The Short Life of the USS Juneau – February 14 to November 13 1942

A fast ship for a new kind of war

As the Japanese were crushing their opponents all across the western Pacific Ocean, the USS Juneau was commissioned on February 14, 1942, with great fanfare. Captain Lyman K. Swenson was her first commanding officer. Little could anyone have predicted that less than 9 months later, the Juneau would be lost in one of the most memorable naval battles in history.

The USS Juneau (CL-52) was a United States Navy Atlanta-class light cruiser. The Atlanta-class cruisers were eight United States Navy light cruisers which were designed as fast scout cruisers or flotilla leaders, but which proved to be effective anti-aircraft cruisers during World War II. They were also known as the Atlanta-Oakland class. The Atlanta class had 12 x 5-inch/38 caliber guns, mounted in three superfiring sets of two-gun turrets fore and three more aft. The first four ships of the class also had an additional two twin 5-inch/38 mounts, one port and one starboard, giving these first four Atlanta-class cruisers the heaviest anti-aircraft armament of any cruiser of World War II. The last four ships of the class, starting with Oakland, had slightly different armament as they were further optimized for anti-aircraft fire.

The Atlanta class saw heavy action during World War II, collectively earning 54 battle stars.

After a hurried shakedown cruise along the Atlantic Coast in the spring of 1942, Juneau assumed blockade patrol in early May off Martinique and Guadeloupe Islands to prevent the escape of Vichy French naval units. She returned to New York to complete alterations and operated in the North Atlantic and Caribbean from 1 June to 12 August on patrol and escort duties. The cruiser departed for the Pacific Theater on 22 August.

Pacific theater

After stopping briefly at the Tonga Islands and New Caledonia, she rendezvoused on 10 September with Task Force 18 (TF 18) under the command of Rear Admiral Leigh Noyes, flying his flag on Wasp. The following day, TF 17, which included Hornet, combined with Admiral Noyes’ unit to form TF 61, whose mission was to ferry fighter aircraft to Guadalcanal.

On 15 September, Wasp took three torpedo hits from the Japanese submarine I-19, and, with fires raging out of control, was sunk at 2100 by Lansdowne. Juneau and screen destroyers rescued 1,910 survivors of Wasp and returned them to Espiritu Santo, New Hebrides, on 16 September. The next day, the fast cruiser rejoined TF 17. Operating with the Hornet group, she supported three actions that repelled enemy thrusts at Guadalcanal: the Buin-Faisi-Tonolai Raid; the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands; and the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal (Third Savo).

Naval Battle of Guadalcanal

On 8 November, Juneau departed Nouméa, New Caledonia, as a unit of TF 67 under the command of Rear Admiral Richmond K. Turner to escort reinforcements to Guadalcanal. The force arrived there early morning on 12 November, and Juneau took up her station in the protective screen around the transports and cargo vessels. Unloading proceeded unmolested until 14:05, when 30 Japanese planes attacked the alerted United States group. The AA fire was effective, and Juneau alone accounted for six enemy torpedo bombers shot down. The few remaining Japanese planes were, in turn, attacked by American fighters; only one bomber escaped. Later in the day, an American attack group of cruisers and destroyers cleared Guadalcanal on reports that a large enemy surface force was headed for the island. At 01:48 on 13 November, Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan’s relatively small landing support group engaged the enemy. The Japanese force consisted of two battleships, one light cruiser, and nine destroyers.

Because of bad weather and confused communications, the battle occurred in near-pitch darkness and at almost point-blank range, as the ships of the two sides became intermingled. During the melee, Juneau was struck on the port side by a torpedo launched by Japanese destroyer Amatsukaze, causing a severe list, and necessitating withdrawal. Before noon on 13 November, Juneau, along with two other cruisers damaged in the battle—Helena and San Francisco—headed toward Espiritu Santo for repairs. Juneau was steaming on one screw, keeping station 800 yards off the starboard quarter of the likewise severely damaged San Francisco. She was down 12 feet by the bow, but able to maintain 13 knots (15 mph, 24 km/h).

During the next few hours, four pharmacists from Juneau had been transferred earlier in the day to the USS San Francisco to operate on its mortally wounded Captain, Cassin Young. Young would not survive the day.

A few minutes after 11:00, two torpedoes were launched from Japanese submarine I-26. These were intended for San Francisco, but both passed ahead of her. One struck Juneau in the same place that had been hit during the battle. There was a great explosion; Juneau broke in two and disappeared in just 20 seconds.

The Sullivan Brothers

Fearing more attacks from I-26, and wrongly assuming from the massive explosion that there were no survivors, Helena and San Francisco departed without attempting to rescue any survivors. In fact, more than 100 sailors had survived the sinking of Juneau. They were left to fend for themselves in the open ocean for eight days before rescue aircraft belatedly arrived. While awaiting rescue, all but 10 died from the elements and shark attacks. Among those lost were the five Sullivan brothers. Two of the brothers apparently survived the sinking, only to die in the water; two presumably went down with the ship. Some reports indicate the fifth brother also survived the sinking but disappeared during the first night when he left a raft and got into the water.

On 20 November 1942, USS Ballard recovered two of the ten survivors. Five more in a raft were rescued by a PBY Seaplane 5 miles away. Three others, including a badly wounded officer, made it to San Cristobal (now Makira) Island, about 55 miles away from the sinking. One of the survivors recovered by Ballard said he had been with one of the Sullivan brothers for several days after the sinking.

Subsequent to the loss, the Navy launched USS The Sullivans honoring the five Sullivan brothers who died in her sinking and the ship itself, respectively.

On 17 March 2018, the wreck of Juneau was located by Paul Allen’s research crew on board RV Petrel at a depth of about 4,200 m (13,800 ft) off the coast of the Solomon Islands.

Captain Lyman Knute Swenson was the only commanding officer of the Juneau.

He was a former submariner and a classmate of one of the other officers that went into battle that night: Captain Cassin Young. (USNA Class of 1916)

Neither man survived the battle.

Young and Swenson both had sons that graduated from the Naval Academy and went on to serve in the war.

 

In 1943, the destroyer USS Lyman K. Swenson (DD-729) was named in his honor.

“The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Captain Lyman Knute Swenson (NSN: 0-9624), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism and distinguished service in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the Light Cruiser U.S.S. JUNEAU (CL-52), during an engagement with Japanese naval forces near Savo Island on the night of 12 – 13 November 1942. On this occasion the force to which Captain Swenson was attached engaged at close quarters and defeated a superior enemy force, inflicting heavy damage upon them and preventing the accomplishment of their intended mission. This daring and intrepid attack, brilliantly executed, led to a great victory for his country’s forces. By his indomitable fighting spirit, expert seamanship, and gallant devotion to duty, Captain Swenson contributed largely to the success of the battle and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”

Bureau of Naval Personnel Information Bulletin No. 313 (Posthumously awarded)

One other note about the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal: Two of the other men killed that night were Rear Admiral Norman Scott on the USS Atlanta and Rear Admiral Dan Callaghan on the USS San Francisco (leading the task group). Both were members of the Naval Academy Class of 1911.

Along with the many men and ships that were lost that night, it could be assumed that the battle was a loss for the Navy. On the contrary, the sacrifices made that night ensured the battle of Guadalcanal would ultimately be successful. 

Every sacrifice mattered.

Mister Mac

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