Lexington, Juneau Found in Banner Month for Wreck Discoveries
March 2018 will go down in underwater-archaeology history as a true bonanza of a month, with two iconic U.S. Navy shipwrecks from World War II discovered at last—and within two weeks of each other.
The wreck of the carrier USS Lexington (CV-2)—the “Lady Lex” herself, one of the first U.S. aircraft carriers and thus a vessel of profound historical significance in the annals of the fleet—was found 4 March on the ocean floor some 500 miles east of Australia, where she has lain at rest since her sinking at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Then, on 17 March, the remains of the USS Juneau (CL-52)—a ship whose tragic sinking during the Battle of Guadalcanal saw the death of all five Sullivan brothers serving together on board—were found at last.
The two major discoveries are bringing further accolades upon entrepreneur and philanthropist Paul Allen (cofounder of Microsoft), who has been extremely active in the quest to locate the famed lost ships of history. With the latest pair, Allen has significantly added to a list of successes impressive by any measure. Other finds include the USS Indianapolis (CA-35) in August 2017, the Ward (DD-139) in November 2017, the Astoria (CA-34) in February 2015, the Japanese battleship Musashi in March 2015, and the Italian World War II destroyer Artigliere, found in the recent busy March. Allen’s team also was responsible for retrieving the ship’s bell from HMS Hood for presentation to the Royal Navy in honor of her heroic service.
Significant discoveries, one and all. But considering her seminal role in the early development of U.S. aircraft carriers (and thus, her role in ultimate U.S. naval victory in World War II), the Lexington looms particularly large. She was one of a pair of carriers—the other being the Saratoga (CV-3)—that were converted from battle cruisers canceled by the 1922 Washington Naval Treaty. The two therefore were much larger-hulled than they would have been had they been built as carriers from the keel up.
“Both ships were regarded as white elephants,” said naval historian and prolific author Norman Friedman, “but once they were in service they demonstrated what massed naval aircraft could do. Their performance in the interwar fleet problems and other exercises convinced the U.S. Navy to concentrate on building the large carriers that were so effective during the Pacific war.”
The Lexington took part in the Battle of the Coral Sea (4–8 May 1942) along with the carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5) against three Japanese carriers. This was the first carrier-vs.-carrier battle in history and was the first time Japanese forces suffered a permanent setback in their advances on New Guinea and Australia. These important firsts, however, came at a price: the loss of the Lexington—the first U.S. aircraft carrier casualty in history—and 216 of her crew.
Admiral Harry Harris Jr., Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, weighed in on the news of the wreck’s discovery—for him it had a personal resonance: “As the son of a survivor of the USS Lexington, I offer my congratulations to Paul Allen and the expedition crew. . . . We honor the valor and sacrifice of the ‘Lady Lex’s’ sailors—all those Americans who fought in World War II—by continuing to secure the freedoms they won for all of us.”
Allen and his research crew’s other great find in March, the Juneau, is etched in U.S. naval memory because of the loss of 687 men, including the five Sullivan brothers. The wreck of the Atlanta-class light cruiser was found about 2.6 miles below the surface, resting on the floor of the South Pacific off the Solomon Islands.
“We certainly didn’t plan to find the Juneau on St. Patrick’s Day,” said Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Allen. “The variables of these searches are just too great. But finding the USS Juneau on Saint Patrick’s Day is an unexpected coincidence to the Sullivan brothers and all the service members who were lost 76 years ago.”
The Sullivan family of Waterloo, Iowa, lost their sons George, Frank, Joseph, Matt, and Albert despite the naval policy that prevented siblings from serving in the same units. The brothers refused to serve unless assigned to the same ship, and the policy was ignored. The brothers’ deaths became a rallying cry for the Allied forces.The Juneau went down on 13 November 1942, when Japanese torpedoing created a significant explosion that cut the ship in half and killed most of the men on board. Because the Juneau sank in 30 seconds, and because of the risk of further Japanese attacks, the U.S. task force did not stay to check for survivors. Although approximately 115 of the Juneau’s crew reportedly survived the explosion, including possibly as many as two of the five Sullivan brothers, naval forces did not undertake a rescue effort for several days, and only 10 men were rescued from the water eight days after the sinking.
Reflecting on this latest round of tracking down famous U.S. Navy shipwrecks, Allen mused that such efforts of search and discovery are a way “to pay tribute” and “an honor. As Americans, all of us owe a debt of gratitude to everyone who served, and who continue to serve, our country, for their courage, persistence, and sacrifice.”
‘I Have Always Had a Passion for History’
While it has become commonplace to despair of the fading of our history’s significance among the younger generation, such thoughts dissipate when one learns of the efforts of Benjamin Mack-Jackson—the 15-year-old founder of the WWII Veterans History Project. And so the torch stays lit and is passed on. . . . Here, in his own words, is the young man’s story:
I have had a passion for history ever since I was young. That passion has grown into a deep appreciation for World War II and all that it meant for our country and the world. When I was 13 years old, I decided that instead of reading the stories of World War II veterans in books and watching documentaries on TV, I wanted to get out and interview these brave veterans myself.
I created the WWII Veterans History Project with the goal of giving back to veterans and my community, while educating my generation and future generations not just about World War II, but about history, veterans, compassion, generosity, strength, bravery, and giving back. I encourage young people to find their passion and create a voice for themselves. I have motivated, educated, and inspired thousands of people, young and old, over the past two and a half years through interactive presentations.
To start off, I approached my local VFW and American Legion posts, as well as Honor Flight and other organizations that work with veterans. I was humbled to receive such amazing support from the community. With contacts of some World War II veterans, I began to conduct my interviews. The veterans were thrilled to speak to a 13-year-old about their stories. Within a month, I had captured the stories of several heroes just using my iPhone and a small microphone donated by a local TV station. Now, two and a half years later, I have interviewed more than 50 World War II veterans and created documentaries using their stories for my website: www.ww2veteranshistoryproject.com. In January 2017, I turned my project into a 501c3 nonprofit organization.
I visit the veterans at their homes and conduct video interviews. I also take photographs of the veterans. After the interview, the editing process begins. I spend long hours meticulously editing the raw interview footage and find music, photos, and film footage from the war to coincide with the stories the veterans are telling. These documentaries are then posted on my website and shared through social media to help educate my generation about this important time in history and honoring our veterans.
I have spent more than 450 hours so far on my service for veterans, and I work on some aspect of my service at least five times a week. I have spoken at numerous special events. I also raised $1,000 through my TV show and presented it to the two local Honor Flight chapters in Central Florida to help send veterans on Honor Flight trips.
While being interviewed, the veterans immediately saw my interest and commitment to preserving the memories of the greatest generation. During my interviews, veterans began giving me memorabilia from their time in service. This gave me the idea of creating the Traveling Museum of WWII. It allows people, young and old, to come in contact with actual pieces of history from 70-plus years ago.
While the displays could be more elaborate if they were at a stationary location, I know I am touching the lives of so many more people by bringing the museum to them. Thousands of kids have been up close to these World War II artifacts. They have a better appreciation for what the veterans went through and a better understanding of this time in our country’s history. Many kids have said they are motivated not only to help veterans, but also discover the stories of their grandparents and great-grandparents as well. I show them that even kids can have an impact if they put their minds and hearts into something.
In addition to creating an interactive history lesson for kids, I speak to adult audiences and get them excited about the next generation. From veteran organizations to community service groups, historical associations, and just about anyone else, I work hard to inspire people and make a difference in their lives.
Second-Oldest Pearl Harbor Survivor Dies
Former U.S. Navy Lieutenant Jim Downing, who at age 104 was the second-oldest remaining survivor of the 7 December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, died on 13 February after complications from surgery.
Downing, who joined the Navy in 1932, was on shore when his ship, the USS West Virginia (BB-48), was hit hard during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Dodging enemy strafing fire, the sailor made his way to his battleship, grabbed a fire hose, and started spraying ammo stored on deck to curtail the explosions. Later, he would use his recognition of faces and names (he was the ship’s mail clerk) to write to as many families of the fallen as he could.
In later life, he became a venerated figure, speaking to students, appearing on talk shows, being featured in magazines, and meeting several U.S. presidents.