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The Greatest Generation

 

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

- Franklin D. Roosevelt (1936)

 

It's been over eight months since I posted my last update and yes, I'm still at my father's house in Bellingham, Washington.  In my next update, I'll post some stories and photos of what I've been doing here.  I'm devoting this update, however, to my uncle, Bill Leu, who was a World War II veteran and a survivor of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in December of 1941.  Bill suddenly and unexpectedly passed away in May of 2003 at the age of 80, which greatly saddened me and all those who knew him.

 

This past year has been quite a challenge, to put it mildly.  My father passed away last November after a brief battle with cancer, then six months later his brother and best friend, my Uncle Bill, died suddenly.  Bill was a wonderful person and was like my second father.  But as they say, death is a part of life and rather than commiserate over his passing, I wanted instead to celebrate his life.

 

Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu (1922 - 2003), a World War II veteran.

Today, December 7, is the anniversary of the surprise Japanese attack on the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii in 1941, an event that shocked the nation and plunged America into World War II.  December 7 was an important date when I was a child in the 1960s and had a lot of meaning for most Americans, but over time the date has been slowly -- and unfortunately -- fading into obscurity.  I bet today if you asked most younger folks why "December 7" is an important date in American history, they would stare at you blankly. 

 

But instead of criticizing or lecturing, I wanted to take this opportunity to inform and educate -- as well as to honor my Uncle Bill.  Therefore I'm posting this update describing him, some of his harrowing experiences in World War II, and the lifelong friendship he had with my father. 

 

My father and uncle both had a lot of integrity and compassion, attributes that unfortunately are becoming rare in our society, and they were both wonderful people.  In my last update, I described my father, a veteran of World War II and afterwards, a noted educator.  In this update I describe my Uncle Bill, also a veteran of World War II, in memory of all the men and women who served in that terrible conflict.

The Early Years

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

 

Like many families in America, the Leus suffered tremendously 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 hard to feed his family, he was eventually forced out of business.  In desperation and now nearly impoverished, the Leus moved to the small logging town of Skykomish, Washington, in the Cascade Mountains east of Seattle, in the mid-1930s where George opened another grocery store, which he called "Leu's Market."  George, a kind and quiet man, struggled mightily but nevertheless, he managed to put food on the table each night.

 

       

Above left:  That's my great-grandfather, Georg Leu, in the center.  This was taken in 1924 in Ballard, Washington.  Georg had emigrated to America in 1880 from Switzerland.  Beside him are two of his sons, George (on the left) and Cliff.  My grandfather, George Leu, is holding his son, Bill.

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

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

 

       

Above left:  The Leu family about 1928 with Don and Bill in the front row, left.

Above center:  Don and Bill in Ballard.  Nice 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 lost his grocery store in Seattle.

 

       

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.  Both played on the Skykomish high school basketball team, one of the best small-town teams in the state.

Above right:  Best friends.

 

       

Above left:  Bill in Seattle -- twice, in fact.

Above center:  Bill's senior portrait at Skykomish High School, in 1940.

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

The Attack on Pearl Harbor (1941)

As teenagers, Don and Bill enjoyed the rural environment of mountainous 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 with the U.S. Navy in May of 1941.  Europe had been torn apart by World War II for nearly two years but the U.S. was still neutral when Bill enlisted.

 

Above:  I drew this map showing the American fleet at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.  During the surprise Japanese attack, the Neosho was docked on the south side of Ford Island, in the center.

In July 1941, Bill was assigned to a new Navy tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho, in Bremerton, Washington.  At 553 feet in length, the Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world at the time.  Navy tankers had two main roles:  they transferred fuel oil between depots and served as "floating gas stations" for the fleets as they crossed the ocean.  As Bill would recall years later, "The Neosho was a big ship. And it was a good ship."  

 

Bill spent the next several months on the Neosho as it criss-crossed the Pacific while repeatedly carrying fuel from San Pedro, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The U.S. Pacific fleet had recently moved its base from San Diego to Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu, and it needed fuel reserves there.  Each round-trip for the Neosho took about three weeks. 

 

During its 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 around midnight, it began unloading its cargo of aviation fuel.

 

At 7:55 a.m. the next morning, Sunday, December 7, the Neosho 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 his shift in the engine room when he looked up and saw Japanese planes overhead, then he ran to his battle station with the three-inch 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 fateful morning which wasn't damaged.

 

Here's a video of Bill describing the attack at Pearl Harbor in 1941.  I videotaped this interview in 2002, six months before he died.

 

Above:  Here's my uncle, Bill Leu, in 2002 describing the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.  My dad, also a WWII veteran, is on the left.  This was the last time they saw each other.  Sadly, my father died shortly afterwards and Bill died six months later.

 

       

Above left:  Fireman Third 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, it was the largest oil tanker in the world when it was launched.

 

   

Above left:  Bill in the Neosho's engine room.  The ghostly faces are due to a double-exposure.

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.

Tragedy in the Coral Sea (1942)

Six months later, in May of 1942, the Neosho again battled the Japanese.  The U.S. Navy sent a task fleet, including the Neosho, the 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 they had to contend with the U.S. Navy.  During the ensuing conflict, known today as the 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 left behind in a supposed 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.

 

Above:  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the carrier U.S.S. Yorktown shortly before the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The two ships were spotted by Japanese dive bombers the next morning.  The Japanese pilots had mistaken the flat-topped Neosho for an aircraft carrier and the Sims for a cruiser and called in all available planes to attack.  Twenty four Japanese dive bombers pounced on the two American ships, quickly sinking the destroyer Sims and badly damaging the tanker Neosho.  During the attack, 237 of the 252 men on the Sims perished, while 20 of the 296 men on the Neosho were killed.  Scores more were injured. 

 

Shortly after the attack, about 160 men from the burning Neosho jumped into the ocean and clambered into life rafts, thinking the tanker would sink quickly like the Sims had just moments earlier.  They expected to be picked up shortly by the U.S. fleet which, they assumed, had been alerted.  But amazingly enough, and despite being hit by seven bombs and struck by a burning Japanese plane, the smoldering Neosho didn't sink.  It was kept afloat by its partly-emptied fuel tanks, though it was listing at 30 degrees and had lost all its power.  It was in a precarious state and the captain realized the ship could sink at any moment.

 

The 123 men who stayed on the disabled Neosho, including my Uncle Bill, clung to the listing deck and waited for rescue.  They didn't realize, however, that shortly after the attack, the Neosho's radioman had transmitted incorrect coordinates to the rest of the U.S. fleet, an error of about 40 miles.  The Navy ships that were searching for the listing tanker were looking in the wrong place.  Four days later, the men on the Neosho, many of whom were badly burned, had almost given up hope of being rescued and were preparing to climb into the remaining lifeboats to try to make it to Australia somehow, 400 miles away over open ocean.  But suddenly a ship appeared on the horizon and as it got closer, the men on the Neosho saw that it was an American ship -- a destroyer.  They were saved!

 

Above:  The deck of the Neosho as it refueled the carrier USS Yorktown before the Battle of the Coral Sea.

The fate of the approximately 160 men who had climbed into the Neosho's liferafts shortly after the attack and had floated away, however, was far more grim.  Most were never seen again.  However, five days after the Neosho was spotted and the crew rescued, over 50 miles away another American destroyer discovered a Neosho lifeboat with four emaciated and delirious men onboard.  These were the only survivors of the roughly 160 men who had climbed into liferafts shortly after the attack.  Sadly, after being rescued, two of the men died, but the remaining two men returned to the U.S. 

 

Along with the destroyer Sims and tanker U.S.S. Neosho, the Americans had lost one aircraft carrier, the U.S.S. Lexington, during the five-day Battle of the Coral Sea.  The Japanese had also lost a few ships but, more importantly, had been turned back for the first time during the war.  Each side returned to their bases to lick their wounds, thinking the battle had been roughly a draw.  However, the battle ultimately proved to be an important turning point in the war because it had set the stage for the crucial Battle of Midway a month later, which was a decisive American victory.  The Battle of the Coral Sea has today largely faded into obscurity in America, though many Australians still refer to it as "The Battle that Saved Australia."

 

Here's a video of Bill describing the sinking of his ship, the USS Neosho, during the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942.  I videotaped this interview in 2002, six months before he died.

 

Above: My uncle, Bill Leu, in my 2002 video interview with him.  In this segment, Bill describes how the U.S.S. Neosho and the destroyer that was escorting it, the U.S.S. Sims, were sunk by 24 Japanese dive bombers during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

 

 

     

Above left:  The destroyer U.S.S. Sims was sunk while defending the Neosho during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Almost every man on the ship -- 237 men in total -- died.

Above center:  I drew this map of the action at the Battle of the Coral Sea, May 5 to 7, 1942.   

Above right:  This is the last photo taken of the U.S.S. Neosho (the bow is to the right).  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 more 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 before 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.  He and his wife, Lois, raised two children.

 

Above:  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.

Although I had grown up in Michigan and, later, California, I got to know my Uncle Bill quite well and grew close to him because each summer, my dad would load everyone in my family into our station wagon and head to Washington to see our relatives there.  Visiting my uncle and his family near Seattle was often the high point of my whole summer.

 

In the fall of 2002, my father developed pancreatic cancer and in November, he was told by the doctors that he had only a few weeks left to live.  I asked my dad what he would like to do in the short time he had left and not surprisingly, he said only one thing:  "I want to see Bill."  And so, the next day, I drove my dad from his house in Bellingham down to Seattle, about two hours away, and he and Bill spent the day together reminiscing, playing a last round of cards and going out to lunch.

 

During their poignant visit, I videotaped an interview with them, knowing it would be the last time they would 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 and Raiders" (later known as the Navy SEALs) in China. 

 

Above:  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.  This interview inspired me to research the Neosho and post its story on my website.

Throughout my life I had heard that Bill had been at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack and that later his ship was sunk in the Coral Sea.  However, like many veterans, Bill never talked much about his wartime experiences so I never heard the whole story or knew much about it.  During the video interview therefore, I asked Bill about his experiences on the Neosho.  He spent 20 minutes describing the battles at Pearl Harbor and at the Coral Sea, his eyes misting up at times.  I was utterly fascinated to hear his first-hand accounts of these conflicts, as was my father and Bill's family, who were sitting nearby.  Bill had never shared these wartime memories with anyone, not even his wife.

 

Shortly after that visit, sadly, my father died.  Then about six months later, in May of 2003, Bill suddenly passed away one evening.  After Bill died, I spent several months doing research on the Neosho and created a 40-page account of the ship and its combat experiences at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and at the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942.  I've posted these accounts on my website because I want others to know about the ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho, the valiant destroyer U.S.S. Sims, and about the men who fought in those battles.  My account includes numerous photos and maps, and I believe it's the most comprehensive description of the U.S.S. Neosho available on the Internet.  

 

This webpage and the accompanying account of the U.S.S. Neosho is a tribute to my Uncle Bill.  Bill and my father, Don Leu, had a lot of character and, having endured the Great Depression and then serving their country in World War II, were part of those who are today known as "The Greatest Generation."

 

   

Above left:  Visiting my Uncle Bill at his house in Edmonds, Washington in the early 1960s.  My dad and Bill are on the right.  I'm being held by my mom.

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

 

Table of Contents:

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

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

 

SECTION 1:  Background

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

SECTION 2:  Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

Introduction

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Attack on Pearl Harbor

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

 

SECTION 3:  Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942)

Introduction

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 the Battle of the Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Japanese Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting for Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)

List of Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Neosho:  Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Sims:  Survivors and Casualties

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Battle of the Coral Sea

Action Report of U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of U.S.S. Sims

Action Report of U.S.S. Helm

Other Ships at the Battle of the 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)

Battle of the Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article:  July 10, 1942 

 

SECTION 4:  Aftermath

Introduction

President Bush's 1991 Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times Article:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

Links, Sources and Further Information

 

 


 

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