Text of Interview With Bill Leu
Battle of the Coral Sea
So then after Pearl Harbor then, your ship… were you sent down to the
South Pacific right after that?
First of all, three days after the war started, we went out with some
remnants of the fleet, just some cruisers and destroyers looking for the
Japanese, but I don’t think they looked very hard because we didn’t have much
left, and we went out to fuel them.
And then we went back to… we hurried back to the States and had eight
20-millimeter machine guns put on her, tacked on our deck so we could defend
ourselves. And then about January
or something we started going out to the Task Force and we’d fuel them.
And we fueled… there’d be cruisers, destroyers, and maybe two aircraft
carriers, and we fueled them. And
when we were out there fueling them, we were the most important ship in the Task
Force. They’d all protect us, you know.
One time, we got a torpedo across the bow and we were fueling the Chicago, a
heavy cruiser, at the time. And I’ll never forget the way they cut their lines and took
off. They wanted to get the hell
out of there. They didn’t want to
be around a tanker. They cut across
our bow and we started zig-zagging and then I don’t know what happened after
Anyway, the third time out there, I think it was, we got out there and we fueled
the task force, the Hornet – no, not the Hornet – the Lexington and the Yorktown
(both aircraft carriers). And after
we fueled them, the night of May the… May something or another, second or third,
second I think… they told us all we had to take fresh-water showers because we
were taking salt-water showers because we didn’t have enough fresh water making
out of our evaporators – and to put
clean clothes on. Each Navy (fleet) had
contacted each other and it (the battle) hadn't started yet... In case of
wounds, it wouldn’t get an infection as fast if you’ve got a clean body and
clean clothes on. We were a bunch
of scared sailors.
We broke away from the Task Force and went one direction and they went another.
And the next morning, the Japanese saw us and they thought we were an aircraft
carrier, because we got this catwalk (gestures with hand) and from the sky, it
looked like a… Anyway, they sunk us
and they sunk the destroyer that was protecting us…
Was that the (U.S.S.) Sims?
Was this in the Coral Sea, then?
Coral Sea Battle.
So this was the Battle of the Coral Sea, o.k.
"We were a bunch
of scared sailors."
We’d left the night before and the next morning... They also sunk the
(carrier) Lexington and they damaged the (carrier) Yorktown.
Were these dive bombers, did you say?
Dive bombers. There was 24 of them that got us and the destroyer.
We saved 110 out of 296 men. A lot of the men were transferred from
other ships and they were going to go back to Pearl -- to go to new construction
back in the States <new ships under construction>. And the Sims,
they had 252 men and they saved 15, and two of them died on the way back to
Australia, and… we got beat bad…
What was your experience, what happened to you after the Neosho sunk?
Well, I was down in the Number One magazine then.
At Pearl Harbor, I was up above but I don’t know -- I got demoted or what
-- but I was down in the Number One magazine with two other guys and so I didn’t
see nothing. But I heard it over
the J-V phones, they were talking, “Here comes three, three off our bow..” or
“off our stern…”
Three airplanes, yeah. There
were 24 of them, and we were credited with three -- three shot down and four
probable – you know, they were still in the air.
One of them dove into our – it was on flames – and it dove into our stack
deck in the rear. Anyway, when
you’d take a hit -- if it was way back in the stern, which a lot of them were,
or amidships, you’d feel the ship would jar (gestures with body).
But the worst one I felt was a near miss where... I was on the starboard
side where I was standing, and the cork plaster came down and… loud noise and…
(crossing arms) I went on one side and the guy on the other side went over there
(colliding hands), and the guy that was on the phone, he was laughing.
We were scared, we were all scared.
And somebody yelled, “Are you guys still alive down there?”, and I said “Yes, we
are but I’m sure scared.” And he
laughed and said, “So are we.”
Anyway, after a while, they (the planes) left and we heard “abandon ship”, and I
went over the side. And there was smoke coming up from the dive bomber that dove
into us and a friend of mine went (dove) first and I went second. And I didn’t have a life jacket because someone stole it
under my bunk before I got there, and I know who it was too. I was out there swimming and having a hard time and no life
jacket and I thought, “Well, what the hell… I might as well end this.”
I went down – I was going to drown myself.
Then I thought, “What the hell, I’ll try.”
I came up and this guy says, “Hold on, Bill, hold on. I’ll help
you.” And he swam and I held onto
his life jacket. And pretty soon a motor whaleboat came by and he picked me
up, and he picked up 40 guys we had in that whale boat, a 38-foot boat, and we
stayed there circling around the ship, and stayed there until the next morning
when we went back on the Neosho…
"After a while,
we heard 'abandon ship' and I went over the side."
You went back on board the Neosho?
it was still floating?
It was floating and it was… the starboard side was underwater, see.
It had a list, a 30-degree list.
And we all went back there and for about four days, we were working. We were going to try to get more life boats off and try to
make it to Australia, which was about 500 miles away… Anyway, a destroyer come
and picked us up, and the ship was still doing good, it didn’t sink.
It took seven hits. And so
the destroyer put it under with shell fire.
Were you sure it was an American destroyer when it was approaching?
Oh, I was scared shitless.
The main thing… you know, it was hot there, it was hot: H – O – T.
And we were all working hard to try to make it back to… we were going to try to
get to Australia. We didn’t know
what happened in the battle or nothing.
And we were working away on the lines, trying to get this boat -- we didn’t have
any power -- block and tackle (referring
to the effort to free the No. 2 Motor Launch from its davits, using only block
and tackle). And were trying to get this… and a plane came flying over us
and we didn’t see it until it was over us and we looked up and here’s an
Australian Lockheed Hudson crew and the rear gunner has got his machine gun
(gestures) and he’s laughing and waving to us and, jeez, it scared the hell out
of us until we found that it was an Australian.
And then after that, a PBY (scout plane) come by and waved to us, and
then after that (the next day) came the destroyer, the Henley, to pick us up.
And boy, were we glad to get to Australia. And then, the payoff is… we get back to the states and
we get 15 days leave and 5 days traveling time and I come home and I get sick
But anyway, we go back to the Naval station in California and they put me on a
tanker and they called it the U.S.S. Neosho, after the first one.
And I was on that for 13 months.
We had a crazy, mad engineering officer that would come down every watch and
chew everybody out and he was crazy.
Anyway, the best thing that ever happened to me was when I got appendicitis on
liberty in Hollywood. I was going
to go watch a radio show. And after that my duty was good.
They even tried to make an officer out of me, but it didn’t work.
Now, I've talked a lot and it's Don's turn.