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Neosho Veteran: Bill Leu
(1922 - 2003)
Bill Leu, was born in 1922 and grew up in the Seattle suburb of Ballard,
Washington. He was the second youngest of six children born to George Leu,
a Seattle grocer, and Minnie May Leu. During the Great Depression, George lost his grocery store and
moved the entire Leu family to the small logging town of Skykomish, nestled in
the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle. Bill had always wanted to join the
Navy but his mother wouldn't let him until he graduated from high school,
"and I'm glad she wouldn't," he would say years later.
Above: The Leu family about 1928.
My father, Don Leu (the youngest in the family) is in the front row,
left. Bill is standing next to Don.
from Skykomish High School in 1940, Bill worked for a year in Skykomish
then, in May of 1941, six months before the U.S. entered World War II, he
enlisted with the U.S. Navy as a Fireman Third Class. "They don't
come any lower than that," he would joke later. That spring, he signed onto the
brand new Navy oiler, U.S.S.
Neosho, in Bremerton, Washington, where the ship was being converted
for wartime activity, and he began serving with the Neosho's "black
gang" down in the engine room. At that time, the 553-foot long
Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world.
Bill served on
the Neosho during the summer and fall of 1941 as it made repeated
trips carrying fuel from San Pedro, California to the Pacific Fleet's new
headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. On its sixth trip, the
Neosho pulled into Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941 and tied up at the
dock on Ford Island, where it began unloading its aviation fuel.
Bill worked all
that night in the engine room and the next morning, December 7, he started
hearing loud noises just as his shift was ending around 8 a.m. When
Bill's crewmates told him that Japanese planes were attacking the U.S. fleet,
ran forward along the Neosho's catwalk to his battle station, topsides on the bow
of the Neosho, near the 3-inch bow gun. He was the first
person to reach his battle station but, to his dismay, discovered that
everything was locked up.
After the other
crewmen arrived, the hatches were unlocked and Bill began using a
block-and-tackle to hoist up 3-inch shells and handing them to the gunnery
crew, though everyone knew the prospect of hitting a Japanese plane at
such close range with a 3-inch gun was dim. The Neosho emerged unscathed from
the attack, thanks to the quick thinking of the captain, John Phillips,
who, during a lull in the battle, guided the Neosho to the relative
safety of the Oahu mainland.
Above: Bill Leu, Fireman 3rd Class, in 1941.
Bill served on the Neosho during its entire active service, from July
1941 until May 1942.
Six months later
in May of 1942, Bill was still serving on the Neosho in the Coral
Sea, where the U.S. fleet with aircraft carriers Lexington and
Yorktown had gathered to thwart a Japanese invasion of New Guinea and,
possibly, Australia and New Zealand. On May 6, the Neosho and
its escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, detached from the main
U.S. fleet which sped ahead in search of the Japanese fleet. The
next morning, Japanese planes spotted both ships. Mistaking the
ships for an aircraft carrier and cruiser, 62 Japanese planes attacked,
sinking the Sims quickly and heavily damaging the Neosho.
the attack, Bill was stationed once again on the bow, but this time he was down
below and therefore could only listen to the horrific battle. Hearing the command to abandon ship, Bill ran to his bunk to get
his life preserver but discovered that another sailor had already taken it. With a buddy,
Bill ran to the railing and, without a life preserver, jumped into the choppy
sea. He almost drowned but
was rescued by one of the Neosho's powered whale boats, and he and everyone
else in the whale boat spent the first evening circling the burning Neosho, afraid the
big oiler would capsize and sink.
The next morning, Bill
and all the other surviving crewmen went back aboard the listing Neosho.
All tolled, only 130 crewmen survived of the original complement of 293.
For the next several days, Bill worked with Chief Engineer Louis Verbrugge
and a group of other men, trying to lower a large, heavy motorized
whaleboat which was still swinging on its davits, a daunting task
considering the lack of power and a 30-degree list. After the men
successfully lowered the boat into the ocean, and just as the captain was
about to order all the survivors into the motor whaleboats, a U.S. destroyer, the U.S.S. Henley,
appeared on the horizon and rescued the crewmen, including Bill, a full
four days after the Japanese attack.
recuperating in Brisbane, Australia, Bill was sent back to the U.S. and
returned home to Skykomish for a few days of rest. He then returned
to San Pedro, California, where he was assigned to another ship,
ironically an oiler named the U.S.S. Neosho (AO-48), which had been
named after the ship which had sunk at Coral Sea.
Bill in the engine room of one of the five ships he served on during
WW II. The ghostly faces are due to a double-exposure.
Bill served on
the AO-48 throughout the Pacific, including the Aleutian Islands in
Alaska, then returned with the ship to San Pedro. On leave one
Saturday evening in Hollywood, Bill developed appendicitis and stayed
overnight in a Navy hospital, thus missing his ship which had sailed without
him (he was a "Neosho No-show," you might say). He served on several more
ships during World War II and was in the Marshall Islands in 1945 when the
Japanese surrender was announced.
After the war,
Bill returned to Skykomish, Washington, and within a few years, he had become a train
engineer on the Great Northern (later Burlington Northern) railroad.
As a kid, I remember seeing my Uncle Bill several times wearing
his blue engineer's overalls stained with diesel oil and his Great
Northern engineer's cap, which he wore proudly.
Bill retired in
the early 1980s and, with his wife, Lois, retired in Edmonds, Washington.
Having moved to Portland, Oregon in 1991, I enjoyed visiting with my uncle
Bill several times each year, even if he always did beat me in golf. Bill was a wonderful man, he was very honest,
trusting, and compassionate, and I always enjoyed seeing him.
Bill was proud
of his service on board the U.S.S. Neosho, and rightfully so.
He attended several Neosho reunions in Missouri and went to many
anniversary commemorations at Pearl Harbor while proudly wearing his
"Pearl Harbor Survivor" cap. However, like many veterans, he never
talked with his family much about his wartime experiences. Most of
what I knew about Bill's experience on the Neosho I had learned from my
After my father
was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, I videotaped an interview with him and
his older brother Bill, and
it was during that interview that Bill described to me for the first time
his experiences on the U.S.S. Neosho. Sadly, my father passed away
shortly afterwards and Bill died suddenly a few months later. That
interview and Bill's subsequent death inspired me to develop this section
of my website describing the U.S.S. Neosho and its valiant crew.
I've posted the story of Bill's lifelong friendship
with my father at News:
December 7, 2003.
Above left: Skykomish
newspaper article about Bill's rescue in the Coral Sea.
Bill and his wife, Lois, a few years ago at their
right: My Dad (left) and my uncle Bill Leu (right)
during their interview in 2002. Sadly, this was the last time they
saw each other. My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill
died a few months later.
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