MAY 12, 1997
Cdr. Lester Zook, USN, Ret., is one of two survivors left when his ship, the USS Juneau, went to the bottom. She'd carried a crew of 751. Note the USS The Sullivans cap on the heavily bemedaled sea warrior of many a battle.
Photo by Oscar Roloff.
by Oscar Roloff
Not long ago, Cdr. Lester Zook, USN, Ret., and his wife came up from their Yuma, Arizona home to thank me for writing so understandingly about unusual military history, especially about his survival aboard the cruiser USS Juneau.
Fifty years ago, he'd been aboard the Juneau when she was abruptly sunk by a Japanese torpedo. Also aboard her were the five Sullivan brothers from Waterloo, Iowa. It was a sad error to allow the five aboard.
While seated in my den, Zook, a fine retired officer, told me about the five brothers and the ship's catastrophic sinking. "All aboard the ship knew the five brothers and some wondered why that was allowed," Zook said. "On 13 Nov. 1942, the unexpected blast killed all but 400 of the 711 sailors aboard. For 8 days, we survivors clung to rafts and debris, fighting off sharks and exhaustion."
Zook believes that two, possibly three, of the Sullivans got off. One, George, was on Zook's raft, and he began hallucinating and thrashing about. Zook tried to calm him; no luck. Sharks were at the raft's edges.
After one night of thrashing about, the next morning, the last of the Sullivan brothers were gone. Sharks got him.
Soon, only ten were left. When the survivors were near death's door, a plane spotted the ten, and soon rescue was enroute.
Only Zook and another are alive. There was much confusion in the rescue efforts, Zook said. Otherwise, more could have been saved. There are errors in all wars and battles.
Zook and the other survivor were issued a special invitation by the Secretary of the Navy to be present at the commissioning of the new USS The Sullivans warship, an Admiral Arleigh Burke class of warship. (I knew him and have an article coming out on him). The commissioning took place several weeks ago.
After visiting us at our humble Kingsgate home, the distinguished naval warrior and his wife left for their home in Yuma, Arizona.
As a writer of historical lore, I'm indeed proud to have had the honor of meeting such fine people. Makes my day, especially when I'd been earlier told I wouldn't amount to a hill of beans. Sometimes I'd agree with them.
Probably the main reason I'm able to write so compassionately and understandingly about such horror scenes as Zook's, is that I, too, lost a ship and was flung into the sea. In such encounters, there's terror and fear of not coming out alive. The fight to survive and return home to loved ones is overwhelming.