When the United States and Japan went to war in December 1941, after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese military quickly conquered what is now Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines. By the spring of 1942, Southeast Asia was in Japanese hands. In early May 1942, a Japanese naval operation aimed at capturing Port Moresby, on the southeastern coast of New Guinea, for use as a base to attack Allied communications with Australia was turned back in the Battle of the Coral Sea. A month later a powerful Japanese carrier force near Midway Atoll, northwest of Hawaii, was defeated in the Battle of Midway by American naval forces.
After Midway, the Japanese turned their attention back toward Port Moresby, landing on the north coast of New Guinea to attack overland, and began to build an air base on Guadalcanal, in the eastern end of the Solomon Islands chain, to support their drive attack on Port Moresby. This serious threat was countered by the U. S. Marines landing on Guadalcanal on 8 August 1942. After the Marines had quickly captured the partially completed Japanese airstrip, it was completed and put into service as Henderson Field. This action was only the beginning of a long land, sea, and air battle for control of this strategic island that would not be resolved until the last Japanese troops evacuated Guadalcanal in early February 1943. For over seven months American and Japanese troops on the ground, Japanese landbased aircraft from Rabaul, New Britain and American planes from Henderson Field, as well as Allied and Japanese task forces of carriers and surface warships fought for control of Guadalcanal. One of naval battles was the cruiser night action, fought during the night of 12-13 November 1942, that made up part of what came to be called the Naval Battle of Guadalcanal.
In early November 1942, as the struggle for control of Guadalcanal remained undecided, both the Allies and the Japanese were desperately trying to reinforce the island with troops, food, and ammunition while trying to prevent the other side from doing the same. Although two American convoys arrived safely on 11 and 12 November, they had only partially unloaded their cargoes when Magic (intercepted Japanese messages) intelligence and reconnaissance reports indicated strong Japanese naval forces were approaching the island on a shore bombardment mission. As the American transports steamed eastwards for safety, an American force of five cruisers and eight destroyers, under command of Rear Admiral Daniel J. Callaghan took up station in the strait between Guadalcanal and Florida Island, called "Ironbottom Sound" owing to the many sunken ships littering the sea floor from the naval battles.
After midnight on 13 November, a Japanese formation of two battleships, a light cruiser, and eleven destroyers steamed past Savo Island, heading toward Guadalcanal. At 0124, these warships appeared on American radar and the two forces closed rapidly. Poor radar coordination, however, left the American warships vainly trying to pin down the location of the Japanese warships. The leading destroyers of both forces sighted each other briefly in the darkness and at 0145 USS Juneau received the order, "Stand by to open fire." A few minutes later, just after a Japanese searchlight flicked on, the lead American destroyers opened fire at the Japanese warships at a mere 1,600 yards. The Japanese replied in kind and the two formations quickly mingled together, firing into each other at point-blank range in the glare-lit darkness.
Within minutes, the Japanese destroyer Akatsuki and the American cruiser USS Atlanta lay dead in the water, victims of shell and torpedo hits. Meanwhile, the two Japanese battleships, worried that American torpedo-armed destroyers were too close for comfort, tried to turn away. Still, the four American destroyers in lead fired guns and torpedoes at Hiei, the nearest Japanese battleship, damaging her superstructure with numerous shell hits. Two of the American destroyers USS Cushing and USS Laffey were mortally wounded after a brief fire fight, with Laffey exploding and sinking shortly thereafter.
The engagement turned against the American task force when three Japanese destroyers conducted a torpedo attack from the northern flank. Torpedo hits damaged cruiser USS Portland and sank destroyer USS Barton. Gunfire from these and other Japanese warships turned USS Monssen into a smoking wreck and damaged both cruiser USS San Francisco and destroyer USS Aaron Ward. In return, by the time the fifteen-minute battle ended, destroyer Yudachi was a burning hulk and battleship Hiei was left crippled, steering an erratic course to the northwest. By the following afternoon, owing to scuttling charges or damage, Atlanta, Cushing, and Monssen had all sunk. Two Japanese ships soon joined them when Yudachi exploded under shell fire from Portland, and Hiei went under following bomb and torpedo hits delivered by Navy and Marine aircraft.
The light cruiser Juneau (CL-52), in which the five Sullivan brothers were surviving, suffered a different fate. Just a few minutes into the battle, Juneau was hit by a Japanese torpedo on the port side near the forward fire room. The shock wave from the explosion buckled the deck, shattered the fire control computers, and knocked out power. The cruiser limped away from the battle, down by the bow and struggling to maintain 18 knots. She rejoined the surviving American warships at dawn on 13 November and zig-zagged to the southeast in company with two other cruisers and three destroyers.
About an hour before noon, the task force crossed paths with Japanese submarine I-26. At 1101, the submarine fired a three torpedoes at San Francisco. None hit that cruiser, but one passed beyond and struck Juneau on the port side very near the previous hit. The ensuing magazine explosion blew the light cruiser in half, killing most of the crew. A message from USS Helena to a nearby B-17 search plane reported that Juneau was lost at latitude 10 degrees South and longitude 161 degrees East and that survivors were in the water. The sinking location was subsequently modified to 10 degrees South and 161 degrees East.
Owing to the risk of another submarine attack and because the
sections of Juneau sank in only a few minutes, the American
task force did not stay to check for survivors. However, approximately
115 of Juneau's crew survived the explosion. But, as Helena's
message unfortunately did not reach Noumea and there remained
uncertainty about the number of Japanese ships in the area, rescue
efforts did not begin for several days. Exposure, exhaustion,
and shark attacks whittled down the survivors and only ten men
were rescued from the water eight days after the sinking.
Recent Published Sources:
Cosden, John. "Remembering the Sullivans." United States Naval Institute Naval History 6, no. 4 (Winter 1992): 27-32.
Kurzman, Dan. Left to Die: the story of the USS Juneau. New York: Pocket Books, 1994.
Satterfield, John R. We Band of Brothers: The Sullivans and World War II. Parkersburg, Iowa: Mid-Prairie Books, 1995.
Unpublished Original Documents
Microfilm reel NRS 1973-71 for action reports, war diaries, and survivor interviews regarding the loss of Juneau on 13 November 1942. Contents of reel include:
To order a microfilm for the prices indicated on the Naval Historical Center fee schedule, please complete the duplication order form and send an appropriate check or money order payable to Department of the Navy, to the following address:
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Washington Navy Yard, DC 20374-5060
The original paper copies of the action reports have been transferred to the Modern Military Branch, National Archives and Records Administration, 8601 Adelphi Road, College Park, MD 20740-6001 (phone at 301-713-7250 ).