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U.S.S. Juneau enthusiasts dream big for memorial

70th anniversary of ship's wartime sinking is Nov. 13

Posted: September 23, 2012 - 12:08am
Port Director Carl Uchytil displays two of the three metal panels from the U.S.S. Juneau Memorial he has stored in his office on Friday. Planning is underway for the 70th anniversary of it's sinking on November 13.  Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Michael Penn / Juneau Empire
Port Director Carl Uchytil displays two of the three metal panels from the U.S.S. Juneau Memorial he has stored in his office on Friday. Planning is underway for the 70th anniversary of it's sinking on November 13.

On Nov. 13, 1942, the light cruiser U.S.S. Juneau (CL-52) steamed into battle off the coast of Guadalcanal, the largest of the steamy, tropical Solomon Islands.

Five brothers named Sullivan were aboard, United States Navy sailors from Waterloo, Iowa, who had enlisted earlier that year to fight in the Second World War. The ship was part of an armada that included the U.S.S. San Francisco, the U.S.S. Helena and the U.S.S. Portland.

Six American warships were lost that day. Among them was the Juneau, which took two hits from Japanese torpedoes before exploding and breaking apart.

Between the ship’s destruction, the harsh elements and intermittent shark attacks, only 10 members of the Juneau’s crew were alive when rescue teams recovered them more than a week later. None of the five Sullivan brothers were among those who lived.

Bill Overstreet was sworn into the Navy that same day, he told members of a planning committee for the U.S.S. Juneau memorial ceremony at an informal meeting Friday. He went on, he added, to serve aboard the Portland, alongside many sailors who told horror stories of the battle for Guadalcanal. Years after that, in the 1970s and early 1980s, he wound up serving as mayor of Juneau, the namesake of the ship that met such a bitter end in that battle.

This Nov. 13 will be the 70th anniversary of the Juneau’s sinking, and Overstreet and others want to give it a grand salute. They discussed their ideas at the committee meeting in the downtown Juneau Public Library, traded stories and talked about ways to expand the memorial for the future.

“It’s a great start with what we have, but it could be so much more,” said Christopher Mertl, whose enthusiasm for the notion was palpable throughout the meeting.

Mertl suggested an ad hoc committee begin meeting after the anniversary to figure out how to improve the memorial as part of a “long-range vision.”

Assemblymember Randy Wanamaker, facilitating the meeting, was in favor of that idea.

“I’m going to be a volunteer for that first ad hoc committee to get the appropriate-size memorial underway,” said Wanamaker, who described his vision of the memorial improvements as being a cooperative effort between the City and Borough of Juneau and some sort of a private foundation.

For Overstreet’s part, he said of the memorial, “I always thought it was a nice little marker, but I’m very pleased that someone wants to make a bigger deal of it.”

For the anniversary itself, Overstreet presented attendees with stapled copies of the late U.S.S. Juneau officer Lester Zook’s declassified first-hand report on the ship’s demise, which the University of Alaska Southeast’s interim Egan Library Director Elise Tomlinson said she could have bound.

Meeting participants also discussed the idea of displaying artifacts related to the Juneau, drawing upon resources including the Juneau-Douglas City Museum, the Alaska State Museum, the Juneau Public Libraries, the American Legion and others, potentially even Waterloo’s Grout Museum District.

“There’s probably a lot of stuff scattered around the community that no one knows about, in attics and boxes or on people’s walls,” Mertl said. To complement the memorial service on the actual anniversary of the event, he added, “I would set up a month-long exhibit in the City Museum.”

Port Director Carl Uchytil proposed using the new downtown Visitor’s Center “as a potential spot for displays,” such as of models of the Juneau and other ships that participated in the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

Wanamaker responded, “That’s a good idea. The Visitor’s Center’s a great place to display a model of the Juneau.”

Hearkening back to the ideas expressed by Mertl, Wanamaker and Overstreet of reaching out to the community for the memorial and event, Tomlinson suggesting using fliers, social media and the newspaper as ”different ways of getting that out as a call for your stories or your memorabilia or whatever you might have.” She said she could create a Facebook page for the U.S.S. Juneau as a way of attracting interest and gathering material.

A chaplain’s prayer, music and wreath-laying at the memorial are also planned for the memorial ceremony on Nov. 13.

Docks and Harbors is keeping the memorial in storage for now, but Uchytil said it will be back outside by the day of the anniversary.

“The plan right now is to put it in what we call the ‘bump out’ along the seawalk between Franklin Dock and the Taku Dock,” said Uchytil. “That’s the plan that we’re proceeding with to reinstall the flagpole and these three brass plaques, and we will have that in place by the 13th.”

In response to the discussion between Mertl and Wanamaker at the meeting about improving the memorial after the anniversary, Uchytil remarked, “Maybe it’s best to call it the temporary flagpole memorial, you know. That might give it some legs, too, the idea that the permanent memorial is something (else).”

Friday’s meeting was the second for the informal planning committee. Another meeting was held Thursday evening at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library.

• Contact reporter Mark D. Miller at 523-2279 or at mark.d.miller@juneauempire.com.

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