The Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho
May 10, 1942: Neosho Sighted
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, drifting with over 100 men on board.
The Neosho had radioed incorrect coordinates to the American fleet, who were searching for them in the wrong place.
Everyone onboard knew the ship was slowly sinking, so the men began assembling the motor whaleboats and rafts
in a desperate effort to sail 500 miles to Australia.
The Japanese were jubilant over the Battle of the Coral Sea. After the first spate of exuberant
publicity in the American press, with its exorbitant claims of sinkings, there simply was no more news from the American front,
and in Tokyo this meant the enemy must have suffered a desperate loss. Official congratulations were passing around Tokyo
like rice cakes. The Emperor gave personal congratulations in the form of an Imperial Rescript to Admiral Yamamoto.
Premier Tojo added his appreciation to the fleet for "wiping out the main units of the British and American combined
fleet in the Coral Sea." And the Japanese navy added a destroyer, a cruiser, and a tanker to their list of carriers
and battleships and cruisers already "sunk" in the fight.
Above: A close-up of the motor whaleboat on the port side of the U.S.S. Neosho,
which the crew, including my uncle, tried to lower by hand using block-and-tackle.
Trying to lower this heavy boat with no power and with the ship listing at 30 degrees was a daunting task.
Admiral Takagi continued to search for the Americans until May 10. Then he turned around and
headed for Truk, and passed out of the Coral Sea where he had found nothing more.
Japanese land-based airplanes continued their search for the American force, but they were not
flying in the direction of Noumea; it was a long haul for them. Nineteen search planes were out and 14 Zeros attacked
Port Moresby. But the invasion was off, and the planes now concentrated their efforts against submarines that were bothering
Japanese shipping around Tulagi and Rabaul. On May 10, Admiral Inouye ordered the seaplane tender to move out of Deboyne
Island's base, and return to Rabaul. He was going to concentrate all his attention on Nauru and Ocean Islands, which were
next on the occupation list.
Aboard the U.S. cruiser Minneapolis, Admiral Fitch and Captain Sherman and Executive officer
Seligman from the sunk carrier Lexington were busy putting together their reports of the action they had just been through.
It was essential that these be prepared for Admiral Nimitz as soon as possible. Lieutenant Williams was busy, too, running off
thousands of copies of the forms he wanted his men to fill out so they could get back on the Navy payroll.
Had Captain Phillips of Neosho known of these concerns he would have thought them very small potatoes
indeed, for he and his men were facing the stark problems of survival.
On the morning of May 10, the pharmacists came up again with their doleful news: Seaman Second Class Noel E.
Craven and Seaman First Class Hugh T. Gonia, and Mate Second Class Willie Coates had died of their wounds and must be buried that
The hulk of Neosho was drifting as she had been, going this way and that in the trade wind's path,
but generally moving westward slowly and steadily. The list was still 23 degrees; the cutting of the anchor had not helped.
The upper deck was down a little lower in the water this morning than it had been the night before. Slowly, very slowly, they were sinking,
and at some point the ship would give a lurch, a gurgle, and go down. Captain Phillips' task was to be sure the officers and men of
Neosho were not aboard when that happened.
Insofar as abandoning ship was concerned, good progress was made this day. Lieutenant Verbrugge got
the motor launch over the port side and into the water without swamping. Then he began loading her with supplies. With the funeral, the work
of loading, and the general cleanup that must be done every morning to keep the men occupied and the ship as sanitary as possible, the
time passed until noon.
Above: A Lockheed Hudson, similar to the one that spotted the drifting Neosho on May 10, 1942.
At 1230 someone heard a buzzing, and looking up, saw a speck in the sky south of them. The speck moved up and became a
plane, and as it came close to the ship, it was identified as an Australian Hudson. Quickly the signal searchlight was hooked up to the auxiliary
generator and the signalman sent a message identifying Neosho. Captain Phillips ordered men to hoist the international distress signal and the
international call. The Hudson responded – blinked back to ask if the ship was in trouble. It certainly was, said Captain Phillips.
He tried to give the latest position, which had been estimated by the gunnery officer early that morning as 15° 55.5' South, 156° East. Several
times that information was blinked out as the Hudson circled, but there was no response to indicate that it had been received or would bring action.
After circling again, the Hudson turned and disappeared toward the south. Soon even the sound was gone,
and the men of Neosho were again alone with the sea, the sun, and the heavy swell of the trade-wind latitudes.
But there was cause for rejoicing. It seemed almost certain that something was going to happen soon.
There was no doubt about the existence of the Hudson. There was no doubt, either, that they had been seen, and had engaged in
blinker conversation, and that the Hudson crew knew they were an allied ship in sore distress. Certainly the Australians would
communicate with MacArthur, and he with Pearl Harbor, and someone would be coming to get them.
To celebrate, Captain Phillips ordered the hot plates rigged up to the auxiliary generator, which he had not
done before because he had felt the need to conserve every bit of energy for the dispatch of messages. Now with the vital message
received, perhaps they could relax a bit. So this day the men had the first hot coffee they had enjoyed since the Japanese came
zooming down on them four days before.
Captain Phillips knew, nonetheless, that he could not relax completely. They still must be prepared
at a moment's notice to abandon the ship and take to the boats, lest Neosho sink under them. The preparations continued.
That afternoon work crews took the engines out of one of Neosho's motor whale boats and the Sims
boat, for the two were both damaged and would not run. They only added unwanted weight that could much better be supplied by men
than machines. A party went aft to measure the fresh water supply. That, at least, was in abundance, for no damage had been
done to the tanks. All available containers were filled and stowed in the boats. Ship's service stores were raided under the
eye of the assistant supply officer, and the fruit juices were all taken aboard the boats, too. The supply officer then set about
rationing out the food supply among the boats, and it was packed.
"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.. And we 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."
– My uncle, Bill Leu, describing the ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho during my
2002 interview with him.
Captain Phillips worked out the final assignment of men to boats, taking into consideration the wounded and
the number of able-bodied, who must be distributed evenly. He also drew up a list of items to be checked off before they abandoned.
The captain had decided now that unless they were found by the next day, he would abandon ship, and make for
the nearest land. It was certainly a better course than to sit here, losing strength, the wounded dying, the burned not getting any
better, and wasting away the supplies that might take them home again.
The Number 2 motor launch that Lieutenant Verbrugge had salvaged was to be the key to the whole effort. It would
be used to tow the other three whale boats. And by a little cramming, everyone could be accommodated in the four boats. The
captain and Lieutenant Brown pulled out all the charts they had. They made a full study of the South Pacific Pilot Chart and Coast
Pilot, and put all the charts and navigation equipment they would need in the Number 2 boat. The captain laid out a course to Willis
Island, where they would stop if possible, and then head through Trinity Opening to Cairns Harbor, on the Australian coast, about 500 miles
away. Lieutenant Brown then checked the boat compass for deviation from true readings. When the Number 2 boat was equipped,
remaining navigational equipment was divided among the other boats. In case they should be separated by storm or other disaster each
boat should be ready to try to go it alone.
A few hundred miles away, the destroyer Henley was again steaming toward the last reported position of
Neosho. All night long she had fled the supposed Japanese carrier force, but at dawn she had turned about, and headed back
whence she had come, having lost a good six hours. Recognizing the need for haste, Captain Austin had increased the speed to 20
knots as night fell, and later that night of May 10 he raised it to 25 knots.
Night brought its black worries to the men of Neosho once again. All day long the deck had
kept buckling a little more each watch, and it was especially notable on the main-deck plating abaft the bridge. Captain Phillips
sent Lieutenant Verbrugge below, and he came to report that the water level in the fire room and in the main engine room had increased
remarkably. It was up three feet in the engine room from the day before, and up seven feet in the fire room. So Captain
Phillips felt that tomorrow, the 11th of May, was the fatal day on which they must cast their lot with the sea. It seemed a fair
chance that the ship would hold together during the night, the weather staying calm. But to expect much more would be to ask for
miracles, and the captain had stopped doing that.
Among the men, the night of May 10 was a time of despair. It was certain that the rescue attempts had
either not been made or had failed. There was no reason, given receipt and understanding of the messages, that the Task Force
should not have reached them by this time – no reason except the faulty position given by the navigator in his carelessness.
So the night passed.
Next Page > May 11, 1942: Rescue
Table of Contents:
U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23)
The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)
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