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U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea
Sacrificed Lives to Aid Wounded Sailors"
in San Francisco Examiner, July 10, 1942
This story was printed about two months after the Battle of the Coral Sea.
The two men interviewed were among the 123 men rescued from the listing Neosho
on May 11, 1942. Click on the article to see a larger version. The text
of the article is shown below.
An ex-railroad worker of Laurel, Montana, and a
former tile setter from St. Louis sat
in the Twelfth Naval District headquarters here yesterday and recounted the
heroic tale of twelve Navy men who sacrificed their lives in the battle of the
Coral Sea so that their wounded
shipmates might live.
They recounted how a Naval Reserve
lieutenant, Henry K. Bradford, led the exodus of men from shrapnel riddled
whaleboats that there might be room for the
wounded. And with voices strained with emotion, they recalled the men
swimming in the shark infested
waters until they sank from exhaustion or were killed by the sharks.
Their tale centered around the sinking
of the Navy tanker Neosho, a 25,000 tonner,
and the sinking of the destroyer Sims, a 1,570 ton "tin can," as they
lovingly called it.
E.A. Flaherty, 22, electrician's mate,
third class, the ex-tile setter, told most of the
story while his companion,
D.J. Nelson, also 22, signalman, third class,
sat next to him nodding
confirmation or adding details here and there.
They were aboard a cruiser in the
Coral Sea on May 6 when the order came for
them to go aboard the tanker Neosho which would take them to another ship
at a secret rendezvous. They
never found out where that rendezvous was. But let Flaherty tell the
"We went aboard the Neosho about
2 PM on the sixth. We were being convoyed
by the Sims. It seemed like the quartermaster had just finished issuing
life jackets to us and we had
just been assigned to our battle stations when general quarters sounded.
the time was about 9:15 AM the next day. May 7.
"Word was passed down the line to
expect an air raid and to stand by. The Japs
made one run with their horizontal bombers but the Sims and the Neosho
put up such a barrage that the
Nips were driven off. Three of them came so close we could see their
bomb bays open as they let go with 1,000 pounders."
Dive bombers followed in quick
succession, but they, too were driven off. Later
on, the two groups came back and this time managed to land the blows
which sank the
Flaherty and Nelson were out on the
fantail when the second attack began. They
saw the huge bombs drop less than twenty-five yards away.
"Then a dive bomber headed
straight for us. I've never seen a cooler bunch than
that gun crew on the Neosho," and Flaherty shook his head as he
remembered. "They waited
until she was almost point blank and then gave it to her. The plane just
disintegrated in the air. There was nothing left of her but a few pieces
of fabric that came floating
down on deck."
The same crew nailed another plane.
The pilot, realizing he was done in, apparently
tried to wreak as much vengeance as he could. Banking his crippled plane
about, he deliberately crashed on the fantail of the Neosho, spraying
burning gas from his ship as he
"There was a lieutenant commander
there, the executive officer. He was a little
fellow by the name of Francis J. Firth. When that plane hit, he threw
himself at three of our boys on
the fantail, knocking them down and trying to shield them from the flaming
gas. It was actually funny to see this little officer—he really was a
small man—trying to protect
those three men, but he did it. They don't make them any braver."
The Neosho was hit and set afire in
several places. One bomb hit the fireroom,
releasing steam which burned Flaherty severely.
"I only got burned a
little," he muttered.
"Yeah," interrupted Nelson,
"just a little—only on his hands, arms, face and
"I wouldn't be here and neither
would a lot of others," said Flaherty, "if it wasn't
for that pharmacist's mate, third class, who jumped overboard with his
shirt loaded with tannic acid,
then swam to the life rafts and whaleboats to spread the stuff over our bums.
The doctors in Australia said many of us would have died if it wasn't for
that tannic acid."
The captain of the Neosho, John S.
Phillips, ordered his men to abandon ship and
stand by when she listed so badly that starboard side went under water
and when the flames licked
eagerly all around the ship's magazine.
"Three whaleboats were put safely
over the side of the tanker," continued the
sailor. "One of them took me and the other wounded from a raft and
the other two boats were also
rapidly filling with men.
"When it became apparent there
wouldn't be enough room for all the men
struggling in the water. Lieutenant Bradford suddenly stood up and said:
‘I guess those of us not wounded
will have to get off.’”
“Then he dived into the water.
“Several other uninjured men in our
boat followed his example and we
later learned that fifteen men in all had voluntarily quit the
whaleboats to make room for the wounded. The lieutenant and two enlisted
men of the fifteen
Had they but known, they could have
stayed aboard the Neosho and lived. For
the big tanker, which appeared about to capsize, actually stayed afloat
for five more days.
During those five days the whaleboats stayed in
the vicinity, approaching alongside
the tanker each day to take on more food and water. At noon on the fifth day
an American destroyer arrived in response to a signal from a PBY plane
that spotted the Neosho. The
destroyer sank the tanker with a torpedo and took aboard the survivors.
"It was choppy as the devil out
there and we had to keep one man bailing all the
time in the whaleboat I was in," said Flaherty. "One boat had a
blanket and life jacked stuffed
in a shrapnel hole to keep out the entire ocean. They did the job."
Once they got horribly irked, Flaherty
recalled. It was on the day before they
were rescued. An Australian patrol plane flew out and circled around for
a bit, then signaled: "Are
you in trouble?"
"Heck," interrupted Nelson,
"we had every distress signal we could lay our hands
on flying out there as big as life. We were awfully glad to see the PBY
boys next day and when they
circled us twice and then streaked away, we figured they'd gone to get a
tin can for us."
The Sims went down fighting to the
"There was someone in one of the
turrets as she buckled in half and went under,"
Flaherty said grimly. "We know that because just as she was going
and there was nothing but the
muzzled of one other guns showing above the water, someone let go
with a final shot at the planes. If we had had another tin can there,
those Japs wouldn't have had a
chance. Why, the Sims had the sky black with ack-ack barrage."
The "tin can" that picked
them up took them to Australia where they got some
clothes. From there they went to an Army hospital at Pearl Harbor and
then were sent on here.
By A Shark
There was some humor mixed with all of
the grimness, too.
"One of the men told me afterward
that a shark saved his life," recalled Flaherty
with a grin. "His name was J.T. Nix and he was a machinist's mate,
first class, from somewhere down
South. He was terribly tired and didn't think he'd make it to a life raft.
a big shark showed up, grinned at him once with its big teeth and before you
could blink twice. Nix was on the raft."
Asked if they were anxious to get back
with the fleet. Nelson just grinned and
looked down at his old blue denim shirt some one gave him on the beach at
Flaherty looked at his companion then
grinned too. "You ain't kiddin', brother.
We got some revenge to get and the sooner we get it, the better we're
going to like it."
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