LeROY — Many people know the story of the Sullivan brothers of Iowa, five sailors serving together in the Navy during World War II who died when their ship sank.
Fewer have probably heard of the Gaultney brothers, three brothers from LeRoy who were killed in action in the same war.
But that is about to change with the renaming of a portion of Interstate 74 in their honor — an honor that will shine light on their story.
Ralph Gaultney was the first to die. In fact, he was the first World War II casualty from McLean County.
He died from wounds suffered in the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was serving on the USS Arizona at the time of the attack and died on Dec. 24 at the age of 31.
Less than seven months later, his brother Leonard, also a sailor, died on Aug. 9, 1942, when his ship, the USS Vincennes, sank during the battle of the Solomon Islands, part of the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific.
According to reports from his surviving shipmates, while others were heeding an order to abandon ship, Leonard Gaultney stopped to help a fellow sailor who had been wounded, tearing off his shirt to use as a tourniquet. The ship was hit again near where they were last seen. Gaultney's body was never recovered. He was 26.
The family's sacrifices were not yet over.
The third brother, David Gaultney had joined the Marines. He was only 19 when he was killed March 3, 1945, during the battle of Iwo Jima, also in the Pacific.
Their mother never knew about David Gaultney's death because she died two years earlier.
In an interview in The Pantagraph at the time of the 50th anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, one of the brothers' a sisters, LaVerne Gaultney Craig, recalled, “When Ralph was killed and then Leonard, mom grieved herself to death.”
Gaultney Park in LeRoy is named after the brothers. And LeRoy's Ruel Neal American Legion Post honors the brothers at least once a year.
But LeRoy Mayor Steve Dean said, “They're probably not recognized as often as they should be.”
That is changing with a resolution to name the portion of I-74 that runs through LeRoy the Gaultney Brothers Memorial Highway. It was passed unanimously in the Illinois Senate and House, and does not need the governor's signature.
The measure, Senate Joint Resolution 65, was sponsored by state Sen. Chapin Rose, R-Mahomet, and Rep. Bill Mitchell, R-Forsyth.
Bill Shepherd of Bloomington, who had written an article for The Pantagraph in 1999 about the 271 names listed on the WWII memorial outside the McLean County Museum of History, brought the story to Rose's attention.
Shepherd had come across the story again while doing research on another topic and thought, with the number of interstate memorials for first responders and military personnel who lost their lives in more recent wars, “it might be appropriate for the legislature to consider doing this … so we don't forget the sacrifices of the Gaultney brothers.”
“It just seemed like such an extraordinary loss for the town of LeRoy and the surrounding area of McLean County," said Shepherd. "It's such a tragedy and it's one that's worth remembering.”
Rose said the story “evokes LeRoy's version of 'Saving Private Ryan,'” the acclaimed Steven Spielberg-directed movie about the search for a soldier whose three brothers were killed during World War II.
In the Gaultney's case, a brother and three sisters survived the three brothers who were killed in action.
Speaking of the Gaultney family's sacrifices, Rose said, “It's emblematic not just of that generation, known as the Greatest Generation, but of all Americans. It's what we do. We serve. We help. When the call goes out, Americans respond to the call.”
Rose said he enjoys talking with veterans, hearing their stories and helping when he can — whether it's getting them medals they earned but never received or inviting them to the floor of the General Assembly and meeting the governor.
“Their commitment and dedication is awe-inspiring,” he said.
Having a portion of I-74 renamed is “a great honor for the Gaultney brothers and their descendants,” added Dean. “It's an honor for the city.”
Rose said he will work with veterans organizations and the Illinois Department of Transportation to coordinate a time for the formal dedication “to honor not just the Gaultney brothers but all our service men and women.”
Contact Lenore Sobota at (309) 820-3240. Follow her on Twitter: @Pg_Sobota