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May 8, 1942
Neosho at Coral Sea
May 8, 1942: Waiting For Rescue
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 130 men on board.
The Neosho's escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, had
also been attacked and was sunk quickly with the loss of over 200 men.
After the attack, over a hundred men on the Neosho
had jumped into liferafts, all of which were drifting away from the
ship. Dozens more, including my uncle, Bill Leu, clambered into
two of the Neosho's motorized whale boats, which spent the night slowly
circling the big tanker. The men onboard the listing
in the powered whale boats, and in the rafts that were steadily drifting
away were expecting to be rescued soon by the American fleet.
During the long night of May 7, the men of
and the handful
of survivors of Sims waited hopefully for rescue. From the beginning of
the Japanese air attack, before 11
o'clock that morning, the radiomen
had sent out word that the
Japanese were hitting the ship. Admiral
Fletcher had received this word,
the report that Neosho was being
bombed by three planes in latitude
16° 50' South, longitude 159° 8'
East. Then at 1600, the
radio powered by the auxiliary had gotten off
its message, that the oiler was
sinking in latitude 16° 38' South, longitude 158° 28' East.
That night, a dispatch from Pearl Harbor told
Fletcher that Sims had also been sunk, so the Admiral took the steps
that Captain Phillips expected.
He dispatched the destroyer Monaghan
to speed to this area and search
for survivors. By all rights, Monaghan
would have found the
in the morning; the sky was clear, the
weather fine. But when
morning came, Neosho was still
very much alone.
The Morning After
As dawn came, the miserable men in the motor whale boats drew near the hulk of
the ship. She was sitting
very low in the water, with a list of almost
thirty degrees. Every man
aboard could tell that she was settling. The
process was slow. The leaks
had not burst wide open, but the process
was continual. If it went on
much longer, the tanker must go down.
The starboard side of the main
deck was now under water.
The captain looked around him, at the taut, gray faces. Every man
was covered with fuel oil, the
leaks and the dousings of the night had
made sure of that. Fuel oil
was over everything. The deck was slippery
with it, the rigging dripped water
and oil, and the stink of it was in
every sailor's nostrils.
As the sun came up, so did the wind. The captain could tell it was
going to be another choppy day,
fine for a ship at sea, with a force-five
wind, but not at all fine for
survivors riding a wreck. He looked at the
sun, and at the men around him,
and he waited. Officers and men
counted the minutes and then the hours, praying for rescue.
That morning, the men were still confident that rescue was on its
way. It would naturally take
a little time for the ships sent out to find
them, for the planes to get off on
their searches and circle the area
where they had gone down, then
move out to allow for the Neosho’s
Captain Phillips took stock. About him he had loyalty. Lieutenant
Commander Firth, his executive
officer, was critically burned on the
face, hands, and left arm, but he
continued to offer the captain any
service he could perform.
Unfortunately, in his condition there was not
much he could do. But for
that matter, except for a few precautionary
measures, there was not that much
anyone could do.
Most of the exec's responsibility now devolved upon Lieutenant
Commander Brown, the navigator.
He was resourceful and above all
cheerful, and there was much to be said for that in these trying hours.
Lieutenant Verbrugge, the
engineering officer, was also unfailingly
cheerful. Like the others,
he was covered with fuel oil, his hair matted
and his clothes filthy. Yet
he went down, time and again, into the slippery engineering spaces, to see if
there was anything he could do to
improve their situation. As of this morning he had found nothing.
Pharmacists Hoag and Ward had spent the night trying to comfort
the burned and the wounded.
They had practically no medical equipment, and the condition of the deck was
miserable – slanted, and filthy with oil and human
This morning, as Captain Phillips called the boats to come in to the
ship, Hoag and Ward checked the condition of their charges. Sadly,
then, they had to report to the
captain that CM Second Class Leon Brooks had
died during the night from his
wounds. When Chief Dicken brought
Sims's leaky boat up against the hulk of
and the tanker men
awkwardly tied her up, he reported that Chief Yeoman Clark of the
destroyer had also died during the
night. The bodies were brought on
deck, the captain conducted a
little service, and the two sailors were
dropped over the side, their
weighted corpses sinking swiftly into the
deep blue water. No one even
knew Chief Clark's first name or initials,
for all his friends had gone down
with Sims already.
Left: A schematic drawing of the U.S.S. Neosho
after the attack on May 7, 1942. This is looking forward from the
stern with the ship listing at 30 degrees.
Note the location of the motor whaleboats. The starboard boat was
unsalvageable, but with some effort, the port boat could be lowered.
The burial party ended, Captain Phillips tried to remove the somber
thoughts it had engendered by putting the
men to some hard work.
All the injured were brought on
deck, off the boats; all the extra people,
whose weight was threatening the stability of the overladen craft.
Hoag and Ward reported that in
addition to Commander Firth, twenty-three
men were badly injured or burned.
Some of the seamen were assigned
to help the corpsmen keep the sick as comfortable as possible.
captain organized a water supply group. This detail was to check out
water tanks, and draw water,
without contaminating the supply. From
every available compartment, the
men found receptacles, and filled
them. Then they brought them
up on deck and put them down carefully on the port side. No one knew what
was going to happen to Neosho.
They had to be prepared. Another party did the same with
food, and when they came back the
captain announced the rules. Fresh
water would be used for drinking
only; there was no excess available
It was a blow. Everyone was grimy with oil and dirt. Seawater
simply rolled off it in beads, leaving a sticky mess. If a man had a bar
soap, it still did not take the
viscous oil away.
The injured were in particularly bad shape, for they had been unable
to protect themselves during the
night and the oil slopping on the decks
had permeated their clothes.
Captain Phillips sent men down to rummage through the cabins, and to break out
clean clothes from the small
stores for those whose clothing was totally saturated. The party found
blankets, and these were brought
on deck and changed for the filthy
blankets of the wounded.
When the food and water details had finished their job, Captain
Phillips assembled the stores
amidships on the port side of the ship, and gave orders to begin stocking the
boats. It might be necessary at
almost any time to abandon the sinking hulk, and he was making what
preparations he could.
The two Neosho boats in the
water would certainly not accommodate all these men.
Sims's boat was leaking worse than ever. The mattress that
covered the hole stove in her side was totally soaked, and
the leak let water come in around
it. The boat was brought alongside,
and a party patched up the hole as
best they could with wood and
canvas. From the deck the men cast doubtful eyes on the repairs; in
case of trouble no one wanted to
brave the seas for long in that boat.
But three boats for sixteen officers and ninety-three men of
Neosho and the fourteen
remaining survivors of Sims?
That meant forty-one
men in a boat, and every survivor on the hulk of
chances thus of making land were almost not worth talking about.
The captain knew, too, and he put his officers to work on the problem.
Several parties began stripping wood, to construct life rafts to
replace those seven life rafts
that had been cast off.
Somewhere out in the Coral Sea, four officers and 154 men were
floating on liferafts, waiting for
rescue, not knowing that no one in Task Force 17
had the slightest understanding of
Lieutenant Verbrugge moved around the deck, looking from time to
time at the two motor launches
still aboard the ship. They were big,
heavy boats, and the ship's
designer had never considered their launching without the power of the ship
behind them. The launch and one other boat on the
starboard side might as well be given up. The starboard deck was under
water, and the sea was breaking over the boats.
Even had it been flat calm, the task would have been impossible.
the port motor launch was another
matter. Lieutenant Verbrugge
began considering problems of math and physics that he had not
worried over for a long time.
By the beginning of the day watch, much
of this work was accomplished.
The men settled down then to wait,
through the heat of the day, for the rescue that would surely come.
They had no idea that Admiral Fletcher had found Takagi's carriers, and
that the Japanese had found the Americans, or that a major
battle was in progress that
morning, a few hundred miles to the north
of them. They waited.
Left: The Neosho in
1939. While the ship was drifting, the crew, including my Uncle
Bill, tried to lower the motor launch located near the stern. This
task was made more difficult because the ship was listing 30 degrees to
Left: A close-up of the port
motor launch, which the crew, including my uncle, tried to lower by hand.
Trying to lower this heavy boat with no power and with the ship listing 30
degrees was a daunting task.
A Terrible Discovery
Monaghan had steamed out on the evening of May 7 to try to find the wreck of
and save the crew if they could not save
the ship. But on the morning
of May 8 they came to the reported position of the tanker, and found nothing at
all. Then, in a search of the
vicinity they still found nothing at all. And meanwhile, the men of
waited in the sun.
Captain Phillips noted with dismay the increasing water in the lower
compartments of the ship, and the
constant drag of the list to starboard. He sent a crew to throw overboard
everything on the starboard side to reduce the list.
A party tried to break the starboard anchor chain on deck. They
wedged it and they hammered it and they tried to twist it, but it
was no good. That chain had been meant to withstand torque and pressure,
and it was doing so. They could have
burned it with an acetylene torch, but they had no power and no torch.
So they ran it out with a rush, hoping it would tear itself loose and
the anchor down. No such luck – the bitter end held. Instead of
eliminating the weight on the starboard side, as they had hoped, they had
increased the drag.
Engineer Verbrugge now went below again, hoping without any real
reason that something would have
changed so that he might be able to
raise steam. He checked the
engine room and the fire spaces, and came
to the conclusion he knew he would
reach. There was nothing any
human being could do to get Neosho
While he and his party were below, Verbrugge also checked every
corner of the spaces, to make sure
there were no wounded, or even
dead, lying down there below. He found none. Then he rechecked the
bomb damage to the cargo tanks.
There was no change.
Back on deck, Verbrugge kept looking at the motor launches. These
were the last hope of the men of
Neosho. If he could get at least one of
them over the side, perhaps they could save themselves, if worse came
to worst and no one found them.
For as the day wore on, and neither
plane nor ship appeared, captain
and crew began to wonder what had
happened to Task Force 17.
It was conceivable that the force had been
destroyed in a battle. The
captain would have liked to take a navigation fix, but it was rough and none
could be considered reliable. The
captain sent a message, in the clear, and not repeated very many times,
via the portable transmitter.
They had to conserve fuel. He noted their
position and their condition.
That afternoon, as they all waited, Captain Phillips idly replotted
the last given position taken by
the navigator before they were
wrecked. Suddenly he started. The position was wrong! The
had taken a fix on the sun and on
Venus, and had plotted it at 16° 25'
South, 157° 31' East. As the
captain replotted the observations, he
found that their actual position
at about the time of the action was 16°
09' South, and 158° 03' East.
It made a difference of about 40 miles
as a point on which to start
looking for them.
Suddenly it seemed very chill. If they had given a wrong position,
and were not now heard, then there
was small chance that they would
ever be found. It was no good chewing out the navigator; he was
inexperienced and careless, but it would not help to argue with him. The
captain sent the message of the
real last position. As the shadows of
late afternoon lengthened, the
officers of Neosho who knew the facts
were feeling very low. It
was going to be a long night.
The Day Ends
The sea was quiet,
except for the hum of the waves and the whisper of the wind, which
sent a chill through the men
clustered on the port deck of the wrecked
tanker. This list was still
30 degrees, but had grown no more severe in
the last twelve hours.
All day long they had tried, and failed, to get a reliable sight for navigation
purposes. Now not even a star helped them. They must wait until the moon came up
and the stars came out, or for the next day.
The men were exhausted, red-eyed and sunburned. The exposure and the salt had cracked
their lips and lined their eyes. They were unshaven and grimy, but
those who were unhurt could look over at the still forms of the burned
and wounded on the deck and be glad they were in one piece.
There was water, there was food, but there was also this night the terrible
uncertainty that had dogged them as the day wore on, and the captain
discovered that the wrong fix had been given to Task Force 17 before
they began their rescue operations. Would they ever be found?
Captain Phillips decided that night that he must be prepared to save himself
and his crew; that the chances of Task Force 17 reaching them were diminishing at every moment. So that night he called his
navigator and the chief engineer and they made plans for the following day.
And the rest of the crew slumped
on the deck, or lay on the steel
plates, moving restlessly.
The main attacks during the Battle of the Coral Sea occurred during the
middle of that day, about 100 miles west of the drifting Neosho.
During the attacks, Japanese planes sunk the American carrier
Lexington and damaged the carrier Yorktown, while American
planes badly damaged the Japanese carrier Shokaku. That evening, both sides retired. The American commanders did not realize that the Neosho
was still afloat, drifting with 130 men on board.
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May 9, 1942: Fading Hope
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