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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
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
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.
left: Jack, shortly after enlisting in the
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
served on the U.S.S. Neosho and died at the Battle of the Coral Sea.
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.
left: The telegram that Jack's parents received on June
13, 1942, about a month after the battle, saying that Jack was missing in
right: Telegram his parents received on July 24, 1942,
about a month later, saying that Jack was safe.
left: Article stating
that Jack had died during the Battle of the Coral Sea.
center: Article stating that
Jack was missing and presumed dead.
right: Article about the U.S.S. Neosho being attacked
at Coral Sea.
left: Jack's ordeal at
center: News of Jack's survival.
right: Jack returns home.
left: Article about the
Battle of the Coral Sea.
right: The death of Grove Hough, one of the men
on the ill-fated "Raft of 68."
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