U.S.S. Neosho Veteran: 

Bill Leu

(1922 - 2003)

 

My uncle, William A. 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 his wife, Minnie.  During the Great Depression in the 1930s, George lost his grocery store and moved the Leu family to the small logging town of Skykomish, 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 told me years later.

 

Above:  The Leu family around 1927 in Ballard, Washington.  My father, Don Leu is in the front row, left.  Bill is standing next to Don.  They were best friends their entire lives.

After graduating from Skykomish High School in 1940, Bill worked in the nearby timber mill for a year.  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 joked later.

 

That spring he signed onto the new navy tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho, in Bremerton, Washington, where the ship was being prepared for wartime activity.   At that time, the 553-foot long Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world.  Bill served in the Neosho's "black gang," the men who worked down in the engine room, a term held over from the days of coal-fired ships.

 

Bill served on the Neosho during the summer and fall of 1941 as it made repeated trips across the Pacific, carrying fuel from San Pedro, California to the U.S. Navy 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 night in the engine room and was just getting off his shift the next morning, on December 7 around 8 a.m., when he started hearing loud noises.  When Bill's crewmates told him that Japanese planes were attacking the U.S. fleet, he ran forward on the Neosho's catwalk to his battle station at the three-inch gun on the ship's bow.  He was the first person to reach his battle station but, to his dismay, he discovered that everything was locked up.

 

Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu in 1940, shortly after he joined the U.S. Navy.

After the other crewmen arrived, the hatches were unlocked and Bill began using a block-and-tackle to hoist up three-inch shells to the gunnery crew.  It was fruitless though because everyone knew the prospect of hitting a Japanese plane at such close range with a three-inch gun was slim.  The Neosho emerged unscathed from the attack thanks to the quick thinking of its captain, John Phillips, who, during a lull in the battle, guided the Neosho to the relative safety of the Oahu mainland.

 

Six months later, in May of 1942, Bill was serving on the Neosho in the Coral Sea where the U.S. fleet, with the aircraft carriers U.S.S. Lexington and U.S.S. Yorktown, had gathered to thwart a Japanese invasion of New Guinea.  The Japanese hoped to cut off Australia and New Zealand from the Allies and force those countries to sue for peace.  On May 6, the Neosho and its escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, detached from the main U.S. fleet, which then sped ahead in search of the Japanese fleet, leaving the Neosho and Sims behind in a supposed "safe area."  The next morning, Japanese planes spotted both ships.  Mistaking the flat-topped Neosho for an aircraft carrier and the Sims for a cruiser, 24 Japanese dive bombers attacked, sinking the Sims quickly and heavily damaging the Neosho.

 

During the attack, Bill was stationed once again on the bow, but this time he was down below, feeding shells to the men up above.  Therefore he 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 taken it.  With a buddy, Bill ran to the railing and, without a life preserver, he jumped into the rough and shark-infested seas.  He nearly drowned but was rescued by one of the Neosho's motorized whaleboats.  He and everyone else in the boat spent that first evening circling the burning Neosho while keeping their distance from the ship, afraid the big tanker would capsize and sink.

 

Above:  Bill working in the engine room of the U.S.S. Neosho.  The ghost faces are from a double-exposure.

The next morning, May 9, Bill and most of the surviving crewmen went back onboard the listing and disabled Neosho.  Only 130 crewmen had survived from the original complement of 293.  For the next several days, Bill worked with the Chief Engineer Louis Verbrugge (pronounced "ver-BREW-ghee") and other men in the engineering group, trying to lower a large and heavy whaleboat, which was still swinging on its davits.  It was a daunting task given the lack of power and the Neosho's 30-degree list. 

 

By this time the men had given up hope of being rescued, knowing that incorrect coordinates had been transmitted to the main U.S. fleet shortly after the attack on the Neosho.  The navy's search effort was focused 40 miles away.

 

After the men successfully lowered the whaleboat into the water, and as Captain Phillips was planning to order all the survivors into the motor whaleboats for a 500-mile trip across the ocean to Australia, a U.S. destroyer, the U.S.S. Henley, appeared on the horizon and rescued the crewmen, including Bill.  They had been on the battered Neosho for four days.  After Bill recuperated in Brisbane, Australia, he was sent back to the U.S. and returned home to Skykomish for two weeks of rest.  He then returned to San Pedro, California, where he was assigned to another ship, ironically also a tanker and also named the U.S.S. Neosho (AO-48), named after the ship which had sunk at Coral Sea. 

 

Above:  Story in the Skykomish newspaper in 1942 welcoming Bill home during his two-week leave after his ordeal in the Coral Sea.

Bill served on the AO-48 throughout the Pacific, including in the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, then he returned with the ship to San Pedro.  On leave one Saturday evening in Hollywood in 1943, 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 August 1945 when the Japanese surrendered, ending World War II.

 

Bill returned to Skykomish, Washington, after the war and became a train engineer on the Great Northern (later Burlington Northern) Railroad.  As a kid, I remember seeing my Uncle Bill wearing his blue engineer's overalls stained with diesel oil and his Great Northern engineer's cap, which he wore proudly.  He 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 though he always beat me at golf.  Bill was a wonderful man, very honest, trusting, and compassionate, and I always enjoyed being with him.

 

Bill was very proud of his service on the U.S.S. Neosho and rightfully so.  He attended several Neosho reunions in Neosho, Missouri (site of the Neosho River and the ship's namesake) and went to many anniversary commemorations at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, while proudly wearing his "Pearl Harbor Survivor" cap.  However, like many veterans, he never talked with his family about his wartime experiences.  Most of what little I knew about Bill's experience on the Neosho I had learned from my father, himself a World War II navy veteran.

 

After my father was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, I videotaped an interview with my dad and his older brother Bill, and it was during that interview that Bill described to me his experiences on the U.S.S. Neosho for the first time.  He had never even shared those painful stories, from 60 years earlier, with his family, who were sitting nearby and listening in awe.  Sadly, my father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died suddenly a few months later.  That interview and Bill's subsequent death inspired me, in 2004, 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:  Bill with his wife, Lois, and their children, Bob and Brenda, in 1978.

Above right:  My dad (left) and my uncle Bill Leu (right) during their interview in 2002 two navy veterans discussing their experiences during World War II.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died a few months later.

 

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)

Introduction

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)

Introduction

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

Introduction

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"

Storekeeper Third Class Earl Couse

Pharmacist's Mate Third Class Henry Tucker

Links, Sources and Further Information

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