Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Brief encounter with the Juneau

The light cruiser USS Juneau reported that it received various provisions and supplies from my dad's ship, Vestal, stationed at Tongatabu on this date in 1942.

Sadly, the Juneau will meet with a tragic end in only a couple of months. On November 13, 1942, during the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal, Juneau was torpedoed and sunk. The now famous 5 Sullivan Brothers were among those lost.

The Sullivans enlisted in the U.S. Navy on January 3, 1942, with the stipulation that they serve together. The Navy had a policy of separating siblings, but this was not strictly enforced. All 5 were assigned to the Juneau.

After being struck by a torpedo during the battle, the cruiser was forced to leave, along with other damaged ships, for the base at Espiritu Santo. However, Juneau was struck again by another torpedo, this time from an enemy submarine. Hit in its ammunition magazine, the ship exploded and quickly sank. Not believing that anyone could have survived the catastrophic explosion, and unwilling to expose the battle-damaged force to further attacks, the ships were ordered to continue on to Espiritu Santo.

In the confusion, it was days later that Allied headquarters finally sent aircraft to search for possible survivors. By now, the men in the water, many of whom were seriously wounded in the explosion, were exposed to the elements, hunger, thirst, and repeated shark attacks. Three of Sullivan brothers had died instantly in the explosion. Two others survived in the water but drowned in the first couple of days. Only 10 of Juneau's 692-member crew survived to be rescued from the water 8 days later. But the Sullivans were lost.

Due to wartime security, the brothers' parents were not notified of their deaths until January 12, 1943. Navy personnel met the parents at their door with the message, "I have some news for you about your boys." "Which one?" asked the father. "I'm sorry," the officer replied. "All five." Incredibly, the parents would go on to make speaking appearances on behalf of the war effort.

To commemorate these brave sailors, in February 1943, the destroyer Putnam, then under construction at San Francisco, was renamed USS The Sullivans. And in 1944, a film was released, poignantly recounting the life and sacrifice of the "Fighting Sullivans."

As a consequence of the tragic loss of the Sullivan brothers, the war department adopted the "Sole Survivor" policy, whereby a surviving family member wishing to be sent home may apply for a release from service.

Albert, Francis, George, Joseph and Madison Sullivan on board the USS Juneau 
Source: Naval Historical Center

Sources: USS Juneau War Diary, September 1942; Navy Department Press Release, October 26, 1944; Wikipedia

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