This story of horrors will not easily fade from memory
Those are three terms I would use to describe the book Left To Die: The Tragedy of the USS Juneau.
The book was written in 1994, by a tremendously gifted author named Dan Kurzman. I stumbled across it several months ago, browsing in a used bookstore in Springfield, Illinois. What attracted me was the cover – it was a full-color painting of the ship sinking during the Sea Battle of Guadalcanal, on November 13, 1943 … Friday the 13th
Inset in the painting on the cover was a photo of the five Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa.
So the book grabbed my attention immediately, since I am from Waterloo and served in the United States Navy myself for three years. It took me about two months to find time to read the book – but once I started I was totally hooked. It began by providing background of what led up to that horrible morning in the far-off South Pacific.
The day began serene and calm for the 700 or so sailors and officers aboard the USS Juneau. They had survived a tortuous night of incredible battle, surrounded by Japanese warships, submarines and dive bombing pilots.
The sailors of the USS Juneau, under Captain Lyman Swenson, had fought with incredible courage and skill, and nearly all had survived. They were trying to somehow relax on the crippled light cruiser limping toward a home port when a Japanese submarine spotted the ship.
A torpedo was fired – and what happened next defies imagination. The USS Juneau exploded into a horrendous fireball, nearly broke in half and sank in seconds. Severely injured men were blown high into the sky by the blast and tossed hundreds of feet through the air to land in the water … battered, broken, oil soaked and many just barely alive.
“Men on nearby ships who witnessed the fireball never forgot it,” wrote Kurzman. “In one horrific instant, the Juneau all but disintegrated in an inferno of blood, fire and fear.
“But the explosion was only the beginning of the story – of the tragic ironies and fatal miscalculations, of the command betrayal and cover-up that hid the truth from American eyes.”
And then were the sharks!
Be forewarned – this is not easy reading. You will learn what terrific young men served on the USS Juneau – the five Sullivans and another foursome of brothers, the fighting Rogers clan of Connecticut, all skilled amateur boxers.
You will learn of the savagery of the seas when the 150 or so men who survived the blast were scattered on tiny rafts, their bodies broke and bleeding, faces covered in thick oil, bodies swollen from sun exposure, limbs broken, minds savaged.
You will learn the horrible truth of what really happened to the many survivors of the explosion, including the stunning story of George Sullivan. If you were frightened of sharks before reading this book, you may never be able to look at a shark again.
The last half of the book is mind-blowing. I had to put the book down several times and just sit and stare at the wall in my den, trying to grasp what I had just read. I needed to try and understand how such things could happen to young men who had signed up in eagerness to serve their country – and were then “left to die” in the middle of ocean, alone and terrified.
Much of the book is about the Sullivans, of course. You will get to know the family that lived a modest existence in pre-war Iowa, and you will have to deal vicariously with the mind-numbing tragedy that was thrown full fury at their mother and father, sister, and sister in law.
It isn’t easy reading.
But it’s history – history that hurts.
Do I recommend the book to you? I’m not sure. Kurzman is one of the best writers I have ever read. As an author myself, I was constantly overwhelmed by his ability to move me emotionally. But if you do get a copy of Left To Die: The Tragedy of the USS Juneau, be prepared to have your sensitivities jolted over and over.
And let me know what you thought of it. I’d be interested to know.
(Mike Chapman is the publisher of Iowa History Journal and is the author of 26 books. He and his wife, Bev, live in Newton.)