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May 10, 1942
Neosho at Coral Sea
May 10, 1942: Neosho Sighted
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 123 men on board. Due to an
error, the Neosho had radioed incorrect coordinates to the American fleet,
who were searching for them in the wrong place.
The Japanese were jubilant over the Battle of the Coral Sea. After the
first spate of exuberant publicity in the American press, with its exorbitant
claims of sinkings, there simply
was no more news from the American front, and in Tokyo this meant the enemy must have suffered a desperate loss. Official
congratulations were passing around Tokyo like rice cakes. The Emperor
gave personal congratulations in the form of an Imperial Rescript to
Admiral Yamamoto. Premier Tojo added his appreciation to the fleet
for "wiping out the main units of the British and American combined
fleet in the Coral Sea." And the Japanese navy added a destroyer, a
cruiser, and a tanker to their list of carriers and battleships and
cruisers already "sunk" in the fight.
Admiral Takagi continued to search for the Americans until May
10. Then he turned around and
headed for Truk, and passed out of the
Coral Sea where he had found nothing more.
Japanese land-based airplanes continued their search for the American force, but
they were not flying in the direction of Noumea; it was a
long haul for them. Nineteen search planes were out and 14 Zeros attacked
Port Moresby. But the invasion was off, and the planes now concentrated
their efforts against submarines that were bothering Japanese shipping around
Tulagi and Rabaul. On May 10, Admiral Inouye ordered the seaplane tender
to move out of Deboyne Island's base, and return to Rabaul. He was going
to concentrate all his attention on Nauru and Ocean Islands, which were next on
the occupation list.
Aboard the U.S. cruiser Minneapolis, Admiral Fitch and Captain Sherman
and Executive officer Seligman from the sunk carrier Lexington were busy
putting together their reports of the action they had just been through.
It was essential that these be prepared for Admiral Nimitz as soon as possible.
Lieutenant Williams was busy, too, running off thousands of copies of the forms
he wanted his men to fill out so they could get back on the Navy payroll.
Had Captain Phillips of Neosho known
of these concerns he would have thought them very small potatoes indeed, for he
and his men were facing the stark problems of survival.
On the morning of May 10, the pharmacists came up again with their doleful news:
Seaman Second Class Noel E. Craven and Seaman First Class Hugh T. Gonia, and
Mate Second Class Willie Coates had died of their wounds and must be buried that
Neosho in Philadelphia in 1939. This is looking forward
from the stack deck on the stern. The catwalk is on the right.
A Plane Spots The Neosho
The hulk of Neosho was drifting as she
had been, going this way and that in the trade wind's path, but generally moving
westward slowly and steadily. The list was still 23 degrees; the cutting
of the anchor had not helped. The upper deck was down a little lower in
the water this morning than it had been the night before. Slowly, very slowly,
they were sinking, and at some point the ship would give a lurch, a gurgle, and
go down. Captain Phillips' task was to be sure the officers and men of
were not aboard when that happened.
Insofar as abandoning ship was concerned, good progress was made this day.
Lieutenant Verbrugge got the motor launch over the port side and into the water
without swamping (this was the task that my uncle, Fireman 3rd Class Bill
Leu, had assisted in). Then he began loading her with supplies. With
the funeral, the work of loading, and the general cleanup that must be done
every morning to keep the men occupied and the ship as sanitary as possible, the
time passed until noon.
At 1230 someone heard a buzzing, and looking up, saw a speck in the sky south of
them. The speck moved up and became a plane, and as it came close to the
ship, it was identified as an Australian Hudson. Quickly the signal searchlight
was hooked up to the auxiliary generator
and the signalman sent a message identifying
Neosho. Captain Phillips
ordered men to hoist the international distress signal and the international
call. The Hudson responded – blinked back to ask if the ship was in trouble. It certainly was, said Captain Phillips. He
tried to give the latest
position, which had been estimated by the gunnery officer early that morning as 15° 55.5' South, 156° IT East. Several times that
information was blinked out as the
Hudson circled, but there was no
response to indicate that it had been received or would bring action.
After circling again, the Hudson turned and disappeared toward the
south. Soon even the sound was gone, and the men of Neosho were again
alone with the sea, the sun, and the heavy swell of the trade-wind
But there was cause for rejoicing. It seemed almost certain that
something was going to happen soon. There was no doubt about the
existence of the Hudson. There was no doubt, either, that they had
been seen, and had engaged in blinker conversation, and that
the Hudson crew knew they were an allied ship in sore distress. Certainly
the Australians would communicate with MacArthur, and he
with Pearl Harbor, and someone would be coming to get them.
To celebrate, Captain Phillips ordered the hot plates rigged up to the
auxiliary generator, which he had not
done before because he had felt
the need to conserve every bit of energy for the dispatch of messages.
Now with the vital message received, perhaps they could relax a bit. So
this day the men had the first hot coffee they had enjoyed since the Japanese
came zooming down on them four days before.
Captain Phillips knew, nonetheless, that he could not relax completely.
They still must be prepared at a moment's notice to abandon
the ship and take to the boats, lest
sink under them. The
Preparing to Abandon Ship
That afternoon work crews took the engines out of one of
motor whale boats and the
boat, for the two were both damaged
and would not run. They only added unwanted weight that could much
better be supplied by men than machines. A party went aft to measure
the fresh water supply. That, at least, was in abundance, for no damage
had been done to the tanks. All available containers were filled and
stowed in the boats. Ship's service stores were raided under the eye of
the assistant supply officer, and the fruit juices were all taken aboard
the boats, too. The supply officer then set about rationing out the food
supply among the boats, and it was packed.
Captain Phillips worked out the final assignment of men to boats, taking into
consideration the wounded and the number of able-bodied, who must be distributed
evenly. He also drew up a list of items to be checked off before they
The captain had decided now that unless they were found by the next day, he
would abandon ship, and make for the nearest land. It was certainly a
better course than to sit here, losing strength, the wounded dying, the burned
not getting any better, and wasting away the supplies that might take them home
The Number 2 motor launch that Lieutenant Verbrugge had salvaged was to be the
key to the whole effort. It would be used to tow the other three whale boats.
And by a little cramming, everyone could be accommodated in the four boats.
The captain and Lieutenant Brown pulled out all the charts they had. They
made a full study of the South Pacific Pilot Chart and Coast Pilot, and put all
the charts and navigation equipment they would need in the Number 2 boat.
The captain laid out a course to Willis Island, where they would stop if
possible, and then head through Trinity Opening to Cairns Harbor, on the
Australian coast, about 500 miles away. Lieutenant Brown then checked the
boat compass for deviation from true readings. When the Number 2 boat was
equipped, remaining navigational equipment was divided among the other boats.
In case they should be separated by storm or other disaster each boat should be
ready to try to go it alone.
A few hundred miles away, the destroyer Henley was again steaming toward
the last reported position of Neosho.
All night long she had fled the supposed Japanese carrier force, but at dawn she
had turned about, and headed back whence she had come, having lost a good six
hours. Recognizing the need for haste, Captain Austin had increased the
speed to 20 knots as night fell, and later that night of May 10 he raised it to
Night brought its black worries to the men of
once again. All day long the deck had kept buckling a little more each
watch, and it was especially notable on the main-deck plating abaft the bridge.
Captain Phillips sent Lieutenant Verbrugge below, and he came to report that the
water level in the fire room and in the main engine room had increased
remarkably. It was up three feet in the engine room from the day before,
and up seven feet in the fire room. So Captain Phillips felt that
tomorrow, the 11th of May, was the fatal day on which they must cast their lot
with the sea. It seemed a fair chance that the ship would hold together
during the night, the weather staying calm. But to expect much more would
be to ask for miracles, and the captain had stopped doing that.
Among the men, the night of May 10 was a time of despair. It was certain
that the rescue attempts had either not been made or had failed. There was
no reason, given receipt and understanding of the messages, that the Task Force
should not have reached them by this time – no reason except the faulty position
given by the navigator in his carelessness.
So the night passed.
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May 11, 1942: Rescue
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