By Ron Leir
For nine months, two Harrison neighbors kept up a steady correspondence while one remained stateside and the other was aboard the USS Juneau, sailing in the Pacific during World War II.
The sailor was Seaman 2nd Class William G. Meeker Jr., 18, a product of Holy Cross grammar school and Harrison High School’s Class of 1941, who’d enlisted in the Navy right after graduation.
And the civilian he was writing to was Winefride L. Blohm, who lived on the same block as Meeker on Jersey St. in Harrison.
“The last letter she got was dated Nov. 6, 1942,” said her son-in-law, Raymond Testa, of Royce, Texas, “which was a week before [his] ship went down.” USS anti-aircraft cruiser Juneau was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on Friday, Nov. 13, 1942, in the Pacific and quickly sank. Of nearly 700 men aboard, only 10 survived – the worst casualty rate experienced by any large ship in the history of the U.S. Navy, according to a Saturday Evening Post account of the battle.
Meeker, who was among the dead, along with 19 other Navy men from Hudson County, and their shipmates will be remembered when Hudson County dedicates the USS Juneau Memorial Center, currently known as Building 77, at 110 S. Hackensack Ave., Kearny, at 2 p.m., on Nov. 13, the 71st anniversary of the Juneau sinking.
The observance, which will feature several memorials, displays of photos of the Juneau taken during its launching, the unveiling of a 5-foot-high, 30 pound replica of the Juneau which the county has commissioned from U.S. Merchant Marine Capt. Brad Poulos of SD Model Makers in California, and copies of the Meeker letters.
Juneau City Assemblyman Randy Wanamaker is expected to fly in from Alaska as special guest. A Navy color guard and flag officer are also anticipated.
Hudson County Freeholder Chairman Anthony L. Romano, chairman of the veterans affairs committee, said: “It’s an honor to be involved with this event, especially as the son of a World War II Navy veteran. The sacrifice of those who served aboard the Juneau is first and foremost why we’re doing this. It’s imperative that veterans of all the different wars be remembered for their sacrifices.”
USS Juneau was built at the then-Federal Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Co. in South Kearny, and Building 77 – now close to the Hudson County Jail – was then part of the old shipyard.
Hudson County officials had intended to do the dedication last year but Hurricane Sandy flooded the building, prompting the county to spend several million dollars to repair it.
Plans call for using the building for the storage of vehicles and as an emergency planning center by the Office of Emergency Planning and for the storage of records in climate-controlled vaults by the county Prosecutor’s Office.
Copies of the 17 letters that Meeker wrote to his Harrison neighbor between February and November 1942, along with copies of photographs of Meeker and the Juneau, were donated to the Juneau-Douglas City Museum in Alaska by Raymond and Mary Winefride Bloom Testa in honor of Mrs. Testa’s mother who died in 1998.
Those letters were read aloud at a public ceremony hosted by the museum Nov. 10, 2012, commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Juneau’s sinking.
In a phone interview, Raymond Testa said that the correspondence between his mother-in-law and Meeker might never come to light if Testa’s wife hadn’t discovered a box of her mother’s that contained the 17 letters that her mother had received from the sailor, plus newspaper clippings about the aftermath of the Juneau’s loss.
In reading the letters, Testa said it was apparent that while the pair had known each other only as slight acquaintances, “you could see, as time went on, a relationship was growing. … I just got chills reading them.”
Sensing that the correspondence had an historic significance, Testa said that he and his wife “wanted to find a permanent home where they could be kept in an archives.”
The Alaska-based museum seemed a good choice to the couple, he said.
JoAnn Northgrave, who, as chief community organization specialist for Hudson County’s Office of Disability Services and Veterans Affairs, is helping arrange the upcoming ceremonies at Building 77, has read copies of the Meeker letters and she, too, was deeply moved by their tone.
“These were letters of desperation,” Northgrave said. “I felt [Meeker] was reaching out [to Blohm] because he needed something. He was hanging on for dear life, waiting for her letters.”
In fact, Northgrave noted, “In his last letter to her, he mentioned that he wasn’t a particularly church-going man, but that he was going to receive the sacraments, so the men on the ship must have had a sense something bad was coming.”
Indeed, the day before the fatal attack, according to the Saturday Evening Post account by Robert L. Schwartz, the Juneau was among a group of eight destroyers and five cruisers protecting transports unloading word came of an advancing Japanese fleet, causing the American ships to steam away.
Hours later, in early morning, moonless darkness, the Americans were disoriented by the sudden appearance of the Japanese force of two battleships, a light cruiser and 15 destroyers, which trained scattered American ships, causing them to fire blindly, at times into their own ships. Within 34 minutes, the Japanese had inflicted heavy damage on 12 of the 13 U.S. ships, including the Juneau: a torpedo hit her bridge and the No. 1 fire room, injuring some sailors, knocking out power to her guns, and leaving the ship 11 feet down by the bow with a two degree list and damaged steering gear. After repairs to the engines, the Juneau crept away, making 10 knots, with five other ships, including the badly wrecked cruiser San Francisco where the admiral, among others, had been killed.
But this proved to be only a brief respite. Shortly after 11 a.m., a torpedo aimed at the San Francisco passed under the ship and hit the side of the Juneau, causing a massive explosion and instantly sinking the ship. Initially, it is believed about 150 survived. All but 10 succumbed to the elements, hunger and sharks. Among the dead were the five Sullivan brothers. Three of the 10 reached San Cristobal, an island some 20 miles away, in a rubber raft; five were picked up by a PBY plane; two were found by destroyers.
Northgrave expects, from across the U.S., more than 100 relatives of the Hudson County men who served on the Juneau to attend and she credits retired Kearny Police Officer Norman Rutan, a genealogy researcher, with helping locate many. For the past six years, Rutan has worked with the Navy’s “On Eternal Patrol” program, trying to find relatives of American sailors who served on lost submarines.
A few years ago, Rutan recalled, Kearny Councilwoman Carol Jean Doyle enlisted his help in locating relatives of five Kearny men who perished on the Juneau. He said he succeeded with three of the five. Then, last year, Northgrave asked him to expand his search to include the entire county.
So far, Northgrave and Rutan have come up with a list of 20 names of Hudson County men who served on the ship.
They are: Seaman 2nd Class Thomas Kane, Seaman 1st Class George Willoughby, Seaman 2nd Class Wilbur Wood, Seaman 2nd Class Adrian Cahill, Earl Hall and Raymond Phillips, all of Kearny; Seaman 1st Class James Seramba, Seaman 2nd Class William Meeker and Seaman 2nd Class Thomas Beers, all of Harrison; Seaman 2nd Class George Muldoon, Seaman 1st Class Benjamin Lipowski, Seaman 2nd Class John Walter Hermanns, Roy Taylor, Kenneth Russell Satterfield and Walter Zubos, all of Jersey City; Seaman 2nd Class James Henry Mooney, Seaman 2nd Class Stanley Selobyt and Stanley Sepanek, all of Bayonne; Seaman 1st Class William Simpson Davidson Jr. of North Bergen; and Fireman 3rd Class Timothy Dwight Hardwick of Union City.