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May 7, 1942
U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea
7, 1942: The Attack
This is the first of several pages that describe the ordeal of the tanker U.S.S.
Neosho during the Battle of the Coral Sea. This page and the ones that
follow include excerpts from the book, "Blue Skies and Blood" (1975)
by Edwin Hoyt, which I've edited and notated where appropriate.
the evening of May 6, Admiral Fletcher and his staff tried to sort
out the various items of intelligence
they had been receiving all day long
from Pearl Harbor and other sources. They knew that somewhere around
them was a large number of Japanese ships, but the reports were
conflicting and confusing; virtually everything from submarines to
fleet carriers had been reported.
Fletcher decided that at least
three carriers were in the area and that the Japanese advance was going
to come through Jomard passage, up north of them. Admiral Fletcher
had hoped to top off his fuel tanks before going into action, but
with the seas as they were, it would have meant heading away from the
enemy to do so. He had to run north during the night to be in position to launch
search planes to confirm all the intelligence reports early in
contacts and one visual sighting of an unidentified plane had suggested that the
Japanese knew Fletcher was in the
area and more or less what he had to work with. So reluctantly, that evening,
Fletcher detached the tanker Neosho, giving her destroyer Sims as
an escort, and sent them off to be out of the way, but available in
case of need.
hour after dawn, Neosho and Sims were precisely where they
were supposed to be – at 16°S, 158°E.
At dawn, also Admiral Takagi had a
suggestion from Admiral Hara, the carrier division commander.
Let Hara send Zuikaku's
planes out to search one area behind the carrier
force, and Shokaku's planes to search another -- just to make sure
that the Americans had not circled around and come up in the rear
of the Japanese covering force. Takagi approved. The Zeros and the
medium bombers revved up and took off from the Japanese carriers, circled and
set out at 0600.
0736 the Japanese searchers in the eastern section of the zone
spotted ships on the water. The observers
radioed back to the carriers that
they had come upon the American carrier force. Below, said the Japanese
observer, were a carrier and a cruiser.
Hara directed the bombers to the location and the Japanese
began to close in. But the ships on which
they were moving were not the
American carriers, but destroyer Sims and oiler Neosho.
after eight o'clock that morning, lookouts on the Neosho spotted two
planes, but assumed they were American planes checking on
the safety of the oiler and her escort.
after nine o'clock in the morning, Chief Petty Officer Robert
James Dicken of the USS Sims was
sitting in the chiefs' quarters, when he heard a loud explosion. From Neosho's bridge, Captain John S.
Phillips could see that a single plane
moving over Sims dropped that bomb, which exploded about a hundred yards off the starboard quarter
of the destroyer.
the bridge of the Sims, Lieutenant Commander Willford Milton Hyman, the
captain of the little one-pipe destroyer, passed the order: General Quarters.
The ship was under attack. At the moment, some aboard the destroyer thought it
was all a dreadful mistake, that one of their own planes had failed to identify
the ship and bombed them by mistake. Frantically, chief Signalman Dicken on the
bridge began blinking his light, sending recognition signals. There was no
response. The single medium bomber disappeared off to the north.
Hyman ordered full speed. The ship's guns opened up on the retreating bomber,
but the plane quickly disappeared into the clouds. Neosho changed course
to starboard, and Sims, the little bulldog, kept out ahead of her, Neosho
traveling at 18 knots, and Sims racing back and forth in front, from port
to starboard, the sea swirling in her excited wake.
minutes went by, and then twenty. The ships moved on, the lookouts craning
around the horizon, squinting into the sun and waiting, sure now that it was no
mistake and that there would be more bombs to come. On the bridge Captain
Hyman's orders were quiet and terse; it was an eerie time, the whine of the
engines driving the propellers, the swish of the sea alongside the ship, the
clang of metal on metal -- and still it seemed very, very quiet. Sun and sky and
sea had never been more peaceful.
about half an hour after the first attack, little specks, ten of them, appeared
in the sky in the north, before the noises of their engines could be heard.
lookouts on Sims saw them coming. Captain Hyman called up Captain
Phillips to warn Neosho; the lookouts of the oiler had not seen the
planes. The ships changed course, swung around in a wide arc to throw off the
approaching enemy, for now every man on the destroyer and the oiler knew what he
Japanese pilots saw, and with no effort at all, it seemed, adjusted and came
moving in. Still they were very high, paralleling the course of the American
ships on their port side. The bombers were so high that although Sims
began firing rapidly, they were hopelessly out of range.
Sims was an efficient
little ship, and her captain had high marks in the service for his gunnery in
particular. It was his specialty, dating back to his boyhood when he became an
expert rifle shot. In three months' time, Captain Hyman would be forty-one years
old. More than half that life had
been spent in the service of his country, and nearly all the time he had been
among the leaders of the battle-ready. He had served for a long time aboard the USS New Mexico
and had been instrumental in that ship's proud victory over USS Maryland
for the fleet's Battle Efficiency pennant in 1930. Now, in the face of the enemy, such commendations seemed
small turkey indeed, but in the peacetime navy in which he had grown up, such
matters had been the making of a career, and Lieutenant Commander Hyman had gone
on with a reputation as a potential fighter of the first rank. Service with the
staff in Washington had come and gone, then two years at the Naval Powder
Factory, followed by two big jobs as a gunnery officer of cruisers, the Minneapolis
and the San Francisco, and the destroyer Quincy. Seven
months earlier he finally got his own ship, the Sims.
Japanese planes were dropping down as they moved away from
the ships, and circled to come back at
bombing level. Meanwhile other
bombers came up, and the Japanese flight
leader split the attack in two. Ten
planes dove down to make horizontal runs over Sims, while another
handful moved in on Neosho, which was about a mile astern of the
get the range and to give his gunners a feel for their job, Captain
Hyman had loaded his ammunition supply so
that every tenth shell was star-shell.
The gunners were trying to draw a bead on the approaching aircraft.
From the Sims it seemed very satisfactory. Chief Petty Officer Dicken
saw from the bridge that the Japanese were staying high and giving
the ship's guns plenty of care. All
the bombs missed by a wide margin.
was also under attack. Her captain kept changing course to confuse
the planes, and her guns fired as seven bombers came in. The tension
grew on the bridge, as the war diary shows:
course to 237°T. Planes paralleled course at
high altitude on port side, out of gun range and crossed bow to northeastward; Sims firing. No bursts
were observed. Observed what were believed to
be white flares dropped by planes. (These were Sim's
Changed course to 187°T.
Sighted approximately seven enemy planes bearing
010°T. Sims commenced
Changed course to 242°T.
Changed course to 207°T; commenced firing with 3”/50
caliber guns. Again observed what
were assumed to be white flares from planes.
Changed course to 243°T.
Group of 10 planes approached from 140°T, of which
three planes (twin-engined bombers) broke off and commenced horizontal bombing
attack, others proceeded to northeastward.
Phillips watched the planes as they came in on the oiler; waiting, waiting until
he saw the bombs begin to fall. Only then did he move, and ordered the ship put
came the screaming missiles into the sea, sending geysers of water splashing the
air. One bomb hit a hundred yards off the starboard beam, two more were much
closer, only 25 yards off target. Had the captain not taken evasive action, they
almost certainly would have smashed Neosho.
the attack began, Lieutenant Commander F. J. Firth, the executive officer of Neosho,
was in the messhall. He was checking on the Abandon-Ship and General-Quarters
stations of several seamen from the Yorktown and the cruiser Portland
who had come aboard the ship during the refueling period, and had been stuck
there when Neosho was ordered away from the main force during the
excitement of the night of May 6.
Firth ran to his action station forward of No. 4 gun on the port side of the
stack deck. From that vantage point, he watched the attack progress as he waited
for reports of damage. When the three bombs fell so close, it was a bad moment.
A quick check revealed that there had been no casualties, and no material damage
except in the engine room, where those near misses had jarred loose some
electrical fittings. Three minutes
after the Japanese planes moved away Captain Phillips changed course again, and
ordered the steam smothering system turned on, just in case of fire from a bomb
meanwhile, had beaten off an attack. Captain Hyman turned hard right just as ten
bombers dropped their explosives. Only one bomb came anywhere near; the Sims
moved so quickly, and that one sent a piece of shrapnel slashing through the
shoulder of one man on the ship's number 2 gun. Luckily the metal missed bone
and arteries, and after the attack the pharmacist's mate bound him up and in a
few minutes he was back at his post.
did have one casualty early in the battle, and it shortened her defenses; one of
the 20mm guns jammed, which cut down the 20s by a quarter.
nearly an hour and a half, the quiet of the sea returned. From time to time, Sims's radarman
reported blips on the screen. The Japanese
were moving around them, but not a single plane appeared within
the glasses of Captain Hyman or Captain Phillips. They watched,
and they waited for a renewed attack that must certainly come.
Neosho Captain Phillips instructed his communications
officer, a young naval reserve Lieutenant
to send out contact reports, first
getting the positions right by asking the ship's navigator. But the young
officer was badly rattled and failed to do his job properly. Admiral Fletcher
would have given a good deal at this moment to know that the
planes attacking Sims and Neosho were carrier planes – he had no
idea of the presence of the two big
Japanese fleet carriers to the north of
him. Actually, at one point during the night, Admiral Takagi had been less than
seventy miles away from Task Force 17, but neither commander
knew it. As of this morning, they had managed so far to miss one another completely. The young radio officer bollixed up his
reports, left most of the detail to an
overworked radioman, and the vital
word did not get through. Admiral Fletcher, who had been seeing evidences
of Japanese land-based air power for days, was not warned.
the radar contacts came in aboard Sims, destroyer and oiler kept
changing course, hoping to thwart the
enemy. But Admiral Hara was not to
be denied. The reports coming back from his carrier pilots only renewed
his intention to sink those two American ships, and any others they
might find in the vicinity. He sent
out a much larger force, and around
noon some three dozen Japanese bombers were approaching the
1155, chief Signalman Dicken was on the bridge when some of
those bombers came in sight.
As was standard procedure he began blinking,
to try to secure recognition. But he knew, and so did everyone else on the
bridge, that there would be no response. The silhouettes were familiar now; these were not friendly planes, but the enemy in
Sims opened up with her five-inch guns, and the three unjammed 20mm
antiaircraft guns as well. The boom of the five-inch and the staccato barking of
the 20mm's dominated all sounds; only dimly could the
roar of the approaching planes be heard. This time the planes were dive-bombers,
not horizontal bombers, and that note should certainly have
been passed on by Neosho, whose captain was senior officer of the
unit. But again, the communications
officer failed, and Fletcher did
not get the word.
major attack now was against the "carrier” – Neosho – and the
Japanese planes came in from astern in
three waves. Both ships maneuvered furiously, trying to change the course so
quickly and so drastically as to throw off the bombers. Bombs began dropping
sending up their frightening geysers. They came from bow to quarter,
port and starboard, but for a few minutes it seemed the oiler bore
a charmed life. Then at 1205 one bomb struck very close by, rattling
the plates and knocking out the ship's gyro compass. Captain Phillips
ordered the shift to steering by the magnetic compass.
Left: Captain John S. Phillips, commander of the U.S.S.
Left: My uncle, Bill Leu, Fireman Third Class. During the
attack, Bill was at his battle station with the 3" gun crew on the bow of
Loss of the Sims
Sims took her first direct hit at 1209. From the bridge of Neosho it
was a terrible sight, a bomb landed
amidships and the section erupted in
smoke and flame. Aboard Sims, as the smoke cleared, Captain Hyman
could see that the bomb had hit near the after torpedo tubes, pierced
through the deck, and exploded in the after engine room. The whole
deck forward of the after-deck house was buckled and
torn, tortured black metal sticking crazily up into the air. The number of
casualties was not known. The chief engineer, Ensign Tachna, was badly wounded
but he stuck to his post, and tried to keep Sims going.
rapid succession two more five-hundred-pound bombs struck
Sims squarely, and the radar mast fell, dropping squarely across the gig,
and immobilizing it. One bomb also
smashed the after deck house, and
the other struck on Number 4 gun mount, putting that gun out of action.
this time only two of the ship's five-inch guns were still firing,
Number One gun was in bad shape, the heat
was so intense at that point that
the paint was burning on the gun, and yet the crew stood by and
fired it steadily by local control. The fire control system was long gone.
Soon the ship began to list heavily, and Captain Hyman summoned Ensign Tachna
and the firemen and other engine room personnel out of the wreckage. On deck,
Ensign Tachna moved forward, trying to fire the forward torpedo tubes and thus
eliminate the danger of an
internal explosion. The torpedo deck-house was aflame, which
meant more danger from the deadly
stores within. Tachna led men
in putting out that fire, then
moved aft for further orders.
half an hour it was obvious that Sims was sinking and that she
could not be saved. The job now was to get as many of the men off as
Captain Hyman stayed on his bridge, but he ordered all
off. Chief Signalman Dicken went
aft to try to flood the after
and prevent a dreadful explosion that might cost every life.
Dicken could not get aft – the
deck between bridge and after deck-house
was ablaze from starboard rail to port. Ensign Tachna was attempting to put the
whale boat into the water. The men from the "black gang"
in the engine room, more of them uninjured than among the deck
crew, came up to help. They took
off their shoes and shoved until the boat went over, in spite of the tangled rigging. Two men were aboard, but they were
firemen, and not at all skilled in small
boat handling. Chief Dicken jumped
overboard, swam to the boat, clambered in and took the tiller, then
began picking men out of the water as they jumped clear of the foundering
this point the deck between the after deck-house and the machine
shop was awash, and Captain Hyman ordered
Dicken to move back in the whale
boat and try to put out that fire in the after deck-house. He tried.
But he could not get back aboard the Sims – she was already settling
aft, and the men in the boat could sense that she was going to go.
They pulled clear; just after they
got away from the side the boilers blew,
and then came a smaller explosion, perhaps a torpedo going off.
The ship began to break in two.
man off the after section was Machinist's Mate 2c E. F. Munch. Just before he jumped, he stopped and
secured a depth charge to the deck
so it would not go over the side and kill any men who might be swimming.
immediately the two parts of the Sims separated. The captain was still
standing on his bridge in the last moment as the explosion
destroyed that section of the ship and
both halves sank.
Dicken found himself senior officer of those in Sims's whaleboat, and he
directed rescue operations for the next hour and a half.
Two life rafts had been shoved
over the side in the last few minutes of the
destroyer's existence. As soon as the men in the water who were still
alive were picked up, he began searching for them.
Others in the boat told him
they thought there were perhaps twenty other survivors on
the life rafts. But Dicken could not find the rafts; they had drifted away
somewhere. Counting noses, including his own, he found that he had
fifteen survivors, two of them badly wounded. He began pulling for
Above left: The destroyer, U.S.S. Sims, which was sunk defending the
tanker U.S.S. Neosho. The Sims lost 237 men, nearly the entire
Above right: Another view of the Sims.
Attack on the Neosho
big oiler, known familiarly to her friends in the fleet as "The Fat
Lady," was having her own troubles,
and they were nearly as desperate as
those of Sims.
real trouble began when the gunners of Sims or Neosho brought
down one of the Japanese dive bombers in
flames. Determined not to let the
"carrier" escape, and true to the spirit of Bushido, the pilot dove
his plane for the deck, and it crashed in
the No. 4 gun enclosure, starting
a flash fire that spread across the starboard side, aft, knocking out
five life rafts. No men of the gun crew were killed, for they had machine
guns. But Lieutenant Commander
Firth, the ship's executive officer,
was at his action station on the port side, just forward of the gun
mount, and the explosion knocked him unconscious. The fire got to
him before he regained his wits. Badly burned, particularly about the
face and arms, he stumbled away from the wreckage, and immediately dispatched a
messenger to the bridge to ascertain the captain's orders.
the time the messenger arrived on the bridge, Neosho had taken
seven direct bomb hits. The first bomb
smashed into the port side of the
main deck, tearing a hole fifteen feet long in the port side of the ship.
The second bomb penetrated the stack deck, starboard, plunged down
into the after center bunker tank, smashing through the ship's store
on the way down. It blew the pump
room apart, blew an oil tank that
let go and caused oil to run all over the forward part of the engine room,
and flooded it with six feet of fuel oil. Then
the oil caught fire.
third bomb exploded in the fireroom, killing every man there,
knocked out the steam system and the
ship's electric power. The fourth blew
another huge hole in the ship's port side and caused the main deck
to buckle badly. The fifth and sixth bombs blew huge holes in the ship's
oil tanks, and so did the seventh, and a near miss – one of eight
– did almost as much damage. The other seven bombs were armor piercing,
but the near miss was a fragmentation bomb and shrapnel smashed
across the bridge, decapitated a machine gunner, killed the rangefinder
on the flying bridge, and knocked out the starboard searchlight.
when Lieutenant Commander Firth's messenger arrived, on the
bridge, Captain Phillips knew his ship
was in anguish, and wondered how
long she might survive. His gunners
had stood fast. They had shot
down three planes, and thought they had
destroyed a fourth, although no
one had seen it fall, and three more were seen to falter badly as they swept
away after attacking.
"Prepare to Abandon Ship!"
The condition of the oiler was so grave, power out, listing badly,
taking water, and with fires burning in
several places, that Captain Phillips
sent back the word to Lieutenant Commander Firth:
"Make preparations for
abandoning ship and stand by."
messenger retreated aft, where the message was duly delivered. But by this time, the men had seen Sims
blow up, and some of those aft panicked,
Seaman W. D. Boynton, the messenger, reported quite correctly to the executive
officer, who was supporting himself unsteadily on the superstructure deck, while
several men stood around. Firth
gave the orders, and then he
collapsed from pain and the shock of his burns.
Boynton then repeated the orders,
but the men were not listening. Some
jumped over the side and began floundering in the water.
the bridge, Captain Phillips was getting ready for the terrible
moment when he would have to abandon his
sinking command. He called
the communications officer to him, and ordered him to destroy all
classified material – which included the ship's code books. Seeing this,
men on the bridge began to panic and deserted the bridge, shouting that it was
every man for himself. The officer
of the deck, who was also the
navigation officer, was among those who panicked – he left the bridge
after he heard the captain give the order to flood the ship's magazines.
men were throwing the life rafts overboard, and leaping after them.
The navigation officer warned them that they ran the
danger of losing the rafts. Other men
were trying to launch the Number 1
whale boat, and he ordered a life raft moved so it could be swung out.
Thinking twice about his actions, he then headed back for the bridge,
but as he moved up, he heard more men coming down, crying "every
man for himself" and rushing to throw themselves into the water.
The navigator then leaped into the water, along with the enlisted men,
as the radio officer and several others tried desperately to launch another
officers abandoning ship, the men lost all discipline. In a few minutes the
water and the rafts were filled with escaping seamen, who
were certain the Neosho's end had
the bridge, Captain Phillips watched as so many of his men
panicked. He saw that unless he did something, they would drown or
be lost on the rafts. Lieutenant
Commander Thomas M. Brown, the gunnery
officer, had come down to the bridge to help, after seeing all his
people clear of the control tower and the flying bridge from which he
had been directing the fire against the Japanese planes. The Japanese were
long gone now. Brown addressed himself to the problems of the
ship. He helped destroy classified material, called back men who were
moving toward the boats, and got the two motor whale boats over the
side. The executive officer was unconscious aft, and Lieutenant Commander
Brown took over his duties.
Lieutenant Louis Verbrugge, the engineering officer, stayed
in the main engine room, until the fire
from the bunker tank drove him out.
All power was lost. He could sense from the heavy list that there was
definite danger the ship might capsize at any moment but he stayed below
assessing the damage, and then he went on deck, to report to the captain
and supervise the launching of the port motor launch from its skids.
With all power gone it was a dreadful job; the starboard boats could
not be launched at all, because the seas were breaking over that side
of the ship, so deep was her list.
through the efforts of the captain, the gunnery officer, and
the chief engineer, it became apparent
that conditions were not quite as desperate
as they had appeared. But most of the men were out of control.
bomb explosion in the fireroom had terrified many of the survivors. Machinist's
Mate First Class Harold Bratt was in charge of the
battle station in the after engine room. That compartment was located
underneath the fireroom, which was full
of live steam, and Bratt advised the four men with him that there was no chance
of escaping at the moment, since
the only hatch led into the fireroom. But two of the men panicked,
they knocked him down and into the bilges, snatched the emergency
hand lantern and gas mask he was carrying, and ran up into the
fireroom. Bratt and the two others were left below, in darkness, with
the compartment slowly filling with cold sea water.
three-quarters of an hour, Bratt waited there in the gloom, not
knowing whether or not the ship would sink beneath him. Finally, feeling that
enough steam had escaped from the fireroom above to make their
chances almost even, he told his two men to put on gas masks and wrap
rags around their arms and hands. When they had done so, he led them
up the after escape hatch, and into the fireroom. There they passed
the bodies of the two men who had overpowered Bratt and disregarded
his orders, and then moved on up to the main deck and comparative
Chaos On A Burning Ship
every coward there were twenty heroes this day. Even among
those who panicked, the main reason
seemed to be the dreadful shock of
seeing Sims explode before their eyes.
Mate Second Class Wayne Simmons was in the engineroom when one bomb exploded
nearby, covering the others with
oil from head to toe, and blinding them
so they could not see. He helped
them out of the engineroom, then manned valves that kept the ship
going during the dreadful moments before all power was cut off.
Watertender Oscar Vernon Peterson was standing behind the
watertight door that led from the
fireroom to the mess compartment, when
an explosion blew the door open and knocked him down. Most of
Peterson's repair party was killed, and the others were so seriously injured
they were out of action. He crawled into the fireroom in spite of his
own burns and gashes, and turned off the steam valves – but was terribly
scalded in the process, before he could escape the room.
deck, Chief Pharmacist's Mate Robert W. Hoag and Pharmacist's Mate First Class
William J. Ward went to search for the ships
medical officer, but he had been killed
by one of the bomb blasts, and they
did not even find his body. They set to work, then, to succor the wounded.
on deck the confusion persisted. The assistant gunnery officer
had failed to pass the word when the
captain ordered the men to prepare
to abandon ship but stand by. And he failed to stop the men from
throwing over life rafts and jumping into the water after them. Instead he went
to the Number 2 motor whale boat and began lowering it
into the water. He was stopped by Lieutenant Brown, who ordered him to take the boat out, pick up all life rafts and tow them back to the
ship and pick up survivors before they
sea was running briskly, four-and-five-foot waves slapping up
against the sides of the Neosho,
and some men were thrown against the side
of the ship with enough force to injure or knock them out. Others were
pulled away by wind and current and still others drowned as the spume
and froth of waves choked them and the caps swept down over their
heads. Captain Phillips watched in dismay as the assistant gunnery officer made
only token efforts to save the struggling men in the water,
and did not bring back a single life raft.
rafts were scarcely visible from the bridge in the undulating
sea for they were dun colored. Against
the water even men swimming a few
yards from them could not see them over the rising waves. So more men
drowned within a few feet of help.
Phillips watched in more dismay as the rafts began to move
out beyond his range of vision. The boats
went out, to search, but the seas
were not any easier, and they were getting nowhere. The captain could
spare only part of his attention to the problem. His main task was
to try to restore order to his ship as long as she was afloat.
the bombs began to fall, nearly all the men of Neosho were
concentrated in the after section and the
bridge. Two gun crews were forward
and ammunition and repair parties were stationed near them, but
the rest of the ship's company was aft, and the bombs struck aft and
in the bridge area. All seven rafts still inflatable had been set afloat,
and no one knew how many men had leaped after them. The captain
had to find out, and save every man possible. That was the matter
Above: This is the last known picture taken of the U.S.S.
Neosho. It was taken from a Japanese plane about
1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, after Japanese torpedo planes and
dive bombers attacked the Neosho and its escort, the destroyer U.S.S.
Sims. Despite a 30-degree list, the ship would continue to float for four days until the
surviving 123 crewmen, including my uncle, Bill Leu, were rescued by the destroyer U.S.S. Henley
on May 11.
Captain Phillips's basic concern
was to get his ship back under control, for even if she sank, he would have to
try to save the lives of all those he could, and without the taut discipline of
the navy, there was little chance of saving anything. The chief engineer made a
trip below to see if there was any chance of raising steam, but the whole power
plant of the ship had been wrecked by the bombs, and there was no way at all it
could be repaired. So the captain had to resign himself to drifting and waiting
At 1445 Chief Signalman Dicken of
the Sims appeared alongside Neosho
in the one living boat of that ship, and with his fourteen men – all that
remained of the whole ship's complement of a destroyer.
He and others believed there were more survivors on the two rafts they
had seen drifting away from the side of Sims
before she blew up, but they had not found them, nor had they seen any sign of
the rafts after Dicken had finished picking survivors out of the water. Now
Dicken placed himself and his men under the orders of Captain Phillips and asked
what he could do.
Captain Phillips took the Sims's
wounded aboard and turned them
over to Pharmacists Hoag and Ward,
who were giving morphine, bandaging
wounds, and swabbing out bloody holes in the flesh of the
survivors and trying to comfort
the burned men. The captain then instructed Dicken to circle Neosho and pick up any swimmers in the
complement joined the Neosho survivors
at the port rail, where
Captain Phillips had kept them for the past hour in anticipation
that the ship might founder, and
they would have to leap for their lives.
As the sun sank in the sky, Neosho
continued to settle in the water
and her list became more profound.
Captain Phillips was very worried.
He ordered the radio officer to get the fix from the navigator that had
been made during a lull in the
fighting, and to send out a call for help.
It would have to be in the clear,
since he had destroyed the code books.
That meant running the danger of
being rescued by the Japanese, but
the ship was in extremis, and
there was no alternative. So the radio
officer got the information from
the navigator and sent off a message.
The navigator had plotted their position as
Latitude 16°, 25' South
and longitude 157°, 31' East.
With that information, even accepting
the vagaries that would be caused
by their drifting without any power
at all, Admiral Fletcher's task
force should be able to find them within
twenty-four hours. All they had to
do was hold on.
two whale boats and the Sims boat
ranged wide out from the
ship, searching and picking up men until 1800. As dusk began to
fall, they came in, all of them
badly overloaded, moving gingerly in the
rough sea, until they reached the
ship's side. Only then did Captain
Phillips learn that Sims's
boat had so great a gash in the hull that it was
kept afloat only because Dicken
had stuffed it with a mattress, and his
men bailed constantly.
Five of the men of Neosho
who were in best condition had been ordered into the water off the port side, to
keep a minimum of personnel
aboard the sinking hulk, and now
they were picked up by the Sims's
boat. There were so many injured
that they could not all be moved back
to the shrinking deck of Neosho and
Captain Phillips ordered the whale
boats to fend off, and remain not closer than fifty yards off the
port side of the ship during the
The First Evening
darkness fell the able-bodied men of Neosho
got ready for what
might come. They tore all the
standing rigging and extra gear out of the
two motor launches that were
pinioned to the ship by the fall of debris and the lack of power, in the hope
that if Neosho sank during the
night, they would float clear and
could be used. They gathered mess
tables and benches, and the
objects they could find that would float,
and brought them to the port side,
where they would float clear as the
ship sank and give the men some
kind of chance, waiting for dawn when
Fletcher's rescue party would surely be there at their side.
Verbrugge, the engineer, went below again, to see what
he could salvage, but there was
very little, and once again he came
back to report mournfully that
there was no chance of getting up
The captain sent men to repair the
transmitting antenna, which was
found to be broken, so the
messages to the task force would get
through. The radio men manned the
auxiliary gasoline generator to send
Captain Phillips took a muster of
survivors. He found that of 21
officers and 267 men aboard Neosho
that morning before the attack, there
were now 16 officers and 94 men aboard, plus the fifteen survivors of Sims.
One officer was known to have been killed (the medical
officer) and nineteen men were
dead; but four officers and one hundred
and fifty-four men were missing,
the result of the panic and misunderstanding of orders that had sent them
scrambling over the side of the
ship during the Japanese attack. Captain Phillips was concerned,
but he knew that most of these
people had made it to the safety of the
life rafts, and he was certain
that next day the search planes of the two
big carriers would locate the men
and they would be rescued, perhaps
even more quickly than the men of Neosho
There was a good deal to be done to
save the ship, if such was possible. The captain kept a close watch on the
inclinometer, which showed
the relative stability of the
vessel. The list was 30 degrees. It would
have grown worse except that
Captain Phillips opened the valves to
the starboard wing tanks, which
filled them with sea water, and tended
to counteract the port weight.
There was one big worry. The main-deck
plating was continuing to
buckle under the conflicting
pressures, and this gave the captain much
cause for concern. Lt. Verbrugge
reported that the engine room and
fireroom were taking more water in
the evening than they had been in
the daylight hours, and it was
As darkness fell, the captain
issued his orders: there were to be absolutely no lights shown – flashlights
or lamps of any others. There was
to be quiet, and the men were to get as much rest as they could during the
night, while they waited for the rescuers.
They would need their strength in the morning to climb aboard the rescue
So the hulk of Neosho settled down, the horribly cramped men in the whaleboats,
adjusting themselves as best they could, and riding the heavy sea, part of the
crew constantly on watch, lest they drift away from the side of Neosho.
On the port rail, the pharmacists did what they could to make the
seriously wounded men comfortable, and shook their heads over Construction
Mechanic Second Class Leon Brooks, whose wounds were very severe.
They hoped he would make it through the night.
For that matter, they hoped they would all make it through the night,
until rescue came.
On May 7, at about the same time the U.S.S. Neosho and Sims
were being attacked, American planes were sinking the Japanese light carrier, Shoho,
about 300 miles to the northwest. The
main American and Japanese carrier fleets skirmished early that evening, but
neither had yet found the other. Both
sides prepared to send out scout planes at dawn on May 8, the climactic day of
the Battle of the Coral Sea.
Page > May 8, 1942: Waiting For Rescue
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