USS Atlanta (CL-51), the lead ship of the class, during trials in November 1941. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Five Sullivan brothers perished on the cruiser Juneau
Text: Miro Barič
Battle for Guadalcanal was the first Allied offensive and great victory in the Pacific. Sure, the US Navy had won the Battle of Midway as outlined in previous part of our series. However, that was the reaction to the Japanese attack. In case of Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands they took over the strategic initiative and have not let it go since.
Main reason for the attack on Guadalcanal was its airfield which the Japanese started to build on this island. After the completion it would have enabled the owner to control the vast surrounding areas. Thanks to the bad weather, the American forces approached the island undetected and their landing on August 7, 1942, came as a total surprise to the Japanese. They quickly recovered however and the hard fighting for Guadalcanal lasted half a year, on the ground, in the air and on the sea. The campaign ended on February 9, 1943, when the Japanese troops withdrew. There were so many ships sunken between Guadalcanal, Savo and Florida islands that the area was nicknamed “The Iron Bottom Sound”. The first big battle took place during the night of August 8 and 9, 1943. At Savo island the Japanese seriously shot up four American and one Australian heavy cruiser. Astoria, Quincy, Vincennes and Canberra were sunken, only heavily damaged cruiser Chicago was rescued. The only satisfaction was sinking by the American submarine S-44 of the Japanese cruiser Kako while she was returning on August 10 in the morning.
More battles followed and during one of them the main hero of our story, AA cruiser USS Juneau (CL-119), was lost. The AA cruisers started to be built in Britain already before WWI. There were modified older class C vessels which 152 mm cannons were replaced with 102 mm caliber guns. In 1937 the cruiser Coventry was the first ship modified in this manner and during 1938–1939 Curacao, Curlew, Cairo, Calcutta and Carlisle followed. During the war Britain acquired more AA vessels of this category. The American Atlanta class however was the first cruiser group in the world that was from the beginning built with dedicated AA weaponry. It was a paradox that initially they were intended as lead ships for the fleets of destroyers. Only later their value in protecting the navy fleets against the enemy aircraft became obvious and they continued to be deployed exclusively in this role.
There were eight vessels of the Atlanta class. The construction of the first four (Atlanta, Juneau, San Diego and San Juan) was launched in 1940 and they entered service in the course of two month, from the end of December to the end of February 1942. Further four ships – Oakland, Reno, Flint and Tucson entered the service during 1943–1945 with slightly modified appearance. The cruisers were 165 meters long and their full displacement was 7,400 tons. The first four ships were armed with 16 127 mm caliber cannons mounted in pairs in eight turrets. Three of them were one stepped above another on the bow and the same arrangement was on the stern. One turret was on port and starboard side. It was the heaviest AA weaponry out of all cruisers during WWII. In a minute the main battery of Atlanta class was able to fire 6 tons of the ammunition. The 127 mm caliber cannons were supplemented by three, later four 28 mm caliber four-barrel cannons. Later these were replaced by more efficient 40 mm caliber weapons and supplemented by a larger number of 20 mm caliber cannons. The second four ships were completed with only 12 127 mm caliber cannons, the side turrets were removed. Therefore, it is sometimes considered a separate Oakland class. Gradually the number of 40 mm caliber cannons was increased.
The AA cruisers in action
Juneau did not survive long enough to have her weaponry changed. After her completion in the summer of 1942, she was first deployed in patrolling duties in the northern Atlantic and Caribbean. When on September 15 three torpedoes fired from the Japanese submarine I-19 hit USS Wasp, Juneau together with the destroyers rescued 1910 sailors from the sinking aircraft carrier. On October 26, 1942, in the Battle of Santa Cruz, she sailed as an escort of the aircraft carriers Hornet and Enterprise. The American vessels shot down 38 attacking Japanese aircraft and Juneau crew had a lion’s contribution in it. It was the ship’s first battle. She met her fate in the following battle though. The naval battle of Guadalcanal in November 1942 was the only encounter of the surface vessels where the Atlanta class cruisers took part. Besides Juneau it was his sister ship Atlanta. Both were sunk. On one side it documents that they were not suitable for surface vessels’ combat. On the other hand, their demise was caused by torpedoes and stronger opponent. Not even the larger cruisers would have sustained such a damage.
Juneau launching at Kearny, New Jersey, October 25, 1941. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
USS Juneau (CL-52) taken shortly after launching. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Juneau, New Jersey, January 5, 1942. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
In the beginning of 1942 Juneau was attached to TF 67 task force escorting the ships carrying the reinforcements and supplies to Guadalcanal. The Japanese however thought in a similar way. They intended to land the troops on the island which would support the ground attack against the Henderson airfield. It was a half-built airport which the Americans captured, completed and named after Major Lofton Henderson, VMSB-41 commander who was on June 4, 1942, killed in the Battle of Midway. The airfield was a thorn in the side for the Japanese. The aircraft taking off from there controlled the airspace during the whole day. The Japanese ships and ground troops could only operate undisturbed at night. The reinforcements were mostly brought to Guadalcanal by the fast destroyers and light cruisers so as they could return under the cover of darkness. The Americans gave them the nickname “Tokio Express”.
The Japanese destroyers, besides unloading the troops, used to fire a couple of “salutes” towards the Henderson airfield. The slower Japanese ships carrying heavy weapons and larger volume supplies however could not afford sailing within the Cactus Air Force range (Cactus was the Allied code name for Guadalcanal). Therefore, the Japanese dispatched a heavy group of combat vessels which were tasked to destroy the airfield firing from the sea. The core of the group was formed by the battleships Hiei and Kirishima. Each of them carried eight 356 mm caliber guns. For this mission, instead of piercing shells, they were armed with shrapnel grenades which were to explode at the contact with the ground and destroy the American aircraft with the fragments. The American reinforcements reached Guadalcanal on November 12 and started to unload. On that day, while protecting the transport ships, Juneau shot down 6 Japanese aircraft. When the Americans found out that the strong Japanese fleet was approaching, they withdrew the transport vessels and dispatched their escorts into the night battle with the enemy. Thus, the American cruisers were lined up against two enemy battleships. Under the standard circumstances any wise commander would have withdrawn but this time there was nowhere to go. They were the only ones to prevent the Henderson airfield from destruction.
Landing at Guadalcanal, August 7, 1942. From the USS Alchiba, a Stuart Marine Corps M2A4 tank is being unloaded into the landing craft LCM(2). Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
The scene of fierce fighting, Henderson Airfield in late August 1942. Photo: US Navy
Close look at the night combat
The American side possessed the advantage of the reliable radar while the Japanese, at that time, had none. It was dark, moonless night with rain showers, so the visibility was minimal. The American commander, Rear Admiral Daniel Callaghan however hesitated too much and failed to take advantage of the early radar information. Once he made the decision it was already too late. The American and Japanese ships converged too close, and his orders caused more chaos. The encounter turned into 40 minutes long merciless chaotic combat at close range where each individual ship made her own decisions. Several ships even became targets of the friendly fire. As later described by one of the American officers, it was like a bar brawl when all lights were shut down. The inferior American vessels however, thanks to the close range, were able to deliver serious hits. For example, at one moment Hiei was fired at by three American destroyers from extremely close range. One of them almost collided with her, they missed each other just by six meters! The huge Japanese ship, under normal circumstances, would have blown the destroyer off the water by a single salvo.
But now she could not lower her guns enough and her heavy grenades were flying above the destroyers making loud noise. The American sailors wasted no time and were shooting at Hiei with all they had, including the machine guns. They could not penetrate her armor, but the numerous hits were setting off fires on the superstructure and killed many officers on the bridge. The fleet commander, Admiral Hiroaki Abe himself was wounded. More seriously, Hiei was hit by at least two torpedoes. The Japanese force, besides the battleships, was also formed by a light cruiser and 11 destroyers. Those engaged eight American destroyers and Hiei and Kirishima could focus on five American cruisers. Their gun turrets however were stocked with the shrapnel grenades which caused great damage to the superstructures however were not able to penetrate the hull and turrets’ armor. Therefore, the cruisers maintained the ability to sail and fire. One of them, San Francisco, scored a lucky hit on Hiei, disabling her steering mechanism. The huge ship therefore had her maneuvering abilities restricted. Wounded Admiral Abe had enough and ordered the withdrawal. He did not know that the only two undamaged American ships were between his fleet and Henderson airfield – cruiser Helena and destroyer Fletcher.
Great losses on both sides
During the night battle the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki was sunk as well as the American destroyers Laffey and Barton. The first rays of sunshine in the morning revealed eight more seriously damaged ships which were either motionless or moved very slowly. Three of them were Japanese and five American. The burning wrecks of Cushing and Monssen were abandoned by their crews and during the day they sank to the bottom of the ocean. In the evening, despite the great crew effort, the cruiser Atlanta sank. During the battle she hit three Japanese destroyers in a row but then a Japanese torpedo disabled her engines. The worst damage was caused by 19 grenades from the cruiser San Francisco fired at her by mistake. Rear Admiral Norman Scott lost his life on board of Atlanta. The Japanese shrapnel killed Rear Admiral Callaghan on San Francisco. They were the only American admirals killed during the surface battle in the course of the whole war.
Unlike Atlanta, the destroyer Aaron Ward and heavy cruiser Portland were rescued. Having fired several salvos, Portland still managed to sink the burning wreck of the Japanese destroyer Yudachi. Another damaged Japanese destroyer, Amatsukaze, managed to save herself. The battleship Hiei however did not escape. Cactus Air Force were all eager to revenge her regular night shelling. Since the morning, torpedo Avengers’, dive bombing Dauntless and even heavy B-17 bombers attacks were concentrated on Hiei and in the evening of November 13, 1942, she sank. It was the first Japanese battleship lost during the conflict.
The first Japanese battleship sunk, the Hiei. Her sister ship Kirishima followed her to the bottom two days later. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
Score painted on the destroyer USS Sterret (DD-407) after the Battle of Guadalcanal. The silhouettes represent the sunken destroyer Yūdachi, the battleship Hiei, and five downed Japanese aircraft. Photo: US Navy
On Friday the thirteen, Juneau met her fate. Still at darkness, the group of five American ships maintaining the ability to sail, withdrew. There were the cruisers San Francisco, Helena, destroyers Sterret and O’Bannon and Juneau. In the battle, the cruiser suffered a torpedo hit to the port side. Only one of his screws worked and the bow was deeply submerged, yet she maintained speed of 13 knots. The Americans ships however were detected by the Japanese submarine I-26. Her commander, Yokota Minoru, at 11 o’clock sharp, ordered launching of two torpedoes. He was targeting San Francisco but missed. One of the torpedoes hit Juneau, exactly at the same spot she was hit during the night. The spear of steel penetrated deeply into the vessel and caused the explosion of the ammunition dump. Juneau was covered in the enormous column of water, fire and smoke and when everything cleared the cruiser disappeared from the surface.
The remaining American ships faced a difficult choice. It seemed no one survived the explosion and had they stopped to search for castaways they could have become an easy target for a submarine. A B-17 bomber was just flying by, so they signaled to it to report at the headquarters the sinking of the cruiser as they continued sailing. The bomber crew did not want to break the radio silence, so they submitted the report only after landing. That was buried under other documents to process and did not make it further soon enough. No one dispatched the rescue ship. The US Navy was busy repulsing further Japanese attacks. During the night of 14-15 of November 1942, the Henderson airfield was again shelled by the battleship Kirishima. This time, two battleships, Washington and South Dakota, each with nine 406 mm caliber guns, opposed her. Having received numerous hits Kirishima capsized and sank.
In the meantime, the sailors from Juneau fought for their lives. The conclusion that there were no survivors after the cruiser explosion, was mistaken. Approximately 115 sailors ended up in the water, however, no one was looking for them. Without food and drinking water they were left up to the elements and sharks. In the following days most of them died a cruel death. After eight days, accidentally, more-less, just 10 survivors were rescued.
Juneau photographed in New York harbor on February 11, 1942, wearing the camouflage she received shortly after completion. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
The cruiser Juneau in June 1942. The hull received new camouflage, the superstructures and turrets remained in their original livery. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
687 crew members perished, including the brothers Sullivan. They hailed from Waterloo in Iowa, and all enlisted in the Navy at the same time, on January 3, 1942. They presented one condition though – they were all to serve together. The regulations did not allow it but the command looked the other way and all of them ended up on Juneau. It turned out as an unfortunate decision. Frank, Joe and Matt, according to the witnesses’ account, perished in the ship’s explosion. Albert, the youngest one, died on the second day and the oldest brother George held for five days. Then delirious from thirst and sorrows for his brothers he jumped off the raft and drowned. After the death of Sullivan brothers the US Department of Defense implemented the directive that the last surviving family descendant must not continue serving if all other siblings were killed in combat. Still during the wartime, a movie about Sullivan brothers was made. Steven Spielberg also mentioned them in his movie Saving Private Ryan.
In 1943 the new Fletcher class destroyer was named after Sullivan brothers. The ship, USS The Sullivans (DD-537) was christened by their mother, Alleta Sullivan. Out of her six children she was left with only one – daughter Genevieve. Her boyfriend, William Ball, perished on the battleship USS Arizona in the attack on Pearl Harbor. The wish to avenge his death motivated Sullivan brothers to enlist in the Navy. Albert was the only one married and had a son Jimmy who later served on the aforementioned destroyer The Sullivans. Besides WWII the ship also participated in the fighting in Korea and in 1961 was a part of the group of vessels that recovered from the sea the capsule with the first American astronaut, Alan Shepard. Later the destroyer served in training duties and in 1961 she was struck of charge. Nowadays she is a floating museum in Buffalo, New York state. In 1997 another destroyer The Sullivans (DDG-68) entered the service, this time in Arleigh Burke class. In 1995 she was christened by Kelly Ann Sullivan Loughren, Jimmy’s daughter, and Albert Sullivan’s granddaughter.
The Sullivan brothers aboard the Juneau, February 14, 1942. From left, Joseph “Joe”, Francis “Frank”, Albert, Madison “Matt” and George. Photo: Naval History and Heritage Command
By the way, the name USS Juneau reappeared again. In 1944–1946 the American shipyards built three cruisers based on the Atlanta class but with the improved system of the waterproof bulkheads and better designed superstructures. The cruisers were armed with twelve 127 mm caliber guns in six turrets and were named Juneau, Spokane and Fresno.
The whole class was named after Juneau. She missed WWII but took part in the Korean war where on July 2, 1950, together with two British ships faced the attack of six Korean torpedo boats and gunboats. They sank five of them without a loss. In 1955 this Juneau was struck of charge and later sent to the scrapyards. In 1969 the class Austin amphibious landing ship USS Juneau (LPD-10) entered the service. She participated in the Vietnam war and served as the command vessels during the battle against the oil leak from Exxon Valdez tanker. In 2008 she was struck of charge.
Discovering the wreck
The Iron Bottom Sound could not have escaped the attention of Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in his search for WWII shipwrecks. In January 2015 his ship Octopus mapped 980 sq kilometers of the ocean bottom and located 29 sunken ships and several shot down airplanes. She also identified the wreck of USS Atlanta. Juneau’s wreck was discovered by Allen’s new ship, RV Petrel, on March 17, 2018. It happened seven months before Allen’s untimely death. The cruiser lies 4200 m deep broken up to several sections. The shipwreck was first located by sonars. On the following day, the robot was dispatched and took a lot of pictures and confirmed the wreck’s identity. The Allen’s company continued searching for the shipwrecks for some time after his passing. RV Petrel returned to Guadalcanal one more time in February 2019 to discover the wrecks of the Japanese battleships Hiei and Kirishima as well as the American aircraft carrier USS Hornet. That will be the topic of the following article.
Juneau lies at a depth of 4,200 feet broken into several pieces. Photo: PaulAllen.com
One of the turrets with 127 mm guns. Photo: PaulAllen.com
Juneau’s propeller. Photo: PaulAllen.com
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Hrbek, I./Hrbek, J.: Námořní válka vrcholí. Praha 1995.