The following interview and video was shot and edited by NJ Discover.
Frank Holmgren will never forget the roar of the water when his Navy ship sank beneath him in the early days of World War II. He won’t forget the sharks circling around his raft as he waited nearly seven days for rescue either.
Holmgren, 79, was just a 19-year-old captain’s orderly, not quite eight months into active duty on the USS Juneau, when it was hit and sunk by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine in the Pacific Ocean 59 years ago this week.
He said the torpedo was fired at another ship in their group, the San Francisco, but slipped passed its bow. The San Francisco had all its communications knocked out in a battle both ships had been in with the Japanese earlier that morning, and could not message the Juneau that a torpedo was on a trajectory toward it. Holmgren was on deck on the fantail when the torpedo hit.
"We went down in a minute," the resident of Byrnes Lane said.
"I went up in the air, and when I came down my hand hit a life jacket," he said. He quickly put it on, he recalled. "I heard the roar of the water and I thought I was going to die. I did go down with the ship — I don’t know how far — but the next thing I knew, I came back up. That life jacket saved my life."
Holmgren also kept his mouth closed when he went under and didn’t swallow much salt water, which he feels helped him survive. He also did not drink any salt water while drifting in his raft, relying instead on rain for sustenance.
"Once you drink that salt water, you are finished," he said.
Holmgren is the last remaining survivor from the sinking of the Juneau, which is best known for having been the graveyard of the five Sullivan brothers of Iowa. He said there were 10 survivors from the crew of approximately 725, five of whom were from the life raft he called home for a week.
With the exception of his military service, Holmgren has lived his entire life in Eatontown, beginning on what is now Throckmorton Avenue, formerly Railroad Avenue. He went into the Navy in March 1942, after graduation from Long Branch High School.
Holmgren went through boot camp at Newport, R.I., and was assigned with his buddy from Eatontown, Charlie Hayes, to the Juneau, a fairly new ship.
Hayes survived the sinking of the Juneau but was not among those finally rescued, he said.
Holmgren said he and Hayes boarded the Juneau together in New York City after completing basic training, and initially worked the Atlantic Ocean side of the war, escorting ships to Africa.
Eventually, he said, they were called to the Pacific Theater of the war and went to Guadalcanal to supply the Marines there. While in the area, he saw the Wasp, an aircraft carrier, get hit by torpedoes and sink, and he became engaged in the battle of Santa Cruz, in which the Hornet, another aircraft carrier was hit.
His ship returned to Guadalcanal to take troops to land. Frank Holmgren became a survivor of the U.S.S. Juneau.