The Battle of the Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (DD-409)

 

As the American and Japanese fleets searched for each other in the Coral Sea on the afternoon of May 6, 1942, Admiral Jack Fletcher ordered the vulnerable tanker U.S.S. Neosho to stay in a safe area, well behind the U.S. fleet.  The Neosho was ordered to travel on alternating days between two designated points, known as Point Corn and Point Rye, in the supposed safe zone to refuel American ships rendezvousing there as needed.  Fletcher ordered the destroyer, U.S.S. Sims, to protect the tanker as the rest of the American fleet steamed ahead, looking for the Japanese.

 

At about 7:30 the next morning, May 7, a Japanese scout plane discovered the two ships, mistaking the Sims for a cruiser and the flat-topped Neosho for an aircraft carrier.  During the next five hours, Japanese dive bombers the numbers vary between 24 and as high as 62, depending on the source attacked the two ships.  During the fierce attack, the Sims valiantly defended the Neosho but was struck amidships by several bombs, split in half, and sank shortly after noon with the loss of 237 men.  Crewmen on the Neosho, which itself was under attack, watched in horror as the Sims split in two and quickly slid beneath the waves.  As the bow of the Sims was submerging under the rough seas, the forward five-inch gun of the Sims let loose with one final shot even as the waves were engulfing it, a last, defiant effort by the doomed gun crew.

 

Only 15 Sims crewmen survived the sinking, all of whom piled into a whaleboat and headed for the Neosho.  The Neosho was badly damaged during the attack but, having refueled the American fleet a few days earlier and with its now nearly-empty cargo tanks, it stubbornly remained afloat.  Two of the 15 survivors from the Sims would later die from their wounds.

 

Above:  The navy destroyer U.S.S. Sims (DD-409).

My uncle, Bill Leu, a fireman who worked in the engine room of the lightly-armed Neosho, always admired the Sims, the little ship that bravely defended his tanker.  During my 2002 video interview with him, Bill's eyes misted up as he thought about the brave men on the Sims who defiantly battled the Japanese dive-bombers until the destroyer sank beneath the waves.

 

According to a website I found during my research about the U.S.S. Neosho in 2004, a seaman on the U.S.S. Sims named Bill Vessia was responsible for rescuing the few survivors of the attack on the Sims, though official naval sources cite R. J. Dicken as the group's leader.  Regardless of who performed the heroics, the Sims fought valiantly and its loss was a blow to the American goal of thwarting the Japanese invasion of New Guinea and Australia.

 

As events would reveal, May 7, 1942, would be the low point for the Allied forces in the Pacific theatre.  Not only did the Japanese sink the destroyer Sims and badly damage the tanker Neosho that day in the Coral Sea, but several thousand miles away, they ousted the Allies from Burma, cutting off the vital supply link to China known as the Burma Road.  With the American fleet crippled at Pearl Harbor six months earlier, the outlook for the Allies that day looked bleak.  The next day, May 8, the Japanese were turned back during the climactic battle in the Coral Sea and their fortune would continue to ebb until the end of the war.

 

Interestingly, prior to the Japanese attack on the U.S.S. Sims and Neosho in the Coral Sea, the destroyer U.S.S. Russell (DD-414) and not the Sims had been assigned to escort the Neosho.  As shown on my map, the Russell had escorted the Neosho during the first few days of the Coral Sea engagement, until May 3.  A website reader and veteran of World War II named Barry Friedman sent me an e-mail in December 2011 explaining an interesting twist of fate:

 

Hi Del,

 

I enjoyed reading your well written story about your uncle Bill Leu.  I was Medical Officer of USS Russell DD414, a destroyer.  In early May 1942, Russell was part of Task Force 17 in the Coral Sea. Russell was assigned to escort Neosho and did so until 3 May, when a faulty fuel feed pump forced her to leave the Neosho screen and return to the main Task Force.

 

Russell's place was assigned to the Sims.  The faulty pump turned out to be Sims' misfortune and Russell's luck.  I came aboard Russell after the Battle of Coral Sea but I learned the story from my shipmates.

 

I'm writing a history of Russell.  Perhaps some day it will be published.

 

Happy Holidays
Barry Friedman, M.D.

 

I've listed the names of the Sims survivors on my U.S.S. Sims Survivors and Casualties page.  Below I've posted a brief history of the U.S.S. Sims.

 

Above:  The U.S.S. Sims shortly after it was launched.

 


History of the U.S.S. Sims (DD-409)

1939 - 1942

 

The first Sims (DD-409) was laid down on 15 July 1937 by Bath Iron Works Corp. in Bath, Maine.  It was launched on 8 April 1939, sponsored by Mrs. William S. Sims, and was commissioned on 1 August 1939 with Lt. Comdr. W. A. Griswold in command.

 

After shakedown training in the Caribbean and post shakedown availability in the Boston Navy Yard, Sims joined the Atlantic Squadron at Norfolk, Virginia on 2 August 1940. The destroyer operated with the Neutrality Patrol in Caribbean and South Atlantic waters.  In November and December 1940, Sims patrolled off Martinique.  On 28 May 1941, the ship arrived at Newport, Rhode Island, and began operating from there.  She sailed for Iceland on 28 July with an American task force.  In August, the destroyer patrolled the approaches to Iceland.  In September and October, the ship made two lengthy North Atlantic patrols.  Sims had been attached to Destroyer Squadron (DesRon) 2 since she began making Neutrality Patrols.

 

With the outbreak of war on 7 December 1941, DesRon 2 became part of a task force (Task Force 17) formed around Yorktown (CV-5).  The task force sortied from Norfolk, Virginia on 16 December 1941 for San Diego, California.  From there, it sailed as part of a convoy taking marines to Samoa, arriving on 23 January 1942.

 

At the time, it was believed that the Japanese would attack Samoa to sever Allied communications with Australia.  To thwart such a move, a carrier raid against Japanese bases in the Marshall Islands was planned.  The Yorktown task force was to strike the islands of Mili, Jaluit, and Makin, while another force centered around Enterprise (CV-6) was to hit Kwajalein, Wotje, and Maloelap.

 

Task Force 17 departed Samoa on 25 January with Sims in the screen.  At 1105 on the 28th, she sighted an enemy bomber.  At 1114, a stick of four bombs fell approximately 1,500 yards astern, straddling the wake of the destroyer.  The next day, the two carrier forces and a bombardment group attacked the islands and withdrew.

 

Sims, with Task Force 17, sailed from Pearl Harbor on 16 February to attack Wake Island.  Shortly after departing, their sailing orders were changed and they proceeded to the Canton Island area.  Canton, a small island on the Honolulu-New Caledonia air route, was thought to be endangered by the Japanese.

 

Above:  The navy destroyer U.S.S. Sims (DD-409) off the coast of Maine in 1939.

By early March, the Japanese had occupied Lae and Salamaua on the north coast of New Guinea.  To check this drive, a carrier strike was launched on 10 March from Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown.  Sims remained near Rossel Island in the Louisiades with a force of cruisers and destroyers to protect the carriers from enemy surface ships.  Sims next operated in the New Caledonia-Tonga Islands area.

 

In late April, a Japanese task force was assembled to win control of the Coral Sea area and thereby isolate Australia.  This consisted of a covering group to protect landing forces on Tulagi and Port Moresby and a striking force to eliminate Allied shipping in the Coral Sea.  The light carrier, Shoho, was attached to the covering force, and the big new carriers, Shokaku and Zuikaku, were the striking force under command of Admiral Takagi.  The American ships were divided into task forces centered around Lexington and Yorktown, and Sims was ordered to escort tanker, Neosho (AO-23).  The task force refueled on 5 and 6 May and then detached Neosho and Sims to continue to the next fueling point.

 

On the morning of 7 May, a search plane from the Japanese striking force sighted the tanker and destroyer and reported them to Admiral Takagi as a carrier and a cruiser.  Takagi ordered an all-out attack.  At 0930, 15 high level bombers attacked the two ships but did no damage.  At 1038, 10 planes attacked the destroyer, but skillful maneuvering evaded the nine bombs that were dropped.  A third attack against the two ships by 36 dive bombers was devastating.  Neosho was soon a blazing wreck as the result of seven direct hits and one plane that dived into her.

 

Sims was attacked from all directions and the destroyer defended herself as best she could.  Three 500-pound bombs hit the destroyer.  Two exploded in the engine room and within minutes, the ship buckled amidships and began to sink, stern first.  As Sims slid beneath the waves, there was a tremendous explosion that raised what was left of the ship almost 15 feet out of the water.  Chief R. J. Dicken, in a damaged whaleboat, picked up 14 other survivors.  They remained with Neosho, still afloat despite severe damage, until they were rescued by Henley (DD-391) on 11 May.  Sims was struck from the Navy list on 24 June 1942.

 

 

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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