Back in November 1942, Radioman 2nd Class Clinton Francis Bolter of Tuolumne County was on the light cruiser USS Juneau in the naval Battle of Guadalcanal when the ship was torpedoed by Japanese subs and sank, killing Bolter and more than 680 others on board.
Earlier this month, divers working for a U.S.-based billionaire said they discovered the sunken wreck of the Juneau deep in the South Pacific.
Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen said on his website divers found the Juneau about 2.6 miles beneath the ocean’s surface near the coast of the Solomon Islands.
“I’m flabbergasted,” a niece of Bolter, Kathy Hicks, 70, of Jeffersonville, out Rawhide Road between Jamestown and Columbia, said Wednesday at her place near what’s left of the old Bolter Ranch.
Hicks was born in 1947 so she never met her Uncle Clinton. But she has photos of him and remembers stories her mom told her.
“That house down there is where Clinton was born,” Hicks said, pointing from her front yard. “My grandfather Melvin Bolter, Clinton’s dad, was born there. too.”
She brought out pictures and pointed to a black-and-white one showing a smiling young sailor. She showed another photo, partly colorized, taken in late 1942 or early 1943, showing Melvin Bolter smiling with a young woman and a black horse on the ranch.
“That’s Kitty, Katheleen Bolter, Clinton’s wife,” Hicks said. “When they had Clinton missing, presumed dead, she came out from the New Jersey-New York area, to see if he was among those who got rescued from the lifeboats. She stayed three months.”
Ten sailors survived.
Clinton and Kitty had been married in New York, where he got transferred from the battleship USS Arizona before it sank in the December 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, killing 1,177 crewmen.
“She lived in New Jersey all these years,” Hicks said. “She kept in touch with my mother and my grandmother here at the ranch. I talked to her on the phone once. I’m not sure what year they married.”
Clinton and Kitty never had any children. Hicks said Wednesday she believes Kitty is now deceased.
Hicks said her uncle was a radioman on board the Juneau, and the radio room was right next to magazines where all the ship’s artillery ammunition was stored. The first torpedo hit that part of the ship, and Clinton was one of the first to die.
Some of Clinton’s cousins believe he was the first or one of the first Tuolumne County natives to die in World War II.
Hicks said when Clinton was on the Juneau shipping from New York to the West coast, her grandparents drove more than 800 miles north to Bremerton, Washington, to see Clinton off before he and his shipmates headed to the South Pacific.
“The Juneau left before they got there,” Hicks said. “They never got to see him one last time.”
Hicks said her family kept Clinton’s Purple Heart, which was awarded posthumously. She said she gave it Ab Bolter, one of Clinton’s nephews, or her sister.
Records of the USS Juneau show Clinton Francis Bolter listed as killed, body not recovered, declared dead Nov. 13, 1942, and missing in the Solomon Islands. A memorial for him and other Juneau crewmen is at the Manila American Cemetery at Fort Bonifacio in the Philippines.
Clinton was born and raised on the old Bolter Ranch out near where Table Mountain Chapel is today.
He graduated from Sonora High with the Class of 1937, and the Green and Gold yearbook describes him in jest as “a slow-talking lad, always giving advice which is never heeded.”
Ab Bolter, 75, lives in Murphys off Main Street and he said Wednesday he is still trying to make sense of the Saturday discovery of the wreck of the USS Juneau.
“I got a little teary-eyed,” Ab Bolter said. “My cousin, I told her, and she was shocked. This is important. When you talk to people about the Juneau they remember the five Sullivan brothers. But they don’t remember anyone else.”
He was talking about the Sullivan brothers of Waterloo, Iowa. They were all Navy sailors, all serving on the USS Juneau, and all killed when the warship sank.
The deaths of the brothers prompted the U.S. War Department to adopt the Sole Survivor Policy, designed to protect members of a family from the draft or from combat duty if they have already lost family members in military service. Two destroyers, each named USS The Sullivans, was named for them, a 1944 move was made about them, and decades later they were mentioned in the 1998 World War II drama “Saving Private Ryan.”
Ab Bolter said his mom and his cousins used to say his Uncle Clinton was “an easy-going guy, a nice guy.”
He said Clinton was a boxer growing up and he continued boxing in the Navy. He said Clinton liked horses and he liked to ride.
“It was quite a shock to the family,” Ab Bolter said Wednesday at his place in Murphys. “My sister said it made her tingle all over. Me I got tears in my eyes. It’s finally a resting place, or something. At least we know.”
American Legion Smyth-Bolter Post 58, based in Sonora, is named in part for Radioman 2nd Class Clinton Francis Bolter, but no one with Post 58 this week had any records about him.
Under the ocean
Naval historians and declassified Navy accounts of the USS Juneau’s sinking say the ship was blown apart. Due to the risk of more Japanese attacks, the American task force did not stay to check for survivors.
As many as 115 of the Juneau‘s crew reportedly survived the explosion, but naval forces did not make rescue attempts for several days. Dehydration, sun exposure and sharks took many lives. The 10 men survivors were rescued eight days later from lifeboats.
Allen, the billionaire who funded discovery of the wreck, co-founded Microsoft with Bill Gates. In June 2017, he was estimated to be the 46th wealthiest person in the world, with a net worth of $21.1 billion. He owns the NFL Seattle Seahawks and the NBA Portland Trail Blazers, and he is part-owner of the Major League Soccer franchise Seattle Sounders FC.
According to Allen’s staff, the sunken wreck of the USS Juneau was discovered March 17, 2018, by the crew of Research Vessel Petrel.
The Juneau, described by naval historians as an Atlanta-class light cruiser, was found resting on the ocean floor off the coast of the Solomon Islands.
The Petrel crew worked with a robot sub called an autonomous underwater vehicle, which identified the Juneau on side scan sonar. They analyzed sonar data and then deployed a remotely operated underwater vehicle on March 18 to verify the wreckage with video.
Images from the remote sub included one showing a propeller of the USS Juneau on the ocean floor. Allen’s staff juxtaposed the underwater prop photo with a U.S. National Archives photo of the Juneau in New York Harbor on Feb. 11, 1942.
“We certainly didn’t plan to find the Juneau on St. Patrick’s Day,” Robert Kraft, director of subsea operations for Paul Allen, said in prepared remarks. “The variables of these searches are just too great.”
Betsy Eisenhauer, 69, of Sonora, said she never knew her Uncle Clinton. But she is glad the wreck of the USS Juneau has been found.
“It struck me as a family member, never having known where the ship was,” Eisenhauer said this week. “This happened before I was born but I always wondered what happened and if they would ever find it.”
Contact Guy McCarthy at firstname.lastname@example.org or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.