The USS Juneau (CL-52) was a United States Navy Atlanta-class light cruiser that was sunk by enemy action at the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal on November 13, 1942. A total of 687 men, including the five Sullivan brothers, were killed. Because of the explosion, how fast the ship sank, and the delay in rescuing the survivors, only 10 men ultimately survived.

The Juneau was launched on October 25, 1941, and commissioned on February 14, 1942, with Captain Lyman K. Swenson in command, two months after the U.S. entered WWII following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

After a quick shakedown cruise, the Juneau served in the Atlantic. She was part of the naval patrols blocking the escape of Vichy French units off the Martinique and Guadeloupe Islands. 

USS Juneau during WWII

After returning to New York to complete alterations and conducting a further operation in the North Atlantic and the Caribbean until mid-August, the Juneau was ordered to the Pacific Theater. It departed on August 22. 

Juneau was escorting the aircraft carrier Wasp that was ferrying fighter aircraft to the ongoing battle at Guadalcanal. The Wasp was sunk on September 15 after taking three torpedoes from the Japanese submarine I-19. After helping rescue nearly 2,000 survivors from the Wasp, Juneau was assigned to Task Force 17 (TF-17) with the aircraft carrier Hornet. There, the Juneau took part in three separate actions that blocked the Japanese from reinforcing their troops at Guadalcanal

During the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands on October 26, Juneau and other escort ships of the Hornet shot down 20 Japanese aircraft that were approaching the carrier. Despite this, the Hornet was badly damaged in the battle and sunk the next day. 

On the 27th, the Japanese launched another large raid on the carrier USS Enterprise. The Juneau and other escorts shot down another 18 Japanese planes. During that action, American carrier planes badly damaged two Japanese carriers, CVL Zuihō and CV Shōkaku. Though very costly in terms of ship and personnel losses, the battles stopped the Japanese from reinforcing the Solomons and would eventually lead to the American victory at Guadalcanal. 

During an operation to resupply Guadalcanal, Juneau was escorting transports when the convoy was attacked by 30 Japanese aircraft. All but one of the attackers were shot down by the American ships and aircraft that arrived from Guadalcanal.

The next morning just before 0430, the American and Japanese fleets nearly ran into each other because of bad weather and total darkness. This set off a wild melee at point-blank range. The Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze launched a torpedo that struck Juneau on the port side. It caused a 12-degree list. She was forced to withdraw along with the cruisers San Francisco and Helena. 

Operating on only one screw, Juneau was able to maintain 13 knots about 800 meters aft of the San Francisco. At 1100 hours the Japanese submarine I-26 launched two torpedoes at San Francisco. They missed and struck Juneau, exactly where the first torpedo had struck her the night before. There was a terrific explosion that caused Juneau to break in two. She sunk in under 20 seconds. 

Helena and San Francisco, believing that no one had survived and fearing more attacks from the submarine, left the area. But more than 100 men had made it alive into the water. Yet, by the time rescue aircraft had spotted them and were able to get ships there, all but 10 men had perished. Included in the dead were the five Sullivan brothers. 

The five brothers, from Waterloo, Iowa were:

  • George Thomas Sullivan, 27, Gunner’s Mate Second Class (George had been previously discharged in May 1941 as Gunner’s Mate Third Class.)
  • Francis Henry “Frank” Sullivan, 26, Coxswain (Frank had been previously discharged in May 1941 as Seaman First Class.)
  • Joseph Eugene “Joe” Sullivan, 24, Seaman Second Class
  • Madison Abel “Matt” Sullivan, 23, Seaman Second Class
  • Albert Leo “Al” Sullivan, 20, Seaman Second Class

The Sullivans had all enlisted in the Navy together on January 3, 1942, with the stipulation that they all serve together. 

“When we go in, we want to go in together,” George had said. “If the worst comes to the worst, why, we’ll all have gone down together.”

Although the Navy had a policy of separating siblings, it was never strictly enforced.

Watch: USS Juneau wreckage is discovered — the ship on which the Sullivan brothers were lost

Read Next: Watch: USS Juneau wreckage is discovered — the ship on which the Sullivan brothers were lost

The survivors reported that Frank, Joe, and Matt died instantly in the explosion. Al survived the sinking but drowned the next day. George survived for four or five days more before suffering from delirium as a result of hypernatremia. He jumped over the side of the raft he was in and was never seen or heard from again.

On January 12, 1943, their father Tom, was preparing for work when three men in uniform – a lieutenant commander, a doctor, and a chief petty officer – approached his door. “I have some news for you about your boys,” the naval officer said. “Which one?” asked Tom. “I’m sorry,” the officer replied. “All five.” President Roosevelt wrote a letter to the Sullivan brothers’ parents which arrived the next day.

Letter from President Roosevelt to Mrs. Sullivan

Survivors recall that two of the brothers would have been transferred off the ship had it made it to the U.S. naval base at Espirtu Santo.

There were also eight other sets of brothers on the Juneau.

Following the incident, the Navy would enforce its policy on siblings and then the Pentagon would institute the Sole Survivor Policy. Later, the Navy would christen not one but two ships named after the Sullivan brothers, USS The Sullivans (DD-537), and USS The Sullivans (DDG-68), an Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer.

The wreck of the Juneau was found on March 17, 2018 by Paul Allen’s research crew onboard RV Petrel. The cruiser rests 4,200 m (13,800 ft) below the surface off the Solomon Islands in several large pieces with the stern resting on the bow. The wreckage was spread out over a mile on the ocean floor.