The Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho
May 11, 1942: 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. 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.
Fearing the listing ship could sink at any moment, the captain and crew were preparing to abandon the ship and pile
into four open lifeboats, then try to make it to Australia, 500 miles away. The destroyer U.S.S. Henley had been sent out to search for survivors
of the Neosho but had not yet found the ship.
The morning of May 11 saw Henley moving to the last reported position of Neosho.
At 0630 Henley changed her base course to 296°. At 0735 she changed course to 273°. At 0920 she changed to
290°. Ten minutes later Henley passed an oil slick at Lat. 16° 07' South, Long. 156° 15' East. Captain Austin
and the men of the ship felt they must be coming close to the oiler. At 1009, however, they passed the last reported position
of the Neosho and found nothing but a vast expanse of empty sea before them.
Captain Austin then began to consider the possible direction of drift of the Neosho and came to
the conclusion that she must be drifting northwest, so changed course to follow that assumption. At 1115 a PBY came by and
joined the search, using Henley as a base point. Not quite an hour later the plane returned to report that the
Neosho was just fifty miles away, bearing 033 degrees from the ship.
Above: A Navy PBY Catalina scout plane, similar to the one that spotted the U.S.S. Neosho.
Aboard Neosho, Captain Phillips was making ready to abandon the hulk. Early in the morning,
Gunnery Officer Brown had taken his sights, while other officers checked the ship for seaworthiness. They reported to Captain
Phillips that although the list had decreased, the reason for it was the settling of the ship deeper in the water. The after
end had gone down very appreciably in the past twenty-four hours. The plates forward had begun to buckle and the plates of the main
deck just abaft the bridge were much worse. The captain decided to make an effort, now that the ship was so much closer to
the water, to hoist over the Number 1 motor launch. In any event, he was now determined that they would abandon at the first sign
of movement. He feared that at almost any time the Neosho would sink or break in half.
In mid-morning, Captain Phillips called a conference of all the officers. As they gathered around
him, he laid out the plan for them. By best estimate, they were 540 miles from the Australian coast. He assigned each
officer to his boat and function, and then gave detailed orders. No personal possessions would be allowed in the boats.
There was no room. The officers adjourned, and the captain busied himself with last-minute details. Undoubtedly that
afternoon, they would abandon ship.
But at 1130, a speck appeared high above the horizon, and the droning noise of airplane engines rumbled
across the sea. There was always the gut reaction: was it one of theirs or one of ours? But as the plane approached,
it was identified as a PBY, an American Navy flying boat. It came up, circled Neosho twice, and then flew away to the
south. Hope rose in the hearts of the shipwrecked men, cautious hope. The day before they had seen a plane and nothing
had come of it that they could see. They did not know that the Hudson's report had been sent along, and furnished part of the
information on which Captain Austin and the PBY were acting. They could not know. They could only hope and wait.
A long hour passed, and then another half hour. Suddenly someone started and shouted.
They watched her come up on the horizon from the south, again half apprehensive as to whether she was
American or Japanese. But the familiar outlines of an American destroyer made themselves clear through the glass, and finally
she was identified as Henley, a ship they knew well.
Above: The destroyer U.S.S. Henley was a welcome sight to the men on the Neosho.
At 1323 Henley approached, and Captain Phillips began signaling:
Have you any instructions for me. Ship is a total loss, settling
gradually. What are your orders?
Captain Austin sent back:
Captain Phillips then began reporting the number of survivors, as Henley crossed the
stern of the tanker, and her men began heaving lines on the port side. Captain Austin broke in:
Expedite transfer of survivors
There would be plenty of time later to get all the details. Now it was time to get the
men off the wreck. Captain Austin did not relish being hove to in the middle of what might be a very unfriendly ocean,
full of Japanese submarines, the skies perhaps laden with Japanese planes heading toward him and he at a standstill.
He sent up the flag hoist:
Which meant emergency, in simple language, and get to it, in navy shorthand.
Captain Phillips got the message. The men were herded aboard the Henley just
as quickly as possible, not being given time even to go to the boats and get whatever personal gear they had temporarily left
there. Captain Austin was in a hurry and he was nervous. As the whale boats came alongside and the men were transferred,
he ordered the boats scuttled.
At 1415, Captain Phillips herded the last man into the last boat and stepped off his command.
The boat went to the side of Henley, and the last of 109 survivors of Neosho and 14 survivors of Sims went
aboard. The whale boat could not be scuttled, so it was set adrift.
Captains Austin and Phillips conferred. The oiler skipper said Neosho was unsalvageable,
and Captain Austin believed he knew whereof he spoke, for Phillips had spent four days with not so much more to do than observe
the changing character of his command. So Henley set about sinking the ship.
"We were going to try to get more life boats off and try to make it to Australia, which was
about 500 miles away. Anyway, a destroyer came and picked us up. And the ship was still doing good, it didnt sink.
It took seven hits. And so the destroyer put it under with shell fire."
My uncle, Bill Leu, describing the ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho during my
2002 interview with him.
She fired one torpedo at 1428, but it did not explode another negative tribute to the false economy
of the American defense effort in the years before the war. For while the Japanese navy was developing the famous long-lance
torpedo by the process of trial and error exploding torpedoes against targets to see what happened the American Navy was not
allowed to use real warheads. In war games the torpedoes were always dummies, and warheads were conserved. Congress wanted
it that way. But the result had been the development of American torpedoes that did not explode, that did not run true, that
did virtually no good at all. This torpedo fired at 1428 was one of them, a waste of $10,000 of the taxpayers' money.
Two minutes later Henley fired another torpedo, and this one hit the hulk amidships. But
still she did not go down. The destroyer then opened up with five-inch shells and fired 146 rounds. The Neosho
finally sank, stern first. The rescued men onboard the Henley said an emotional goodbye to their beleaguered
and faithful ship and watched it slip beneath the waves.
Then Henley moved away, setting a course that would follow the apparent drift track of Neosho
in reverse, in an effort to find and rescue the hundred and fifty men who had panicked and abandoned ship in the first few minutes
after the Japanese attack. The men of Neosho and Sims who had followed the rule of the sea and stuck with the
wreck were saved.
Above: The destroyer U.S.S. Henley rescued 123 men from the Neosho. Then it fired its five-inch
guns to scuttle the ship, so the Japanese wouldn't find it.
For three days Henley searched for the four officers and 154 men who had disappeared on the life rafts
when Neosho was attacked, but she found nothing. She then headed for Brisbane.
As Henley searched, the men aboard the rafts were dying, one by one. One group of rafts had managed
to stick together, with 68 men clinging to them, and they headed towards Noumea, where they hoped to find safety. But the officers who
had been so quick to abandon ship were deficient in other attributes, and discipline almost immediately broke down. What supplies
they had were quickly consumed without stiff rationing. Men dying of thirst drank sea water, and died more quickly. Men gnawed
with hunger quarreled and lost their strength. The officers who might have given them hope were no better leaders than the men.
Destroyer Helm was dispatched from Noumea, and she conducted a search of her own. Three days out of
Noumea, the Helm came upon four rafts lashed together. Four men were alive on these rafts all that remained of the
68 who had begun the voyage. As for the others, who had gone off in single rafts, they were never heard of again.
For more information about the ill-fated raft of 68 men and the group of four survivors, see my pages about U.S.S.
Neosho survivor, Jack Rolston and the
Captain Phillips occupied his time on the trip to Brisbane, trying to discover what had gone wrong with discipline
aboard his ship. The navigator was called to his cabin and questioned about his reasons for leaving the bridge at the time of the
attack. Captain Phillips apologized to him for misjudging him, but then on reflection, decided he had not misjudged him at all, and wrote
a letter of reprobation.
The navigator and the others reproved asked for a formal investigation of the charges, but higher authority felt it
best not to stir up new problems. The Neosho was gone, the investigation could do nothing but bring bad blood between professional
line officers and naval reservists, since all the offenders were reserve officers. There was nothing to be accomplished, and the facts
were dim. Actually in these early days of war such events were to be expected. So the matter was dropped.
Henley steamed swiftly to Brisbane where the survivors of Neosho and Sims could have first
class medical attention. She sighted nothing but one gas-drum raft with life preservers, and that was empty. At one point someone
thought he heard shouts from the water, and the ship stopped and circled, but saw nothing. Finally it was decided that the "shouts"
had been groans from the auxiliary water pump.
On May 13, Captain Phillips buried two more men, Seaman Second Class Ed M. Pelies of the Sims and Chief Water
Tender O. V. Peterson, one of the heroes of the Neosho, who died of his wounds after the rescue. Next day the ship landed at New Farm Wharf
and the survivors were taken off and rushed to hospital.
This concludes the account of the U.S.S. Neosho during the
Battle of the Coral Sea, as described in the book, "Blue Skies and Blood."
Above: The destroyer U.S.S. Helm searched the Coral Sea for several days, looking for survivors from the Neosho.
Above: Five days after 123 men were rescued from the listing U.S.S. Neosho, the destroyer Helm discovered four men in a
raft. These were the only survivors from a group of 68 men who had drifted away from the Neosho shortly after the attack on May 7. In this photo,
the Helm's whaleboat is on the left and the Neosho's raft is on the right, partly submerged. The four men had floated in the Coral Sea for nine days
without food or water and were all in critical condition. Shortly after being rescued, two of the men died. The other two returned to the
U.S. and lived for many years. That included Jack Rolston, who sent me this photo in 2004. He drew an arrow for me, indicating himself on the raft.
Above left: In 2022, 18 years after I'd posted Jack's photo above, I found these two photos on the Internet, posted on the
Naval History and Heritage Command website. This was the first
photo taken of the raft survivors by crewmen on the U.S.S. Helm. I believe that's William Smith standing in the middle of the raft, the only reason the raft was
spotted by the Helm.
Above right: The photo of the rescued sailors.
Table of Contents:
U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23)
The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)
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