I saw the spot where the Juneau had been. The only thing visible was tremendous clouds of grey and black smoke. ... The men told me that the Juneau appeared to explode instantaneously and appeared to break in two, both segments of which sunk in 20 seconds ... The signalman on the bridge of the Helena was in the process of taking a message from the Juneau and had his glass trained on the signalman of that ship and reports that the signalman was blown at least 30 feet in the air.
— Declassified report from Lt. Roger O’Neil, a medical officer of the USS Juneau, from the deck of the USS San Francisco, November 1942
Hours before the USS Juneau was torpedoed and sunk on Nov. 13, 1942, it and other outgunned American ships had emerged damaged but victorious from a pivotal naval battle of World War II.
It was the naval Battle of Guadalcanal, in which the Juneau and other ships turned back a “Tokyo Express” Japanese task force headed straight for embattled Marines and sailors in the months-long struggle for control of the island of Guadalcanal, in the Solomons northwest of Australia.
The following account of the loss of the USS Juneau is from the U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command.
In early November 1942, as the struggle for control of Guadalcanal remained undecided, both the Allies and the Japanese were desperately trying to reinforce the island with troops, food and ammunition while trying to prevent the other side from doing the same. Although two American convoys arrived safely on Nov. 11 and 12, they had only partially unloaded their cargoes when intercepted Japanese messages and reconnaissance reports indicated strong Japanese naval forces were approaching the island on a shore bombardment mission.
As the American transports steamed eastwards for safety, an American force of five cruisers and eight destroyers, under command of Rear Adm. Daniel J. Callaghan, took up station in the strait between Guadalcanal and Florida Island, called “Ironbottom Sound” owing to the many sunken ships littering the sea floor from the naval battles.
After midnight on Nov. 13, a Japanese formation of two battleships, a light cruiser and 11 destroyers steamed past Savo Island, heading toward Guadalcanal. At 1:24 a.m., these warships appeared on American radar and the two forces closed rapidly. Poor radar coordination, however, left the American warships vainly trying to pin down the location of the Japanese warships.
The leading destroyers of both forces sighted each other briefly in the darkness and at 1:45 a.m. the USS Juneau received the order, “Stand by to open fire.” A few minutes later, just after a Japanese searchlight flicked on, the lead American destroyers opened fire at the Japanese warships at a mere 1,600 yards. The Japanese replied in kind and the two formations quickly mingled together, firing into each other at point-blank range in the glare-lit darkness.
Within minutes, the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki and the American cruiser USS Atlanta lay dead in the water, victims of shell and torpedo hits. Meanwhile, the two Japanese battleships, worried that American torpedo-armed destroyers were too close for comfort, tried to turn away.
Still, the four American destroyers in lead fired guns and torpedoes at Hiei, the nearest Japanese battleship, damaging her superstructure with numerous shell hits. Two of the American destroyers, USS Cushing and USS Laffey, were mortally wounded after a brief fire fight, with Laffey exploding and sinking shortly thereafter.
The engagement turned against the American task force when three Japanese destroyers conducted a torpedo attack from the northern flank. Torpedo hits damaged cruiser USS Portland and sank destroyer USS Barton. Gunfire from those and other Japanese warships turned USS Monssen into a smoking wreck and damaged both cruiser USS San Francisco and destroyer USS Aaron Ward.
In return, by the time the 15-minute battle ended, destroyer Yudachi was a burning hulk and battleship Hiei was left crippled, steering an erratic course to the northwest. By the following afternoon, owing to scuttling charges or damage, the Atlanta, the Cushing and the Monssen had all been sunk. Two Japanese ships soon joined them when Yudachi exploded under shell fire from Portland, and Hiei went under following bomb and torpedo hits delivered by Navy and Marine aircraft.
The light cruiser USS Juneau (CL-52), on which the five Sullivan brothers were serving, suffered a different fate. Just a few minutes into the battle, the Juneau was hit by a Japanese torpedo on the port side near the forward fire room. The shock wave from the explosion buckled the deck, shattered the fire control computers and knocked out power.
The cruiser limped away from the battle, down by the bow and struggling to maintain 18 knots. She rejoined the surviving American warships at dawn on Nov. 13 and zig-zagged to the southeast in company with two other cruisers and three destroyers.
About 11 a.m., the task force crossed paths with Japanese submarine I-26. At 11:01 a.m., the submarine fired three torpedoes at USS San Francisco. None hit that cruiser, but one passed beyond and struck the Juneau on the port side very near the previous hit.
The ensuing magazine explosion blew the light cruiser in half, killing most of the crew. A message from USS Helena to a nearby B-17 search plane reported that the Juneau was lost at latitude 10 degrees South and longitude 161 degrees East and that survivors were in the water.
Because of the risk of another submarine attack and because the sections of the Juneau sank in only a few minutes, the American task force did not stay to check for survivors.
However, approximately 115 of the Juneau’s crew survived the explosion.
But, as the Helena’s message unfortunately did not reach command headquarters, and there remained uncertainty about the number of Japanese ships in the area, rescue efforts did not begin for several days.
Exposure, exhaustion and shark attacks whittled down the survivors and only 10 men were rescued from the water eight days after the sinking.