U.S.S. Neosho

Captain John S. Phillips


After the sinking of the tanker U.S.S. Neosho during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942, the ship's captain, John S. Philips, returned to America.  He was the only navy captain the ship ever knew. 


Phillips was offered the command of another ship in the U.S. Navy but he turned it down and never went to sea again, too shaken by the events during the battle and of losing many of his crew.  He remained in the navy, however, and eventually reached the rank of Rear Admiral, then he retired in 1947 at age 52.  Phillips lived the last years of his life in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.  He died at age 80 on December 17, 1975 at Bethesda Naval Hospital and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.  He and his wife Nancy never had children.



This recording, Fat Girl, is from the 1943 radio show "Cavalcade of America."  It's a dramatization of the attack on the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor and during the Battle of the Coral Sea.


The saga of the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor and in the Coral Sea was the topic of a 30-minute radio dramatization broadcast in 1943 as part of a weekly radio show called "Cavalcade of America."  To listen to this episode, visit the website: https://archive.org/details/OTRR_Cavalcade_of_America_Singles and refer to episode "CALV 430510 - 330 Fat Girl." 


At the end of the 30-minute radio broadcast Captain Philips speaks for a few minutes to commemorate the valiant Neosho crewman who were lost during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  To my knowledge, this is the only recording of his voice on the Internet.  Links sometimes get broken over time, or disappear entirely, so I've posted that same recording here.  Below I've posted a transcript of Captain Phillips' comments at the end of the radio program.



Comments by Captain John S. Phillips



Tonight, I have again relived the death struggle of the U.S.S. Neosho in the Coral Sea. 

May I take this opportunity to pay tribute to my heroic men who so gallantly defended their ship in the battle for her life.  To those of them at sea or on land who may be listening in tonight, I send my warmest greetings.  To the families of those who are no longer here, who paid with everything they had so the Neosho might live, I want to say their sacrifice was not made in vain, and they are tonight remembered and sorely missed.

This courageous group of patriots, who went forth to do their part in restoring to the world at large those inalienable rights of freedom for which this country stands from these men, from all men who are out there facing death so that we might live, there is a three-fold message to you.

First, work as you have never worked before to make our country strong in unity that unity which alone can bring us speedy victory and preclude the unnecessary loss of life.

Second, have faith in all of those men, faith in your associates, faith in your government, and faith in your God.

And third, see to it that when victory has been won, we use it to build a world in which the future generations will not again be called upon to pay in blood for the freedoms that are ours and which we enjoy.



Years ago my cousin, Bob Leu (the son of Bill Leu who served under Captain Phillips on the Neosho) bought a used copy of "Fat Girl," a book written in 1943 about the U.S.S. Neosho which I describe on my Sources page.  As Bob was looking through the book, he discovered two newspaper obituaries pressed in the pages that described the life of John Phillips (albeit with a few historical inaccuracies).  Bob was kind enough to type them for me and I've included them below.


From The Washington Post  (Sunday, December 21, 1975)


Saved Tanker at Pearl Harbor

Rear Adm. John S. Phillips, 80, Dies


Rear Admiral John S. Phillips, whose exploits during World War II included safely sailing his heavily loaded tanker clear of Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, died Wednesday at Bethesda Naval Medical Center after a brief illness.  He was 80 and lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

Above:  Captain John S. Phillips, the only commander of the tanker U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23).

Adm. Phillips, a native of Alexandria, attended the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and was a graduate of the Class of 1918, which actually graduated in 1917 to speed the young ensigns into battle during World War I. Between the two wars, Adm. Phillips served in various posts around the country.

On Dec. 7, 1941, he was stationed aboard the naval oiler Neosho at Pearl Harbor.  During the Japanese attack against the naval base, Adm. Phillips, then a commander, ordered his ship to clear the harbor to remove the Neosho as a serious hazard.  They steamed safely clear under a hail of bullets and bombs.  Adm. Phillips received the Navy Cross for his heroism.

In May, 1942, Adm. Phillips and the Neosho were part of the American fleet that turned back the Japanese advance toward Australia during the Battle of Coral Sea.  The Neosho's luck ran out during the battle on May 7, the tanker was struck by seven bombs and soon sank, taking more than half its crew with it.  Adm. Phillips and the survivors escaped in the ship's boats. They bobbed for four days in the open sea.  On May 11, a Canadian aircraft participating in the search flew overhead, signaling: "Do you need help?"  Adm. Phillips signaled his response: "What do you think?"

Adm. Phillips later served in naval intelligence and taught naval courses at the university level.  He retired in 1947 and settled in Arlington, where he pursued his interest in golf.  He and his wife moved to Fort Lauderdale in the late 1950s.

Adm. Phillips is survived by his wife, Nancy, of the home in Fort Lauderdale.



From The Washington Star  (Sunday, December 21, 1975)

Adm. John Phillips Dies;
Saved Pearl Harbor Ship


Rear Adm. John S. Phillips, 80, who saved his ship during the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor only to lose it during the battle of the Coral Sea, died Wednesday after a brief illness in Bethesda Naval Hospital.  He had lived in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., since leaving the District in 1960.


On Dec. 7, 1941, Phillips, then a captain, was commanding an oil tanker, the Neosho, in Pearl Harbor.  When the Japanese attacked, he moved his ship from the harbor, avoiding a serious fire.  He received the Navy Cross for his action.


Six months later, his ship was attacked by Japanese planes during the battle of the Coral Sea.  "We figured we were so far behind the battle area that nothing could possibly happen to us," Phillips recalled.  "We were protected by one destroyer and were just cruising along waiting to refuel the ships in the battle."


"But all of a sudden, we were discovered by Japanese planes.  That was it.  In a few hours the destroyer was sunk with the loss of almost 300 men.  My ship was not sunk but it was a derelict.  My losses in men were almost as great as the destroyer's."  Phillips said he believed his ship was one of the first to be hit by kamikaze planes.  He floated in an open boat for four days before being rescued.


Before the war, he served two tours as professor of Naval Science and Tactics at the Naval Academy and Northwestern University.  When Phillips retired from the intelligence division of naval operations in 1947, he moved to Arlington, where he resumed his truncated golf career at the Army Navy Country Club.


An avid golfer since he was 15, Phillips studied the game from all angles and was an acknowledged expert on building and keeping greens.  He was honorary member of the Golf Course Superintendents of America.  In 1955, he was elected president of the D.C. Golf Association, and the Northern Virginia representative of the Virginia Golf Association.  He also was named to the tournament committee of the U.S. Golf Association's national seniors championship.


He leaves his wife, Nancy.  Services will be held at 10:45 a.m. tomorrow at Ft. Myer Chapel.  Burial will be in Arlington Cemetery.



Table of Contents:

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

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


SECTION 1:  Background

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos


SECTION 2:  Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)


Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Attack on Pearl Harbor

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


SECTION 3:  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 Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho

May 7, 1942:  The Japanese Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting for Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)

List of Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Neosho:  Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Sims:  Survivors and Casualties

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Battle of the Coral Sea

Action Report of U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of U.S.S. Sims

Action Report of U.S.S. Helm

Other Ships at the Battle of the 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)

Battle of the Coral Sea Scrapbook

Honolulu Newspaper:  May 8, 1942

S.F. Examiner Article:  July 10, 1942


SECTION 4:  Aftermath


President Bush's 1991 Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times Article:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

>  John S. Phillips, Captain of the U.S.S. Neosho

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

Fireman Third Class, Bill Leu

Jack Rolston and the Tragic "Raft of 68"

Links, Sources and Further Information

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