The Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue


The story so far:


The navy tanker, U.S.S. Neosho, far from the main U.S. fleet, was attacked by Japanese dive-bombers on May 7, 1942 during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The Neosho's escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, was also attacked and sunk with the loss of over 200 men.


After the attack, over a hundred men on the Neosho jumped into life rafts, all of which began drifting away from the burning ship.  Dozens more, including my uncle, Bill Leu, clambered into two of the Neosho's motorized whaleboats, which spent the night slowly circling the big tanker.  All of the survivors – the men onboard the listing tanker, in the whaleboats, and in the rafts that are slowly drifting away – expect to be rescued soon by the American fleet.


During the long night of May 7, the men of Neosho and the handful of survivors of Sims waited hopefully for rescue.  From the beginning of the Japanese air attack, before 11 o'clock that morning, the radiomen had sent out word that the Japanese were hitting the ship.  Admiral Fletcher had received this word, the report that Neosho was being bombed by three planes in latitude 16° 50' South, longitude 159° 8' East.  Then at 1600, the radio powered by the auxiliary had gotten off its message, that the oiler was sinking in latitude 16° 38' South, longitude 158° 28' East. 

That night, a dispatch from Pearl Harbor told Fletcher that Sims had also been sunk, so the Admiral took the steps that Captain Phillips expected.  He dispatched the destroyer Monaghan to speed to this area and search for survivors.  By all rights, Monaghan would have found the Neosho in the morning; the sky was clear, the weather fine.  But when morning came, Neosho was still drifting, still very much alone. 

The Morning After

As dawn came, the miserable men in the motor whaleboats drew near the hulk of the ship.  She was sitting very low in the water, with a list of almost thirty degrees.  Every man aboard could tell that she was settling.  The process was slow.  The leaks had not burst wide open, but the process was continual.  If it went on much longer, the tanker must go down.  The starboard side of the main deck was now under water. 

The captain looked around him, at the taut, gray faces.  Every man was covered with fuel oil, the leaks and the dousings of the night had made sure of that.  Fuel oil was over everything. The deck was slippery with it, the rigging dripped water and oil, and the stink of it was in every sailor's nostrils.

Above:  Schematic drawing of the U.S.S. Neosho after the attack on May 7, 1942.  This is looking forward from the stern with the ship listing at 30 degrees.  Note the location of the motor whaleboats.  The starboard boat was unsalvageable, but with some effort, the boat on the port side could possibly be lowered.

As the sun came up, so did the wind.  The captain could tell it was going to be another choppy day, fine for a ship at sea, with a force-five wind, but not at all fine for survivors riding a wreck.  He looked at the sun, and at the men around him, and he waited.  Officers and men counted the minutes and then the hours, praying for rescue.  

That morning, the men were still confident that rescue was on its way.  It would naturally take a little time for the ships sent out to find them, for the planes to get off on their searches and circle the area where they had gone down, then move out to allow for the Neosho’s drift.

Captain Phillips took stock.  About him he had loyalty.  Lieutenant Commander Firth, his executive officer, was critically burned on the face, hands, and left arm, but he continued to offer the captain any service he could perform.  Unfortunately, in his condition there was not much he could do.  But for that matter, except for a few precautionary measures, there was not that much anyone could do.

Most of the exec's responsibility now devolved upon Lieutenant Commander Brown, the navigator.  He was resourceful and above all cheerful, and there was much to be said for that in these trying hours. Lieutenant Verbrugge, the engineering officer, was also unfailingly cheerful.  Like the others, he was covered with fuel oil, his hair matted and his clothes filthy.  Yet he went down, time and again, into the slippery engineering spaces, to see if there was anything he could do to improve their situation.  As of this morning he had found nothing.

Pharmacists Hoag and Ward had spent the night trying to comfort the burned and the wounded.  They had practically no medical equipment, and the condition of the deck was miserable – slanted, and filthy with oil and human contamination.

This morning, as Captain Phillips called the boats to come in to the ship, Hoag and Ward checked the condition of their charges.  Sadly, then, they had to report to the captain that CM Second Class Leon Brooks had died during the night from his wounds.  When Chief Dicken brought Sims's leaky boat up against the hulk of Neosho and the tanker men awkwardly tied her up, he reported that Chief Yeoman Clark of the destroyer had also died during the night.  The bodies were brought on deck, the captain conducted a little service, and the two sailors were dropped over the side, their weighted corpses sinking swiftly into the deep blue water.  No one even knew Chief Clark's first name or initials, for all his friends had gone down with Sims already.

Getting To Work

The burial party ended, Captain Phillips tried to remove the somber thoughts it had engendered by putting the men to some hard work.  All the injured were brought on deck, off the boats; all the extra people, whose weight was threatening the stability of the overladen craft.  Hoag and Ward reported that in addition to Commander Firth, twenty-three men were badly injured or burned.  Some of the seamen were assigned to help the corpsmen keep the sick as comfortable as possible.

The captain organized a water supply group.  This detail was to check out water tanks, and draw water, without contaminating the supply.  From every available compartment, the men found receptacles, and filled them.  Then they brought them up on deck and put them down carefully on the port side.  No one knew what was going to happen to Neosho.  They had to be prepared.  Another party did the same with food, and when they came back the captain announced the rules.  Fresh water would be used for drinking only; there was no excess available for washing.

It was a blow.  Everyone was grimy with oil and dirt.  Seawater simply rolled off it in beads, leaving a sticky mess.  If a man had a bar of soap, it still did not take the viscous oil away.


Above:  The U.S.S. Neosho in New Jersey, shortly after its launch in 1939.  At 553 feet in length, it was the largest oil tanker in the world.


The injured were in particularly bad shape, for they had been unable to protect themselves during the night and the oil slopping on the decks had permeated their clothes.  Captain Phillips sent men down to rummage through the cabins, and to break out clean clothes from the small stores for those whose clothing was totally saturated.  The party found blankets, and these were brought on deck and changed for the filthy blankets of the wounded.

When the food and water details had finished their job, Captain Phillips assembled the stores amidships on the port side of the ship, and gave orders to begin stocking the boats.  It might be necessary at almost any time to abandon the sinking hulk, and he was making what preparations he could.

Above:  Captain John S. Phillips, commander of the U.S.S. Neosho.

The two Neosho boats in the water would certainly not accommodate all these men.  Sims's boat was leaking worse than ever.  The mattress that covered the hole stove in her side was totally soaked, and the leak let water come in around it.  The boat was brought alongside, and a party patched up the hole as best they could with wood and canvas.  From the deck the men cast doubtful eyes on the repairs; in case of trouble no one wanted to brave the seas for long in that boat.

But three boats for sixteen officers and ninety-three men of Neosho and the fourteen remaining survivors of Sims?  That meant forty-one men in a boat, and every survivor on the hulk of Neosho knew their chances thus of making land were almost not worth talking about.  The captain knew, too, and he put his officers to work on the problem.  Several parties began stripping wood, to construct life rafts to replace those seven life rafts that had been cast off.

Somewhere out in the Coral Sea, four officers and 154 men were floating on liferafts, waiting for rescue, not knowing that no one in Task Force 17 had the slightest understanding of their situation.

Lieutenant Verbrugge moved around the deck, looking from time to time at the two motor launches still aboard the ship.  They were big, heavy boats, and the ship's designer had never considered their launching without the power of the ship behind them. The launch and one other boat on the starboard side might as well be given up.  The starboard deck was under water, and the sea was breaking over the boats.  Even had it been flat calm, the task would have been impossible. 

But the port motor launch was another matter.  Lieutenant Verbrugge began considering problems of math and physics that he had not worried over for a long time.  By the beginning of the day watch, much of this work was accomplished.  The men settled down then to wait, through the heat of the day, for the rescue that would surely come.

They had no idea that Admiral Fletcher had found Takagi's carriers, and that the Japanese had found the Americans, or that a major battle was in progress that morning, a few hundred miles to the north of them.  They waited.

Destroyer Monaghan had steamed out on the evening of May 7 to try to find the wreck of Neosho and save the crew if they could not save the ship.  But on the morning of May 8 they came to the reported position of the tanker, and found nothing at all.  Then, in a search of the vicinity they still found nothing at all.  And meanwhile, the men of Neosho waited in the sun.

A Heartbreaking Discovery

Captain Phillips noted with dismay the increasing water in the lower compartments of the ship, and the constant drag of the list to starboard.  He sent a crew to throw overboard everything on the starboard side to reduce the list.  A party tried to break the starboard anchor chain on deck.  They wedged it and they hammered it and they tried to twist it, but it was no good. 

Above:  The Neosho in 1939.  While the ship was drifting, the crew, including my Uncle Bill, tried to lower the motor whaleboat located near the stern.  The task was made more difficult because the ship was listing 30 degrees to starboard.

That chain had been meant to withstand torque and pressure, and it was doing so.  They could have burned it with an acetylene torch, but they had no power and no torch.  So they ran it out with a rush, hoping it would tear itself loose and send the anchor down. No such luck – the bitter end held.  Instead of eliminating the weight on the starboard side, as they had hoped, they had increased the drag.

Engineer Verbrugge now went below again, hoping without any real reason that something would have changed so that he might be able to raise steam.  He checked the engine room and the fire spaces, and came to the conclusion he knew he would reach.  There was nothing any human being could do to get Neosho going again. 

While he and his party were below, Verbrugge also checked every corner of the spaces, to make sure there were no wounded, or even dead, lying down there below.  He found none.  Then he rechecked the bomb damage to the cargo tanks.  There was no change.

Above:  A close-up of the motor whaleboat on the port side, which the crew tried to lower by hand.  Trying to lower this heavy boat with no power and with the ship listing at 30 degrees proved to be a daunting task.

Back on deck, Verbrugge kept looking at the motor launches. These were the last hope of the men of Neosho. If he could get at least one of them over the side, perhaps they could save themselves, if worse came to worst and no one found them.  For as the day wore on, and neither plane nor ship appeared, captain and crew began to wonder what had happened to Task Force 17. 

It was conceivable that the force had been destroyed in a battle.  The captain would have liked to take a navigation fix, but it was rough and none could be considered reliable.  The captain sent a message, in the clear, and not repeated very many times, via the portable transmitter.  They had to conserve fuel.  He noted their position and their condition.

That afternoon, as they all waited, Captain Phillips idly replotted the last given position taken by the navigator before they were wrecked.  Suddenly he started.  The position was wrong!  The navigator had taken a fix on the sun and on Venus, and had plotted it at 16° 25' South, 157° 31' East.  As the captain replotted the observations, he found that their actual position at about the time of the action was 16° 09' South, and 158° 03' East.  It made a difference of about 40 miles as a point on which to start looking for them.

Suddenly it seemed very chill.  If they had given a wrong position, and were not now heard, then there was small chance that they would ever be found.  It was no good chewing out the navigator; he was inexperienced and careless, but it would not help to argue with him.  The captain sent the message of the real last position.  As the shadows of late afternoon lengthened, the officers of Neosho who knew the facts were feeling very low.  It was going to be a long night.

The Day Ends

The sea was quiet, except for the hum of the waves and the whisper of the wind, which sent a chill through the men clustered on the port deck of the wrecked tanker.  This list was still 30 degrees, but had grown no more severe in the last twelve hours.

All day long they had tried, and failed, to get a reliable sight for navigation purposes.  Now not even a star helped them.  They must wait until the moon came up and the stars came out, or for the next day.

The men were exhausted, red-eyed and sunburned.  The exposure and the salt had cracked their lips and lined their eyes.  They were unshaven and grimy, but those who were unhurt could look over at the still forms of the burned and wounded on the deck and be glad they were in one piece.  There was water, there was food, but there was also this night the terrible uncertainty that had dogged them as the day wore on, and the captain discovered that the wrong fix had been given to Task Force 17 before they began their rescue operations.  Would they ever be found?

Captain Phillips decided that night that he must be prepared to save himself and his crew; that the chances of Task Force 17 reaching them were diminishing at every moment.  So that night he called his navigator and the chief engineer and they made plans for the following day.  And the rest of the crew slumped on the deck, or lay on the steel plates, moving restlessly. 

And waited.



Note:  The main attacks during the Battle of the Coral Sea occurred during the middle of that day, May 8, about 100 miles west of the drifting Neosho.  During the attacks, Japanese planes sunk the American aircraft carrier Lexington and damaged the carrier Yorktown, while American planes badly damaged the Japanese carrier Shokaku.  That evening, both sides retired.  The American commanders didn't realize that the Neosho was still afloat, drifting in the Coral Sea with 130 men on board.



Next Page >  May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope


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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