U.S.S. Neosho Veteran:

Jack Rolston

(1924 - 2010)

 

Of all the veteran's stories from the Battle of the Coral Sea, perhaps the most poignant is that of David Jackson "Jack" Rolston.  Born and raised in Smithville, Missouri, Jack was in high school when the Japanese attacked the U.S. fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December 1941, plunging America into World War II.

 

Above:  Jack's friends, including Ken Bright and Noel Craven, enlisting in Missouri.  He marked this photo up for me with their names.

Jack volunteered for the U.S. Navy immediately after the attack, joined by several of his close friends, including Ken Bright, Noel Craven, and Grove Hough.  The navy sent the four boys from Missouri, all Seamen Second Class, to San Diego, California where they were assigned to the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho, which had narrowly survived the surprise attack in Hawaii a few months earlier.

 

My uncle, Bill Leu, was onboard the Neosho as it pulled into the San Diego shipyard.  Over the next week the ship was outfitted with additional armaments to protect itself, including eight 20-millimeter anti-aircraft guns tacked onto its deck to battle Japanese planes.  With the work finished, the Neosho, now with some additional crew, including Jack and his friends, carried an invaluable load of fuel across the Pacific to the depot at the U.S. Pacific Fleet's new headquarters in Pearl Harbor.

 

Above:  Jack after enlisting in the navy in 1942.

A few months later, in May of 1942, Jack and his buddies were serving on the U.S.S. Neosho in the Coral Sea, near Australia, when the ship was attacked by 24 Japanese dive bombers.  Jack manned an anti-aircraft gun during the fierce attack, possibly shooting down one plane while taking several bullets in his leg and shrapnel in his back.  His buddy, Noel Craven, helped feed the gun but was badly injured during the attack and died afterwards.  After hearing the call to abandon ship, dozens of men from the Neosho, including Jack, Ken Bright and Grove Hough, leaped into the rough seas, fearing that the burning and listing tanker would sink.  They clambered into a life raft and lashed it to three other rafts, also filled with survivors of the attack.  The 68 men on these four rafts slowly drifted away from the big ship the "Fat Lady" she was called without food or water.

 

They weren't concerned though, since they figured they would be rescued by the U.S. fleet later that day or the next day, at the latest.  Surely American ships were on their way to help them.  But they didn't realize the Neosho had radioed the wrong coordinates to the fleet before the power was knocked out.  Therefore, while the navy commenced a search for the survivors later that day, it focused on empty seas 40 miles from the battered tanker.  Jack and the others also didn't realize that if they had stayed on the disabled Neosho, which remained afloat due to its partly-emptied cargo tanks, they would've been rescued by an American destroyer four days later.

 

 
 

 Above:  Jack Rolston

The open rafts, lashed together, slowly drifted west during 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.  Others died from shark attacks.  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 at sea only four survivors remained:  Jack, his friend Ken Bright, William Smith and Seaman Second Class Thaddeus Tunnel, from Arkansas.  They were all badly sun-burned, emaciated, dehydrated and nearly delirious.  That afternoon they spotted a vessel far in the distance, hoping it was an American ship and not Japanese.  In fact, it was the American destroyer, U.S.S. Helm, which had been searching for survivors of the attack on the Neosho nine days earlier.  Jack would later tell me that as the U.S.S. Helm appeared on the horizon, Smith was the only man on the raft strong enough to stand up.  As Smith climbed to his feet to attract the ship's attention, his buddies helped support him with an oar.

 

Sailors on the destroyer Helm saw a faint object on the horizon, so the ship changed course and approached.  Nearing the raft, the destroyer lowered a motor launch into the Coral Sea and rescued the four men, then the ship sped to the nearest hospital, in Brisbane, Australia, 500 miles away. 

 

Above:  Jack Rolston, William Smith, Ken Bright and Thaddeus Tunnel being rescued after nine days at sea.  Jack sent me this photo in 2003.  With an arrow, he pointed himself out.  The launch of the U.S.S. Helm is on the left and the rafts, which they had flattened and stacked atop one another for buoyancy, are on the right.

Sadly though, Ken Bright died on the Helm shortly after being picked up and Thaddeus Tunnel passed away a few days later in a Brisbane hospital.  Thus, Jack Rolston and William Smith were the only survivors of what I call the "Raft of 68."  After recovering in Australia, Jack returned to his home in Missouri for two weeks' leave.  His father, who heard that Jack had died during the battle, then later was rescued, waited for Jack at the train station for 50 straight 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 photocopied photos and newspaper articles, 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.  He told me that my letter months earlier had reopened old wounds that haunted him.  From his voice I could tell that he was distraught, and he told me ever since I'd written to him he'd been reliving the horror of the raft incident.  Some of the men on the raft, he told me, had been his closest friends and he had watched them die, one by one.

 

Above:  Story about Jack's friend, Grove Hough, one of the men on the ill-fated "Raft of 68."

Of course, I felt terrible about this.  Never having experienced military conflict, I hadn't realized how scars from a traumatic incident might never heal, even after many decades.  Jack asked me not to call him again and I promised that I wouldn't contact him in any way.  After speaking to him, I removed all references to Jack on my website to protect his privacy so that others wouldn't contact him either.

 

Nine years later, in 2012 I learned from one of Jack's relatives that he had died a few years earlier.  I hadn't contacted Jack since 2003, wanting to protect his privacy as he had requested.  Of course, I was saddened to learn of his passing.  Considering my promise to him so many years earlier, I debated whether or not to post Jack's story and that of the men on the Raft of 68.  At first I was hesitant, but then I remembered Jack's letter to me in 2003.  In that letter, he told me that he wanted others to know about the men who died on the raft so they would never be forgotten.  After thinking about that, I decided to create this page as a tribute to Jack and all the men on the tragic raft, especially those who perished.

 

I'm sorry to say that I never met Jack Rolston in person.  He was the last of the 68 men, a sad and little-known wartime story that has been largely lost to the waves of time.

 

   

Above left:  In 2022, 18 years after I'd posted Jack's photo above, I found these two photos on the Internet, posted on the Naval History and Heritage Command website.  This was the first photo taken of the raft survivors by crewmen on the destroyer U.S.S. Helm as they approached the raft.  I believe that's William Smith standing in the middle of the raft, the only reason the raft was spotted by the Helm.

Above right:  The photo of the rescued sailors, the same photo as survivor Jack Rolston sent me in 2003.

 


 

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

 

   

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:  The 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 in the Coral Sea.

 

       

Above:  Stories about Jack's ordeal in the Coral Sea in 1942.

 

 

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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