Found: The Rest­ing Place Of The ‘Fight­ing Sul­li­vans’

Soundings - - Dispatches - By Kim Kavin

At the height of World War II, movie­go­ers paid about 30 cents each for tick­ets to “The Sul­li­vans,” the story of five broth­ers from Water­loo, Iowa, who served aboard the USS Juneau in the 1942 Bat­tle of Guadal­canal. To­ward the end of the film, an ex­plo­sion tears through the 541-foot ship, and the screen fades to black, a cin­e­matic retelling of how the five broth­ers — and more than 680 of their fel­low crew­men and of­fi­cers — per­ished af­ter a Ja­panese tor­pedo strike.

Amer­i­cans watch­ing on the big screen praised the story of the “Fight­ing Sul­li­vans” as a leg­endary tale of an Ir­ish-Amer­i­can fam­ily’s patriotic sac­ri­fice. Three-quar­ters of a cen­tury later — on St. Pa­trick’s Day, no less — their wa­tery grave has been found.

The 250-foot re­search ves­sel Pe­trel, which Mi­crosoft co-founder Paul Allen owns, dis­cov­ered the Juneau about 2.6 miles be­low the sur­face off the Solomon Is­lands. An au­ton­o­mous un­der­wa­ter ve­hi­cle us­ing side-scan sonar made the ini­tial find­ing March 17. The crew then de­ployed a re­motely op­er­ated ve­hi­cle on March 18 to con­firm the iden­tity of the wreck.

Allen’s Seat­tle- based Vul­can Inc. posted on YouTube key mo­ments from the ROV’s video record­ing, so the world can see what the Pe­trel’s crewmem­bers were watch­ing on their mon­i­tors as they con­firmed the his­toric dis­cov­ery. By the time the ROV’s cam­era was pan­ning around the wreck­age, the crew had re­viewed his­tor­i­cal nav­i­ga­tion logs and bat­tle re­ports to take an ed­u­cated guess at where the Juneau might be, in a re­gion so filled with wrecks that its nick­name is “Iron Bot­tom Sound.”

Once the crew re­al­ized they might have found her, they ver­i­fied what re­mained of the ship’s gun con­fig­u­ra­tion. Then, in the seg­ment posted on YouTube, they watch the ROV’s video feed as the let­ters from the ship’s name come into view, one af­ter the next, con­firm­ing what they had sus­pected. “That’s go­ing to be the J,” a voice says from aboard the Pe­trel as the ROV’s light shines on the wreck­age, with the cam­era mov­ing into op­ti­mal po­si­tion above what used to be the stern. “There’s the U, N, E. Here’s the A — that’s it. That is the Juneau.”

The let­ters, like most of what used to be the Juneau’s stern, are cov­ered in marine growth that looks yel­low­ish-green be­neath the ROV’s lights, which il­lu­mi­nate a part of the world that sun­light does not pen­e­trate. One of the At­lanta Class cruiser’s pro­pel­lers — in­stalled dur­ing her 1940- 41 con­struc­tion at Fed­eral Ship­build­ing Co. in Kearny, New Jer­sey — is near pieces of hull and gear so de­te­ri­o­rated by sea­wa­ter and time that, look­ing at the im­age, it’s hard not to hear a mas­sive thud, fol­lowed by eerie creaks and groans.

Re­ports of the Juneau’s sink­ing had al­ways de­scribed her fa­tal blow as spec­tac­u­lar. She was al­ready list­ing, limp­ing away from a pre­vi­ous strike, when the Ja­panese tor­pedo struck her port side. Ac­cord­ing to de­clas­si­fied doc­u­ments that the Water­loo-Cedar Falls Courier pub­lished, a mas­sive cloud of gray and black smoke rose from the sea, and the Juneau ap­peared to break into two pieces, al­most in­stantly. A wit­ness re­ported the blast be­ing so vi­o­lent that it hurled a sig­nal­man at least 30 feet into the air. Within 20 sec­onds, the eye­wit­ness said, what was left of the Juneau was un­der­wa­ter, with both pieces sink­ing si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

The Pe­trel re­search team found what’s left of the Juneau’s stern next to the re­mains of the bow — with the wreck­age of the ship’s mid­sec­tion in a sep­a­rate area. “You’ve got over a mile of spread, of de­bris,” a voice on the video says. “It’s con­sis­tent with the re­port and the mas­sive destruc­tion.”

The Juneau dis­cov­ery is the lat­est in a string by Allen’s ex­pe­di­tion teams. Also this past March, the soft­ware mogul’s crew dis­cov­ered the USS Lex­ing­ton about 2 miles down in the Coral Sea, off Aus­tralia’s east­ern coast. Like the Juneau, the Lex­ing­ton was a WWII ca­su­alty: an air­craft car­rier that sank with 35 air­craft and 216 crewmem­bers on board.

In 2017, Allen’s teams found the USS In­di­anapo­lis, an­other ca­su­alty of a Ja­panese tor­pedo at­tack, in the Philip­pine Sea; the Ital­ian WWII de­stroyer Ar­tigliere in the Mediter­ranean; and the USS Ward, which fired the first Amer­i­can shot in WWII, in a Philip­pines bay. Ear­lier dis­cov­er­ies in­clude the USS As­to­ria and the Ja­panese bat­tle­ship Musashi in 2015.

Allen ac­quired the 250- foot Pe­trel in 2016. She pre­vi­ously was known as Seven Pe­trel and used by Sub­sea 7 for un­der­wa­ter en­gi­neer­ing and con­struc­tion in the en­ergy in­dus­try. Allen ren­o­vated the ship for re­search, and she now has equip­ment that can dive about 3½ miles be­low the ocean’s sur­face. Allen moved his re­search crew to the Pe­trel full time from aboard his 414-foot Lürssen su­pery­acht, Oc­to­pus, which pre­vi­ously served as their base of op­er­a­tions.

In a press re­lease fol­low­ing the dis­cov­ery of the Juneau, Robert Kraft, Allen’s di­rec­tor of sub­sea op­er­a­tions, paid homage to the Sul­li­van broth­ers and their Ir­ish lin­eage. “Find­ing the USS Juneau on St. Pa­trick’s Day is an un­ex­pected co­in­ci­dence to the Sul­li­van broth­ers and all the ser­vice mem­bers who were lost,” he says.

The New York Times con­tacted the youngest Sul­li­van brother’s grand­daugh­ter, Kelly Sul­li­van, who says she was grate­ful for the dis­cov­ery of the Juneau, but also felt bit­ter­sweet about it. “It kind of opens up a scab,” she told the news­pa­per. “You feel that loss. I don’t have the big Ir­ish Catholic fam­ily that I would have had if even one of the boys had sur­vived.”

The USS Juneau was sunk by a tor­pedo on Novem­ber 12, 1942.

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