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. Due to an error, the Neosho
had radioed incorrect coordinates to the American fleet, who were searching for
them in the wrong place.
On May 10, Captain Phillips decided that the next
day, everyone would pile into the ship's four lifeboats and try to make
Australia, 500 miles away. The destroyer U.S.S. Henley had been
sent out to search for any survivors of the Neosho, but had not yet found
morning of May 11 saw Henley moving to the last reported position of Neosho.
At 0630 Henley changed her base course to 296°. At 0735 she changed
course to 273°. At 0920 she changed to 290°. Ten
minutes later Henley passed an oil slick at Lat. 16° 07' South, Long.
156° 15' East. Captain Austin and the men of the ship felt they must be coming
close to the oiler. At 1009,
however, they passed the last reported position of the Neosho and found nothing but a vast expanse of empty sea before
Austin then began to consider the possible direction of drift of the Neosho
and came to the conclusion that she must be drifting northwest, so changed
course to follow that assumption. At 1115 a PBY came by and joined the search,
using Henley as a base point. Not quite an hour later the plane returned
to report that the Neosho was just
fifty miles away, bearing 033 degrees from the ship.
Neosho, Captain Phillips was making
ready to abandon the hulk. Early in the morning, Gunnery Officer Brown had taken
his sights, while other officers checked the ship for seaworthiness. They
reported to Captain Phillips that although the list had decreased, the reason
for it was the settling of the ship deeper in the water. The after end had gone
down very appreciably in the past twenty-four hours. The plates forward had
begun to buckle and the plates of the main deck just abaft the bridge were much
worse. The captain decided to make an effort, now that the ship was so much
closer to the water, to hoist over the Number 1 motor launch. In any event, he
was now determined that they would abandon at the first sign of movement. He
feared that at almost any time the Neosho
would sink or break in half.
mid-morning, Captain Phillips called a conference of all the officers. As they
gathered around him, he laid out the plan for them. By best estimate, they were
540 miles from the Australian coast. He assigned each officer to his boat and
function, and then gave detailed orders. No personal possessions would be
allowed in the boats. There was no room. The officers adjourned, and the captain
busied himself with last-minute details. Undoubtedly that afternoon, they would
Plane, Then a Ship
at 1130, a speck appeared high above the horizon, and the droning noise of
airplane engines rumbled across the sea. There was always the gut reaction: was
it one of theirs or one of ours? But as the plane approached, it was identified
as a PBY, an American Navy flying boat. It came up, circled Neosho twice, and then flew away to the south. Hope rose in the
hearts of the shipwrecked men, cautious hope.
The day before they had seen a plane and nothing had come of it that they
could see. They did not know that the Hudson's report had been sent along, and
furnished part of the information on which Captain Austin and the PBY were
acting. They could not know. They could only hope and wait.
long hour passed, and then another half hour. Suddenly someone started and
watched her come up on the horizon from the south, again half apprehensive as to
whether she was American or Japanese. But the familiar outlines of an American
destroyer made themselves clear through the glass, and finally she was
identified as Henley, a ship they knew well.
1323 Henley approached, and Captain Phillips began signaling:
you any instructions for me. Ship is a total loss, settling gradually.
Austin sent back:
Phillips then began reporting the number of survivors, as Henley crossed
the stern of the tanker, and her men began heaving lines on the port side.
Captain Austin broke in:
transfer of survivors
would be plenty of time later to get all the details. Now it was time to get the
men off the wreck. Captain Austin did not relish being hove to in the middle of
what might be a very unfriendly ocean, full of Japanese submarines, the skies
perhaps laden with Japanese planes heading toward him and he at a standstill.
sent up the flag hoist:
meant emergency, in simple language, and get to it, in navy shorthand.
Phillips got the message. The men were herded aboard the Henley just as
quickly as possible, not being given time even to go to the boats and get
whatever personal gear they had temporarily left there. Captain Austin was in a
hurry and he was nervous. As the whale boats came alongside and the men were
transferred, he ordered the boats scuttled.
1415, Captain Phillips herded the last man into the last boat and stepped off
his command. The boat went to the side of Henley, and the last of 109
survivors of Neosho and 14 survivors
of Sims went aboard. The whale boat
could not be scuttled, so it was set adrift.
Austin and Phillips conferred. The oiler skipper said Neosho was unsalvageable, and Captain Austin believed he knew
whereof he spoke, for Phillips had spent four days with not so much more to do
than observe the changing character of his command. So Henley set about
sinking the ship.
fired one torpedo at 1428, but it did not explode – another negative tribute
to the false economy of the American defense effort in
the years before the war. For while the Japanese navy was developing the famous
long-lance torpedo by the process of trial and error – exploding torpedoes
against targets to see what happened – the American Navy was not allowed to use
real warheads. In war games the torpedoes were always dummies, and warheads were
conserved. Congress wanted it that way. But the result had been the development
of American torpedoes that did not
explode, that did not run true, that did virtually no good at all. This torpedo
fired at 1428 was one of them, a waste of $10,000 of the taxpayers' money.
minutes later Henley fired another torpedo, and this one hit the hulk
amidships. But still she did not go down. The destroyer then opened up with
five-inch shells and fired 146 rounds. The Neosho
finally sank, stern first. The rescued men onboard the Henley said
their an emotional goodbye to their beleaguered and faithful ship and watched it
slip beneath the waves.
Henley moved away, setting a course that would follow the apparent drift
track of Neosho in reverse, in an
effort to find and rescue the hundred and fifty men who had panicked and
abandoned ship in the first few minutes after the Japanese attack. The men of Neosho and Sims who had
followed the rule of the sea and stuck with the wreck were saved.
left: The destroyer U.S.S. Henley, which
rescued 123 men from the Neosho, was a welcome sight.
right: The U.S.S. Henley at Mare Island, near
San Francisco, just before World War II.
For three days Henley
searched for the four officers and 154 men
who had disappeared on the liferafts when Neosho
was attacked, but she found
nothing. She then headed for Brisbane.
Henley searched, the men aboard the rafts were dying, one by
One group of rafts had managed to stick together, with 68 men clinging to
and they headed towards Noumea, where they would find safety. But
officers who had been so quick to abandon ship were deficient in
attributes, and discipline almost immediately broke down. What
they had were quickly consumed without stiff rationing. Men
of thirst drank sea water, and died more quickly. Men gnawed
hunger quarreled and lost their strength. The officers who might
given them hope were no better leaders than the men.
Destroyer Helm was dispatched from Noumea, and she conducted
a search of her own. Three days out of
Noumea, guided by
the Helm came upon four rafts lashed together. Four men were alive on these
rafts – all that remained of the 68 who had begun the voyage. (For more information about this group of survivors, see my
pages on Jack Rolston and on the U.S.S. Helm).
the others, who had gone off in single rafts, they were never heard of
Captain Phillips occupied his time on the trip to Brisbane, trying to
discover what had gone wrong with
discipline aboard his ship. The navigator
was called to his cabin and questioned about his reasons for leaving
the bridge at the time of the attack. Captain Phillips apologized to
him for misjudging him, but then on reflection, decided he had not misjudged
him at all, and wrote a letter of reprobation.
The navigator and the others reproved asked for a formal investigation of
the charges, but higher authority felt it best not to stir up new problems.
The Neosho was gone, the investigation could do nothing but
bring bad blood between professional line officers and naval reservists, since
all the offenders were reserve officers. There was nothing to
be accomplished, and the facts were dim. Actually in these early days
of war such events were to be expected. So the matter was dropped.
Henley steamed swiftly
to Brisbane where the survivors of Neosho and Sims
could have first class medical attention. She sighted nothing but one gas-drum raft with life preservers, and that was empty.
At one point someone thought he heard shouts from the water, and the ship
stopped and circled, but saw nothing. Finally it was decided that the
"shouts" had been groans from the auxiliary water pump.
May 13, Captain Phillips buried two more men, Seaman Second Class
Ed M. Pelies of the Sims and Chief Water Tender O. V. Peterson, one of the
heroes of the Neosho, who died of his wounds after the rescue. Next day the ship landed at New Farm Wharf and the survivors
were taken off and rushed to hospital.
This concludes the account of the
U.S.S. Neosho, as described in the book, Blue Skies and Blood.
Neosho's Chief Water Tender, Oscar
Verner Peterson, was working below decks during the attack on May 7 and was badly
Despite his wounds, and working alone, Peterson closed several
important valves but was severely burned in the process. He died six days
later on May 13, 1942, aboard the U.S.S. Henley, two days after the Neosho
crew was rescued by the Henley.
For his valor, Peterson was
posthumously awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
left: The destroyer U.S.S. Helm searched the
Coral Sea for several days, looking for survivors from the Neosho.
days after 123 men were rescued from the listing Neosho, the destroyer Helm discovered four men in a raft. These were the only survivors from a group of
68 men who had drifted away from the Neosho shortly after the attack on
May 7 (the Helm's whaleboat is on the left and the Neosho's raft
is on the right, partly submerged). The four men had floated in the Coral
Sea for nine days without food or water and were all in critical
condition. Shortly after being rescued, two of the four men died.
The other two returned to the U.S. and lived for many years.