The Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho
May 9, 1942: Fading Hope
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. It was disabled and listing at 30 degrees – buoyed by its huge, empty cargo tanks –
and drifting with over 100 men on board. The Neosho's escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, was also attacked and sunk with the loss
of over 200 men.
The Neosho had radioed incorrect coordinates to the American fleet, who were now
searching for them in the wrong place. The men onboard the Neosho, unaware of the miscommunication, were expecting to be rescued by
the U.S. fleet. But their hope was fading.
There were no showers aboard Neosho to which the oil-soaked men could turn.
There was no chaplain there to offer them solace or hope, and on the morning of May 9, hope was what the survivors of
the two ships needed, if they were to face the Coral Sea sun and the wind and waves.
Captain Phillips set about trying to instill that hope. He was badly shaken by the
realization that Admiral Fletcher's rescuers had gone out with wrong information. It could well mean the difference
between life and death to them all. But he was not ready to give up. Early in the morning, the pharmacists
came to him to report three more men had died: Fireman Third Class Davis A. Christian, Fireman First Class Henry
T. Chapman, and Chief Construction Mechanic Benjamin F. Baggarly, all from Neosho. Preparations were made to bury
them at sea.
The captain estimated that they were heading northwest with the current, at about 1.4 knots.
There were two possibilities of survival, and they both depended on the men of Neosho. First was to get an accurate
fix of position, which could be sent on the auxiliary radio. That task was given to Lieutenant Brown, the gunnery officer,
and he set to work. The alternative was to take to the boats and try to make a landfall. Lieutenant Verbrugge had
been studying the problem of loosing the Number 2 motor launch, and he reported to the captain that he thought he could do it
without power if he could have some men. Captain Phillips gave him
Meanwhile, every effort had to be made to keep the hulk of Neosho floating and as stable as
possible. Down below, the men found some hacksaws, and began the laborious process of sawing through the anchor chain, so the
starboard anchor could be jettisoned and the dragging weight removed. They were still canted over with a list of about
24 degrees to starboard. The men sawed and sawed, until blisters reddened their hands, and finally the chain gave.
With a heavy clanking, the steel links banged against the hull, and then disappeared. Anchor
and 165 fathoms of chain went down. Disappointingly, the change in the list was very slight, evidence of the mortal wounds
Neosho had suffered below the water line. It was proof to Captain Phillips that the ship could not last much longer.
At 1012 Lieutenant Brown took his first sighting, and reported a position: Latitude 15° 35' South,
and Longitude 156° 55' East. By Captain Phillips's calculation, they had drifted almost a degree of latitude to the north and
more than a degree to the west in the past forty-eight hours.
In midmorning, Lieutenant Verbrugge began rigging tackle and chain hoists to the davits of Number 2
motor launch. Other men were put to work again this day making floats and rafts of every available object that would offer
flotation. The captain was now almost certain their only salvation would be to abandon ship and set out for land.
Junior officers were set to rigging all boats with masts, spars, and sails, and making sure they were as watertight as possible,
and that the provisions would be ready to go into them.
Above: The U.S.S. Neosho under construction in New Jersey in 1939.
The captain now was making final preparations for abandoning the ship. The list had returned
to 23 degrees to starboard, even after jettisoning the anchor. That was not very good, and the decks were taking water,
the upper deck on the starboard side was awash. A really heavy storm might well sink them in a few minutes.
The funeral services brought all hands to the side of the ship while Captain Phillips said the prayer
and the bodies were sent down into the deep. Then the men went back to work, sober, but given hope by the determined buoyancy
of their captain and officers. Lieutenant Verbrugge, by midday, had the motor launch almost clear of the skids. Lieutenant
Brown took another sighting at 1300 and found that they were still drifting northwest, perhaps a little faster than before.
The pharmacists were still treating their burned men, but there was not much they could do, except
ease the pain of the worst, and be sure the bandages were clean and the wounds kept covered.
The captain was taking stock. Of the three motor whale boats in the water, the engine in only
one, the gig, was working. So it was going to have to be by sailing if they were to make it to land. The other two
boats were attached to the gig for towing and they all stayed in close to the Neosho. It was no time for anyone to
As night fell Lieutenant Verbrugge came wearily to report to the captain on his progress. He
could say that the Number 2 boat was now clear of the skids, and halfway over toward the port side of the ship.
After dark, Lieutenant Brown took another fix, this time on the stars, and found that they were
still drifting, but now southwest. The sea was still rough, and the wind continued. At nightfall, the men of
Neosho settled down, wondering if anyone was really looking for them, and if they would ever find this little speck
of steel floating in the Coral Sea.
But out there, hundreds of miles away, the search was going on. Vice Admiral H. F. Leary had
learned that Monaghan had found nothing, and he had detailed the PBY patrol seaplanes stationed at Noumea, New Caledonia,
to make a serious search for the survivors. The flying boats were taking off and landing all day long, making their long
searches, but they found nothing. Tangier, the seaplane carrier, was in charge of the job. Then, on the night of
May 8, Captain L. B. Austin, Commander of Destroyer Division Seven, embarked in the destroyer Henley to go to the
scene of the attack, as reported uncorrected, to try to find the survivors or get some indication of what had happened.
At 0800 on the morning of May 9, as the men of Neosho were turning to their tasks for the day, Henley steamed out of Noumea. Captain Austin of the
Henley told Commander Robert Hall Smith to set course and head for Latitude 16°-15° South, 157° East. The men
aboard the Henley did not realize it, but they were heading to an area about 40 miles east of where the Neosho
actually was at that time. Unaware, Commander Smith ordered 20 knots and a zigzag pattern as they went, and they
headed out. All day long they steamed, and at dark they cut back to 15 knots for the night.
They were heading toward the Neosho, until midnight, when Captain Austin had the report
that an enemy carrier was supposedly located at 17° 30' South and 152° 30' East, on course 110°. He ordered
Commander Smith to turn away to a course of 130° to miss the carrier, if she was indeed there, and Henley
moved back away from the Neosho at fifteen knots.
Note: After a punishing battle the previous day, May 8, the American and
Japanese fleets both withdrew from the Coral Sea. However, on May 9, Tokyo ordered
Admiral Takagi and the carrier Zuikaku back into the Coral Sea. This may have been the carrier
that Captain Austin had learned about, although its reported location was wrong.
Unknown to everyone, the Zuikaku was heading straight towards the disabled Neosho, but then the giant carrier was ordered by Tokyo to reverse course again on May 10 and leave the Coral Sea
for good. If the Zuikaku had continued on its course for a few more hours on May 10,
it likely would have discovered the listing U.S.S. Neosho and its crew.
Next Page > May 10, 1942: Neosho Sighted
Table of Contents:
U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23)
The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)
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