USS Juneau survivor dead in accident

Lester Zook II was one of only 10 men out of 700 who lived through attack

Posted: Tuesday, December 29, 1998

One of the last survivors of the World War II sinking of the USS Juneau has died. Lester Zook II was killed in a traffic accident Nov. 12 - almost 56 years to the day of when Juneau's namesake ship was sunk off Guadalcanal.

Zook was one of only 10 men out of 700 aboard who lived through the 1942 attack and the following days on life rafts.

He visited Juneau twice in later years - in 1980 for the dedication of a plaque in honor of the USS Juneau and again in 1987 when a memorial was dedicated, said his wife, Mary Ann.

Zook, 80, was struck by a car in Reno, Nev., Nov. 12, as he was crossing a street. He died instantly, his wife said.

``He got his wish,'' Mary Ann Zook said. ``He said when it was his time to go, he wanted to go fast.''

He and his wife had stopped in Reno en route from their home in Springfield, Ore., to their winter home in Yuma, Ariz.

With his death, only one survivor of the sinking remains, Frank Holmgren of New Jersey, according to Mary Ann Zook and news reports.

The USS Juneau, the first U.S. war vessel named after a part of Alaska, was christened by the wife of Juneau's then-mayor, Harry I. Lucas, in 1941 in New Jersey.

The attack on the ship off the Solomon Islands was one of the worst naval disasters of the war. According to news reports from the time and the U.S. Navy's Division of Naval History, the ship was damaged about 2 a.m. Nov. 13 by Japanese torpedo fire. Another torpedo explosion seven hours later destroyed the ship - sinking it in less than 20 seconds.

``The Juneau literally disintegrated in one mighty column of smoke and flames which rose easily a thousand feet into the air,'' according to the Navy's history office.

About 575 of the 700 sailors aboard died when the ship went down, Lester Zook said in a 1980 interview with the Empire. Most of those who survived died in the following days from wounds they suffered, exposure or shark attack.

Zook was one of only 10 who were still alive when a rescue plane arrived seven days later.

``It was a real traumatic thing,'' his wife said. ``For a year and a half after that happened, my husband had nightmares, would sit up talking and sweating.''

He was 23 at the time. He went on to serve 32 years in the Navy, retiring as a lieutenant commander. He was awarded a Purple Heart for injuries suffered during the sinking of the USS Juneau.

The city of Juneau held a 1987 reunion of the five remaining survivors, the pilot of the rescue plane and the son of the ship's deceased captain. They served as grand marshals in the Fourth of July parade.

``It was a wonderful celebration,'' Mary Ann Zook said, ``and it was a tear-jerking moment for the men to get together because they had never seen each other since the ship was sunk.

``We have nothing but wonderful memories of Juneau,'' she said.

During the 1980 Empire interview, Zook said the disaster served to make survivors ``a little more determined in life. You try to do things a little better.

``You're ever aware of a Supreme Being - that someone's looking out for you. People 2 or 3 feet away from you died, and you didn't. It makes you aware of how precious life is.''

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