"This generation of
Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."
- Franklin D. Roosevelt
uncle, Bill Leu (1922 - 2003), a
over 8 months since I posted my last update and believe it or not, I'm still in Bellingham. In my next update, I'll post
some stories and photos of what I've been doing here. I'm
devoting this update to my
Leu, who was a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack in
1941. Bill suddenly passed away in May of
2003 at the age of 80, which greatly saddened me and all those who knew him.
last 12 months have been kind of rocky. My father passed away last year
before Christmas after a brief bout with cancer, then six months later, my Uncle
Bill died suddenly. Bill was a wonderful
person and someone who I considered to be like my second father. But, as they
is simply a part of life and rather than commiserate over his passing, I wanted to
celebrate his life.
Today, December 7,
is the anniversary of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack. I decided to honor my Uncle
Bill by posting this update describing him, some of his experiences in
World War II, and the lifelong
friendship that he had with my father. My father and my uncle both had a lot of
integrity and compassion -- attributes that unfortunately are becoming rare in
American society -- and they were both wonderful people. In my last update, I
described my father. In this update, I'm going to describe my Uncle Bill in
memory of all the veterans who served in World War II.
father, Don Leu, and his older brother Bill grew up in the 1920s in a
middle-class household in Ballard, Washington, just north of Seattle. As youngsters, they were
best friends, a bond they shared throughout their lives. Throughout the
1920s, their father, George Leu, ran a successful grocery store in Seattle.
George's wife, Minnie May Leu, was a devoted mother to her six children
including her two youngest, Bill and Don.
many other families in America, the
Leus suffered hard times when the Great Depression hit in the early
1930s. Many of George's customers had bought their groceries on credit
and couldn't pay their debts, and although George worked extremely hard to
feed his family, he was eventually forced out of business. In desperation,
and now nearly impoverished, the Leus moved to the logging town of Skykomish,
Washington, in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle in the mid-1930s where George opened a
small grocery store, which he called simply "Leu's Market."
George, a kind and quiet man, struggled mightily. Nevertheless, he managed
to put food
on the table each night.
Above left: That's Bill on the far left in 1924, being held
by his father (my grandfather), George Leu, in Ballard, Washington. Bill's
grandfather (my great-grandfather),
also named George Leu, is in the middle. George Sr. grew up in
Switzerland and reputedly stole $400 from his father when he was a young man,
then stowed away on a ship bound for America -- don't I come from good stock?! On the
right is George Sr.'s other son,
Above center: My father, Don Leu (left) and his older brother
Bill, around 1927.
Above right: Bill (left) and Don, dressing alike as they often
did. This was at their home in Ballard.
Above left: The Leu family about 1928. That's Don and
Bill in the front row. Their parents are in the back row, middle.
Above center: Don and Bill in Ballard. Cool scooter, huh?
Above right: Don and Bill getting a motherly hug.
This was in Skykomish, Washington, where the Leus moved during the Great
Depression after George's grocery store in Seattle had failed.
Above left: Bill in downtown Seattle in 1938, when he was
Above center: Bill and Don in a serious pose in Skykomish, 1940. Bill
was a senior at Skykomish High School and Don was a junior.
Above right: Best friends.
Above left: Mug shot?
Above center: Bill's high school senior portrait, in 1940.
Above right: And Don's portrait, the following year.
World War II: Onboard the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor
teenagers, Don and Bill enjoyed the rural atmosphere of Skykomish, spending
their summers working in the woods and on the Great Northern railroad, while spending their winters playing basketball. In the late
1930s, they both starred on Skykomish High School's basketball team, the
Skyrockets, one of the best small-town basketball teams in the state of
Washington. Bill graduated from high school in 1940, a year ahead of Don, and enlisted as a Fireman Third
Class with the U.S. Navy in May of 1941. Europe had been torn about by
World War II for nearly two years, but the U.S. was still neutral when Bill
Bill signed aboard a new tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho, in Bremerton,
Washington. At 553 feet long, the Neosho was the largest oil tanker
in the world at the time. As Bill would recall years later, "It was a
big ship... and it was good ship." Bill spent the next several
months on the Neosho as it carried fuel repeatedly from San Pedro,
California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the U.S. Fleet had recently relocated.
the sixth trip, the Neosho, with Bill aboard, pulled into Pearl Harbor on December 6,
1941. After the Neosho tied up to the dock at Ford Island in the
middle of "Battleship Row" that evening, it quickly began unloading its cargo of aviation fuel.
At 7:55 a.m. the next morning, December 7th, it had almost finished unloading
its fuel when Japanese planes began
attacking the U.S. Pacific Fleet, moored at Pearl Harbor. Bill was just
getting off a shift in the engine room when he looked up and saw Japanese planes
overhead, then ran to his battle station with the 3" gun on the ship's bow,
where he watched the attack unfold. The Neosho, moored between the
doomed battleships U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. California, escaped damage and, during a slight lull in the battle,
made a run for the Oahu mainland. As it turned out, the Neosho was the
only ship on Battleship Row that morning that wasn't damaged.
Above left: Fireman, 3rd Class, Bill Leu, with his parents, Minnie May and George Leu, in
Above center: Bill just before he
embarked on the U.S.S. Neosho in July 1941.
Above right: The U.S.S. Neosho in 1939 in Norfolk,
Virginia, shortly after it was launched. At 553' long, this was the
largest oil tanker in the world when it was launched.
Bill in the engine room of one of the five ships he served on during WW II. The ghostly faces are due to a
Above center: I drew this map
showing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7,
1941 (click to enlarge). Ford Island is in the center. I've shown the route of the Neosho
Above right: The attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7,
1941. The Neosho, in the upper right, had cut its lines on the Ford
Island dock (upper left) and was heading for the Oahu mainland during the attack. Counter-flooding
kept the battleship U.S.S. California (left) from overturning. The capsized U.S.S. Oklahoma and smoking U.S.S. Maryland
lie behind the California. For a supersized photo,
The Neosho Tragedy in the Coral Sea
months later, in May of 1942, the Neosho wasn't so lucky. The U.S.
Navy sent a task fleet, including the Neosho, aircraft carriers Lexington
and Yorktown, and about a dozen other ships, to the Coral Sea near
Australia to thwart a Japanese invasion of New Guinea. The Japanese were
hoping to knock Australia and New Zealand out of the war, but first had to
contend with the U.S. Navy. During the ensuing Battle of the
Coral Sea, the Neosho and its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims,
were detached from the main U.S. fleet and were left behind in a relatively safe
area. "We were a bunch of scared sailors," Bill would say
years later, remembering how the Neosho got ready for a possible fight
with the Japanese.
being left behind, the two ships were spotted by Japanese dive-bombers the next
morning, who mistook the flat-topped Neosho for an aircraft carrier and
the Sims for a cruiser. Sixty-two Japanese planes pounced on the
two American ships, quickly sinking the Sims
and badly damaging the Neosho. During the attack, 237 of the 252 men on the Sims perished, while
of the 296 men on the Neosho were killed and scores more were injured. Shortly afterwards,
about 160 men from the burning Neosho jumped into life rafts, thinking the Neosho
would sink quickly like the Sims had and expecting that they
would be picked up shortly by the U.S. fleet. Amazingly enough, though -- and
despite being hit by seven bombs and rammed by a burning Japanese plane -- the smoldering Neosho didn't sink,
although it did begin listing at 30 degrees and
had lost all its power.
men who stayed with the disabled Neosho, including my Uncle Bill, clung
to the listing deck and waited for rescue. Unfortunately though, shortly
after the attack, the Neosho crew had radioed incorrect coordinates to the rest of the
U.S. fleet, an error of about 40 miles, so while a search was underway for the Neosho,
they were looking in the wrong place. Four days later, the men on the Neosho,
many of whom were badly burned, had just about
given up hope of being rescued and were preparing to take to the remaining lifeboats and
try to sail to Australia, over 400
miles away, when a ship appeared on the horizon. It was an American
destroyer -- they were saved!
saga of the 160 or so men who had clambering into the Neosho's liferafts
shortly after the attack, however, was more grim. Five days after the
123 men were rescued from the listing Neosho, another American destroyer
discovered a Neosho lifeboat with four emaciated and delirious men on
board -- the only survivors from a group of 68 men who had climbed aboard
after the attack, nine days earlier. Shortly after being rescued,
two of the men died, but the remaining two men returned to the U.S. and
lived for many more years. Of the 160 men who climbed into liferafts shortly after the attack
on the Neosho, they were the only ones who had survived.
five-day Battle of the Coral Sea was basically a stalemate, but the Japanese had been
turned back for the first time in World War II. The battle proved to be an
important turning point in the war, because before the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese
military enjoyed almost nothing but victory, while afterwards, they suffered almost
nothing but defeat.
Above left: The Neosho refueling the aircraft
carrier Yorktown (left), six months later during the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Above center: I drew this map of the action at the Battle of the
Coral Sea, May 5 to 7, 1942 (click to enlarge). For more about the battle, see the Table of
Contents listed below.
Above right: This is, most likely, the last picture taken of the U.S.S.
Neosho (the bow is to the left). It was taken from a Japanese plane about
1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Despite a 30-degree starboard list, and
with 123 men on board, including my Uncle Bill, the ship would continue to float for four days until the
crew was rescued by an American destroyer.
recuperating from the Neosho ordeal in Brisbane, Australia, Bill went back home to Skykomish,
Washington on liberty for a few days, then served on four more ships during World War II, finally mustering out of the Navy
in 1946. Afterwards, he returned to Skykomish and began a career as a
railroad engineer on the Great Northern (later Burlington Northern) railroad,
retiring in the early 1980s. Although I had grown up in Michigan and,
later, California, I got to know my Uncle Bill very well because each summer, my
Dad would load our family into the station wagon and head to Washington, camping
along the way. Visiting my uncle and his family near Seattle was often the
high point of my whole summer. Bill and Don remained best friends throughout their
and, as I say, my Uncle Bill was like a second father to me.
the early fall of 2002, my father developed cancer, and in November, he was told
that he had only a few weeks left to live. I asked my Dad what he'd
like to do in the short time that he had left and, not surprisingly, he said
only one thing: "I want to see Bill." The next day, I drove my
Dad from Bellingham down to Seattle, and he and Bill spent the entire day
their memorable visit, I videotaped an interview with them, knowing that it
would be the last time they'd see each other. During the interview, they
talked about their childhood, about growing up during the Great Depression, and
about their experiences in World War II. They had both served in the
Pacific during the war: Bill on various ships, including the Neosho,
and my father with the Navy Scouts & Raiders (later SEALs) in China.
Although throughout my life I'd heard that Bill had been at Pearl Harbor during the 1941
attack and that later his ship was sunk in the Coral Sea, Bill, like many
veterans, never talked much about his wartime experiences so I never heard the
whole story. Therefore, during the interview, I asked Bill about his experiences on the Neosho and he
spent 20 minutes describing the battles at Pearl Harbor and at the Coral Sea.
I was truly fascinated to hear Bill's first-hand accounts of these conflicts, as
was my father.
after that visit, unfortunately, my father died. Then about six months later, in May of
2003, Bill suddenly passed away one evening. After Bill died, I did some research on the Neosho and put together a 40-page
account of the ship and its experiences at Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea, which I've
posted on my website, because I want others to know about the ordeal of the Neosho,
the valiant Sims, and about the men who fought in those battles. My
account includes numerous photos
and maps, and it's perhaps the most comprehensive
description of the Neosho available on the Internet. As shown
below, I've also included audio recordings of Bill's description of the Pearl Harbor
attack and the Battle of the Coral Sea, which you can listen to.
update and the accompanying account of the
is a tribute to my Uncle Bill. Bill and my father, Don Leu,
both had a tremendous amount of character and they
were among those whom Tom Brokaw rightly called "The Greatest
Above left: In 1965 atop the new Space Needle in Seattle,
Washington. That's Bill in the background waving. The little kid in front
is yours truly.
Above center: Bill Leu and his wife, Lois, a few years ago at their
Above right: My Dad (left) and my Uncle Bill (right) during the interview I did with them in 2002.
Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other. My father died a few weeks
later and Bill died the following May. During the interview, Bill for the
first time told me about his experience on the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl
Harbor and the Coral Sea, which inspired me to research the Neosho and
post its story here.
Table of Contents:
June 25, 2004: Life
in Bellingham (Bellingham, Washington)
28, 2003 -- My Father (Bellingham, Washington)
30, 2002 (Bellingham, Washington)
24, 2002 (Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia)
12, 2002 (Lake City, Colorado)
4, 2002 -- Life as a Ranger, Part 2 (Lake City, Colorado)
4, 2002 -- Life as a Ranger, Part 1 (Lake City, Colorado)
1, 2002 (Looking Glass Rock, Utah)
June 25, 2002
(Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)
18, 2002 -- Part 2 (Port Orford, Oregon)
18, 2002 -- Part 1 (Port Orford, Oregon)
22, 2002 (Bellingham, Washington)
7, 2002 (Sydney, Australia)
4, 2002 (Coffs Harbour, Australia)
1, 2002 (Hervey Bay, Australia)
28, 2002 (Airlie Beach, Australia)
25, 2002 (Port Douglas, Australia)
16, 2002 (Winton, Australia)
13, 2002 (Alice Springs, Australia)
11, 2002 (Ayers Rock, Australia)
8, 2002 (Coober Pedy, Australia)
5, 2002 (Port Augusta, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Robe, Australia)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Robe, Australia)
18, 2002 (Bega, Australia)
7, 2002 (Auckland, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 2 (Taupo, New Zealand)
2, 2002 -- Part 1 (Taupo, New Zealand)
25, 2002 (Hokitika, New Zealand)
20, 2002 (Geraldine, New Zealand)
16, 2002 (Te Anau, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 2 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
12, 2002 -- Part 1 (Dunedin, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 2 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
1, 2002 -- Part 1 (Christchurch, New Zealand)
24, 2001 (Wellington, New Zealand)
20, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
16, 2001 (Auckland, New Zealand)
14, 2001 (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)
10, 2001 (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)
3, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bellingham, Washington)
3, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bellingham, Washington)
18, 2001 -- Part 3 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
18, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
6, 2001 (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 2 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 -- Part 1 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
September 15, 2001 (Bismarck, North Dakota)
30, 2001 (Webster, South Dakota)
18, 2001 (Watertown South Dakota)
17, 2001 (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)
14, 2001 (Minneapolis, Minnesota)
10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)
8, 2001 (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)
6, 2001 (Manlius, New York)
23, 2001 (Middleton, Massachusetts)
22, 2001 (Boston, Massachusetts)
20, 2001 (Pomfret, Connecticut)
18, 2001 (Denton, Maryland)
16, 2001 (Cumberland, Virginia)
14, 2001 (Roanoke, Virginia)
9, 2001 (Sevierville, Tennessee)
8, 2001 (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)
5, 2001 (Manchester, Tennessee)
30, 2001 (Hohenwald, Tennessee)
29, 2001 (Corinth, Mississippi)
27, 2001 (Natchez, Mississippi)
24, 2001 (Austin, Texas)
20, 2001 (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)
18, 2001 (Clay Canyon, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 2 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
15, 2001 -- Part 1 (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)
14, 2001 (San Diego, California)
11, 2001 (San Jose, California)
2, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
19, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
30, 2001 (Hillsboro, Oregon)
19, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)
5, 2001 (Bellingham, Washington)