Presented by the Laurens County Historical Society, Dublin, Georgia. For questions and information, please contact Scott B. Thompson, Sr. at dublinhistory@yahoo.com.

Friday, September 12, 2014

SHELTON SUTTON

ENSIGN SHELTON SUTTON
"The Unsolved Mystery of a Hero at Sea"


Shelton Sutton was a hero. To his two hometowns of Brewton and Vidalia, he was a hero. To his parents, aunts, uncles and cousins, he was also a hero. To many Georgia Tech fans of his day, Shelton was a hero. The United States Navy considered him a hero. But the answer remains, why was he a hero?

Shelton Beverly Sutton, Jr. was born in Brewton, Georgia on August 21, 1919. His father worked as a mechanic. The Suttons left Laurens County when Shelton, Jr. or "Slim" was a young boy. They wound up in Vidalia, Georgia, where Slim became a star football player for Vidalia High School in the mid 1930s.

Slim's extraordinary athletic ability enabled him to earn a spot on the roster of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in 1939. Slim was a substitute offensive lineman on Georgia Tech's best team of the 1930s. The Jackets (8-2) won a share of the SEC Championship with a perfect conference record, losing only to Notre Dame, the nation's second best team that season, and to a very powerful Duke team by one point. The "Ramblin Wrecks" put an exclamation point on the season when a victory of Big Six Champion Missouri in the Orange Bowl. Sutton made his way into the starting lineup in 1940 as the team's center. Tech suffered through a 3-7 season, with the year's only highlights coming in a six-point loss to Notre Dame and a post season win over California by the score of 13-0. Playing at guard beside Slim was Wexler "Wex" Jordan of Dublin.


By 1941, Sutton came into his own as a suitable center. Losing to five top twenty teams, the Jackets suffered through a 3-6 season. Slim's last game was a heartbreaking 21-0 loss to intrastate rival Georgia. What made it even worse was that he was ejected from the game for an offense he really didn't deserve. Sutton tackled Georgia back Lamar Davis, grabbing him around the mouth and cutting off his breathing. Lamar bit Sutton's finger to break the deadlock. Sutton, sensing the amputation of a part of his hand, violently shoved Davis's head back. A nearby official noticed only the shove and promptly sent Sutton back to the bench. Sutton walked toward Davis and shook his finger at him chastising him for not telling the referee that he had Slim's finger in his mouth. Tech Coach Bobby Dodd ran out toward Sutton to reprimand the Tech center for being thrown out the game. Dodd's rage evolved into laughter when Slim told the soon to be iconic coach what really happened out on the field.

Georgia Tech was supposed to play another game, another post season game against California. But something happened the next weekend that would change Slim Sutton's life and the entire course of the world's history. Just eight days after he played his last football game, the Japanese air force bombed Pearl Harbor. Sutton and Jordan along with many of their teammates enlisted in the Navy. Before he left for military service, Slim graduated from Tech with cum laude honors. Many of the Tech players participated in Naval ROTC at Tech. In fact, Center Sutton became Ensign Sutton of the United States Naval Reserve on April 21, 1941. Owing to the loss of many of their team's top players, Tech's request to cancel the late December game with California was granted.

In the weeks after the war began, Sutton reported to duty with the Naval Reserve. On February 12, 1942, he was ordered to report to the Commandant of the Third Naval District for active duty. Just two days later, the U.S.S. Juneau, a light cruiser, was commissioned by the U.S. Navy. Sutton reported for duty aboard the U.S.S. Juneau on March 2, 1942. The Juneau served off the Martinique and the Guadeloupe Islands in blockade maneuvers and remained in the Atlantic Ocean until August 22nd. The Juneau was assigned to Task Force 17 and then Task Force 61. The ship's first major action came in the victorious Battle of Santa Cruz Island on October 26th.

On November 8th, the Juneau joined Task Force 67 to escort reinforcements to Guadalcanal Island. Japanese fighters began to attack the ship, which repulsed six planes with little damage. Early in the morning of Friday the 13th, a Japanese force engaged the Juneau's group. The Juneau suffered moderate damage from a torpedo, but managed to limp away from the enemy ships under her own power. Around eleven o'clock in the morning, a Japanese submarine fired three torpedoes at the wounded ship. The Juneau's helmsman managed to avoid the first two, but a third torpedo struck the ship in the exact same spot it had been damaged earlier in the morning. There was a tremendous explosion. The ship broke into. In twenty seconds, she was under water. The Juneau's sister ships, the U.S.S. Helena and the U.S.S. San Francisco, both damaged, steamed ahead fearing a similar fate. There was no time to look for survivors.

Of the nearly seven hundred man crew, only about one hundred sailors survived the explosion. For eight horrific days, the survivors treaded water and fought off thirst, hunger and sharks as best they could. Only ten survived. Also onboard the Juneau was Albert, Francis, George, Joseph, and Madison, the five sons of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Sullivan of Waterloo, Iowa. George, still nursing his wounds from the early morning action, managed to make it to a life raft. The other four brothers were killed instantly in the explosion. George died after five days in the water. The brothers were immortalized in the Hollywood movie, The Fighting Sullivans. Their deaths led to a directive by President Franklin Roosevelt that if any family lost two sons, then the remaining sons were to be removed from the military and sent home to their families. This directive is portrayed in the movie Saving Private Ryan. Private Ryan, actually Sergeant Niland, lost two of his brothers and was thought to have lost another. The stories of the Sullivans and the Nilands were the inspiration for Saving Private Ryan.


The Navy withheld details of the sinking of the Juneau. (above) It was nearly four weeks later when the news arrived at the home of Mr. and Mrs. Sutton that their son was missing in action. Slim's body was never found. Ensign Sutton was one of the first Toombs Countians to lose their lives in the war. The abandonment of one hundred survivors was withheld from the public for a long time, making it one of the war's and the U.S. Navy's most secret scandals. It wasn't until 1994 when Dan Kurzman published Left to Die, the first true and complete account of the tragedy of the U.S.S. Juneau.



On August 6, 1944 in Tampa, Florida, Lillie Mae Sutton broke the traditional bottle of champagne across the bow of the U.S.S. Sutton,  (above) which was named in her son's honor. The Sutton served in the Atlantic until 1948, when she was taken out of service. The ship was lent to the Republic of South Korea in 1956 and was used by the Korean Navy as The Kang Won until 1974. Ensign Beverly Sutton was one of ten members of the crew who were selected by the U.S. Navy to have a ship named in their honor. He joined Captain L.K. Swenson, Commander William M. Hobby of Sylvania, Ga., Lt. Cmdr. T.O. Oberrender, Lt. H.C. Gearing, III and of course, the "Sullivan Brothers," in being afforded such a distinct honor. Lt. Cmdr. J.G. Neff was lauded by the U.S. Naval Hospital in Dublin with a street named in his honor.

           At the cruise ship dock at Juneau, Alaska stands a monument with the name of S.B. Sutton and the names of his fellow crewmen of the U.S.S. Juneau. His name also can be found on a monument at Fort William McKinley in Manila, the Philippines. But of a more local importance, among the hundreds of graves at the Brewton Cemetery, is a cenotaph marker commemorating the life of a man who lived as a hero and died as hero.

Could Slim have survived the catastrophic explosion? No one alive seems to know. My guess is that he did and that this Laurens Countian helped the survivors to escape the inferno toward what they believed was safety. Otherwise, why would the Navy have selected Ensign Shelton Sutton as the only junior officer aboard the Juneau with the naming of a ship in his honor? Perhaps one day the mystery will finally be solved.

Postcript: Exactly 364 days later on Veteran's Day, 1943 Slim Sutton's teammate Wex Jordan was killed in a training accident off the coast of San Diego, California. 

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