Survivors of the sinking of the USS Juneau, in interviews with the Courier over the years, recalled the cataclysmic explosion from the Japanese torpedo that took the ship, as well as the horrific ordeal at sea in the days that followed. Though all of the survivors are now deceased, the following accounts to the Courier illustrated the devastating realities of the war.
“It blew up right in my face,” said USS Juneau survivor Frank Holmgren, who was stationed at the ship’s fantail. “My hand landed on a life jacket. I sort of pulled it on me ... the ship was going down ... the fantail was at a 45-degree angle. I said ‘Oh my God, I’m gonna die; oh my God, I’m gonna die.’ Then I was gone.” Holmgren blacked out. The next thing he remembered was shooting to the surface like a cork, buoyed by his life jacket.
“It was a tremendous explosion,” said Lester Zook, a signalman who later became a career Navy officer. The ship sank before he could take a breath. “I was in water waist deep. My battle tower was 40 feet above the water line.” A “surge of water” rushed over him. “Then the ship went down. The suction took me down with the ship until I could separate myself from the suction stream, and finally feel the pressure in my ears lifting. I start swimming upward again.”
When Zook surfaced, “there was 4 to 6 inches of oil on the water,” he said. “I couldn’t see anything, but people on the life raft saw me and said, ‘Swim over here,’ and I paddled over there. The water was too oily to swim hand over hand.”
Holmgren said he and other sailors had cut loose a stack of life rafts on the fantail some time prior to the sinking, so they wouldn’t have to cut them loose in a hurry if the ship got in trouble.
The sailors used still-dry centers from roll after roll of toilet paper floating on the surface to wipe the oil out of each others’ eyes.
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Zook recalls George Sullivan on the same life raft as him, calling out for his brothers, to no avail. Another survivor, Art Friend, recalled seeing an injured Red and Al after the sinking as well among the oil-covered sailors, but according to most survivor accounts, only George survived the actual sinking.
Only a handful survived the ordeal at sea in the days that followed, dying of wounds, exposure or sharks. Some sailors would get delirious, fight with each other or hallucinate. Some who couldn’t stand their pain or were delirious would swim out beyond the life rafts, only to be taken by sharks. George Sullivan was one of them, according to survivor Al Heyn.
Planes spotted the survivors on the third day and dropped an inflatable rubber raft. Three men, Lt. Joseph Wang, who was badly wounded, Joseph Heartney and James Fitzgerald, headed for land to try to get help. They landed at San Cristobal Island four days later.
Those remaining on the rafts thought they could see land and tried to row for it, but the water was too rough. Eventually the rafts became separated. The largest group of survivors were on Zook’s and Holmgren’s raft.
A plane dropped a life jacket with some provisions and a note, which explained the situation and said “cheer up lads and sit tight.” The men on the raft paddled but couldn’t quite reach the jacket, and sailor Wyart Butterfield swam out to retrieve it, fighting off three sharks with a knife — a deed for which he would later be awarded the Bronze Star.
The 10 survivors of the actual sinking plus the four-man medical crew who helped wounded on the San Francisco were all that was left of the Juneau’s crew of 700.