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May 9, 1942
U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea
9, 1942: Fading Hope
The U.S. Navy tanker Neosho had been attacked by Japanese dive-bombers on
May 7 during the Battle of the Coral Sea and was disabled and listing at 30
degrees, drifting with over 100 men on board. The Neosho's escorting destroyer,
the U.S.S. Sims, had also been attacked and was sunk quickly with the
loss of over 200 men. Due to an error, the Neosho had radioed
incorrect coordinates to the American fleet, who were searching for them in the
The men onboard the listing Neosho were expecting to be
rescued by the American fleet, but that hope was now waning.
There were no showers aboard Neosho
to which the oil-soaked men could
turn. There was no chaplain there to offer them solace or hope, and
on the morning of May 9, hope was what the survivors of the two ships
needed, if they were to face the Coral Sea sun and the wind and waves.
Captain Phillips set about trying to instill that hope. He was badly
shaken by the realization that Admiral
Fletcher's rescuers had gone out
with wrong information. It could well mean the difference between life
and death to them all. But he was not ready to give up. Early in the morning,
the pharmacists came to him to report three more men had died:
Fireman Third Class Davis A. Christian, Fireman First Class Henry
T. Chapman, Chief Construction Mechanic Benjamin F. Baggarly, all from Neosho.
Preparations were made to bury them at sea.
The captain estimated that they were heading northwest with the current,
at about 1.4 knots. There were two possibilities of survival, and
they both depended on the men of Neosho.
First was to get an accurate fix of position, which could be sent on the
auxiliary radio. That task was given Lieutenant Brown, the gunnery
officer, and he set to work.
alternative was to take to the boats and try to make a landfall. Lieutenant
Verbrugge had been studying the problem of loosing the Number 2 motor launch, and he reported to the captain that
he thought he could do it without
power if he could have some men (including my uncle, Bill Leu). Captain Phillips gave him the job.
every effort had to be made to keep the hulk of Neosho
floating and as stable as possible. Down below, the men found some
hacksaws, and began the laborious process of sawing through the anchor
chain, so the starboard anchor could be jettisoned and the dragging weight
removed. They were still canted over with a list of about
24 degrees to starboard. The men sawed and sawed, until blisters reddened
their hands, and finally the chain gave. With a heavy clanking,
the steel links banged against the hull, and then disappeared. Anchor
and 165 fathoms of chain went down. Disappointingly, the change in
the list was very slight, evidence of the mortal wounds Neosho
had suffered below the water
line. It was proof to Captain Phillips that the
ship could not last much longer.
1012 Lieutenant Brown took his first sighting, and reported a
position: Latitude 15° 35' South, and Longitude 156° 55' East.
By Captain Phillips's calculation, they had drifted almost a degree
of latitude to the north and more than a degree to the west in the past
Waiting... and Working
midmorning, Lieutenant Verbrugge began rigging tackle and
chain hoists to the davits of Number 2 motor launch. Other men were
put to work again this day
making floats and rafts of every available
object that would offer flotation. The captain
was now almost certain their only
salvation would be to abandon ship and set out for land.
Junior officers were set to rigging all boats with masts, spars, and
sails, and making sure they were
as watertight as possible, and that the provisions
would be ready to go into them.
The captain now was making final preparations
for abandoning the ship. The list had returned to 23 degrees to starboard, even after jettisoning the anchor.
was not very good, and the decks
were taking water, the upper deck on the starboard side was awash. A really heavy storm might well sink
them in a few minutes.
funeral services brought all hands to the side of the ship while
Captain Phillips said the prayer and the bodies were sent down into the
deep. Then the men went back to work, sober, but given hope by the
determined buoyancy of their captain and officers. Lieutenant Verbrugge,
by midday, had the motor launch almost clear of the skids. Lieutenant Brown took another sighting at 1300 and found that
they were still drifting
northwest, perhaps a little faster than before.
pharmacists were still treating their burned men, but there was
not much they could do, except ease the pain of the worst, and be sure
the bandages were clean and the wounds kept covered.
captain was taking stock. Of the three motor whale boats in the
water, the engine in only one, the gig, was working. So it was going to
have to be by sailing if they were to make it to land. The other two
boats were attached to the gig for towing and they all stayed in close to
the Neosho. It was no time for anyone to get lost.
night fell Lieutenant Verbrugge came wearily to report to
the captain on his progress. He could say that the Number 2 boat was
now clear of the skids, and halfway over toward the port side of the
dark, Lieutenant Brown took another fix, this time on the
stars, and found that they were still drifting, but now southwest. The
sea was still rough, and the wind continued. At nightfall, the men of
Neosho settled down, wondering
if anyone was really looking for them, and
if they would ever find this little speck of steel floating in the Coral
out there, hundreds of miles away, the search was going on.
Vice Admiral H. F. Leary had learned that Monaghan had found
nothing, and he had detailed the PBY patrol seaplanes stationed
at Noumea, New Caledonia, to make a serious
search for the survivors. The flying boats were taking off and
landing all day long, making their long searches, but they found nothing.
Tangier, the seaplane carrier, was in charge of the job. Then, on the night of May 8, Captain L. B. Austin, Commander of Destroyer
Division Seven, embarked in the destroyer Henley to go to the
scene of the attack, as reported
uncorrected, to try to find the survivors or get
some indication of what had happened.
0800 on the morning of May 9, as
the men of Neosho were turning to
their tasks for the day, Henley
steamed out of Noumea, passing Flusser, which was just entering port.
Captain Austin of the Henley told Commander Robert Hall Smith to set course and head for Latitude 16°-15° South, 157° East.
The men aboard the Henley did not realize it, but they were heading to an
40 miles east of where the Neosho actually was at that time.
Smith ordered 20 knots and a zigzag pattern as they went, and they
headed out. All day long they steamed, and at dark they cut back to 15
knots for the night.
were heading toward the Neosho, until
midnight, when Captain Austin had the report that an enemy carrier was supposedly located at 17° 30' South and 152° 30' East, on
course 110. He ordered
Commander Smith to turn away to a course of 130° to miss the carrier, if she was indeed there, and Henley
moved back away from the Neosho
at fifteen knots.
After the battles on the previous day, May 8, both the American and Japanese carrier fleets
had withdrawn from the Coral Sea. However,
on May 9, Tokyo ordered Admiral Takagi and the carrier Zuikaku
back into the Coral Sea. This may
have been the carrier that Captain Austin had heard about (although
its reported location was wrong).
to everyone, the Zuikaku was actually heading straight for the disabled
before the giant carrier was ordered by Tokyo to reverse course again on May 10 and leave the Coral Sea
for good. If the Zuikaku had
continued on its southwestward course for just a few more hours on May 10, it
would have likely discovered the listing Neosho and the crew, including
my uncle, Bill Leu.
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