Deserted: USS Juneau

USS Juneau (Courtesy Wikipedia)

USS Juneau (Courtesy Wikipedia)

On 25 October 1941 an Atlanta-class cruiser, the USS Juneau, was launched in Kearny, New Jersey. In February of the next year she was commissioned. In command was Captain Lyman Swenson. Although Swenson didn’t have much of a home life he didn’t let it affect his attitude. He was well-liked, respected and didn’t distance himself from the crew. The Juneau was an exception in regards to Navy regulations. It was customary to spread families around on different ships so that in the event of an accident the whole family would not be lost. In this case, on 13 November 1942 the Juneau carried three sets of brothers. The two Coombs brother, five Sullivan brothers and two of four Rogers brothers. The other two Rogers had previously been part of the Juneau’s crew.

After surviving the Battle of Friday the Thirteenth and coming away damaged, the Juneau met up with the remnants of task force 67 on November 13. The force was made up of six ships: The Fletcher, Helena, Juneau, San Francisco and Stenett. A sixth vessel had sailed away to establish communication without giving the force’s position away to the enemy. At 10:30 a.m. the I-26 located the battle weary group. As the I-26 closed in for the kill, she took aim at the San Francisco. Two torpedoes were fired which were spotted by the San Francisco.  One disappeared and another zipped by the San Francisco. The Helena also spotted the torpedo and averted collision. Before the Juneau could be warned the torpedo slammed into her magazine at 11:01 a.m. and was blown to pieces. Debris went flying through the air and black smoke blanketed the air. Aboard the Juneau, those who were not immediately killed in the explosion experienced themselves flying through the air.

Many a sailor found themselves trapped in the ship’s clutches as she slipped beneath the waves. Wyatt Butterfield was trapped with his arm pinned in a door. His mind went back to his parents. He had been unable to keep up with his life insurance payments and had cancelled it. And now his parents wouldn’t get a penny out of his death. Lieutenant Charles Wang had been eating a sandwich when the explosion whisked him away. He landed on the deck and looked up to see the radar antenna coming down on him. It landed on his leg, breaking it. He tried to jump overboard but like many of his comrades found himself trapped.

The Sullivan brothers (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Captain Gilbert Hoover of the Helena looked back to the place where the Juneau had been been but seen  nothing. No men, no debris, nothing. The Fletcher went back to look for survivors but the Helena ordered them back. No sense in making thmselves a target for the I-26. Overhead a B-29 under Lieutenant Robert Gill seen the smoke from what had been the Juneau.  Hoover signaled to the plane informing it that the Juneau had gone down and that there may be survivors in the water. Since Hoover was under orders not to break radio silence he hoped Gill would instead. But he didn’t. Gill would report the sinking in person once he reached Henderson Field. A quick flight over the area revealed there were about 150 survivors in the water. There had been nearly 700 men aboard the Juneau. Before leaving the plane dropped a yellow raft. Gill flew back and signaled the news to the Helena. At Espíritu Santo Gill informed an officer of the sinking, but the news was brushed aside. Gill would report the news twice more in the coming days. The I-26 had meanwhile dived and awaited retaliation. When nothing happened the submarine went back to inspect what had happened. The task force was gone.

When the smoke had cleared, among the survivors were Butterfield and Wang. On the surface men were suffering from ghastly wounds and in agonizing pain. Survivors made their way to the three rafts and three nets which had been loosed before the sinking. They held onto the hope that the task force would soon come to their rescue. But as evening fell no ships appeared. The next morning the arrival of sand sharks was noted and the bloody attacks began. Sailors Joe Harney and Victor Fitzgerald had seen the yellow raft dropped from the plane. The next day they struck out together for it, battling sharks along the way. They successfully reached the raft and paddled over to the rafts that were tied up together. There they took the delirious Wang aboard and headed for the island of San Cristobal which could be seen in the distance some miles away.

Captain Lyman Swenson died in the sinking (Courtesy Wikipedia)

By November 15 the survivors were extremely thirsty and hungry. They ignored commonsense and drank the seawater. Widespread hallucinations and madness set in and soon men were jumping off of the rafts. Sharks finished them off quickly. In the daytime the men suffered from the insufferable heat and at night from the cold. A man named Moore latched onto a life jacket and put it to use saving his comrades in the water. On his third rescue mission sharks attacked him and another man. The screams pierced the air and then they were gone.

On November 17, Wang came out of his delirium. With the lieutenant conscious, Hartney and Fitzgerald paddled along in a much better state of mind. Things began looking up when PBY plane spotted them and attempted to land. But at that moment a squall materialized and the plane left. The men had to struggle to keep their raft afloat. When the storm finally let up they spotted land.They eventually landed and located food and water. Natives also put them in touch with the Kuper family on another island. From there the threesome were put on a plane and flown out.

William Halsey (Courtesy Wikipedia)

Back on land Admiral William Halsey had sent the USS Meade to the area to find the survivors. But the Meade found nothing. Halsey’s next step was to continue the search by air. Gill also  flew back on November 18 and found the survivors were still in the water although their numbers were severely reduced. On November 19, the rafts were finally found by a plane which dropped some food, water and a note. When it landed out of their reach, Wyatt Butterfield swam out and retrieved the items wrapped in a life jacket while fending off sharks. The note informed survivors that the plane would be standing by until the USS Ballard arrived. If the ship didn’t arrive by twilight the plane would leave but another would come.

Another plane was sent out to the rafts. It found two rafts and one of the nets with men aboard. Lieutenant Lawrence Williams, afraid that the Ballard wouldn’t arrive in time before the plane had to leave, decided to land. Upon landing the plane sprung a few leaks. Once in the water, the plane took several survivors aboard. Among them was Butterfield. Because of the rough seas and the light damage to the plane, Williamson didn’t think it wise to taxi over to the other survivors. Instead he flew the five men back to Tulagi and would return later. The Ballard eventually arrived and took on two men. The other bodies they had seen appeared dead. In all only 10 men survived the disaster. Among the dead were the Sullivans,  the Coombs and the Rogers. The last survivor, Frank Holmgren, died in 2009.

Source: Kurzman, Dan. Left to Die: The Tragedy of the USS Juneau

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44 thoughts on “Deserted: USS Juneau

  1. Not everyone has the perseverance to research and the gift to write about history making the readers feel like they are living that particular event. Reading your post today, I felt like I was one of the survivors, surrounded by sharks and struggling for my life.

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    • Thank you very much for your kinds words! You keep that up and I’ll have to switch over from a novelist and become a non-fiction writer. ;)

      I can only imagine how the survivors felt as then seen plane after plane fly overhead and never stop. And then once they spotted several ships but they didn’t see the rafts and nets. Thanks for your comment.

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  2. Another good post. I’d heard of the Sullivans but was sketchy on the details. Here’s a great read on maritime history – The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors by James Hornfischer. About the Battle off Samar, part of the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it before. Great blog material too.

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    • I have a copy of “The Last Stand of the Tin Can Sailors” on my bookshelf at this very moment. I just haven’t gotten around to reading it yet. :) Thanks for the recommendation, I’ll be sure to peek into this book in the meantime.

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  3. It touched my heart strings when Butterfield was pinned and all he could think of was not having money for his parents upon his death.

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  4. As if your ship going down wasn’t enough, but to add sharks to the equation as well is just awful. So dreadful that all the brothers were lost, that would be completely heartbreaking for the families :(

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    • Sharks give me the willies. This had to be an absolutely terrifying experience. Yes sad for the families of the different brothers. All four Rogers brothers had been serving on the Juneau. Before the sinking the other two were transferred. It’s a good thing too! Thanks for your comment.

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    • I have a thing about them too. When I read your “battling sharks” and “fending off sharks” it sent a shiver down my spine!

      The poor parents of all of those brothers. I guess there are a lot of families in a similar position of bereavement by the end of any war :(

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    • For me sharks are bad enough at a distance but to be in such close proximity to them? Not to mention day in and day out!

      An uncle I never met was a prisoner of war in Korea. From what I hear it about killed my grandmother.

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  5. Pingback: Sightseeing in Solvang, CA | Marsha Lee

    • It certainly was. Sorry to hear of your deceased relatives. My family was spared any WWII losses, which I’m certain they were grateful for. Thanks for sharing and for your comment.

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  6. A deftly written post, perhaps TOO well-written! The second I read that there were 3 sets of brothers, I got that sinking “this is going to be a heart-breaker” feeling. And the sharks? I’m having my morning coffee and I think I might have to watch an hour of cartoons to de-bum myself out. Great prose effects deeply…good job!

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    • Thank you. I have to wonder though if they left behind any men who were still alive but too weak to get the attention of the planes and ships. After all, the men on the nets only ‘looked’ dead. I suppose I would look dead too after braving all that.

      Having just reread the post and corrected some typos, now I’m depressed! I think I’ll do the same as you. Thanks for your comment!

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