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.”
This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue.