Saturday, 25 January 2014

Waterloo, Iowa; the five Sullivan Brothers; and Private Ryan

I do like armchair travel. It's so easy nowadays, when Google Earth and Google Maps (with Street View) can take you almost anywhere you might feasibly want to go. For some strange reason - because I don't really like flat or featureless farmland - I have repeatedly been 'visiting' the American Mid-West.

The small towns there have a certain fascination. They all seem the same: rather stark, utilitarian places with a very wide and straight Main Street; acres of tarmac for parking in front of widely-spaced agricultural stores or public buildings; each house in its own vast plot of land; not much traffic; and very few people to be seen.

Nothing at all like the average small town in the UK. It's so alien to someone used to living on a crowded island with little houses densely packed in on top of each other, and buses and trains and cars, and lots of people walking around everywhere. It's hard to imagine these Mid-West towns having any community life as we have it here in the UK.

The nearest I've been in person to something similar must be one or two of the more remote towns in South Island, New Zealand, such as Tuatapere, right down in the far south-west. It had a look that is not so far removed from the average Mid-West town, strung out on some state highway:

Of course there are two obvious differences: New Zealand is greener, and the tractors there are as small as you'd get in the UK. But otherwise the same long straight roads, and the same low building density.

After I 'visited' Money, Mississippi in connection with the last post, I went north to Iowa and decided to look at a bigger place, a proper city called Waterloo. I suppose its name must have seemed marginally more intriguing than Iowa City, Cedar Rapids, or Davenport. Otherwise I knew nothing about it. But then I like to dip into places I know nothing about, and be surprised.

The main facts about Waterloo are at,_Iowa. It looked much as I expected it would be in Street View, until I reached a large building that had big letters on the side that said: 5 SULLIVAN BROTHERS CONVENTION CENTER. Now that was unusual. Public buildings in America generally seem to be named after individuals - not five brothers. What was that all about? I invite you to read this: In brief, the five Sullivan brothers, all of them natives of Waterloo, died together in World War II when their ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. Their death was one of the particular tragedies that spurred the US War Department to make formal its Sole Survivor Policy (see, which requires that if a family's sons or daughters are all on active service and might be killed, then they should be separated to avoid the risk of dying together, and the last survivor will be ordered home and kept away from combat, so that the parents will be spared the loss of all their children.

Which is of course a most humane attitude. I'd vaguely heard something about it; but fancy stumbling on the full story, chapter and verse, by idly 'travelling around' with Google Maps!

The heavyweight 1998 Steven Spielberg film Saving Private Ryan, which is thought to nod at the Sullivan brothers story, was on TV within the last couple of weeks. What a coincidence. I didn't see it: that kind of war film is not my cup of tea.

And just to show that I do know about these things - innocent and pure though I am reckoned to be - let me lift the sombre mood into frivolous crassness by mentioning Saving Ryan's Privates, a short film also from 1998, whose plot is described here: I haven't looked at it. I have no intention of looking at it. But if, dear reader, you are male and like this sort of thing, then do have an adolescent giggle by all means.


  1. My logical brain tells me that if true then an only child could never be called up because obviously that would put the whole generation at risk...

  2. Your mention of Davenport Iowa which is part of the "quad city" region that also includes Moline Illinois (just across the Mississippi river) reminded me of my years of travelling in the US. Places such as this roughly halfway between Des Moines and Chicago and other places in small-town America provide great scope for road trips and exploration. It isn't always of lovely landscapes, but definitely always of friendly and interesting people.

    The John Deere museum in Moline was always a highlight of my drives to and from Des Moines and almost made me want to own a vintage tractor!

  3. Caroline: I think single children are not exempt from service, which suggests a double standard - that the grief of parents losing their only son or daughter for their country is somehow less than the grief of parents who have lost several sons and daughters.

    Mel: Yes, I noted that Waterloo was John Deere HQ! Another unexpected fact. These nondescript places in America are so often where famous people grew up, or where famous companies developed. I wonder why that is. And why the picturesque places around the world (as lovely as they may be) have so rarely produce anybody or anything of really great significance.


  4. 'have so rarely produce(d) anybody or anything of really great significance'. Everybody is significant Lucy, that is a horrible thing to say. As for 'anything', well there have been 'things' produced in these places, modern society being the main one!

    Shirley Anne x


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