The Battle of the Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Helm (DD-388)

 

On May 11, 1942, four days after the tanker U.S.S. Neosho and destroyer U.S.S. Sims were attacked by Japanese dive-bombers and three days after the American and Japanese fleets had withdrawn from the Coral Sea licking their wounds, 123 American sailors still clung to the listing deck of the Neosho, hoping to be rescued and hopefully by the U.S. fleet and not the Japanese.  That afternoon, the destroyer U.S.S. Henley found the battered Neosho, transferred the weary and sunburned survivors onboard, and, after a fruitless search for additional survivors, headed for the nearest hospital, in Brisbane, Australia.

 

Above:  The navy destroyer U.S.S. Helm (DD-338).

Meanwhile, the search continued for the 158 men missing from the Neosho, many of whom, on life rafts, had drifted away from the ailing tanker after the fierce Japanese attack on May 7.  Despite the rough seas that day, these men likely would have been rescued soon after the attack if the correct coordinates had been radioed to the U.S. Pacific fleet.  But unfortunately they were not, and the search focused instead about 40 miles from the Neosho.  Because of this grave error, nearly all of the men on the rafts perished.

 

On the morning of May 16, a full nine days after the Japanese attack, the destroyer U.S.S. Helm spotted a life raft from the U.S.S. Neosho floating in the Coral Sea.  Miraculously, four survivors were aboard the small raft.  Shortly after the Neosho had been attacked on May 7, 68 men had climbed into four life rafts and lashed them together.  During the next nine days, all but four of these men perished from thirst and exposure; some, nearly delirious, started to drink seawater and died.  I've posted the Report of the U.S.S. Helm at Coral Sea describing the rescue of the four men.  

 

Shortly after the men were rescued by the U.S.S. Helm, one man, Kenneth Bright, died aboard the Helm.  Several days later, another, Thaddeus Tunnel, died in a hospital in Brisbane, Australia.  The only two survivors of the original group of 68, William Smith and Jack Rolston, returned to the U.S. and lived for many more years.

 

Here are more photos of the destroyer U.S.S. Helm:

 

   

Above left:  The destroyers U.S.S. Blue (left) and Helm just before their simultaneous launch at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, Virginia on May 27, 1937.

Above right:  The U.S.S. Helm shortly after its launch.

 

Right:  On May 16, 1942, five days after 123 men were rescued from the listing tanker Neosho in the Coral Sea, the destroyer U.S.S. 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 Japanese attack on May 7. 

The Helm's whaleboat is on the left and the Neosho's raft is on the right, partly submerged, one stacked upon another for added buoyancy.  The four men had floated in the Coral Sea for nine days without food or water and were all in critical condition.  Sadly, shortly after being rescued, two of the four men died.  One of the survivors, Jack Rolston the man being hoisted into the whaleboat sent me this photo-copied photograph in 2003.

 

   

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 as they approached the raft.  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, the same photo as survivor Jack Rolston sent me in 2003.

 

 

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)

Introduction

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)

Introduction

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

Introduction

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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