WATERLOO – Saturday’s discovery of the wreckage of the USS Juneau, on which the five Sullivan brothers served from Waterloo during World War II and perished with nearly 700 shipmates, was an emotional, bittersweet experience for the descendants of the fallen sailors.
“Over 700 Navy families have been affected and my heart goes out to all of these people,” said Kelly Sullivan, granddaughter of Albert Sullivan and great-niece of George, Francis, Joseph and Madison Sullivan, who all died after the Juneau was torpedoed by one Japanese submarine and sunk 13 November 1942.
“For me, it’s like finding my grandfather’s grave,” said Knute Swensen of Huntington Beach, California, grandson of the Juneau’s commanding officer, Capt. Lyman K. Swenson, who was also among the Juneau dead.
The crew of the research vessel Petrel found the wreck of the Juneau at the bottom of Ironbottom Sound off Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands on St. Patrick’s Day on an expedition funded by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen.
In audio that accompanied video of the wreck, Robert Kraft, the expedition’s head of underwater operations, noted that it was appropriate that the remains of the Juneau were discovered on St. Patrick’s Day, given the Sullivan brothers’ Irish heritage.
“The luck of the Irish was with them,” said Kelly Sullivan, echoing a wish she made for the USS The Sullivans, the current Navy destroyer named after her grandfather and great-uncles, when she commissioned the ship in 1995 in Bath, Maine She is the official Navy sponsor of this ship.
This weekend Paul Allen’s team found the wreckage of the WWII USS Juneau in the Pacific Ocean. In 1942 this ship was sunk by a Japanese torpedo carrying the 5 Sullivan brothers from Waterloo. These Iowa heroes and hundreds more lost their lives on this ship protecting our country
— ChuckGrassley (@ChuckGrassley) March 20, 2018
The crew of the Petrel sent a message to The Courier stating: “Our team is made up of professional underwater operators and engineers with years of experience in the industry who truly appreciate the opportunity to honor and graduate our fallen soldiers your families.”
The crew credited Allen with making the expedition possible.
Ironically, on St. Patrick’s Day, Kelly Sullivan was on the USS The Sullivans in her homeport of Mayport, Florida to attend a retirement celebration for one of her former commanders.
“When this discovery happened, I was sitting on the Sullivan fantail… It’s unbelievable,” Sullivan said.
On her return home Sunday, she learned of the discovery from US Navy Vice Adm. Rich Brown, commander of the Navy Surface Forces and former commander of the USS The Sullivans. Brown was in Waterloo last November to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Juneau sinking. Knute Swensen contacted them on Monday.
“It’s bittersweet, that feeling,” Sullivan said. “There is a closure. It also opens a wound.”
She said her father, Albert’s son Jim Sullivan, was surprised and had similar feelings.
“My first thought was my prayers for all of the Juneau families, not just the Sullivan brothers,” said Kelly Sullivan and all veterans and their families. She said her great-grandmother, Alleta Sullivan, never really closed because her sons’ bodies were never recovered, and hoped they might have survived.
Swensen said he watched the Petrel’s underwater video in amazement when the crew deciphered Juneau’s name engraved on the fantail.
“When I saw the video, I got chills,” he said.
He also thought of his father, US Navy Commander Robert Swensen, who died in April 2016 at the age of 93 and was very close to his father, the commander of Juneau. Knute’s grandfather’s surname was misspelled as “Swenson” by a staff member at the US Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and he never had it corrected. In Annapolis, when Robert was a cadet, the Juneau commander and his son had their last meeting.
In audio accompanying the video, Kraft from the Petrel expedition notes that the ship’s bow and stern were found relatively close together, but the ship’s debris was scattered over a mile on the seabed – a clue to the devastating explosion , which she sunk.
Most sailors were killed during the actual sinking; More than 100 people died at sea in the days that followed from wounds, exposure or shark attacks, including George Sullivan, the eldest of the brothers. Ten sailors survived the actual sinking, as well as a four-man medical crew who were sent to the USS San Francisco to tend to the wounded before the attack.
Swensen hopes the bravery of the Juneau crew will also be remembered. The ship received multiple Battle Stars for the battles it fought – including one the night before it sank when it and other American ships with superior weaponry repulsed a Japanese task force headed toward embattled US troops at Guadalcanal.
Sullivan praised Paul Allen’s passion for tracking the expedition – a lesson she used as an example for her third graders at Lincoln Elementary School in Cedar Falls.
“I really admire Mr. Allen and his crew for having the faith to do this,” she said, encouraging her students to follow their passions too.
Both were in New York last November for the commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the sinking of the Juneau at the same pier on Staten Island where the ship was commissioned in 1997. This ceremony took place opposite the port of Brooklyn Navy Yard, where the Juneau was assigned to the Navy and left port, never to return.
She hopes the USS The Sullivans can sail to the Juneau’s final resting place on a future mission, with some of her sailors surviving family members.