By Ron Leir
On Nov. 13, 1942, the light cruiser USS Juneau, carrying a crew of 725, was torpedoed and sunk by Japanese subs during the Battle of Guadalcanal in the South Pacific. Few survived the attack.
Juneau has a West Hudson legacy: The ship was launched from the Federal Shipbuilding & Dry Dock Co. on the west bank of the Hackensack River in Kearny (the site is now occupied by Riverside Terminal) on Oct. 25, 1941, and among the ship’s personnel were six Kearny residents and three from Harrison, all of whom perished.
Also aboard were the five Sullivan brothers, who died in the attack. Despite a widespread misconception that their deaths prompted Congress to forbid members of the same family to be assigned the same ship in warfare, the U.S. Navy website notes that no such law was ever passed.
It is true, however, that hundreds of American warships like Juneau were built at the Kearny shipyard in the run-up to and through World War II and soon, to commemorate the role that Kearny played in supporting the U.S. war effort – and to memorialize the nine West Hudson sailors who gave their lives in that effort – Hudson County government will be dedicating its new Office of Emergency Management headquarters at 110 S. Hackensack Ave. – part of the old shipyard – as the USS Juneau Memorial Center.
Kearny Mayor Alberto Santos previewed that plan at the Oct. 9 mayor/council meeting and, two days later, the Hudson County Board of Freeholders voted to dedicate the OEM facility to the USS Juneau.
A dedication ceremony is being scheduled for sometime in December, according to county spokesman James Kennelly.
The 72,720 square foot structure has been gutted and retrofitted at a cost of about $27 million by Dobco, Inc., of Wayne, as a dual-purpose facility that will house the county’s emergency vehicles along with as archival case records for the Hudson County Prosecutor’s Office in climatecontrolled quarters, Kennelly said.
The original contract to Dobco was awarded May 28, 2010, for $22,450,000. Subsequent change orders, for additional work including environmental remediation and structural repairs to the original building, drove up the cost. The county has received a grant to cover the expense of the project, Kennelly said.
Warehouse 77, as the building was known when it was part of the Federal Shipyard, was acquired as surplus federal property by the county in 1991 for $1 from the U.S. General Services Administration and had been used as a support building for the nearby Hudson County Jail for the storage of items such as beds and clothing, cleaning supplies and tools.
Research materials compiled by Emma May Vilardi, Charles Waller and George Rogers indicate that the facility was part of a 160-acre shipyard that had its origins in 1917 as a subsidiary of U.S. Steel Corp. Between 1930 and the late ‘40s, the yard reportedly built more Navy warships than any other yard except Bath Iron Works in Maine. Post-WWII ship construction continued until Federal’s closing in 1949. After that, the facility was adapted as a ship scrap yard until the ‘70s when River Terminal Development began assembling industrial, flex and office properties along the river.
During its life as a warship manufacturer, Federal Shipbuilding had its share of labor unrest. In May 1937 civilian workers staged a short-lived strike and on Aug. 6, 1941, thousands of men represented by the International Marine & Ship Workers of America, CIO, walked off their jobs in a dispute over overtime and only returned – 10 days later – after the Navy took over the yard from its private owners – much to the dismay of Kearny officials facing the loss of more than $100,000 a year in tax revenues. It wasn’t until January 1942 that the Navy – under orders from FDR – restored the yard to the owners. On Oct. 13, 1943, 700 employees walked off their jobs in a contractual dispute and returned Oct. 21 – only after the U.S. War Labor Board warned workers they faced possible suspension or being drafted. And in April 1946 workers authorized a strike but the job action was averted within a few weeks. The last Navy destroyer was built in July 1946, closing a chapter in war material production that saw more than 500 vessels launched from the Kearny yard. In April 1948, Federal sold the yard to the Navy for $2,375,000 as the number of employees fell from a wartime peak of 20,000 to fewer than 200.
Documents maintained by the Kearny Museum Society list the servicemen from Kearny who died aboard the Juneau as: Adrian Cahill, Earl A. Hall Jr., Thomas Kane Jr., Raymond Phillips, George Willoughby, and Wilbur I. Wood. Hall, a member of the first graduating class at St. Cecilia’s High School, was an amateur athlete and a postal employee. Hall graduated from Washington Jr. High School where he was a member of the swim team. Wood, a compositor at the old Newark News before enlisting, was attached to Juneau’s medical unit.
The Harrisonians who were killed were listed as: Andrew E. Welsh, William Meeker Jr. and James Seramba. No street addresses were provided.
Rescue ships sent to the area where Juneau sank didn’t realize there were more than 100 sailors still alive, in the water. After eight days in the ocean, only 10 ended up being saved by rescue planes. The rest were done in by the elements and sharks. The last remaining survivor died two years ago, Santos said.
“We have asked the Kearny Museum Committee to look for family members who may still be alive to participate in the dedication ceremony,” he said.