equally bigoted, the disastrous consequences of sailing on a Friday; the origin of which superstition can easily be traced to early Catholicism, when, out of respect for the day of universal redemption, they were directed by their pastors to await the ‘morrow’s sun.’ ”
Southey says, “Many a ship has lost the tide which might have led to fortune, because the captain and crew thought it unlucky to sail on Friday.”
The earliest account of this superstition that I find is in the “Itinerary” of Fynes Moryson (1553), who, speaking of the king of Poland at Dantzig, says: “The next day the king had a good wind, but before this, the king and the queen, whilst sometimes they thought Monday, sometimes Friday, to be unlucky days, had lost many fair winds.”
Cooper says of a certain hero: “As for sailing on Friday, that was out of the question. No one did that in 1798, who could help it.” Brand tells that a London merchant said, in 1790, that no one would begin any business or voyage on Friday.
Thatcher writes, in 1821: “Seldom would a seaman then sail on Friday.” And Cheever, in 1827: “He (the sailor) will never go to sea on Friday, if he can help it.”
0lmstead also writes, in 1841: “There has been a singular superstition prevalent among seamen about sailing on Friday; and in former times, to sail on this day would have been regarded as a violation of the mysterious character of the day, which would be visited with disaster upon the offender. Even now, it is not entirely abandoned; so if a voyage, commenced on Friday, happens to be unfortunate, all the ill luck of the voyage is ascribed to having sailed on that day. An intelligent shipmaster told me that, although he had no faith in this superstition, yet so firmly were sailors formerly impressed with superstitious notions respecting the day, that, until within a few years, he should never have ventured to sail on a Friday, for the men would be appalled by dangers which they would think light of on common occasions.”
For the United States Navy, one of the worst Friday the 13th’s occurred on November 13th, 1942.
Pearl Harbor’s horrendous attack was less than a year before that fateful day. The battleships that were meant to repel any Japanese incursion into the Pacific were either laying on the floor of the harbor or in various stages of repair. The Battle for Guadalcanal had been raging since August and a superior Japanese surface fleet was wreaking havoc on the Marines trying to defend a tenuous position on this little island in the Solomons.
The US Navy could muster some cruisers and destroyers but the new battleships were still being held in reserve for a later attack. On November 12th, a battle group under Admiral “Fighting Dan” Callaghan on the USS San Francisco came to the defense of the battle weary Marines. They had accompanied supply ships and reports reached them of a superior Japanese fleet coming down the slot that would try and pound the airfield into the Stone Age.
Callaghan hastily prepared his forces to try and counter attack the incoming force of surface ships. What he was unaware of at the tie was the size and scope of the opposing forces. The Japanese Commander was bringing the Battleships Hiei and Kirishima along with her escort of a cruiser and destroyers to bombard the island in a night attack.
A bad way to begin
The day before the main battle did not start out well for the San Francisco. The Japanese air forces were still within range and they saw an opportunity to sink the American supply ships and weaken the garrison. The cruisers and destroyers put up a brave fight but one of the Japanese planes was able to hit the San Francisco causing damage and many deaths. Her new Captain, Cassin Young had only been on board for a few days and was already receiving his baptism of fire. Young had been awarded the Medal of Honor after the Pearl Harbor attack but had to feel the weight of a thousand anchors as he helped his ship battle the fires and get back into line for a night action that was still to come.
As nightfall on the 12th arrives, there are storms north of the island in which the approaching Japanese fleet is hidden. Callaghan initially has no idea of the size and makeup of the forces he will oppose. It probably didn’t matter. He was a fighting Admiral and he was going to use his forces in whatever way he could to help the Marines.
After midnight on the 13th, the two forces converge. Utter chaos ensues. As one officer would later record, it was like a ballroom brawl with the lights turned off.
Before the battle is over, the American force is bloodied but not completely beaten.
Admiral Callaghan and Captain Cassin Young, among many others on the bridge of the San Francisco are killed by the blasts from Hiei’s fourteen inch guns.
The battle proper only lasted around twenty minutes with sporadic fighting occurring well into the daylight hours.
At 1101, Commander Yokota Minoru’s submarine I-26 fires three torpedoes at retiring San Francisco. They miss, but one continues on and narrowly misses Helena. Another continues on and hits JUNEAU port side amidships near where she was hit the previous night. A minute later, a magazine explosion blows Juneau in half. She sinks in about 20 seconds.
On board the Juneau are the Five Fighting Sullivan Brothers. None would survive the sinking.
The Japanese retired that night and the Marines got a precious reprieve. For them, Friday the 13th ended up being one of the luckiest days they would ever know. The Naval Battle continued on for a few more days and the Japanese would end up losing their two battleships. That battle marked the turning point in the overall campaign and even though the Japs fought on tenaciously, they were never again able to mount a serious attack that could topple the forward progress of the allies through the Pacific.
What happened to the Sullivan’s?
Eight days after the sinking, ten survivors were found by a PBY Catalina search aircraft and retrieved from the water. The survivors reported that Frank, Joe and Matt died instantly, Al drowned the next day, and George survived for four or five days, before suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia (though some sources describe him being “driven insane with grief” at the loss of his brothers); he went over the side of the raft he occupied. He was never seen or heard from again.
Security required that the Navy not reveal the loss of Juneau or the other ships so as not to provide information to the enemy. Letters from the Sullivan sons stopped arriving at the home and the parents grew worried, which prompted Alleta Sullivan to write to the Bureau of Naval Personnel in January 1943, citing rumors that survivors of the task force claimed that all five brothers were killed in action.
This letter was answered by President Franklin D. Roosevelt on January 13, 1943, who acknowledged that the Sullivan’s were missing in action, but by then the parents were already informed of their fate, having learned of their deaths on January 12. That morning, the boys’ father, Tom, was preparing for work when three men in uniform – a lieutenant commander, a doctor and a chief petty officer – approached his door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” the naval officer said. “Which one?” asked Tom. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.”
After this unlucky day, the Navy adapted a policy where brothers were no longer able to sail together. It remained in effect for many years.
USS San Francisco SSN 711
When I reported on board the USS San Francisco (a nuclear fast attack submarine) she was in the Newport News Shipyard being constructed. My brother Tom was a Machinist Mate on board a destroyer that was stationed in nearby Norfolk Virginia. The 711 boat was my third submarine and I had learned to love the submarine life. After a number of conversations, Tom finally volunteered for sub duty and upon completion he was assigned to the boat with me.
My Mom, who was old enough to remember the Sullivan Brothers incident, was a bit concerned. But we convinced her that being together on the same boat we would be able to keep an eye on each other. I have had many men who were qualified that I still call Brother, but this one was both a submariner and a Brother. We had a lot of great adventures together and at one point the 711 boat had four sets of brothers on board.
We are all either retired or closing out our working lives but I can assure you that the bond will never be broken.
It was an honor to serve on board a submarine named after the famous USS San Francisco that was the centerpiece of that fateful action. While it was the unluckiest day for them, it helped to shape the fortunes of the country on its way to Tokyo Harbor in 1945. Their sacrifices must never be forgotten. I think of them every time I hear the Navy Hymn.
Eternal Father, strong to save…
Special Note: I am putting the finishing touches on my book this week that tries to capture the Amazing Life of Captain Cassin Young. I will be telling you more about that in the coming weeks.