The Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho

May 7, 1942:  The Japanese Attack


Note:  This is the first of several pages that describe the ordeal of the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho during the Battle of the Coral Sea near Australia.  This page and the ones that follow include excerpts from the book, "Blue Skies and Blood" (1975) by Edwin Hoyt which I've condensed and edited.  I've also inserted photos and captions, along with quotes from my uncle, Bill Leu, who survived the ordeal.


This page describes the events of May 7, 1942, at the start of the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The Neosho and its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims, had been left behind the American fleet in a supposed safe area, as the fleet steamed ahead to try to find the Japanese navy.



On the evening of May 6, Admiral Fletcher and his staff tried to sort out the various items of intelligence they had been receiving all day long from Pearl Harbor and other sources.  They knew that somewhere around them was a large number of Japanese ships, but the reports were conflicting and confusing; virtually everything from submarines to fleet carriers had been reported.

Finally Fletcher decided that at least three carriers were in the area and that the Japanese advance was going to come through Jomard passage, up north of them.  Admiral Fletcher had hoped to top off his fuel tanks before going into action, but with the seas as they were, it would have meant heading away from the enemy to do so.  He had to run north during the night to be in position to launch search planes to confirm all the intelligence reports early in the morning.

Radar contacts and one visual sighting of an unidentified plane had suggested that the Japanese knew Fletcher was in the area and more or less what he had to work with.  So reluctantly, that evening, Fletcher detached the tanker Neosho, giving her destroyer Sims as an escort, and sent them off to be out of the way, but available in case of need.

The Japanese Find the “Aircraft Carrier” Neosho

One hour after dawn, Neosho and Sims were precisely where they were supposed to be – at 16°S, 158°E.  At dawn, Admiral Takagi had a suggestion from Admiral Hara, the carrier division commander.  Let Hara send Zuikaku's planes out to search one area behind the carrier force, and Shokaku's planes to search another – just to make sure that the Americans had not circled around and come up in the rear of the Japanese covering force.  Takagi approved.  The Zeros and the medium bombers revved up and took off from the Japanese carriers, circled and set out at 0600. 

Above:  With its flat top, the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho, was mistaken by Japanese planes for an aircraft carrier.

At 0736 the Japanese searchers in the eastern section of the zone spotted ships on the water.  The observers radioed back to the carriers that they had come upon the American carrier force.  Below, said the Japanese observer, were a carrier and a cruiser.  Admiral Hara directed the bombers to the location and the Japanese began to close in.  But the ships on which they were moving were not the American carriers, but destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho.

Just after eight o'clock that morning, lookouts on the Neosho spotted two planes, but assumed they were American planes checking on the safety of the oiler and her escort.  Shortly after nine o'clock in the morning, Chief Petty Officer Robert James Dicken of the U.S.S. Sims was sitting in the chiefs' quarters, when he heard a loud explosion.  From Neosho's bridge, Captain John S. Phillips could see that a single plane moving over Sims dropped that bomb, which exploded about a hundred yards off the starboard quarter of the destroyer.

From the bridge of the Sims, Lieutenant Commander Willford Milton Hyman, the captain of the little one-pipe destroyer, passed the order:  General Quarters.  The ship was under attack.  At the moment, some aboard the destroyer thought it was all a dreadful mistake, that one of their own planes had failed to identify the ship and bombed them by mistake.  Frantically, chief Signalman Dicken on the bridge began blinking his light, sending recognition signals.  There was no response.  The single medium bomber disappeared off to the north.

Captain Hyman ordered full speed.  The ship's guns opened up on the retreating bomber, but the plane quickly disappeared into the clouds.  Neosho changed course to starboard, and Sims, the little bulldog, kept out ahead of her, with Neosho traveling at 18 knots and Sims racing back and forth in front, from port to starboard, the sea swirling in her excited wake.

Fifteen minutes went by, and then twenty.  The ships moved on, the lookouts craning around the horizon, squinting into the sun and waiting, sure now that it was no mistake and that there would be more bombs to come.  On the bridge Captain Hyman's orders were quiet and terse; it was an eerie time, the whine of the engines driving the propellers, the swish of the sea alongside the ship, the clang of metal on metal – and still it seemed very, very quiet.  Sun and sky and sea had never been more peaceful. 

 The Attack Continues

Then, about half an hour after the first attack, little specks, ten of them, appeared in the sky in the north, before the noises of their engines could be heard.  The lookouts on Sims saw them coming.  Captain Hyman called up Captain Phillips to warn Neosho; the lookouts of the oiler had not seen the planes.  The ships changed course, swung around in a wide arc to throw off the approaching enemy, for now every man on the destroyer and the oiler knew what he must face.

The Japanese pilots saw, and with no effort at all, it seemed, adjusted and came moving in.  Still they were very high, paralleling the course of the American ships on their port side.  The bombers were so high that although Sims began firing rapidly, they were hopelessly out of range.

Above:  The navy destroyer U.S.S. Sims (DD-409).

Sims was an efficient little ship, and her captain had high marks in the service for his gunnery in particular.  It was his specialty, dating back to his boyhood when he became an expert rifle shot.  In three months' time, Captain Hyman would be forty-one years old.  More than half that life had been spent in the service of his country, and nearly all the time he had been among the leaders of the battle-ready.  He had served for a long time aboard the U.S.S. New Mexico and had been instrumental in that ship's proud victory over U.S.S. Maryland for the fleet's Battle Efficiency pennant in 1930.  Now, in the face of the enemy, such commendations seemed small turkey indeed, but in the peacetime navy in which he had grown up, such matters had been the making of a career, and Lieutenant Commander Hyman had gone on with a reputation as a potential fighter of the first rank.  Service with the staff in Washington had come and gone, then two years at the Naval Powder Factory, followed by two big jobs as a gunnery officer of cruisers, the Minneapolis and the San Francisco, and the destroyer Quincy.  Seven months earlier he finally got his own ship, the Sims.

The Japanese planes were dropping down as they moved away from the ships, and circled to come back at bombing level.  Meanwhile other bombers came up, and the Japanese flight leader split the attack in two.  Ten planes dove down to make horizontal runs over Sims, while another handful moved in on Neosho, which was about a mile astern of the destroyer.

To get the range and to give his gunners a feel for their job, Captain Hyman had loaded his ammunition supply so that every tenth shell was star-shell.  The gunners were trying to draw a bead on the approaching aircraft.  From the Sims it seemed very satisfactory.  Chief Petty Officer Dicken saw from the bridge that the Japanese were staying high and giving the ship's guns plenty of care.  All the bombs missed by a wide margin.

Neosho was also under attack.  Her captain kept changing course to confuse the planes, and her guns fired as seven bombers came in.  The tension grew on the bridge, as the war diary shows:


1006:  Changed course to 237°T.  Planes paralleled course at high altitude on port side, out of gun range and crossed bow to northeastward; Sims firing.  No bursts were observed.  Observed what were believed to be white flares dropped by planes. (These were Sim's star-shells).


1017:  Changed course to 187°T.


1023:  Sighted approximately seven enemy planes bearing 010°T.  Sims commenced firing.


1024:  Changed course to 242°T.


1025:  Changed course to 207°T; commenced firing with 3”/50 caliber guns.  Again observed what were assumed to be white flares from planes.


1033:  Changed course to 243°T.


1034:  Group of 10 planes approached from 140°T, of which three planes (twin-engine bombers) broke off and commenced horizontal bombing attack, others proceeded to northeastward.


Captain Phillips watched the planes as they came in on the oiler; waiting, waiting until he saw the bombs begin to fall.  Only then did he move, and ordered the ship put hard aport.

Down came the screaming missiles into the sea, sending geysers of water splashing the air.  One bomb hit a hundred yards off the starboard beam, two more were much closer, only 25 yards off target.  Had the captain not taken evasive action, they almost certainly would have smashed Neosho. 

When the attack began, Lieutenant Commander F. J. Firth, the executive officer of Neosho, was in the messhall.  He was checking on the Abandon-Ship and General-Quarters stations of several seamen from the Yorktown and the cruiser Portland who had come aboard the ship during the refueling period, and had been stuck there when Neosho was ordered away from the main force during the excitement of the night of May 6.

Commander Firth ran to his action station forward of Number 4 gun on the port side of the stack deck.  From that vantage point, he watched the attack progress as he waited for reports of damage.  When the three bombs fell so close, it was a bad moment.  A quick check revealed that there had been no casualties, and no material damage except in the engine room, where those near misses had jarred loose some electrical fittings.  Three minutes after the Japanese planes moved away Captain Phillips changed course again, and ordered the steam smothering system turned on, just in case of fire from a bomb hit. 

Sims meanwhile, had beaten off an attack.  Captain Hyman turned hard right just as ten bombers dropped their explosives.  Only one bomb came anywhere near; the Sims moved so quickly, and that one sent a piece of shrapnel slashing through the shoulder of one man on the ship's Number 2 gun.  Luckily the metal missed bone and arteries, and after the attack the pharmacist's mate bound him up and in a few minutes he was back at his post. 

Sims did have one casualty early in the battle, and it shortened her defenses; one of the 20mm guns jammed, which cut down the 20s by a quarter.

 The Third Wave

For nearly an hour and a half, the quiet of the sea returned.  From time to time, Sims's radarman reported blips on the screen.  The Japanese were moving around them, but not a single plane appeared within the glasses of Captain Hyman or Captain Phillips.  They watched, and they waited for a renewed attack that must certainly come.

Aboard Neosho Captain Phillips instructed his communications officer, a young naval reserve Lieutenant to send out contact reports, first getting the positions right by asking the ship's navigator.  But the young officer was badly rattled and failed to do his job properly.  Admiral Fletcher would have given a good deal at this moment to know that the planes attacking Sims and Neosho were carrier planes – he had no idea of the presence of the two big Japanese fleet carriers to the north of him.  Actually, at one point during the night, Admiral Takagi had been less than seventy miles away from Task Force 17, but neither commander knew it.  As of this morning, they had managed so far to miss one another completely.  The young radio officer bollixed up his reports, left most of the detail to an overworked radioman, and the vital word did not get through.  Admiral Fletcher, who had been seeing evidences of Japanese land-based air power for days, was not warned.

As the radar contacts came in aboard Sims, destroyer and oiler kept changing course, hoping to thwart the enemy.  But Admiral Hara was not to be denied.  The reports coming back from his carrier pilots only renewed his intention to sink those two American ships, and any others they might find in the vicinity.  He sent out a much larger force, and around noon some three dozen Japanese bombers were approaching the two ships. 

At 1155, chief Signalman Dicken was on the bridge when some of those bombers came in sight.  As was standard procedure he began blinking, to try to secure recognition.  But he knew, and so did everyone else on the bridge, that there would be no response.  The silhouettes were familiar now; these were not friendly planes, but the enemy in great force.

Sims opened up with her five-inch guns, and the three unjammed 20mm antiaircraft guns as well.  The boom of the five-inch and the staccato barking of the 20mm's dominated all sounds; only dimly could the roar of the approaching planes be heard.  This time the planes were dive-bombers, not horizontal bombers, and that note should certainly have been passed on by Neosho, whose captain was senior officer of the unit.  But again, the communications officer failed, and Fletcher did not get the word. 

The major attack now was against the "carrier” – Neosho – and the Japanese planes came in from astern in three waves.  Both ships maneuvered furiously, trying to change the course so quickly and so drastically as to throw off the bombers.  Bombs began dropping around Neosho, sending up their frightening geysers.  They came from bow to quarter, port and starboard, but for a few minutes it seemed the oiler bore a charmed life. Then at 1205 one bomb struck very close by, rattling the plates and knocking out the ship's gyro compass.  Captain Phillips ordered the shift to steering by the magnetic compass.

The Loss of the Sims

The Sims took her first direct hit at 1209.  From the bridge of Neosho it was a terrible sight, a bomb landed amidships and the section erupted in smoke and flame.  Aboard Sims, as the smoke cleared, Captain Hyman could see that the bomb had hit near the after-torpedo tubes, pierced through the deck, and exploded in the after-engine room.  The whole deck forward of the after-deck house was buckled and torn, tortured black metal sticking crazily up into the air.  The number of casualties was not known.  The chief engineer, Ensign Tachna, was badly wounded but he stuck to his post, and tried to keep Sims going. 

In rapid succession two more five-hundred-pound bombs struck Sims squarely, and the radar mast fell, dropping squarely across the gig, and immobilizing it.  One bomb also smashed the after-deck house, and the other struck on Number 4 gun mount, putting that gun out of action.

Above:  The U.S.S. Sims off the coast of Maine in 1939.

By this time only two of the ship's five-inch guns were still firing,  Number One gun was in bad shape, the heat was so intense at that point that the paint was burning on the gun, and yet the crew stood by and fired it steadily by local control.  The fire control system was long gone.  Soon the ship began to list heavily, and Captain Hyman summoned Ensign Tachna and the firemen and other engine room personnel out of the wreckage.  On deck, Ensign Tachna moved forward, trying to fire the forward torpedo tubes and thus eliminate the danger of an internal explosion.  The torpedo deck-house was aflame, which meant more danger from the deadly stores within.  Tachna led men in putting out that fire, then moved aft for further orders.

In half an hour it was obvious that Sims was sinking and that she could not be saved.  The job now was to get as many of the men off as possible.  Captain Hyman stayed on his bridge, but he ordered all others off.  Chief Signalman Dicken went aft to try to flood the after magazines and prevent a dreadful explosion that might cost every life.  Dicken could not get aft – the deck between bridge and after deck-house was ablaze from starboard rail to port.  Ensign Tachna was attempting to put the whale boat into the water.  The men from the "black gang" in the engine room, more of them uninjured than among the deck crew, came up to help.  They took off their shoes and shoved until the boat went over, in spite of the tangled rigging.  Two men were aboard, but they were firemen, and not at all skilled in small boat handling.  Chief Dicken jumped overboard, swam to the boat, clambered in and took the tiller, then began picking men out of the water as they jumped clear of the foundering destroyer.

At this point the deck between the after deck-house and the machine shop was awash, and Captain Hyman ordered Dicken to move back in the whale boat and try to put out that fire in the after deck-house.  He tried.  But he could not get back aboard the Sims – she was already settling aft, and the men in the boat could sense that she was going to go.  They pulled clear; just after they got away from the side the boilers blew, and then came a smaller explosion, perhaps a torpedo going off.  The ship began to break in two.

Last man off the after section was Machinist's Mate 2c E. F. Munch.  Just before he jumped, he stopped and secured a depth charge to the deck so it would not go over the side and kill any men who might be swimming.

Almost immediately the two parts of the Sims separated.  The captain was still standing on his bridge in the last moment as the explosion destroyed that section of the ship and both halves sank.

Chief Dicken found himself senior officer of those in Sims's whaleboat, and he directed rescue operations for the next hour and a half.  Two life rafts had been shoved over the side in the last few minutes of the destroyer's existence.  As soon as the men in the water who were still alive were picked up, he began searching for them.  Others in the boat told him they thought there were perhaps twenty other survivors on the life rafts.  But Dicken could not find the rafts; they had drifted away somewhere.  Counting noses, including his own, he found that he had fifteen survivors, two of them badly wounded.  He began pulling for the Neosho.


Note:  I've read online claims that U.S.S. Sims seaman Bill Vessia saved the men, not Dicken.  I have no proof to either support or refute this claim. 


Above:  The destroyer, U.S.S. Sims, which was sunk while bravely defending the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho.  The Sims lost 237 men, nearly the entire crew.

The Attack on the Neosho

The big oiler, known familiarly to her friends in the fleet as "The Fat Lady," was having her own troubles, and they were nearly as desperate as those of Sims.

Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu, in the engine room of the U.S.S. Neosho.  During the attack he served the three-inch gun on the bow.  The ghost images of the faces are due to a double-exposure.

The real trouble began when the gunners of Sims or Neosho brought down one of the Japanese dive bombers in flames.  Determined not to let the "carrier" escape, and true to the spirit of Bushido, the pilot dove his plane for the deck, and it crashed in the Number 4 gun enclosure, starting a flash fire that spread across the starboard side, aft, knocking out five life rafts.  No men of the gun crew were killed, for they had machine guns.  But Lieutenant Commander Firth, the ship's executive officer, was at his action station on the port side, just forward of the gun mount, and the explosion knocked him unconscious.  The fire got to him before he regained his wits.  Badly burned, particularly about the face and arms, he stumbled away from the wreckage, and immediately dispatched a messenger to the bridge to ascertain the captain's orders.

By the time the messenger arrived on the bridge, Neosho had taken seven direct bomb hits.  The first bomb smashed into the port side of the main deck, tearing a hole fifteen feet long in the port side of the ship.  The second bomb penetrated the stack deck, starboard, plunged down into the after center bunker tank, smashing through the ship's store on the way down.  It blew the pump room apart, blew an oil tank that let go and caused oil to run all over the forward part of the engine room, and flooded it with six feet of fuel oil.  Then the oil caught fire.

"Twenty four dive bombers got us and the destroyer.  We saved 100 out of 296 men.  And the Sims, they had 252 men and they saved 15. We got beat bad."

–  My uncle, Bill Leu, describing the attack on the U.S.S. Neosho during my 2002 interview with him.

The third bomb exploded in the fireroom, killing every man there, knocked out the steam system and the ship's electric power.  The fourth blew another huge hole in the ship's port side and caused the main deck to buckle badly.  The fifth and sixth bombs blew huge holes in the ship's oil tanks, and so did the seventh, and a near miss – one of eight – did almost as much damage.  The other seven bombs were armor piercing, but the near miss was a fragmentation bomb and shrapnel smashed across the bridge, decapitated a machine gunner, killed the rangefinder on the flying bridge, and knocked out the starboard searchlight.

So when Lieutenant Commander Firth's messenger arrived, on the bridge, Captain Phillips knew his ship was in anguish, and wondered how long she might survive.  His gunners had stood fast.  They had shot down three planes, and thought they had destroyed a fourth, although no one had seen it fall, and three more were seen to falter badly as they swept away after attacking.

"Prepare to Abandon Ship!"

The condition of the oiler was so grave, power out, listing badly, taking water, and with fires burning in several places, that Captain Phillips sent back the word to Lieutenant Commander Firth:  "Make preparations for abandoning ship and stand by."

The messenger retreated aft, where the message was duly delivered.  But by this time, the men had seen Sims blow up, and some of those aft panicked, Seaman W. D. Boynton, the messenger, reported quite correctly to the executive officer, who was supporting himself unsteadily on the superstructure deck, while several men stood around.  Firth gave the orders, and then he collapsed from pain and the shock of his burns.  Boynton then repeated the orders, but the men were not listening.  Some jumped over the side and began floundering in the water.

On the bridge, Captain Phillips was getting ready for the terrible moment when he would have to abandon his sinking command.  He called the communications officer to him, and ordered him to destroy all classified material – which included the ship's code books.  Seeing this, men on the bridge began to panic and deserted the bridge, shouting that it was every man for himself.  The officer of the deck, who was also the navigation officer, was among those who panicked – he left the bridge after he heard the captain give the order to flood the ship's magazines.

Forward, men were throwing the life rafts overboard, and leaping after them.  The navigation officer warned them that they ran the danger of losing the rafts.  Other men were trying to launch the Number 1 whale boat, and he ordered a life raft moved so it could be swung out.  Thinking twice about his actions, he then headed back for the bridge, but as he moved up, he heard more men coming down, crying "every man for himself" and rushing to throw themselves into the water.  The navigator then leaped into the water, along with the enlisted men, as the radio officer and several others tried desperately to launch another boat.

Seeing officers abandoning ship, the men lost all discipline.  In a few minutes the water and the rafts were filled with escaping seamen, who were certain the Neosho's end had come. 

"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.  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.

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.  We stayed there circling around the ship, and stayed there until the next morning."

–  My uncle, Bill Leu, describing the attack on the U.S.S. Neosho during my 2002 interview with him.

On the bridge, Captain Phillips watched as so many of his men panicked.  He saw that unless he did something, they would drown or be lost on the rafts.  Lieutenant Commander Thomas M. Brown, the gunnery officer, had come down to the bridge to help, after seeing all his people clear of the control tower and the flying bridge from which he had been directing the fire against the Japanese planes.  The Japanese were long gone now.  Brown addressed himself to the problems of the ship.  He helped destroy classified material, called back men who were moving toward the boats, and got the two motor whale boats over the side.  The executive officer was unconscious aft, and Lieutenant Commander Brown took over his duties.

Below, Lieutenant Louis Verbrugge <pronounced "ver-BREW-ghee>, the engineering officer, stayed in the main engine room, until the fire from the bunker tank drove him out.  All power was lost.  He could sense from the heavy list that there was definite danger the ship might capsize at any moment but he stayed below assessing the damage, and then he went on deck, to report to the captain and supervise the launching of the port motor launch from its skids.  With all power gone it was a dreadful job; the starboard boats could not be launched at all, because the seas were breaking over that side of the ship, so deep was her list. 

Slowly, through the efforts of the captain, the gunnery officer, and the chief engineer, it became apparent that conditions were not quite as desperate as they had appeared.  But most of the men were out of control.

The bomb explosion in the fireroom had terrified many of the survivors.  Machinist's Mate First Class Harold Bratt was in charge of the battle station in the after-engine room.  That compartment was located underneath the fireroom, which was full of live steam, and Bratt advised the four men with him that there was no chance of escaping at the moment, since the only hatch led into the fireroom.  But two of the men panicked, they knocked him down and into the bilges, snatched the emergency hand lantern and gas mask he was carrying, and ran up into the fireroom.  Bratt and the two others were left below, in darkness, with the compartment slowly filling with cold sea water.

For three-quarters of an hour, Bratt waited there in the gloom, not knowing whether or not the ship would sink beneath him.  Finally, feeling that enough steam had escaped from the fireroom above to make their chances almost even, he told his two men to put on gas masks and wrap rags around their arms and hands. When they had done so, he led them up the after-escape hatch, and into the fireroom.  There they passed the bodies of the two men who had overpowered Bratt and disregarded his orders, and then moved on up to the main deck and comparative safety.

Chaos On A Burning Ship

For every coward there were twenty heroes this day.  Even among those who panicked, the main reason seemed to be the dreadful shock of seeing Sims explode before their eyes.

Machinist's Mate Second Class Wayne Simmons was in the engine room when one bomb exploded nearby, covering the others with oil from head to toe, and blinding them so they could not see.  He helped them out of the engine room, then manned valves that kept the ship going during the dreadful moments before all power was cut off.

Above:  The Neosho's Chief Water Tender, Oscar Vernon Peterson, was working below decks during the attack on May 7 and was badly injured. Despite his wounds, and working alone, Peterson closed several important valves but was severely burned in the process.  Peterson died six days later on May 13, 1942.  For his valor, he was posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.

Chief Watertender Oscar Vernon Peterson was standing behind the watertight door that led from the fireroom to the mess compartment, when an explosion blew the door open and knocked him down.  Most of Peterson's repair party was killed, and the others were so seriously injured they were out of action.  He crawled into the fireroom in spite of his own burns and gashes, and turned off the steam valves – but was terribly scalded in the process, before he could escape the room. 

On deck, Chief Pharmacist's Mate Robert W. Hoag and Pharmacist's Mate First Class William J. Ward went to search for the ship's medical officer, but he had been killed by one of the bomb blasts, and they did not even find his body.  They set to work, then, to succor the wounded.

But on deck the confusion persisted.  The assistant gunnery officer had failed to pass the word when the captain ordered the men to prepare to abandon ship but stand by.  And he failed to stop the men from throwing over life rafts and jumping into the water after them.  Instead he went to the Number 2 motor whale boat and began lowering it into the water.  He was stopped by Lieutenant Brown, who ordered him to take the boat out, pick up all life rafts and tow them back to the ship and pick up survivors before they drowned. 

The sea was running briskly, four-and-five-foot waves slapping up against the sides of the Neosho, and some men were thrown against the side of the ship with enough force to injure or knock them out.  Others were pulled away by wind and current and still others drowned as the spume and froth of waves choked them and the caps swept down over their heads.  Captain Phillips watched in dismay as the assistant gunnery officer made only token efforts to save the struggling men in the water, and did not bring back a single life raft.

Those rafts were scarcely visible from the bridge in the undulating sea for they were dun colored.  Against the water even men swimming a few yards from them could not see them over the rising waves.  So more men drowned within a few feet of help.

Captain Phillips watched in more dismay as the rafts began to move out beyond his range of vision.  The boats went out, to search, but the seas were not any easier, and they were getting nowhere.  The captain could spare only part of his attention to the problem.  His main task was to try to restore order to his ship as long as she was afloat.  

When the bombs began to fall, nearly all the men of Neosho were concentrated in the after section and the bridge.  Two gun crews were forward and ammunition and repair parties were stationed near them, but the rest of the ship's company was aft, and the bombs struck aft and in the bridge area.  All seven rafts still inflatable had been set afloat, and no one knew how many men had leaped after them.  The captain had to find out, and save every man possible.  That was the matter at hand.


Above:  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 24 Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers attacked the Neosho and sunk its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims. 

Attack Aftermath

Captain Phillips's basic concern was to get his ship back under control, for even if she sank, he would have to try to save the lives of all those he could, and without the taut discipline of the navy, there was little chance of saving anything.  The chief engineer made a trip below to see if there was any chance of raising steam, but the whole power plant of the ship had been wrecked by the bombs, and there was no way at all it could be repaired.  So the captain had to resign himself to drifting and waiting for help.

At 1445 Chief Signalman Dicken of the Sims appeared alongside Neosho in the one living boat of that ship, and with his fourteen men – all that remained of the whole ship's complement of a destroyer.  He and others believed there were more survivors on the two rafts they had seen drifting away from the side of Sims before she blew up, but they had not found them, nor had they seen any sign of the rafts after Dicken had finished picking survivors out of the water.  Now Dicken placed himself and his men under the orders of Captain Phillips and asked what he could do.

Captain Phillips took the Sims's wounded aboard and turned them over to Pharmacists Hoag and Ward, who were giving morphine, bandaging wounds, and swabbing out bloody holes in the flesh of the survivors and trying to comfort the burned men.  The captain then instructed Dicken to circle Neosho and pick up any swimmers in the water.  Sims's complement joined the Neosho survivors at the port rail, where Captain Phillips had kept them for the past hour in anticipation that the ship might founder, and they would have to leap for their lives.

As the sun sank in the sky, Neosho continued to settle in the water and her list became more profound.  Captain Phillips was very worried.  He ordered the radio officer to get the fix from the navigator that had been made during a lull in the fighting, and to send out a call for help.  It would have to be in the clear, since he had destroyed the code books.  That meant running the danger of being rescued by the Japanese, but the ship was in extremis, and there was no alternative.  So the radio officer got the information from the navigator and sent off a message.

The navigator had plotted their position as Latitude 16°, 25' South and longitude 157°, 31' East.  With that information, even accepting the vagaries that would be caused by their drifting without any power at all, Admiral Fletcher's task force should be able to find them within twenty-four hours.  All they had to do was hold on.

Neosho's two whale boats and the Sims boat ranged wide out from the ship, searching and picking up men until 1800.  As dusk began to fall, they came in, all of them badly overloaded, moving gingerly in the rough sea, until they reached the ship's side.  Only then did Captain Phillips learn that Sims's boat had so great a gash in the hull that it was kept afloat only because Dicken had stuffed it with a mattress, and his men bailed constantly. 

Five of the men of Neosho who were in best condition had been ordered into the water off the port side, to keep a minimum of personnel aboard the sinking hulk, and now they were picked up by the Sims's boat.  There were so many injured that they could not all be moved back to the shrinking deck of Neosho and Captain Phillips ordered the whale boats to fend off, and remain not closer than fifty yards off the port side of the ship during the night.

The First Evening

As darkness fell the able-bodied men of Neosho got ready for what might come.  They tore all the standing rigging and extra gear out of the two motor launches that were pinioned to the ship by the fall of debris and the lack of power, in the hope that if Neosho sank during the night, they would float clear and could be used.  They gathered mess tables and benches, and the objects they could find that would float, and brought them to the port side, where they would float clear as the ship sank and give the men some kind of chance, waiting for dawn when Fletcher's rescue party would surely be there at their side.

Lieutenant Verbrugge, the engineer, went below again, to see what he could salvage, but there was very little, and once again he came back to report mournfully that there was no chance of getting up steam.

The captain sent men to repair the transmitting antenna, which was found to be broken, so the messages to the task force would get through.  The radio men manned the auxiliary gasoline generator to send the word.

Captain Phillips took a muster of survivors.  He found that of 21 officers and 267 men aboard Neosho that morning before the attack, there were now 16 officers and 94 men aboard, plus the fifteen survivors of Sims.  One officer was known to have been killed (the medical officer) and nineteen men were dead; but four officers and one hundred and fifty-four men were missing, the result of the panic and misunderstanding of orders that had sent them scrambling over the side of the ship during the Japanese attack.  Captain Phillips was concerned, but he knew that most of these people had made it to the safety of the life rafts, and he was certain that next day the search planes of the two big carriers would locate the men and they would be rescued, perhaps even more quickly than the men of Neosho itself.

There was a good deal to be done to save the ship, if such was possible.  The captain kept a close watch on the inclinometer, which showed the relative stability of the vessel. The list was 30 degrees.  It would have grown worse except that Captain Phillips opened the valves to the starboard wing tanks, which filled them with sea water, and tended to counteract the port weight.

There was one big worry.  The main-deck plating was continuing to buckle under the conflicting pressures, and this gave the captain much cause for concern.  Lt. Verbrugge reported that the engine room and fireroom were taking more water in the evening than they had been in the daylight hours, and it was quite noticeable.

As darkness fell, the captain issued his orders:  there were to be absolutely no lights shown – flashlights or lamps of any others.  There was to be quiet, and the men were to get as much rest as they could during the night, while they waited for the rescuers.  They would need their strength in the morning to climb aboard the rescue vessels.

So the hulk of Neosho settled down, the horribly cramped men in the whaleboats, adjusting themselves as best they could, and riding the heavy sea, part of the crew constantly on watch, lest they drift away from the side of Neosho.  On the port rail, the pharmacists did what they could to make the seriously wounded men comfortable, and shook their heads over Construction Mechanic Second Class Leon Brooks, whose wounds were very severe.  They hoped he would make it through the night.  For that matter, they hoped they would all make it through the night, until rescue came.


Note:  On this day, May 7, at about the same time the U.S.S. Neosho and Sims were being attacked, American planes were sinking the Japanese light carrier, Shoho, about 300 miles to the northwest.  The main American and Japanese carrier fleets skirmished early that evening but neither had yet found the other.  Both sides prepared to send out scout planes at dawn on May 8, the climactic day of the Battle of the Coral Sea.



Next Page >  May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue


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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