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Home > Family History > USS Neosho Home Page > Neosho Veteran's Forum > Jack Rolston

 

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran:  Jack Rolston

(1924 - 2010)

 

 

Of all the veteran's stories from the Battle of the Coral Sea, one the most poignant is that of David Jackson "Jack" Rolston.  Born and raised in Smithville, Missouri, Jack was in high school in 1941 when the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor and volunteered for the U.S. Navy shortly afterwards.  He enlisted with several of his buddies from Missouri, including Ken Bright, Noel Craven, and Grove Hough, and all became seamen second class.  In early 1942, they boarded the tanker U.S.S. Neosho in San Diego, shortly after the ship had narrowly survived the attack at Pearl Harbor and as it was being outfitted with more armament and preparing to convey yet another load of fuel to the depot at Pearl Harbor.

 

A few months later, in May of 1942, Jack and his three buddies were on the Neosho during the Battle of the Coral Sea, when the ship was attacked by several dozen Japanese dive bombers.  During the fierce attack, Jack manned an anti-aircraft gun, possibly shooting down one Japanese plane.  His buddy, Noel Craven, helped feed the gun but was killed, while Jack took several bullets in his leg and shrapnel in his back.  After hearing the call to abandon ship, dozens of men from the Neosho, including Jack, Ken Bright, and Grove Hough, leaped into the ocean, fearing that the burning and listing tanker would sink.  They clambered into a life raft and lashed it to other rafts, and the 68 men on these rafts slowly drifted away from the Neosho, without food or water.  They didn't realize, of course, that if they had stayed on the heavily damaged Neosho, which remained afloat, they would've been rescued by an American destroyer four days later.

 

 
 

  Above:  Jack Rolston

The open raft drifted west over the next several days, and in the hot sun and with no drinking water, men began to die.  Many, in delirium, drank sea water and perished.  Jack's buddy, Grove Hough, died on the raft and Jack helped bury him at sea.  One man, seaman second class William Smith, became the leader of the dwindling group. 

 

After nine days, only four men were left when the raft was spotted by the American destroyer, U.S.S. Helm.  The survivors, emaciated and nearly delirious, included Jack, his friend Ken Bright, William Smith and seaman second class Thaddeus Tunnel.  Jack would later tell me that as the Helm appeared on the horizon, Smith was the only man on the raft with enough strength to stand up, propped up by an oar and hoping to attract the Helm's attention.  Sailors on the Helm saw a faint object on the horizon, and with that, the four men on the raft were rescued.  Sadly though, Ken Bright and Thaddeus Tunnel died shortly after being rescued.  Thus, Jack Rolston and William Smith were the only survivors of the Raft of 68.  After recovering in a Brisbane hospital, Jack returned to Missouri in the U.S.  His father, who heard that Jack had died during the battle, then later was rescued, waited for Jack at the train station for 50 hours until Jack appeared.

 

While doing research for this section of my website in 2003, I learned about Jack and sent him a letter.  He wrote back and kindly sent me several documents, some of which I've posted here.  I called Jack a few months later to ask him some questions, but his attitude had changed drastically, and he told me that my letter to him months earlier had reopened old wounds.  From his voice, I could tell that he was distraught, and he told me that he'd been reliving the horror of the raft incident ever since.  Some of the men on the raft, he said, had been his closest friends and he had watched them die, one by one.  Of course, I felt absolutely terrible about this and learned how scars from an incident like this many decades earlier might never heal.  Jack asked me not to call him again and I promised I wouldn't contact him in any way.  I also removed all references to him on my website to protect his privacy so that others wouldn't contact him.

 

In 2012, I learned from one of his relatives that Jack had died two years earlier.  I hadn't contacted Jack since 2003, protecting his privacy as he'd requested, but I was greatly saddened to learn of his passing.  Considering my promise to Jack, I debated whether or not to post his story and that of the Raft of 68, but then I remembered Jack's letter to me in 2003.  In that letter, Jack told me that he wanted others to know about those men on the raft so they wouldn't be forgotten.  After thinking about that, I decided to post this page as a tribute to Jack and the men who perished on the raft.

 

I never met Jack but will always hold him in the highest regard.  He was the last of the 68 men, a sad and little-known story that has been lost to the waves of time.

 


I've posted below several articles and photos Jack sent me in 2003.

 

 

   

Above left:  Jack, shortly after enlisting in the U.S. Navy.

Above right:  Jack and his buddies volunteering for the U.S. Navy, shortly after the U.S. entered World War II.  Several names have been hand-written on this photo.  Many of these men, including Ken Bright and Noel Craven, served on the U.S.S. Neosho and died at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

Above:  Jack Rolston, William Smith, Ken Bright and Thaddeus Tunnel being rescued after nine days at sea.  With an arrow, Jack pointed himself out.  The whaleboat of the U.S.S. Helm is on the left and the rafts, by now flattened and stacked atop one another for buoyancy, are on the right.

 

   

Above left:  The telegram that Jack's parents received on June 13, 1942, about a month after the battle, saying that Jack was missing in action.

Above right:  Telegram his parents received on July 24, 1942, about a month later, saying that Jack was safe.

 

       

Above left:  Article stating that Jack had died during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Above center:  Article stating that Jack was missing and presumed dead.

Above right:  Article about the U.S.S. Neosho being attacked at Coral Sea.

 

       

Above left:  Jack's ordeal at sea.

Above center:  News of Jack's survival.

Above right:  Jack returns home.

 

   

Above left:  Article about the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Above right:  The death of Grove Hough, one of the men on the ill-fated "Raft of 68."

 

 

Table of Contents:

U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page

 

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Pearl Harbor Attack  (December 7, 1941)

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Bill Leu Interview:  Pearl Harbor Attack

U.S. Navy Action Report:  U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

Battle Action:  May 8, 1942

The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

List of Survivors & Casualties

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942 - cont.)

Bill Leu Interview:  Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Coral Sea

Action Report of the U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of the U.S.S. Sims

U.S.S. Helm Report

Other Ships at Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (Neosho's Escort)

The U.S.S. Henley (Neosho's Rescuer)

The U.S.S. Helm (Rescued Life Raft)

Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article, July 10, 1942

 

Aftermath

President Bush's Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips

 

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

 

Sources & Further Information