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BOOK REVIEW / HISTORY : Killed in Battle by a Different Kind of Friendly Fire : LEFT TO DIE: THE TRAGEDY OF THE USS JUNEAU by Dan Kurzman ; Pocket Books $23, 336 pages.

March 09, 1994|JONATHAN KIRSCH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

On Friday, the 13th of November, 1942, a rag-tag flotilla of battle-ravaged American warships was rocked by a single massive explosion. When the smoke cleared, one of the ships had simply disappeared.

"Aside from the atomic bomb," writes Dan Kurzman in "Left to Die," "this was perhaps the greatest single explosion of the war."

The missing ship was the Juneau, a cruiser that exploded and sank in the South Pacific when a single torpedo from a Japanese submarine struck the ship and ignited its supply of ammunition.

And yet the saga of the Juneau only begins with the sinking of the ship. It is the story of the miraculous survival of a handful of sailors whose real enemy was not the Imperial Navy, but the timidity, inertia, appallingly poor judgment and sheer incompetence of some of their own comrades-in-arms.

Of the 700 or so officers and men on the Juneau--including the famous Sullivan brothers, five siblings who served (and died) on the same ship--more than 140 managed to survive the torpedo attack. A week later, when the U.S. Navy finally woke up to the fact that the ship was gone and survivors were still in the water, only 10 men were alive.

"Left to Die" smokes and crackles with outrage as Kurzman introduces us to the officers and men of the Juneau, and then explains how they were condemned to a slow and terrible death at sea, first by a stalking Japanese submarine and then by the wooden-headedness of the U.S. Navy.

We learn, for example, that the officer in command of the flotilla in which the Juneau was sailing, fearful of lurking Japanese submarines, refused to search for survivors or even to break radio silence to report the sinking. A B-17 pilot who happened upon the survivors within minutes after the ship went down dutifully reported their plight on no less than three occasions--but his report was lost or merely ignored by an unidentified intelligence officer.

As hours and then days passed, the men of the Juneau began to die. As Kurzman shows us in heart-rending detail, the survivors clung desperately to a few rafts and nets while starvation, thirst, foul weather and a huge armada of sharks slowly chewed them up. The wounded men died quickly, if horribly; the others were not so lucky.

By daylight, the men of the Juneau were scorched by the tropical sun; by night, they were reduced to urinating on their own bodies in a futile effort to warm themselves. When their meager supplies of food and fresh water ran out, many of the sailors drank seawater--and promptly succumbed to a deadly delirium.

"Madness soon overcame them," Kurzman writes, "and some jumped into the sea to go 'below' on watch duty, to get fresh water and a sandwich, or to swim to shore."

But the cool and inviting water posed the threat of certain death: "The sharks," Kurzman observes, "would not go hungry."

One by one, the sailors who left the life-rafts were set upon and devoured by hordes of sharks. At one point, when the starving men on one raft managed to land a shark and cut open its belly, a human arm spilled out.

Clearly, the story that Kurzman tells in "Left to Die" is dramatic enough, but the author insists on hyping what is already a ghastly and tragic spectacle.

For instance, Kurzman introduces us to a sailor named Glycky, a gifted violinist who dreamed of playing in the Philadelphia Orchestra. The unlucky sailor tumbled into the sea, and the sharks took off his shoulder before he could clamber back into the raft. And when his Glycky saw the revulsion in the eyes of his shipmates, he threw himself back into the sea to spare them. Or, Kurzman wonders, was he pushed by one of his disgusted fellow sailors?

The scene is terrible enough, of course. But when Kurzman describes how the sharks finished their meal, he cannot resist a sentimental flourish:

"Glycky did not scream," Kurzman writes. "Perhaps because he knew he would be playing forever in an orchestra of sublime repute."

But there's a sharper edge in Kurzman's book, a certain visceral anger that every reader will share when contemplating the fate of sailors who watched helplessly as the rest of the flotilla sailed away. No bathos or bombast is really necessary to put a catch in the reader's throat--or to ignite a hot resentment as the abandoned survivors start to suffer and die.

"Rescuing the survivors of the Juneau had become a priority mission at last--six days after the ship had been sunk," writes Kurzman in a moment of bitter sarcasm. "Priority of a sort. No great excitement. One PBY (seaplane) was sent out to search for the men so that a ship, if it wasn't already engaged, would know where to find them."

By then, only a suffering remnant of the ship's company was still alive. "We are survivors of the Juneau," the last of them signaled to their rescuers in a semaphore message sent by hand. At the moment of rescue, we do not need any prompting at all to recognize the poignancy, the waste and the misspent hope that are expressed in those six words.

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