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December 7, 2003  (Bellingham, Washington)

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The Greatest Generation


"This generation of Americans has a rendezvous with destiny."

- Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936)



Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu  (1922 - 2003), a Pearl Harbor veteran.


It's been over 8 months since I posted my last update and believe it or not, I'm still in Bellingham.  In my next update, I'll post some stories and photos of what I've been doing here.  I'm devoting this update to my uncle, Bill Leu, who was a World War II veteran and a survivor of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941.  Bill suddenly passed away in May of 2003 at the age of 80, which greatly saddened me and all those who knew him.  


The last 12 months have been kind of rocky.  My father passed away last year before Christmas after a brief bout with cancer, then six months later, my Uncle Bill died suddenly.  Bill was a wonderful person and someone who I considered to be like my second father.  But, as they say, death is simply a part of life and rather than commiserate over his passing, I wanted to celebrate his life.


Today, December 7, is the anniversary of the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack.  I decided to honor my Uncle Bill by posting this update describing him, some of his experiences in World War II, and the lifelong friendship that he had with my father.  My father and my uncle both had a lot of integrity and compassion -- attributes that unfortunately are becoming rare in American society -- and they were both wonderful people.  In my last update, I described my father.  In this update, I'm going to describe my Uncle Bill in memory of all the veterans who served in World War II.


The Early Years

My father, Don Leu, and his older brother Bill grew up in the 1920s in a middle-class household in Ballard, Washington, just north of Seattle.  As youngsters, they were best friends, a bond they shared throughout their lives.  Throughout the 1920s, their father, George Leu, ran a successful grocery store in Seattle.  George's wife, Minnie May Leu, was a devoted mother to her six children including her two youngest, Bill and Don.


Like many other families in America, the Leus suffered hard times when the Great Depression hit in the early 1930s.  Many of George's customers had bought their groceries on credit and couldn't pay their debts, and although George worked extremely hard to feed his family, he was eventually forced out of business.  In desperation, and now nearly impoverished, the Leus moved to the logging town of Skykomish, Washington, in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle in the mid-1930s where George opened a small grocery store, which he called simply "Leu's Market."  George, a kind and quiet man, struggled mightily.  Nevertheless, he managed to put food on the table each night.


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Above left:  That's Bill on the far left in 1924, being held by his father (my grandfather), George Leu, in Ballard, Washington.  Bill's grandfather (my great-grandfather), also named George Leu, is in the middle.  George Sr. grew up in Switzerland and reputedly stole $400 from his father when he was a young man, then stowed away on a ship bound for America -- don't I come from good stock?!  On the right is George Sr.'s other son, Cliff.

Above center:  My father, Don Leu (left) and his older brother Bill, around 1927.

Above right:  Bill (left) and Don, dressing alike as they often did.  This was at their home in Ballard.


Leu_Kids_with_George_Minnie_Toots.jpg (47943 bytes)    Bill_and_Don_With_Scooter.jpg (35033 bytes)    Don_Minnie_Bill_in_Skykomish.jpg (39001 bytes)

Above left:  The Leu family about 1928.  That's Don and Bill in the front row.  Their parents are in the back row, middle.

Above center:  Don and Bill in Ballard.  Cool scooter, huh?

Above right:  Don and Bill getting a motherly hug.  This was in Skykomish, Washington, where the Leus moved during the Great Depression after George's grocery store in Seattle had failed.


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Above left:  Bill in downtown Seattle in 1938, when he was 16.

Above center:  Bill and Don in a serious pose in Skykomish, 1940.  Bill was a senior at Skykomish High School and Don was a junior.

Above right:  Best friends.

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Above left:  Mug shot?

Above center:  Bill's high school senior portrait, in 1940.

Above right:  And Don's portrait, the following year.


World War II:  Onboard the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

As teenagers, Don and Bill enjoyed the rural atmosphere of Skykomish, spending their summers working in the woods and on the Great Northern railroad, while spending their winters playing basketball.  In the late 1930s, they both starred on Skykomish High School's basketball team, the Skyrockets, one of the best small-town basketball teams in the state of Washington.  Bill graduated from high school in 1940, a year ahead of Don, and enlisted as a Fireman Third Class with the U.S. Navy in May of 1941.  Europe had been torn about by World War II for nearly two years, but the U.S. was still neutral when Bill enlisted.  


In July, Bill signed aboard a new tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho, in Bremerton, Washington.  At 553 feet long, the Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world at the time.  As Bill would recall years later, "It was a big ship... and it was good ship."   Bill spent the next several months on the Neosho as it carried fuel repeatedly from San Pedro, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where the U.S. Fleet had recently relocated.


During the sixth trip, the Neosho, with Bill aboard, pulled into Pearl Harbor on December 6, 1941.  After the Neosho tied up to the dock at Ford Island in the middle of "Battleship Row" that evening, it quickly began unloading its cargo of aviation fuel. 


At 7:55 a.m. the next morning, December 7th, it had almost finished unloading its fuel when Japanese planes began attacking the U.S. Pacific Fleet, moored at Pearl Harbor.  Bill was just getting off a shift in the engine room when he looked up and saw Japanese planes overhead, then ran to his battle station with the 3" gun on the ship's bow, where he watched the attack unfold.  The Neosho, moored between the doomed battleships U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. California, escaped damage and, during a slight lull in the battle, made a run for the Oahu mainland.  As it turned out, the Neosho was the only ship on Battleship Row that morning that wasn't damaged.


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Above left:  Fireman, 3rd Class, Bill Leu, with his parents, Minnie May and George Leu, in Skykomish, Washington.   

Above center:   Bill just before he embarked on the U.S.S. Neosho in July 1941.

Above right:  The U.S.S. Neosho in 1939 in Norfolk, Virginia, shortly after it was launched.  At 553' long, this was the largest oil tanker in the world when it was launched.


Bill_Leu_in_Engine_Room.jpg (34994 bytes)    Pearl_Harbor_Map_-_250dpi.gif (115406 bytes)    Neosho_at_Ford_Island.jpg (35067 bytes)

Above left:  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.

Above center:  I drew this map showing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 (click to enlarge).  Ford Island is in the center.  I've shown the route of the Neosho in gray.

Above right:  The attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on December 7, 1941.  The Neosho, in the upper right, had cut its lines on the Ford Island dock (upper left) and was heading for the Oahu mainland during the attack.  Counter-flooding kept the battleship U.S.S. California (left) from overturning.  The capsized U.S.S. Oklahoma and smoking U.S.S. Maryland lie behind the California.  For a supersized photo, click here.


The Neosho Tragedy in the Coral Sea

Six months later, in May of 1942, the Neosho wasn't so lucky.  The U.S. Navy sent a task fleet, including the Neosho, aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown, and about a dozen other ships, to the Coral Sea near Australia to thwart a Japanese invasion of New Guinea.  The Japanese were hoping to knock Australia and New Zealand out of the war, but first had to contend with the U.S. Navy.  During the ensuing Battle of the Coral Sea, the Neosho and its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims, were detached from the main U.S. fleet and were left behind in a relatively safe area.  "We were a bunch of scared sailors," Bill would say years later, remembering how the Neosho got ready for a possible fight with the Japanese.


Despite being left behind, the two ships were spotted by Japanese dive-bombers the next morning, who mistook the flat-topped Neosho for an aircraft carrier and the Sims for a cruiser.  Sixty-two Japanese planes pounced on the two American ships, quickly sinking the Sims and badly damaging the Neosho.  During the attack, 237 of the 252 men on the Sims perished, while 20 of the 296 men on the Neosho were killed and scores more were injured.  Shortly afterwards, about 160 men from the burning Neosho jumped into life rafts, thinking the Neosho would sink quickly like the Sims had and expecting that they would be picked up shortly by the U.S. fleet.  Amazingly enough, though -- and despite being hit by seven bombs and rammed by a burning Japanese plane -- the smoldering Neosho didn't sink, although it did begin listing at 30 degrees and had lost all its power.  


The 123 men who stayed with the disabled Neosho, including my Uncle Bill, clung to the listing deck and waited for rescue.  Unfortunately though, shortly after the attack, the Neosho crew had radioed incorrect coordinates to the rest of the U.S. fleet, an error of about 40 miles, so while a search was underway for the Neosho, they were looking in the wrong place.  Four days later, the men on the Neosho, many of whom were badly burned, had just about given up hope of being rescued and were preparing to take to the remaining lifeboats and try to sail to Australia, over 400 miles away, when a ship appeared on the horizon.  It was an American destroyer -- they were saved!


The saga of the 160 or so men who had clambering into the Neosho's liferafts shortly after the attack, however, was more grim.  Five days after the 123 men were rescued from the listing Neosho, another American destroyer discovered a Neosho lifeboat with four emaciated and delirious men on board -- the only survivors from a group of 68 men who had climbed aboard after the attack, nine days earlier.  Shortly after being rescued, two of the men died, but the remaining two men returned to the U.S. and lived for many more years.  Of the 160 men who climbed into liferafts shortly after the attack on the Neosho, they were the only ones who had survived.


The five-day Battle of the Coral Sea was basically a stalemate, but the Japanese had been turned back for the first time in World War II.  The battle proved to be an important turning point in the war, because before the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Japanese military enjoyed almost nothing but victory, while afterwards, they suffered almost nothing but defeat.


Neosho_Fueling_Yorktown2.jpg (37855 bytes)          USS Neosho Burning

Above left:  The Neosho refueling the aircraft carrier Yorktown (left), six months later during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

Above center:  I drew this map of the action at the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 5 to 7, 1942 (click to enlarge).  For more about the battle, see the Table of Contents listed below.  

Above right:  This is, most likely, the last picture taken of the U.S.S. Neosho (the bow is to the left).  It was taken from a Japanese plane about 1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Despite a 30-degree starboard list, and with 123 men on board, including my Uncle Bill, the ship would continue to float for four days until the crew was rescued by an American destroyer.  


After The War

After recuperating from the Neosho ordeal in Brisbane, Australia, Bill went back home to Skykomish, Washington on liberty for a few days, then served on four more ships during World War II, finally mustering out of the Navy in 1946.  Afterwards, he returned to Skykomish and began a career as a railroad engineer on the Great Northern (later Burlington Northern) railroad, retiring in the early 1980s.  Although I had grown up in Michigan and, later, California, I got to know my Uncle Bill very well because each summer, my Dad would load our family into the station wagon and head to Washington, camping along the way.  Visiting my uncle and his family near Seattle was often the high point of my whole summer.  Bill and Don remained best friends throughout their lives and, as I say, my Uncle Bill was like a second father to me.


In the early fall of 2002, my father developed cancer, and in November, he was told that he had only a few weeks left to live.  I asked my Dad what he'd like to do in the short time that he had left and, not surprisingly, he said only one thing: "I want to see Bill."  The next day, I drove my Dad from Bellingham down to Seattle, and he and Bill spent the entire day together.  


During their memorable visit, I videotaped an interview with them, knowing that it would be the last time they'd see each other.  During the interview, they talked about their childhood, about growing up during the Great Depression, and about their experiences in World War II.  They had both served in the Pacific during the war:  Bill on various ships, including the Neosho, and my father with the Navy Scouts & Raiders (later SEALs) in China. 


Although throughout my life I'd heard that Bill had been at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack and that later his ship was sunk in the Coral Sea, Bill, like many veterans, never talked much about his wartime experiences so I never heard the whole story.  Therefore, during the interview, I asked Bill about his experiences on the Neosho and he spent 20 minutes describing the battles at Pearl Harbor and at the Coral Sea.  I was truly fascinated to hear Bill's first-hand accounts of these conflicts, as was my father.


Shortly after that visit, unfortunately, my father died.  Then about six months later, in May of 2003, Bill suddenly passed away one evening.  After Bill died, I did some research on the Neosho and put together a 40-page account of the ship and its experiences at Pearl Harbor and Coral Sea, which I've posted on my website, because I want others to know about the ordeal of the Neosho, the valiant Sims, and about the men who fought in those battles.  My account includes numerous photos and maps, and it's perhaps the most comprehensive description of the Neosho available on the Internet.   As shown below, I've also included audio recordings of Bill's description of the Pearl Harbor attack and the Battle of the Coral Sea, which you can listen to.


This update and the accompanying account of the U.S.S. Neosho is a tribute to my Uncle Bill.  Bill and my father, Don Leu, both had a tremendous amount of character and they were among those whom Tom Brokaw rightly called "The Greatest Generation."


Space Needle 1965    2-5360_Bill_and_Lois_Leu.jpg (39584 bytes)    Bill_and_Dad_at_2002_Interview.jpg (53890 bytes)

Above left:  In 1965 atop the new Space Needle in Seattle, Washington.  That's Bill in the background waving.  The little kid in front waving is yours truly.

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

Above right:  My Dad (left) and my Uncle Bill (right) during the interview I did with them in 2002.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father died a few weeks later and Bill died the following May.  During the interview, Bill for the first time told me about his experience on the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor and the Coral Sea, which inspired me to research the Neosho and post its story here.


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



Next News

June 25, 2004:  Life in Bellingham  (Bellingham, Washington)



Previous News

March 28, 2003 -- My Father  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 30, 2002  (Bellingham, Washington)

July 24, 2002  (Princess Louisa Inlet, British Columbia)

July 12, 2002  (Lake City, Colorado)

July 4, 2002 -- Life as a Ranger, Part 2  (Lake City, Colorado)

July 4, 2002 -- Life as a Ranger, Part 1  (Lake City, Colorado)

July 1, 2002  (Looking Glass Rock, Utah)

June 25, 2002  (Lassen Volcanic National Park, California)

June 18, 2002  -- Part 2  (Port Orford, Oregon)

June 18, 2002  -- Part 1  (Port Orford, Oregon)

May 22, 2002  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 7, 2002  (Sydney, Australia)

April 4, 2002  (Coffs Harbour, Australia)

April 1, 2002  (Hervey Bay, Australia)

March 28, 2002  (Airlie Beach, Australia)

March 25, 2002  (Port Douglas, Australia)

March 16, 2002  (Winton, Australia)

March 13, 2002  (Alice Springs, Australia)

March 11, 2002  (Ayers Rock, Australia)

March 8, 2002  (Coober Pedy, Australia)

March 5, 2002  (Port Augusta, Australia)

March 1, 2002 -- Part 2  (Robe, Australia)

March 1, 2002 -- Part 1  (Robe, Australia)

February 18, 2002  (Bega, Australia)

February 7, 2002  (Auckland, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002 -- Part 2  (Taupo, New Zealand)

February 2, 2002 -- Part 1  (Taupo, New Zealand)

January 25, 2002  (Hokitika, New Zealand)

January 20, 2002  (Geraldine, New Zealand)

January 16, 2002  (Te Anau, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002 -- Part 2  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 12, 2002 -- Part 1  (Dunedin, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002 -- Part 2  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

January 1, 2002 -- Part 1  (Christchurch, New Zealand)

December 24, 2001  (Wellington, New Zealand)

December 20, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)

December 16, 2001  (Auckland, New Zealand)  

December 14, 2001  (Aitutaki, Cook Islands)

December 10, 2001  (Rarotonga, Cook Islands)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bellingham, Washington)

December 3, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bellingham, Washington)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 3  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 18, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

October 6, 2001  (Fort Lincoln State Park, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 2  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 30, 2001 -- Part 1  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

September 15, 2001  (Bismarck, North Dakota)

August 30, 2001  (Webster, South Dakota)

August 18, 2001  (Watertown South Dakota)

August 17, 2001  (Walnut Grove, Minnesota)

August 14, 2001  (Minneapolis, Minnesota)

August 10, 2001 (Battle Creek, Michigan)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 2)

August 8, 2001  (12 Days in Syracuse: Part 1)

August 6, 2001  (Manlius, New York)

July 23, 2001  (Middleton, Massachusetts)

July 22, 2001  (Boston, Massachusetts)

July 20, 2001  (Pomfret, Connecticut)

July 18, 2001  (Denton, Maryland)

July 16, 2001  (Cumberland, Virginia)

July 14, 2001  (Roanoke, Virginia)

July 9, 2001  (Sevierville, Tennessee)

July 8, 2001  (Fontana Lake, North Carolina)

July 5, 2001  (Manchester, Tennessee)

June 30, 2001  (Hohenwald, Tennessee)

June 29, 2001  (Corinth, Mississippi)

June 27, 2001  (Natchez, Mississippi)

June 24, 2001  (Austin, Texas)

June 20, 2001  (Canyon de Chelly, Arizona)

June 18, 2001  (Clay Canyon, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 2  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 15, 2001 -- Part 1  (Zion Nat'l Park, Utah)

June 14, 2001  (San Diego, California)

June 11, 2001  (San Jose, California)

June 2, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

May 19, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 30, 2001  (Hillsboro, Oregon)

April 19, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)

April 5, 2001  (Bellingham, Washington)