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This Day in History: The tragic loss of USS Juneau

On this day in 1942, the United States Navy searches for survivors of USS Juneau. Those men had gone into the water nearly a week earlier, but rescue efforts didn’t start for days.

What took so long? Several ships had watched the Japanese torpedo that slammed into Juneau on November 13. (See November 17 post.)

At the time, USS Fletcher immediately turned to help. She had functioning sonar and plenty of depth charges. Nevertheless, the officer in charge of the task group ordered Fletcher to turn around. Captain Gilbert Hoover didn’t think anyone could have survived such an explosion. He also worried that the Japanese submarine was still lurking nearby.

The five Sullivan brothers aboard USS Juneau.

Just then, a B-17 flew into view, and Hoover had an idea: He would signal the plane, then leave. The plane could break radio silence, if needed.

Unfortunately, the B-17 pilot didn’t see it that way. Lt. Robert Gill figured that the ship’s captain—an eyewitness to the event—would best know whether to break radio silence. Gill would report the incident only when he returned to base.

He first made a quick pass over the area. It was horrific. “[M]en floating, swimming to rafts and pieces of wreckage,” the B-17’s navigator wrote. “All of them were waving their arms at us . . . . We could see the white-gray of their faces where they had wiped off the oil. Otherwise they were black and bedraggled.”

Gill’s crew counted up to 180 men in the water. He flew back to Hoover’s vessel, USS Helena, and flashed a message. Hoover now knew, for sure, that he was leaving survivors behind. Yet he didn’t turn back.

Meanwhile, Juneau’s men were struggling to survive. Among these was George Sullivan, the oldest of the five Sullivan brothers serving aboard Juneau. Survivors would later speak of George’s desperate calls: “Al, where are you? Red, Matt, Frank, answer me! Where are you? It’s your brother George.”

George would fall prey to a shark during the long wait for a rescue.

The B-17 crew doubtless meant to help. Gill flew back to headquarters and reported what he’d seen. Oddly, the intelligence officer failed to treat the matter urgently: He simply included it in a Daily Operations Report. Likewise, Hoover eventually broke radio silence to report Juneau’s sinking, but he didn’t request a search for survivors. When he sailed into port, he listed the surviving ships but made no mention of Juneau.

The days that followed didn’t go well for the men in the water. The rafts had drifted away from the oil slick, which meant that sharks were now a threat. Some men drank salt water, which made them delirious. Temperature extremes made the situation worse.

Finally, Signalman Joe Hartney decided to act. The B-17 had dropped supplies just out of reach when it flew by on November 13. Hartney would brave shark-infested waters to retrieve them. As it turned out, the supply pack contained a sturdy raft and some oars, so he and one other man decided to look for land—and help. They carried a wounded officer with them.

The trio had a rough trip, but they finally made it to land on November 19.

The other men remained stranded. No serious effort would be made to find Juneau’s survivors until November 16, when a furious Admiral Halsey finally learned of the sinking.

By this point, the wind and waves had loosened the ties holding Juneau’s rafts together, and they began drifting apart. “Well, we tried to get back to them but we never could,” survivor Allen Heyn later said, “and we didn’t know what to do.”

He would be the only survivor in his raft when it was found. A second raft held a single survivor. The third raft had five men. A mere 10 survivors, total.

One of the most unnecessary tragedies of World War II.

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