The U.S.S. Neosho
"12 Sacrificed Lives to Aid Wounded Sailors"
Article printed in the San Francisco Examiner, July 10, 1942
By Bob Greenock
Note: The article was printed about two months after the Battle of the Coral Sea. The two men interviewed were among the 123 men rescued
from the disabled tanker Neosho on May 11, 1942. I don't know how true the headline of this story is because I've never read anything to corroborate
it, that 12 men willingly sacrificed their lives to help the wounded men on the Neosho.
Perhaps instead this was journalistic hyperbole for a country enmeshed in war. Nevertheless, the rest of the story is interesting and, I
believe, factual. Click on the article to see a larger version. The text of the article is shown below.
This story was sent to me in 2003 by Jack Rolston, one of only two survivors of the U.S.S. Neosho's tragic "Raft of 68," which I describe
on this page.
An ex-railroad worker of Laurel, Montana, and a former tile setter from St. Louis sat in the Twelfth Naval District headquarters here
yesterday and recounted the heroic tale of twelve Navy men who sacrificed their lives in the battle of the Coral Sea so that their wounded shipmates might live.
They recounted how a Naval Reserve lieutenant, Henry K. Bradford, led the exodus of men from shrapnel riddled whaleboats that there might
be room for the wounded. And with voices strained with emotion, they recalled the men swimming in the shark infested waters until they sank from exhaustion or were
killed by the sharks.
The Main Theme
Their tale centered around the sinking of the Navy tanker Neosho, a 25,000 tonner, and the sinking of the destroyer Sims, a
1,570 ton "tin can," as they lovingly called it.
E.A. Flaherty, 22, electrician's mate, third class, the ex-tile setter, told most of the story while his companion, D. J.
Nelson, also 22, signalman, third class, sat next to him nodding confirmation or adding details here and there.
They were aboard a cruiser in the Coral Sea on May 6 when the order came for them to go aboard the tanker Neosho which would
take them to another ship at a secret rendezvous. They never found out where that rendezvous was. But let Flaherty tell the story:
"We went aboard the Neosho about 2 PM on the sixth. We were being convoyed by the Sims. It seemed like the quartermaster
had just finished issuing life jackets to us and we had just been assigned to our battle stations when general quarters sounded. Actually the time was about
9:15 AM the next day. May 7.
"Word was passed down the line to expect an air raid and to stand by. The Japs made one run with their horizontal bombers
but the Sims and the Neosho put up such a barrage that the Nips were driven off. Three of them came so close we could see their bomb bays open as they let
go with 1,000 pounders."
Dive Bombers Too
Dive bombers followed in quick succession, but they, too were driven off. Later on, the two groups came back and this time managed
to land the blows which sank the Sims.
Flaherty and Nelson were out on the fantail when the second attack began. They saw the huge bombs drop less than twenty-five yards
"Then a dive bomber headed straight for us. I've never seen a cooler bunch than that gun crew on the Neosho," and Flaherty
shook his head as he remembered. "They waited until she was almost point blank and then gave it to her. The plane just disintegrated in the air. There was
nothing left of her but a few pieces of fabric that came floating down on deck."
The same crew nailed another plane. The pilot, realizing he was done in, apparently tried to wreak as much vengeance as he
could. Banking his crippled plane about, he deliberately crashed on the fantail of the Neosho, spraying burning gas from his ship as he did so.
"There was a lieutenant commander there, the executive officer. He was a little fellow by the name of Francis J. Firth. When that
plane hit, he threw himself at three of our boys on the fantail, knocking them down and trying to shield them from the flaming gas. It was actually funny to see
this little officer — he really was a small man — trying to protect those three men, but he did it. They don't make them any braver."
Burned By Steam
The Neosho was hit and set afire in several places. One bomb hit the fireroom, releasing steam which burned Flaherty severely.
"I only got burned a little," he muttered.
"Yeah," interrupted Nelson, "just a little—only on his hands, arms, face and chest!"
"I wouldn't be here and neither would a lot of others," said Flaherty, "if it wasn't for that pharmacist's mate,
third class, who jumped overboard with his shirt loaded with tannic acid, then swam to the life rafts and whaleboats to spread the stuff over our bums.
The doctors in Australia said many of us would have died if it wasn't for that tannic acid."
The captain of the Neosho, John S. Phillips, ordered his men to abandon ship and stand by when she listed so badly that starboard
side went under water and when the flames licked eagerly all around the ship's magazine.
Set Fine Example
"Three whaleboats were put safely over the side of the tanker," continued the sailor. "One of them took me and
the other wounded from a raft and the other two boats were also rapidly filling with men.
"When it became apparent there wouldn't be enough room for all the men struggling in the water. Lieutenant Bradford
suddenly stood up and said:
‘I guess those of us not wounded will have to get off.’”
“Then he dived into the water.
“Several other uninjured men in our boat followed his example and we later learned that fifteen men in all had voluntarily quit
the whaleboats to make room for the wounded. The lieutenant and two enlisted men of the fifteen survived."
Afloat Five Days
Had they but known, they could have stayed aboard the Neosho and
lived. For the big tanker, which appeared about to capsize, actually stayed afloat for five more days.
During those five days the whaleboats stayed in the vicinity, approaching alongside the tanker each day to take on more food
and water. At noon on the fifth day an American destroyer arrived in response to a signal from a PBY plane that spotted the Neosho. The
destroyer sank the tanker with a torpedo and took aboard the survivors.
Seas Stay Rough
"It was choppy as the devil out there and we had to keep one man bailing all the time in the whaleboat I was in,"
said Flaherty. "One boat had a blanket and life jacked stuffed in a shrapnel hole to keep out the entire ocean. They did the job."
Once they got horribly irked, Flaherty recalled. It was on the day before they were rescued. An Australian patrol plane
flew out and circled around for a bit, then signaled: "Are you in trouble?"
"Heck," interrupted Nelson, "we had every distress signal we could lay our hands on flying out there as big
as life. We were awfully glad to see the PBY boys next day and when they circled us twice and then streaked away, we figured they'd gone to get a tin
can for us."
The Sims went down fighting to the end.
"There was someone in one of the turrets as she buckled in half and went under," Flaherty said grimly. "We know
that because just as she was going and there was nothing but the muzzled of one other guns showing above the water, someone let go with a final shot at the
planes. If we had had another tin can there, those Japs wouldn't have had a chance. Why, the Sims had the sky black with ack-ack barrage."
The "tin can" that picked them up took them to Australia where they got some clothes. From there they went to an Army
hospital at Pearl Harbor and then were sent on here.
Saved By A Shark
There was some humor mixed with all of the grimness, too.
"One of the men told me afterward that a shark saved his life," recalled Flaherty with a grin. "His name was J.T.
Nix and he was a machinist's mate, first class, from somewhere down South. He was terribly tired and didn't think he'd make it to a life raft.
Suddenly a big shark showed up, grinned at him once with its big teeth and before you could blink twice, Nix was on the raft."
Asked if they were anxious to get back with the fleet. Nelson just grinned and looked down at his old blue denim shirt someone gave
him on the beach at Australia.
Flaherty looked at his companion then grinned too. "You ain't kiddin', brother. We got some revenge to get and the sooner we
get it, the better we're going to like it."
Table of Contents:
U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23)
The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)
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