George Sullivan slowly began to realize where he was, what had happened. The Juneau no longer rode the swells of the South Pacific, only the debris of that once proud Naval cruiser. So intense had been the explosion that ripped apart the Juneau, witnesses to the disaster aboard the San Francisco were certain there had been no survivors. Crippled beyond defense, aware of the danger from the submarine that had destroyed Juneau, and convinced there were no living sailors to rescue, the battered convoy faded on the horizon in search of safety.
Amazingly, there had been survivors, perhaps more than one hundred out of the 700 man crew. The violence of the explosion that had severed a 5-inch gun turret and hurled it more than half a mile, had catapulted the bodies of the sailors on deck through the air and into the ocean. Slowly they bobbed to the surface, breaking through a black layer of oil several inches thick to grab floating nets and other debris to cling too. Almost all were severely wounded, broken limbs with bones protruding, deep lacerations, and deadly internal injuries abounded. Across the waters could be heard the cries of pain, moans of despair, and shrieks of fear. Amid the cacophony of an unbelievable hell rose the voice of George Sullivan. "Al! Are you there? Red..... where are you? Frank....Matt....please answer me."
Slowly the survivors began to pull the debris together, three donut shaped life rafts and assorted floating nets. Wounded sailors desperately swam to join their fellows, and George continued to call out in agony, searching each face for the features of one of his brothers. Among the floating debris he had found rolls of toilet tissue and quickly stripped away the oil-covered outer layers. It was a pitiful sight as he moved from raft to raft, net to net, slowly wiping the black oil from the faces of stunned and wounded sailors and peering into blank, frightened eyes for any sign of recognition. He was the oldest, the "big brother", and he had to find and help his younger brothers. They had to be there....somewhere. And so, despite his own wounds, he continued his fruitless search.
Throughout the day many sailors died of their wounds. Others, too tired to find within themselves any reason to go on, slipped away from the nets and sank beneath the black ocean swells to meet their former shipmates. As night fell, fewer than a hundred survivors remained. Throughout the night men died, at least one an hour. And throughout that long, cold night, all could hear the voice of George Sullivan continuing to cry out: "Al, Matt, Red, Frank? Where are my brothers?"
The breaking sunrise on the morning of November 14th brought some relief. Slowly the layer of oil began to thin and move away. The men crowded into the donut shaped life rafts had stood in three feet of water through out the night, their legs now swollen and their bodies chilled. Others sat on the edges of the crowded rings, dangling their legs over the edges. But as the water cleared, new dangers were revealed. Slowly the sharks moved in, hesitant at first. Then came screams as first one, then another sailor, was dragged from the nets and shredded by the predators of the deep. Some men were "fortunate" to lose only an arm or leg to the new enemy, others were dragged screaming completely beneath the surface to be devoured. New panic set it. George Sullivan continued to search for his brothers. He had to find them before the sharks did, offer the protection of a "big brother". To no avail he searched and searched.
Towards noon a patrol plane appeared and dropped an inflatable raft. Seaman Joseph Hartney and Jimmy Fitzgerald braved the sharks in a desperate swim for the precious bundle. Amazingly they survived and returned to load the more severely wounded into the dry bottom of the new raft. The appearance of the plane provided more however than the raft, it signaled hope of rescue. But as the day dragged on the hot tropical sun became yet another enemy, frying the flesh of men whose clothing had been literally ripped from their bodies by the explosion that destroyed the Juneau. Before nightfall Hartney, Fitzgerald, and a badly injured officer left the group of survivors in a desperate effort to find land and mount a rescue effort.
By the fall of darkness on the second night, hope was vanishing for survival. Without food or fresh water, men began drinking salt water and becoming delirious. Into the night the cries of despair continued, and even through that second night with all hope seemingly gone, George Sullivan continued to call out for his missing brothers. When dawn arrived on the third morning, it brought no relief. The pitiful remnant of the Juneau had to choose between a blistering sun that left their flesh, as if it had been "shaved with a razor", or sharks that moved in with razor sharp teeth.
Finally the survivors chose to split into three groups. Lieutenant John Blodgett, one of only three surviving Juneau officers, set out with 7 of the strongest survivors on one raft. Nineteen other survivors set out in a second raft. The third carried almost a dozen survivors including George Sullivan and Allen Heyn. By the fourth day George Sullivan became more and more delirious. He continued to cry out for his brothers to no avail, but his voice became weaker, his cries less frequent. As darkness fell over the South Pacific he turned to Allen Heyn and said he was going to swim to shore and take a bath. Quickly he stripped off his clothes and plunged into the darkness of the ocean, swimming desperately for an imaginary shoreline. From a distance Allen Heyn could only watch helplessly the desperate struggle of George Sullivan against the elements. Then screams as the sharks moved in, the sound of thrashing in the water. Then....silence. In the depths of the South Pacific, George finally found his brothers...........
"We Stick Together"
Photo Courtesy of Grout Museum
Seven days after the sinking of the Juneau, on November 20th, an American destroyer found George Sullivan's raft. Allen Heyn was the only survivor. Lieutenant Blodgett succumbed to sharks only 4 hours before his raft was sighted and rescued on November 19th. Five sailors: Wyatt Butterfield, Lester Zook, George Montere, Frank Holmgren, and Henry Gardner, survived. Seaman Arthur Friend was the only member of the third raft to defeat the elements and be rescued. Jimmy Fitzgerald, Joseph Hartney, and the wounded Charles Wang reached land on November 21st. Of 695 sailors aboard the Juneau when the torpedo struck at 11:01 A.M. on November 13, 1942....only ten survived. Both of the Rogers boys, as well as ALL SEVEN other sets of brothers, gave their lives that day.
FREEDOM ISN'T FREE
The story of the Sullivans is more than a true story about five brothers, it is the story of the courage and patriotism of an entire family. Despite the pain of their own tragic loss, Tom and Alleta Sullivan endured the invasion of their personal grief by a sympathetic Nation to promote the war effort. In April, 1943 sister Genevieve herself, enlisted in the Navy's WAVES. A year after the death of the Sullivan Brothers President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the launch of a new destroyer called "The Sullivans". Christened by the first mother since the Civil War to loose FIVE sons in defense of freedom, The Sullivans served in World War II and Korea, and is now on display in Buffalo, NY.
In 1995 a new Aegis Destroyer named USS The Sullivans was christened. It was commissioned two years later on Saturday, April 19, 1997. Among those in attendance was Lester Zook, one of Juneau's ten survivors. Three years later on November 12, 1998 (almost 56 years to the day after the sinking of the Juneau), Mr. Zook was tragically killed in an automobile accident.
We Band of Brothers by John R. Satterfield
Above and Beyond, Boston Publishing
Left To Die by Dan Kurzman
Grout Museum, Waterloo, IA
Waterloo Public Library, Waterloo, IA
Kelly Sullivan Loughren
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