2002 Interview With Bill Leu:
The Battle of the Coral Sea


As I described on my U.S.S. Neosho Home Page, I interviewed my uncle, Bill Leu, in November of 2002, a few months before he passed away.  During that interview, Bill described his experience on the U.S.S. Neosho at the Battle of the Coral Sea.  I hadn't realized it while I was interviewing him, but this was the first time Bill had discussed some of these stories with anyone, the memories being so painful.  Not even his wife or children had heard him talk about his experiences at the Coral Sea or Pearl Harbor, 60 years earlier.  Bill had always been like my second father and I was greatly saddened when he died suddenly about six months after the interview.


I posted the interview below, which is also on YouTube.  To my knowledge, this is one of the few recordings available on the Internet of a Coral Sea survivor describing his experiences during the battle.  I've posted the transcript of the interview below.  You can also watch my interview with Bill as he described the surprise attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941, which I've posted here.


Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu, in my 2002 video interview with him.  In this segment, Bill describes how the U.S.S. Neosho and the destroyer that was escorting it, the U.S.S. Sims, were sunk by 24 Japanese dive bombers during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. 


Above:  My dad (left) and his brother Bill during their interview in 2002, describing their experiences in the U.S. Navy 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.




Above left:  My uncle, Bill Leu, Fireman 3rd Class, in 1941, shortly after he enlisted in the U.S. Navy.  Bill served on the U.S.S. Neosho during its entire active service, from July 1941 until May 1942, when it was sunk at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Above right:  This is the last known picture taken of the U.S.S. Neosho.  It was taken from a Japanese plane about 1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, after Japanese dive bombers attacked the Neosho and its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims. 


Transcript of Interview with Bill Leu:

Battle of the Coral Sea (1942)


Del:  So then after Pearl Harbor then, your ship… were you sent down to the south Pacific right after that?


Bill:  First of all, three days after the war started, we went out with some remnants of the fleet, just some cruisers and destroyers looking for the Japanese.  But I don’t think they looked very hard because we didn’t have much left.  And we went out to fuel them.  And then we went back to… we hurried back to the states and had eight 20-millimeter machine guns put on her, tacked on our deck so we could defend ourselves.  And then about January or something we started going out to the Task Force and we’d fuel them.  And we fueled… there’d be cruisers, destroyers, and maybe two aircraft carriers, and we fueled them.  And when we were out there fueling them, we were the most important ship in the Task Force.  They’d all protect us, you know.


Above:  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Yorktown (left) on May 2, 1942, a few days before the Battle of the Coral Sea.

One time, we got a torpedo across the bow and we were fueling the Chicago, a heavy cruiser, at the time.  And I’ll never forget the way they cut their lines and took off.  They wanted to get the hell out of there.  They didn’t want to be around a tanker.  They cut across our bow and we started zig-zagging and then I don’t know what happened after that.


Anyway, the third time out there, I think it was, we got out there and we fueled the task force, the <aircraft carrier> Hornet – no, not the Hornet – the Lexington and the Yorktown.  And after we fueled them, the night of May the… May something or another, second or third  – second I think… They told us all we had to take fresh-water showers.  Because we were taking salt-water showers because we didn’t have enough fresh water making out of our evaporators – and to put clean clothes on.  Each navy <Yorktown and Lexington task forces> had contacted each other and it <the battle> hadn't started yet... In case of wounds, it wouldn’t get an infection as fast if you’ve got a clean body and clean clothes on.  We were a bunch of scared sailors.


We broke away from the Task Force and went one direction and they went another.  And the next morning, the Japanese saw us and they thought we were an aircraft carrier, because we got this catwalk and from the sky, it looked like a…  Anyway, they sunk us and they sunk the destroyer that was protecting us.


Don:  Was that the <U.S.S.> Sims?


Bill:  Yeah. 


Del:  Was this in the Coral Sea, then?


Bill:  Coral Sea Battle.


Del:  So this was the Battle of the Coral Sea, o.k.



"We were a bunch of scared sailors."



Bill:  We’d left <the task force> the night before and the next morning... They also sunk the Lexington and they damaged the Yorktown.


Del:  Were these dive bombers, did you say?


Bill:  Dive bombers.  There was 24 of them that got us and the destroyer.  We saved 110 out of 296 men.  A lot of the men were transferred from other ships and they were going to go back to Pearl – to go to new construction back in the states <new ships under construction>.  And the Sims, they had 252 men and they saved 15, and two of them died on the way back to Australia, and… We got beat bad.


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

Del:  What was your experience? What happened to you after the Neosho sunk?


Bill:  Well, I was down in the Number One magazine then.  At Pearl Harbor, I was up above.  But I don’t know – I got demoted or what – but I was down in the Number One magazine with two other guys and so I didn’t see nothing.  But I heard it over the J-V phones, they were talking, “Here comes three, three off our bow..” or “off our stern…”


Del:  Three airplanes?


Bill:  Three airplanes, yeah.  There were 24 of them, and we were credited with three – three shot down and four probable – you know, they were still in the air.  One of them dove into our – it was on flames – and it dove into our stack deck in the rear. 


Anyway, when you’d take a hit – if it was way back in the stern, which a lot of them were, or amidships, you’d feel the ship would jar <gestures with body>.  But the worst one I felt was a near miss where... I was on the starboard side where I was standing, and the cork plaster came down and… loud noise.  And <crossing arms> I went on one side and the guy on the other side went over there <colliding hands>.  And the guy that was on the phone, he was laughing.  We were scared.  We were all scared.  And somebody yelled, “Are you guys still alive down there?”  And I said, “Yes we are, but I’m sure scared!”  And he laughed and said, “So are we!”


Anyway, after a while, they <the planes> left and we heard “abandon ship,” and I went over the side.  And there was smoke coming up from the dive bomber that dove into us and a friend of mine went first and I went second.  And I didn’t have a life jacket because someone stole it under my bunk before I got there, and I know who it was, too. 



"After a while, we heard 'abandon ship' and I went over the side."



I was out there swimming and having a hard time and no life jacket and I thought, “Well, what the hell, I might as well end this.”  I went down – I was going to drown myself.  Then I thought, “What the hell, I’ll try.”  I came up and this guy says, “Hold on, Bill, hold on.  I’ll help you.”  And he swam and I held onto his life jacket.  And pretty soon a motor whaleboat came by and he picked me up.  And he picked up 40 guys we had in that whale boat, a 38-foot boat, and we stayed there circling around the ship, and stayed there until the next morning when we went back on the Neosho.


Del:  You went back on board the Neosho?


Bill:  Yeah.


Del:  So it was still floating?


Bill:  It was floating and it was… the starboard side was underwater, see.  It had a list, a 30-degree list.  And we all went back there and for about four days, we were working.  We were going to try to get more life boats off and try to make it to Australia, which was about 500 miles away.  Anyway, a destroyer come and picked us up, and the ship was still doing good, it didn’t sink.  It took seven hits.  And so the destroyer put it under with shell fire.


Del:  Were you sure it was an American destroyer when it was approaching?


Bill:  Oh, I was scared shitless.  The main thing, you know, it was hot there.  It was hot:  H – O – T.  And we were all working hard to try to make it back to… we were going to try to get to Australia.  We didn’t know what happened in the battle or nothing.  And we were working away on the lines, trying to get this boat – we didn’t have any power – block and tackle  <referring to the effort to free the No. 2 Motor Launch from its davits, using only block and tackle>.  And were trying to get this…


And a plane came flying over us, and we didn’t see it until it was over us.  And we looked up and here’s an Australian Lockheed Hudson crew and the rear gunner has got his machine gun and he’s laughing and waving to us.  And jeez, it scared the hell out of us until we found that it was Australian.  And then after that <the next day>, a PBY <scout plane> come by and waved to us, and then after that came the destroyer, the Henley, to pick us up. 


And boy, were we glad to get to Australia.   And then, the payoff is… we get back to the states and we get 15 days leave and five days traveling time and I come home and I get sick with laryngitis.


But anyway, we go back to the Naval Station in California and they put me on a tanker and they called it the U.S.S. Neosho, after the first one.  And I was on that for 13 months.  We had a crazy, mad engineering officer that would come down every watch and chew everybody out and he was crazy.


Anyway, the best thing that ever happened to me was when I got appendicitis on liberty in Hollywood.  I was going to go watch a radio show.  And after that my duty was good.  They even tried to make an officer out of me, but it didn’t work.  Now, I've talked a lot and it's Don's turn.



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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