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 the job.

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.

Waiting... and Working

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 get lost.

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)

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

The current page is shown with a  >