Paul Allen’s research team has found yet another of the lost warships of WWII. This time, it’s the USS Juneau (CL-52) the Atlantic-class light cruiser, which was sunk by Japanese torpedoes off of the Solomon Islands.
It was on 13 November, 1942 that the USS Juneau was involved with the fleet in the Battle for Guadalcanal. She fought fiercely when Japanese torpedo bombers attacked the American fleet, taking out six of the enemy bombers. The Japanese bombers were driven away by American fighter planes as well. The American cruisers and destroyers then encountered a Japanese force consisting of two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers, all headed toward the island. A battle took place in near darkness and at point-blank range between the opposing forces.
During the battle, the USS Juneau was struck by a torpedo launched from the Japanese destroyer, Amatsukaze, which caused her to list severely. She withdrew from the battle, and she and the cruisers USS Helena and USS San Francisco headed toward Espiritu Santo for repairs. Only one screw was working to drive the Juneau. She was down 12 ft. by the bow, but was able to maintain a 13 knots (15 mph). Shortly after noon she was struck by two torpedoes launched from the Japanese submarine I-26, causing a huge explosion which split her in two. Both halves sank within 20 seconds. Fearing both another attack and that there could be no survivors on the Juneau, the Helena and the San Francisco departed.
In fact, about 100 men survived the sinking, but they were left on their own for eight days. All but 10 of the men died before being spotted by rescue aircraft. Altogether, 685 men of the USS Juneau’s crew died. Among them were the five Sullivan brothers.
The fact that the five Sullivan brothers went down with the USS Juneau made her loss a unique tragedy for that war. At the time, there was already a US Navy policy that stipulated that siblings could not serve in the same units, but the Sullivan brothers, George, Francis, Joseph, Madison, and Albert said they would not serve unless they could serve in the same unit. The Navy acquiesced and allowed the five Sullivans to serve together. They joined the Navy together on January 3, 1942 and after boot camp they were all assigned to the USS Juneau.
When the Juneau went down so quickly it was a great loss to the fleet, but the loss of so many of one family in one event made this tragedy even greater. The 10 survivors reported that Frank, Joe and Matt died instantly, that Al drowned the next day and that George survived for four or five days. Tom and Aletta Sullivan had lost all of her sons. They left one sister, Genevieve, behind as well.
The loss of the five Sullivan brothers would become more famous than the ship that they went down on. Movies would be made of them, and the military would never again allow such a thing to happen again. The recent movie, Saving Private Ryan, is based on that theme.
What makes the finding of the USS Juneau off of the Solomon Islands auspicious, even miraculous, is that it was found on St. Patrick’s Day, of all days. None of the immediate Sullivan family is still with us, but we can be sure that they would have been quite moved by the surprise of having their son’s ship found on St. Patrick’s Day.
There is a ship in the fleet to this day that is named the USS Sullivans. One of its former commanding officers, Vice Adm. Rich Brown said in an interview with USA Today, “As the fifth commanding officer of the USS The Sullivans (DDG 68), A ship named after five brothers, I am excited to hear that Allen and his team were able to locate the light cruiser USS Juneau that sunk during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The story of the USS Juneau crew and the Sullivan brothers epitomize the service and sacrifice of our nation’s greatest generation.”
The Veterans Site thanks the Paul Allen team for helping us close another unfinished chapter of the history of WWII. We honor the five Sullivan brothers and all their shipmates who served and went down with the USS Juneau during WWII. We do not forget. Your sacrifice and generosity of service to the cause of freedom is a part of our history. May you all be enjoying Fair Winds and Following Seas in Paradise.