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Home > Family History > USS Neosho Home Page > Neosho Veteran's Forum > Bill Leu


U.S.S. Neosho Veteran:  Bill Leu

(1922 - 2003)



My uncle, Bill Leu, was born in 1922 and grew up in the Seattle suburb of Ballard, Washington.  He was the second youngest of six children born to George Leu, a Seattle grocer, and Minnie May Leu.  During the Great Depression, George lost his grocery store and moved the entire Leu family to the small logging town of Skykomish, nestled in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle.  Bill had always wanted to join the Navy but his mother wouldn't let him until he graduated from high school, "and I'm glad she wouldn't," he would say years later.


Leu_Kids_with_George_Minnie_Toots.jpg (47943 bytes)  

Above:  The Leu family about 1928.  My father, Don Leu (the youngest in the family) is in the front row, left.  Bill is standing next to Don.


After graduating from Skykomish High School in 1940, Bill worked for a year in Skykomish then, in May of 1941, six months before the U.S. entered World War II, he enlisted with the U.S. Navy as a Fireman Third Class.  "They don't come any lower than that," he would joke later.  That spring, he signed onto the brand new Navy oiler, U.S.S. Neosho, in Bremerton, Washington, where the ship was being converted for wartime activity, and he began serving with the Neosho's "black gang" down in the engine room.  At that time, the 553-foot long Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world.


Bill served on the Neosho during the summer and fall of 1941 as it made repeated trips carrying fuel from San Pedro, California to the Pacific Fleet's new headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  On its sixth trip, the Neosho pulled into Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941 and tied up at the dock on Ford Island, where it began unloading its aviation fuel.


Bill worked all that night in the engine room and the next morning, December 7, he started hearing loud noises just as his shift was ending around 8 a.m.  When Bill's crewmates told him that Japanese planes were attacking the U.S. fleet, he ran forward along the Neosho's catwalk to his battle station, topsides on the bow of the Neosho, near the 3-inch bow gun.  He was the first person to reach his battle station but, to his dismay, discovered that everything was locked up. 


After the other crewmen arrived, the hatches were unlocked and Bill began using a block-and-tackle to hoist up 3-inch shells and handing them to the gunnery crew, though everyone knew the prospect of hitting a Japanese plane at such close range with a 3-inch gun was dim.  The Neosho emerged unscathed from the attack, thanks to the quick thinking of the captain, John Phillips, who, during a lull in the battle, guided the Neosho to the relative safety of the Oahu mainland.


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Above:  Bill Leu, Fireman 3rd Class, in 1941.  Bill served on the Neosho during its entire active service, from July 1941 until May 1942.


Six months later in May of 1942, Bill was still serving on the Neosho in the Coral Sea, where the U.S. fleet with aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown had gathered to thwart a Japanese invasion of New Guinea and, possibly, Australia and New Zealand.  On May 6, the Neosho and its escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, detached from the main U.S. fleet which sped ahead in search of the Japanese fleet.  The next morning, Japanese planes spotted both ships.  Mistaking the ships for an aircraft carrier and cruiser, 62 Japanese planes attacked, sinking the Sims quickly and heavily damaging the Neosho.


During the attack, Bill was stationed once again on the bow, but this time he was down below and therefore could only listen to the horrific battle.  Hearing the command to abandon ship, Bill ran to his bunk to get his life preserver but discovered that another sailor had already taken it.  With a buddy, Bill ran to the railing and, without a life preserver, jumped into the choppy sea.  He almost drowned but was rescued by one of the Neosho's powered whale boats, and he and everyone else in the whale boat spent the first evening circling the burning Neosho, afraid the big oiler would capsize and sink. 


The next morning, Bill and all the other surviving crewmen went back aboard the listing Neosho.  All tolled, only 130 crewmen survived of the original complement of 293.  For the next several days, Bill worked with Chief Engineer Louis Verbrugge and a group of other men, trying to lower a large, heavy motorized whaleboat which was still swinging on its davits, a daunting task considering the lack of power and a 30-degree list.  After the men successfully lowered the boat into the ocean, and just as the captain was about to order all the survivors into the motor whaleboats, a U.S. destroyer, the U.S.S. Henley, appeared on the horizon and rescued the crewmen, including Bill, a full four days after the Japanese attack.


After recuperating in Brisbane, Australia, Bill was sent back to the U.S. and returned home to Skykomish for a few days of rest.  He then returned to San Pedro, California, where he was assigned to another ship, ironically an oiler named the U.S.S. Neosho (AO-48), which had been named after the ship which had sunk at Coral Sea. 


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Above:  Bill in the engine room of one of the five ships he served on during WW II.  The ghostly faces are due to a double-exposure.


Bill served on the AO-48 throughout the Pacific, including the Aleutian Islands in Alaska, then returned with the ship to San Pedro.  On leave one Saturday evening in Hollywood, Bill developed appendicitis and stayed overnight in a Navy hospital, thus missing his ship which had sailed without him (he was a "Neosho No-show," you might say).  He served on several more ships during World War II and was in the Marshall Islands in 1945 when the Japanese surrender was announced.


After the war, Bill returned to Skykomish, Washington, and within a few years, he had become a train engineer on the Great Northern (later Burlington Northern) railroad.  As a kid, I remember seeing my Uncle Bill several times wearing his blue engineer's overalls stained with diesel oil and his Great Northern engineer's cap, which he wore proudly.


Bill retired in the early 1980s and, with his wife, Lois, retired in Edmonds, Washington.  Having moved to Portland, Oregon in 1991, I enjoyed visiting with my uncle Bill several times each year, even if he always did beat me in golf.  Bill was a wonderful man, he was very honest, trusting, and compassionate, and I always enjoyed seeing him. 


Bill was proud of his service on board the U.S.S. Neosho, and rightfully so.  He attended several Neosho reunions in Missouri and went to many anniversary commemorations at Pearl Harbor while proudly wearing his "Pearl Harbor Survivor" cap.  However, like many veterans, he never talked with his family much about his wartime experiences.  Most of what I knew about Bill's experience on the Neosho I had learned from my father. 


After my father was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, I videotaped an interview with him and his older brother Bill, and it was during that interview that Bill described to me for the first time his experiences on the U.S.S. Neosho.  Sadly, my father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died suddenly a few months later.  That interview and Bill's subsequent death inspired me to develop this section of my website describing the U.S.S. Neosho and its valiant crew.


I've posted the story of Bill's lifelong friendship with my father at News: December 7, 2003.  


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Above left:  Skykomish newspaper article about Bill's rescue in the Coral Sea.

Above center:  Bill and his wife, Lois, a few years ago at their home in Edmonds, Washington.

Above right:  My Dad (left) and my uncle Bill Leu (right) during their interview in 2002.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died a few months later.


Table of Contents:

U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page


Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos


Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho


The Pearl Harbor Attack  (December 7, 1941)

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Bill Leu Interview:  Pearl Harbor Attack

U.S. Navy Action Report:  U.S.S. Neosho


The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

Battle Action:  May 8, 1942

The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

List of Survivors & Casualties

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942 - cont.)

Bill Leu Interview:  Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Coral Sea

Action Report of the U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of the U.S.S. Sims

U.S.S. Helm Report

Other Ships at Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (Neosho's Escort)

The U.S.S. Henley (Neosho's Rescuer)

The U.S.S. Helm (Rescued Life Raft)

Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article, July 10, 1942



President Bush's Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips


U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum


Sources & Further Information