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People On The Move: Frank Holmgren
04/30/2009 - By Teja Anderson
SURVIVOR OF THE U.S.S. JUNEAU
Frank Holmgren always dreamed of being in the Navy. As a teenager he’d take the train or hitchhike from Eatontown to Red Bank to see a movie; his favorite part was the warship promotions they’d show before the feature. Two things held him back from enlisting, however – he couldn’t swim and he had heard that the Navy didn’t take nail biters. Then, in December 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States went to war. Frank went again with a group of buddies to sign up, and this time his friends were rejected for various reasons, but Frank (then 19) was accepted on the condition that he wear white gloves to cover his fingernails until they grew out. No one ever asked him if he could swim. Happily, while Frank was at boot camp, his best friend Charles Hayes showed up, having met the weight requirement by crash dieting. As ships were assigned alphabetically, Hayes and Holmgren were assigned to the same ship – a light-class cruiser out of New Jersey – the U.S.S. Juneau. From the start, Frank carried a chicken wishbone given to him by his sweetheart back home, Joyce Heidt, the daughter of an Eatontown police officer; as it turned out, he would need all the luck in the world.
After engaging in several successful battles at sea, the Juneau (with a crew of 700 men) was suddenly struck by a Japanese torpedo near Guadalcanal in the South Pacific on November 12, 1942. Crippled, with many injured men, the ship was down 12 feet by the bow but was able to maintain 13 knots. The next morning three torpedoes were launched from a B1-type Japanese submarine; one struck the Juneau at the same point that had been damaged during the earlier surface action. There was a great explosion, the Juneau broke in two, and disappeared completely in 30 seconds. Frank remembers it clearly. “I was walking back from being on duty (as an orderly), going to get a sandwich from the galley. All of a sudden there was a huge boom and the ship just blew up right in front of me. I went up with the ship, and then I went down with the ship. I remember thinking, ‘I’m gonna die! I’m gonna die!’ I don’t remember going down…or going back up. Next thing I know I’m back up above the water. I didn’t swallow any of that water or nothing! I could hear people hollering, and somehow I had this lifejacket around me and I could see…guys on rafts.” Unable to swim, he somehow managed to make his way to the nearest of three rafts. He was alive and, by some miracle, so was Charlie Hayes.
Fearing another submarine attack, and because the Juneau sank so quickly, the American task force didn’t stay to check for survivors. Frank and about another 115 men watched in dismay as the U.S. ships left them to fend for themselves in the shark-infested waters. “There wasn’t any food…just a little bit of ration on the rafts. We had only rain water to drink. After a while the men that were injured badly or just couldn’t take it any more would just go into the water and the sharks would eat them. Some of the guys [after time went by] would start to go out of their heads a little bit; they thought they could go down to the ship and get food under the water,” Frank remembers. It was probably the fact that Frank couldn’t swim that kept him from being one of those guys who didn’t come back. By the time they were finally rescued 8 days later, exposure, exhaustion, and shark attacks had whittled down the survivors to only 10 men. Frank was separated from Charlie when the one remaining officer, Captain Swenson, asked for men to paddle one of the rafts toward land that they could see in the distance; since Frank had no injuries he volunteered. He never saw his buddy again.
Although Frank (now 86) lost his wife 4 years ago, he feels lucky and blessed to have survived as he did and to have had a long career at the Earle Naval Weapons Base. His blessings also include a son, a daughter, five grandchildren, and living with his 106-year old mother!
Eatontown Elk’s Club
young kids driving too fast!
THREE PEOPLE YOU WOULD LIKE TO HAVE DINNER WITH
my shipmate Charlie…just him
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