Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East


The seeds of the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii were sown long before 1941.  Throughout the early 1900s, the small, industrial nation of Japan felt that it had been humiliated repeatedly by the West.  For example, even though Japan had beaten Russia decisively in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, Western powers had forced Japan to give up many of its victory spoils.  Furthermore, after World War I, Japan, unlike many of the victorious European nations, wasn't allowed to expand its territory despite having sided with the Allies.

Japan Invades China

Partly because of these factors, militaristic and nationalistic factions began taking political control of Japan in the 1920s through assassination and other means.  Having suffered what it felt were repeated humiliations, these new political leaders felt that Japan was justified in expanding its territory.  Through the 1920s Japan began to envision ruling all of Asia while ousting the Western powers.


Above:  The "Rising Sun" flag of the Imperial Japanese Army (1870 - 1945).

As the only industrialized country in Asia, Japan saw itself as the continent's leader and began to use the thinly-veiled motto "Asia for Asians" to justify its aggressions.  With few natural resources of its own, Japan eyed China's bounty and, in 1931, Japanese forces invaded Manchuria in northeastern China, an area that was rich in coal and iron.  China was emerging from centuries of dynastic rule and boasted a huge population but it was vulnerable to foreign invasion, being saddled with a weak military and corrupt political leadership.


The Japanese incursion into Manchuria caused tensions with the United States, a country that, for many years, had viewed itself as the protector of China.  However, the U.S. was unable to intervene against Japan since it was in the throes of an economic depression and because of the isolationist attitudes that were prevalent in America at that time.  Japan declared outright war against China in 1937, further escalating tensions with the United States. 


In 1938, the United States, Japan's main supplier of natural resources, began pressuring Japan to withdraw from China by cutting off some of her imports, but to no avail.  Tensions in Europe exploded the next year when Germany invaded Poland, followed quickly by the onset of World War II.  Japan signed a mutual-defense pact with Germany and Italy in 1940 forming the so-called "Axis."  This pact proscribed Japan as the leader of a "new order" in Asia and pronounced Germany and Italy as the leaders of a new order in Europe. 


The United States, neutral but becoming increasingly alarmed at Japanese aggressions, cut off Japan's steel, rubber, and, finally, oil imports, still hoping that Japan would retreat from China.  With its oil supply now shut off, Japanese leaders decided not to withdraw from China but rather to invade the petroleum-rich countries of Burma and Indonesia, then called the Dutch East Indies.

The U.S. Fleet Moves to Pearl Harbor

In 1940, with the British, French, and Dutch preoccupied with the European theatre of war, the main threat to Japan's planned invasion of southeast Asia was the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  At that time the fleet consisted of three aircraft carriers, nine battleships, and dozens of smaller ships.  The U.S. Pacific Fleet had been based in San Diego, California but in 1940, as tensions continued to escalate with Japan, the United States decided to move the fleet to Pearl Harbor in the territory of Hawaii, which was several thousand miles closer to the hot-spots in Asia.  


Above:  An aerial view of Pearl Harbor in October 1941, six weeks before the Japanese attack.  Ford Island is in the center and Honolulu is towards the left.

The decision to move the fleet to Pearl Harbor was criticized by some American military leaders.  They claimed that Pearl Harbor:

  • Was too shallow

  • Was too far from the U.S. mainland and thus vulnerable to attack

  • That supplies (such as diesel oil for the ships) would have to be imported, and that

  • Its single channel could be a bottleneck for ships trying to get out to sea.

Despite these objections, the Navy moved the U.S. Pacific Fleet to Pearl Harbor in the spring of 1940.  Hawaii was not yet a state and most Americans had never heard of Pearl Harbor.


As Japanese military leaders were planning to invade the oil-rich countries of southeast Asia, they decided to first attack the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor.  By knocking out the U.S. fleet in a surprise attack, they reasoned, Japan would have enough time to secure the oil fields and other resources in southeastern Asia before the United States could counter-attack.  Therefore, in November of 1941 a large Japanese fleet, including six aircraft carriers carrying dozens of torpedo-bombers, dive-bombers and fighter planes, secretly left Japan and raced through the stormy waters of the Northern Pacific, heading for Hawaii.



Above left:  An aerial view of Pearl Harbor taken in October, 1941.  Hickam Field and Honolulu are on the right.

Above right:  The aircraft carriers U.S.S. Saratoga (foreground) and her sister ship, U.S.S. Lexington, anchored off Diamond Head near Honolulu.  The American carriers were the prime target of the Japanese attack but none were at Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941.  The Lexington had left on December 5 to deliver planes to Midway Island and the Saratoga was undergoing repairs in Bremerton, Washington.  A third carrier, the U.S.S. Enterprise, returned to Pearl Harbor on the afternoon of December 7 after delivering planes to Wake Island.



Above left:  While Japan was preparing to attack Pearl Harbor, American servicemen and women in Honolulu enjoyed the sun and sand on Waikiki Beach in those blissful days before the war.

Above right:  The carrier Akagi, flagship of the Japanese fleet that headed to Pearl Harbor in late November, 1941.


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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