2002 Interview With Bill Leu:
1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor


As I described on my U.S.S. Neosho Home Page, I interviewed my uncle, Bill Leu, in November of 2002, a few months before he passed away.  During that interview Bill described his experience during the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.  I had heard vague stories, while I was growing up, about my uncle being at Pearl Harbor during the attack but never knew much about it.  This was the first time I'd heard any of these stories.


Bill, like many World War II veterans, never talked much about the war.  In fact, his wife and children, who were sitting just off-camera during the interview, had, like me, never heard many of these stories.  I didn't realize until later how painful recalling these events must've been for him.  I posted the interview below, which is also on YouTube.  I've posted the transcript of the interview below.


In a continuation of this 2002 interview, Bill described the sinking of his ship, the U.S.S. Neosho, during the Battle of the Coral Sea six months later in 1942.  You can watch that interview on this page:  Interview with Bill Leu:  The Battle of the Coral Sea.


Above:  Here's my uncle, Bill Leu (right), in 2002 describing the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, hours after the U.S.S. Neosho had arrived there.  My father, also a World War II veteran, is on the left.  This was the last time they saw each other.  Sadly, my father died shortly afterwards and Bill died six months later.


Transcript of Interview with Bill Leu:

The Attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (1941)


Del:  Bill, after you graduated from high school, what did you do then?


Bill:  Well, I worked on a <railroad> section gang in the summer of 1940, then I got a part-time job in a mill at 5 dollars and 20 cents <a day>, but they went out on strike.  And my mother told me when I got out of high school, “Now you work a year, and you don’t have to pay any room and board, and then you can go to college.”  Well, I wasn’t college material and I worked a year off-and-on, and when I joined the navy a year later after I got out, I had 12 dollars on me.  And I wanted to join the navy in the worst way, but I got that kicked out of me fast.  I thought it was going to be fun and games, and a girl in every port.  It wasn’t that way at all (laughs).


Del:  Why did you join?  Because you always wanted to be in the navy?


Bill:  When I was a junior in high school, I wanted to quit school and join the navy, but my mother wouldn’t let me.  And I’m glad she wouldn’t (laughs).


Del:  So when did you enlist?  Was that before we got into the war?


Bill:  Yeah, May of 1941.  Six months, and a half, before the war started.


Del:  And you were sent down to San Diego, is that right?


Bill:  Well, I picked up my first ship in Bremerton <Washington> and we went down to San Diego – no, down to San Pedro.  Before the war, we’d go from San Pedro, California to Hawaii – Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.   And on our sixth trip, it was December 6, 1941.  It was the day before the war started.


Del:  When you pulled into Pearl Harbor?


Bill:  Yeah.  And we were between the California and the Oklahoma, and the Arizona was three ships down the line.  And that was our berth.  We’d get rid of our aviation gas.  Well, the next day, all hell broke loose.


Del:  And you were on what ship?


Bill:  U.S.S. Neosho.  It was the largest oil tanker in the world.  Five hundred and fifty three feet.  And nowadays, the oil tankers are just twice as big, twice as big.  But it was a big ship.  And it was a good ship.


Above:  Bill working in the engine room of the U.S.S. Neosho.  The ghost faces are from a double-exposure.

Del:  And what did you do?


Bill:  I was a Fireman in the black gang <the engine room>, a Fireman Third Class.  They don’t come any lower than that.


Don:  How did you get sunk <at the Coral Sea>?


Del:  Well, I’ll get into that but I first wanted to go back to Pearl Harbor.  You pulled in on December 6…


Bill:  And the next morning, I was just getting off of a watch talking to the guys down in the compartment when we heard some loud noises and some guy came running down saying, “the Japanese...”  Well, he said, “the Japs.”  “The Japs are bombing us, the Japs are bombing us!”  So I ran to my battle station.  And I’m not bragging but I was the first one there.  But everything was locked up (chuckles).


And I’ve told this story before and I’ll tell it again:  When I was running to my battle station, running on this catwalk, I looked up and here was a torpedo plane that let its torpedo go and it was just pulling up, and I seen this Japanese rear gunner and he was laughing.  And later on in the battle, I was laughing because I was so god-damned scared, and so were the guys by me.  We reacted in different ways, but I was scared.


Del:  So what did you do during the attack?


Bill:  Well, we were an auxiliary ship.  We weren’t a warship, see?  And we had a pretty crude affair.  The Number One magazine was right down in the bow of the ship and it had a block-and-tackle, and you’d put the hook down and they’d hook it onto the box of ammunition.  We’d pull it up, we’d open the box up and hand the shells one-by-one.  Each box held three shells and they’d be firing away, and like I said, we hit the sky every time.  But you aren’t going to hit no airplane when they’re right on top of you and with a three-inch shell.  The only way you’re going to shoot them down is with a machine gun.   Anyway, we were trying…


"It was a big ship.  And it was a good ship."


Del:  Do you remember when the Arizona was hit?  Because that was berthed right near you, wasn’t it?


Bill:  Well yeah, it was three ships down the line.  Of course, those ships were 624 feet at the time.  Yeah, I heard a loud explosion and I think that’s when it was.  I know that shortly after we were fighting, I looked back and the first ship down the line was the Oklahoma.  And she’d turned over and the hull was sticking up, and I couldn’t figure out what it was until someone told me that it was the Oklahoma turned over.  The California was sinking in the mud.  The West Virginia took seven hits.  And the ships – the battleships – were two-two-two <gestures with hands>, most of them, you know.  


And there was the Oklahoma <gestures with hands>, and the Maryland was inside her.  I saw her take a hit.  And there was the West Virginia, and the Tennessee.  And then after that was the Arizona, and they had an auxiliary ship beside them.  And down the line, behind the last one, was the Nevada all alone.  And she made a run for the channel and she went by us, steaming full bore with three Japanese airplanes chasing her, and they didn’t make it.  They had to beach her.


Anyway, about 40 or 45 minutes afterwards there was a slight lull in the battle and we pulled out, or backed out next to the… right next to the Oklahoma that was turned over, and went across the channel and hid behind a building.  Then the second wave <of Japanese planes> came in and we heard the fighting but we didn’t see anything.  And our captain got the Navy Cross because he saved our ship.  They could’ve sunk us anytime but it was “battleship day”.  O.K., so now you’ve heard my version of Pearl Harbor.  I think we got beat.


Del:  It must have been quite a shock for everybody there.


Bill:  I wanted to cry, no kidding.  Here we were, the best navy in the world and we got the… Jesus kicked out of us.



Above:  My dad (left) and his brother Bill during their interview in 2002, describing their experiences in the U.S. Navy during World War II.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died a few months later.


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)


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 (1942)


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


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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