Loss of USS Juneau

Executive Officer’s letter regarding the loss of USS Juneau on November 13, 1942

by Rear Admiral Joseph C. “Bill” Wylie (photo 1992)

Lt.Cmdr J. C. Wylie was Fletcher’s first Executive Officer. In 1986 he wrote a letter in response to questions he was asked about Fletcher’s actions on the morning of November 13, 1942 after Juneau blew up and sank. He later wrote a magazine manuscript about his memories of that tragic morning which was used in the book, “Left to Die, The Tragedy of the USS Juneau” by Dan Kurzman © 1994. Admiral Wylie passed away on January 29, 1993. Below is a portion of his 1986 letter.

20 April, 1986

....At morning light, after the fight in the darkness in Ironbottom Bay off Guadalcanal on 13 November, 1942, the senior survivor in the operable ships (there were some cripples who somehow worked their way to Tulagi) was Captain Gil Hoover, commanding Helena. He took under command San Francisco, Juneau, Sterett and Fletcher. Captain Hoover also ordered O'Bannon to proceed separately, north of San Cristobal Island, to radio to ComSoPac Captain Hoover's preliminary report of the action off Guadalcanal. He did this so that the Japanese radio direction finding network would not be able to fix the position of the ships under Captain Hoover. O'Bannon was selected for this task because (whatever other damage she may have had) her sonar had somehow been put out of action by some kind of heavy explosion close aboard during the night action (I learned this from her Exec later). O'Bannon was thus of no use in anti-submarine protection of the cruisers. I do not know the details of the message that Captain Hoover gave O'Bannon to transmit when north of San Cristobal.

Having rounded the east end of Guadalcanal, Captain Hoover took us south of San Cristobal Island enroute Espiritu Santo. Helena was the guide. San Francisco, very sorely damaged, was perhaps 500 yards astern of Helena. Sterett was in the A/S station on Helena's port bow. Fletcher was in the A/S station on Helena's starboard bow. Juneau, badly damaged and, as I recall, low in the water, was not in the cruiser column but was on San Francisco's starboard quarter, perhaps 1500 to 2000 yards directly astern of Fletcher. I believe that, early on while we were still forming up, Helena had sent some welders by boat to Juneau to help with her severe damage control problems.

Some time in the middle or late forenoon (was it about 1000 or 1100?), my captain and I, exhausted, had told the doctor to send to us on the bridge a gill of his medicinal whiskey. We were in the chart house, just abaft the bridge, pouring the whiskey into two dirty coffee cups, when we heard and felt a tremendous explosion. We rushed out of the chart house, one to each wing of the bridge, and looked aft. Juneau had simply disintegrated. The air was filled with debris blown in every direction. As soon as we saw this, one of us (I think it was I) pushed the engine order telegraph to emergency flank speed; the other, Cole, passed the word on the loudspeaker system for all hands topside to take cover. None of the fragments landed on our ship. One complete 5-inch twin gun mount did land in our wake less than a hundred yards behind us. We never did get to drink the medicinal whiskey; I suppose one of the quartermasters saw his chance.

Captain Cole then at once ordered right rudder to turn and go back to the scene. We had turned perhaps as much as 150 degrees when Captain Hoover, over the short-range line-of-sight voice radio (TBS), ordered us to resume screening station, which of course we did. We were puzzled because, although it did not seem possible that any man could have survived that dreadful explosion, instinct and training in such a situation automatically tell us to go look for survivors. In discussing the explosion just after Captain Cole gave the order to turn right, we had assumed that a welder's torch had touched off a magazine and that, in turn had touched off the other magazines.

At the time of the explosion Sterett, on Helena's port bow, was burying her dead, having taken several major caliber gun hits the night before. I do not know what condition her sonar was in, but it could not have been very good.

Perhaps 10 or 15 minutes after the radio order to resume screening station, Captain Hoover (I am sure he knew we would be upset) sent us in Fletcher a fairly long visual message. In it he said that Helena had seen a torpedo, fired from somewhere on the port side of the formation, pass between Helena and San Francisco headed in the general direction of Juneau. We had not seen this. He said also that he had warning of two and perhaps three more Japanese submarines ahead along our general track to Espiritu Santo. We, in Fletcher, apparently were not on the distribution of the warning. I suppose it was not sent on one of the frequencies or in one of the codes that destroyers normally covered.

Only then, after reading Captain Hoover's message, did my captain and I realize the awesome difficulty of Captain Hoover's decision. On the one hand was the basic instinct to look for survivors even though, from the strength of the explosion, we could hardly believe there could be any. And on the other hand was Captain Hoover's almost unique responsibility. Helena had been only lightly damaged in the fight the night before and was the only cruiser in the South Pacific that was ready for combat. San Francisco had been severely damaged and was in no condition either to fight or to defend herself. Sterett was badly damaged and, as I noted above, was burying her dead. Fletcher was the only destroyer within hundreds of miles that had an anti-submarine search and attack capability.

This was the dilemma. Should he let Fletcher go back and look for survivors, when he knew, and we did not, that there was a Nip submarine close to the scene of the explosion, thus risking the very clear chance that that submarine could take out Fletcher while we were searching for or picking up survivors?

Or should he retain the one destroyer capable of giving at least minimal protection to the one combat-ready cruiser in the South Pacific, the helpless San Francisco, and even some protection to the sorely damaged Sterett?

I think that Captain Hoover made the most difficult single decision that I have ever known; he made it without a moment's hesitation; and I think he made the correct decision under those incredibly difficult circumstances. This was the most courageous decision I have ever seen. Obviously, then and now, I disagree totally with the too-hasty ComSoPac decision to relieve Captain Hoover of his command.

So we steamed on. Later, I think in about an hour, there appeared overhead an aircraft from the Southwest Pacific Command (under General MacArthur). Helena gave him, by flashing light, a long message which reported the fact and position of the loss of Juneau. As the aircraft circled, sometimes we could see Helena's flashing light and sometimes see the light acknowledging each word from the aircraft. It took some time but eventually the plane acknowledged receipt of the message. It contained, I later learned, instructions to relay the message on to ComSoPac. I also later learned that it never got there.

Bear in mind that the known good ability of the Japanese to get radio direction finder fixes on other than line-of-sight radio transmissions, and to act on these promptly, was the reason that Captain Hoover had sent O'Bannon north of San Cristobal Island to transmit his preliminary action report of the night before. With known submarines somewhere along his path, he was properly reluctant to give the Nips a fix on his position by using his radio.

Your letter mentions that this plane was a B-17 (of the US Army Air Force). I am not sure there were any B-17s in the Southwest Pacific Command at that time. My dim memory calls up a Liberator (B-24?) as more likely but you have better sources than I to determine this. It is not important. What is important is where did the message get lost? I've never heard any answer to that.

Now, for your specific questions not answered above.

Fletcher did not send any assistance to San Francisco. We had no requests and no knowledge of specific needs.

My recollection of Captain Hoover's visual message after the voice-radio order to resume screening was that the torpedo passed between Helena and San Francisco. I know nothing of a torpedo going under San Francisco.

No other ships started to go back to look for survivors. There were none that could have done so.

I don't know how to answer your "What was the effect of all this on your crew?". This is like a TV reporter jamming a microphone under the nose of a bereaved parent and asking "What were you thinking when little Sammy got run over?" I can only say that Fletcher had seen lots of action, and less than 12 hours previously had been in the midst of what Samuel Eliot Morison later described as "the most desperate sea fight since Flamborough Head." Nobody relishes this sort of thing, and nobody relishes seeing one of our ships explode. But our ship's company were fine, stalwart, and disciplined men-of-warsmen. I was then and am now totally proud of them.

It was several days, perhaps a week or more, before we heard that there had been survivors. Even today it seems impossible that any man could have survived that tremendous explosion....

....By the way, I presume you are aware of the “Friday the 13th” luck which accounts for the fact that the Fletcher was the only undamaged ship of our thirteen in the fight the night before Juneau was lost.

On Friday the 13th of November, 1942, the Fletcher, named after Frank Friday Fletcher, was the 13th ship in a column of 13 which engaged in the action. Hull number 445, Task Force 67, firing 5 5-inch and 8 40-mm guns, at about 1300 Greenwich Civil Time. That will do for starters. Later the ship’s company found several more 13s or combinations making 13s. I don’t recall them now. But that accounts for the “Lucky 13” on the news-sheet letterhead. We have, all of us, been on borrowed time since that busy night....

With best Regards
/s/  J. C. Wylie

(The full version of this letter is available as a PDF in our files storage area accessible from the Links menu. The webmaster italicized the ship names.)

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Rear Admiral J. C. Wylie, Jr., USN (USNA Class of 1932) served on destroyer USS
Bristol, escorting convoys across the Atlantic during World War II. He also served as the Executive Officer of the destroyer USS Fletcher and saw action in the Solomon Islands. He was subsequently assigned to the staff of Commander Destroyers Pacific Fleet.

Later in the Pacific Campaign, he was Commanding Officer of the new destroyer USS
Ault in the Third and Fifth  Fleets, as part of the destroyer screens for fast-carrier task forces operating against the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, Kyushu and Honshu.

In addition to sea duty, Rear Admiral Wylie served on the staff of the Office of Naval Research, as Chief of Staff of the Naval War College, as Deputy Commander in Chief of United States Naval Forces in Europe, and as Commander of the Naval Base, Newport, Rhode Island.

Rear Admiral Wylie was a leading and early proponent of a joint approach to strategy. He is the author of Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control (1967), and numerous articles that have appeared in the Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute.

In his writings, he examined the US Navy experiences in the Pacific during World War II, with the a specific aim of drawing from a few strategic lessons learnt that might assist in developing better strategies for use in future wars.  He also focused on Japanese war-making decision processes, in particular, Japanese decisions on whether to start the war, how to start the war, and how to fight the war.

Wylie, J. C. (April 1952) .Reflections on the War in the Pacific., United States Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 78.
Wylie, J. C. (May 1953) .On Maritime Strategy.,  United  States  Naval Institute Proceedings, vol. 79.
Wylie, J. C. (1989) Military Strategy: A General  Theory  of  Power Control, Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press

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