Accumulated Fragments: USS Juneau CL-52

The sinking of the USS Juneau CL-52 made waves

The first USS Juneau (CL-52) was an Atlanta-class light cruiser that had a crew of 698 men. She was built by the Federal Shipbuilding Company in Kearny, NJ., on May 27, 1940, launched on Oct. 25,1941, sponsored by the wife of the mayor of the city of Juneau, Harry I. Lucas, and commissioned on Feb. 14, 1942, with Captain Lyman K. Swenson in command.


On Jan. 3, 1942, with the stipulation that they all serve together, the five Sullivan brothers enlisted in the Navy and were assigned to the light cruiser USS Juneau. The Sullivans were natives of Waterloo, Iowa. The two older Sullivan brothers, George and Francis, had previously been discharged from the Navy but the other three, Joseph, Madison and Albert, were younger and it was their first time in the military. The Navy had a policy to separate siblings, but it was not strictly enforced.

Following a hurried shakedown cruise along the Atlantic coast in the spring of 1942, the Juneau assumed blockade patrol in early May off Martinique and Guadelupe Islands to prevent the escape of Vichy French Naval units (the Vichy French government and military collaborated with the Axis powers). She returned to New York to complete alterations and operated in the North Atlantic and Caribbean until Aug. 12. Then on Aug. 22 the cruiser departed for the Pacific Theater.

After stopping briefly at the Tonga Islands and New Caledonia, she rendezvoused on Sept. 10 with Task Force 18, the command operating from the Wasp CV-7 Carrier. The following day Task Force 17, which included the Hornet CV-8, combined with Task Force 18 to form Task Force 61, whose mission was to ferry fighter aircraft to Guadalcanal. On Sept. 15, the Wasp took three torpedo hits from the Japanese submarine I-19, and, with fires raging out of control, was sunk that night by one of our own destroyers, the Lansdowne DD-486.

The Juneau and screen destroyers rescued 1,910 survivors from the Wasp and returned them to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides. The following day, the Juneau rejoined Task Force 17. Operating with the Hornet group, she supported three actions that repelled enemy thrusts at Guadalcanal: the Buin-Fasi-Tonolai Raid, the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

The ship’s first major action was the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on Oct. 26. The Hornet’s task force had combined with the Enterprise CV-6 group to reform Task Force 61. This force positioned itself north of the Santa Cruz Islands in order to intercept enemy units that might attempt to close Guadalcanal. Meanwhile, on Guadalcanal, the Japanese achieved a breakthrough along Lunga Ridge on the night of Oct. 25. That success evidently was a signal for enemy surface units to approach the island.

Early on the morning of Oct. 26, US carrier planes uncovered the enemy force and immediately attacked it, damaging two Japanese carriers, one battleship, and three cruisers. But while American aircraft were locating and engaging the enemy, American ships were also under fire.

Shortly after 8 p.m. that evening, some 27 enemy aircraft attacked the Hornet. Though Juneau and other screen ships threw up an effective AA barrage which shot down about 20 of the attackers, Hornet was badly damaged and sank the next day. Just before noon, Juneau left Hornet’s escort for the beleaguered Enterprise group several miles away. Adding her firepower, Juneau assisted in repelling four enemy attacks on this force and shot down 18 Japanese planes.

That evening the American forces retired to the southeast. Although the battle had been costly, it — combined with the Marine victory on Guadalcanal — turned back the attempted Japanese parry in the Solomons. Furthermore, the damaging of two Japanese carriers sharply curtailed the air cover available to the enemy in the subsequent Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.

On Nov. 8, the Juneau departed Nouméa, New Caledonia as a unit of Task Force 67 to escort reinforcements to Guadalcanal. The force arrived there early morning on November 12, and the Juneau took up her station in the protective screen around the transports and cargo vessels. Unloading proceeded unmolested until 2:05 p.m., when 30 Japanese planes attacked the alerted United States group. The AA fire was effective, and the Juneau alone accounted for six enemy torpedo bombers shot down. The few remaining Japanese planes were, in turn, attacked by American fighters; only one bomber escaped.

Later in the day, an American attack group of cruisers and destroyers cleared Guadalcanal on reports that a large enemy surface force was headed for the island. At 1:48 a.m. on Nov. 13, a relatively small landing support group engaged the enemy. The Japanese force consisted of two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.

Because of bad weather and confused communications, the battle occurred in near pitch darkness and at almost point-blank range as the ships of the two sides became intermingled. During the melee, Juneau was struck on the port side by a torpedo causing a severe list, and necessitating withdrawal.

Before noon on November 13, Juneau, along with two other cruisers damaged in the battle — Helena and San Francisco — headed toward Espiritu Santo for repairs. Juneau was steaming on one screw, keeping station 800 yards off the starboard quarter of the likewise severely damaged San Francisco. She was down 12 feet by the bow, but able to maintain 13 knots. A few minutes after 9 p.m., two torpedoes were launched from the Japanese submarine I-26. These were intended for the cruiser San Francisco, but both passed ahead of her.

One struck Juneau in the same place that had been hit during the previous battle. There was a great explosion; Juneau broke in two and disappeared in just 20 seconds. Fearing more attacks from I-26, and wrongly assuming from the massive explosion that there were no survivors, Helena and San Francisco departed without attempting to rescue any survivors.

In fact, more than 100 sailors had survived the sinking of Juneau. They were left to fend for themselves in the open ocean for eight days before rescue aircraft belatedly arrived. While awaiting rescue, all but 14 died from the elements and shark attacks, including all five Sullivan brothers. Two of the brothers apparently survived the sinking, only to die in the water; two presumably went down with the ship. Some reports indicate the fifth brother also survived the sinking, but disappeared during the first day in the water.

The brothers’ story was filmed as the 1944 movie “The Fighting Sullivans” and inspired, at least in part, the 1998 film “Saving Private Ryan”.

The need for regulations designed to protect members of a family from the draft or from combat duty if they have already lost family members in military service first caught public attention after the five Sullivan brothers were killed when the USS Juneau was sunk.

The new law (Sole Survivor Policy or Department of Defense (DoD) Directive 1315.15) was enacted in 1948. However, no peacetime restriction was in place until 1964 during the Vietnam War. In 1971, Congress amended the law to include not only the sole surviving son or daughter but also any son or daughter who had a combat related death in the family. Since then, each branch of the military has made its own policies with regard to separating immediate family members.

It is widely thought that this policy protects “only sons”, “the last son to carry the family name” and “sole surviving sons” of a family from the draft. However, the policy states that they are protected from draft only during peacetime. In times of war or national emergency as declared by Congress, this provision does not apply to any of the above. Also, this provision is voluntary, meaning that the member wishing to be sent home has to apply for the policy and get the application approved. Furthermore, it does not apply strictly to the sole surviving son but to all surviving sons.

Recently, I have noted that the men and women who have been or are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan are pointed out as today’s heroes. Having two sons who were in those wars, I’m glad that our country and this state is doing that. I worry however, that the two World Wars will somehow be lost in history and we will forget the price paid by so many of our fathers and grandfathers.

The history of the USS Juneau CL-52 and the men who fought so valiantly needs to be known and remembered, especially by those of us who live in the city that great ship was named after. So, the next time you are down by the cruise ship docks, next to an area once called the old ferry dock, stop by the USS Juneau Memorial and remember this story. We all have a right to be proud of our heroes and that ship is one we can all take pride in.


Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships

U.S. Naval Historical Center

OPNAV Instruction 1300.15, 6 January 1988

Naval Military Personnel Manual, NavPers 15560C, 15 August 1991

55th Anniversary Memorial to USS Atlanta-USS Juneau


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