Note:  I posted this page on May 7, 2020, the 78th anniversary of the sinking of the USS Neosho and USS Sims during World War II.  Over 400 Americans died on those U.S. Navy ships when they were sunk by Japanese dive bombers during the Battle of the Coral Sea near Australia.  There were 125 survivors, including my uncle, Bill Leu.  This page is dedicated to the men who served on those ships.

While I was cooped up at home during the coronavirus outbreak a few weeks ago, I watched a video interview that I had taped back in 2002 with my 80-year old Uncle Bill.  I'm sort of our family's unofficial historian and this video interview was one of several that I'd done with family members over the years.  I spent three hours in 1991 interviewing my parents and, several years after my interview with Bill, I did a video interview with his sister, my 87-year old Aunt Dorothy. 

I'm glad I interviewed all of them when I had the chance, because none are still with us, including my Uncle Bill, who died six months after the interview.  I miss them all, of course.  But that sadness is assuaged by knowing that, along with my cherished memories of them, I have their reminiscences on tape (and now in .mp4 format), which I can pass on to future generations. 

As I watched the interview with Bill a few weeks ago, I thought about our nation’s current situation with the coronavirus pandemic.  Given the constant stream of bad news lately, many folks in this divided nation are wondering whether we can pull together and overcome this COVID crisis.  I realized that Bill's words could provide folks today with some perspective, hope, and inspiration during this anxious and uncertain time.  And so, during these last few weeks I used some of the interview footage to create two short videos of Bill Leu as he described his experiences during World War II, and I've posted both short videos below. 

... 
 
Above: My uncle, Bill Leu, in 1941.

I was very close to my Uncle Bill and always thought of him as my second father.  That’s not surprising, I guess, considering that Bill and my Dad had been lifelong best friends and were similar in many ways, both having a great deal of integrity, honesty, compassion and character.  Bill was born in Seattle in 1922, followed by my Dad a year later, and they grew up in a large, middle-class family that was suddenly plunged into poverty during the Great Depression in the 1930s.  After they graduated from high school in the early 1940s, both volunteered for the U.S. Navy during World War II.  Bill served on a Navy tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho, in the Pacific, while my father joined the Navy’s first special forces unit, called “Scouts and Raiders,” which later became the Navy SEALs.

I interviewed them together in November 2002 at Bill's home in Edmonds, Washington.  During the 90-minute interview, I asked Bill about his experience during World War II and, sitting on his couch, he politely answered my questions.  He told me how he had survived the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.  Then, with tears welling in his eyes, he described how, six months later, his ship was sunk by Japanese dive bombers during the Battle of the Coral Sea near Australia.  A destroyer that was defending the Neosho, the U.S.S. Sims, was also sunk during the attack and between the two ships, over 400 American sailors lost their lives.  As I learned later, this was the first (and, as it turned out, only) time Bill had ever talked about many of these experiences 60 years earlier.

... 
 
Above:  My Dad (left) and my Uncle Bill during my 2002 interview.

Even before the interview, that chilly November day in 2002 was filled with emotion because these two lifelong friends, Bill and Don, knew they would probably never see each other again.  My father had been diagnosed earlier that fall with pancreatic cancer, an especially quick and deadly form of the disease.  A hospice nurse visited my Dad in early November and told him that he likely had only a few weeks left to live.  After she left, I asked my Dad what he wanted to do in the short time he had left, and he said only one thing:  “I want to see my brother Bill again.” 

And so, the next day, I drove my Dad from his house in Bellingham, Washington down to Edmonds.  He and I spent the day with Bill and his family, during which I conducted the video interview.  My father passed away a few weeks later and Bill, who had appeared to be in good health, died suddenly the following May.  Losing both my father and my favorite uncle in a span of six months was a double-whammy that I still grapple with.

All of us, myself included, are dealing with uncertainty and anxiety now, given the pandemic that’s wreaking havoc in our nation.  But I wanted to provide some perspective and hope, because the generations that came before us dealt with challenges that were even greater and managed to overcome them.  Those were anxious times, enduring the Great Depression and World War II, but Americans made sacrifices, pulled together, and made it through.  And I know that, working together, we can do the same. 

 

 2002 Video Interview:  The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii -- December 7, 1941  (9 minutes, 35 seconds)

 ....
 
Above: My uncle Bill describing, in 2002, his experience during the surprise attack by the Japanese on the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941. (9:35)
  ..

 


 

 2002 Video Interview:  The Sinking of the U.S.S. Neosho -- May 7, 1942  (12 minutes, 1 second)

 ....
 
Above: My uncle Bill describing, in 2002, the sinking of his Navy ship, the U.S.S. Neosho during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.  (12:01)
  ..

 

My DelsJourney Tributes

I was greatly saddened by my father’s passing in November 2002, of course, and shortly afterwards I posted a tribute to him on my DelsJourney.com website here.  When my Uncle Bill passed away in May of 2003, I was once again stunned and saddened, and as a way to honor him, I decided to create a website tribute to him and his Navy ship, the U.S.S. Neosho, which was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Initially I planned to post only a page or two about the Neosho.  But as I researched the ship in the spring of 2003 and learned more about the ordeal of its crew after the attack in the Coral Sea, the more engrossed I became.  I was especially intrigued because few people knew the ship's fascinating story.  Days of research turned into weeks, which turned into months and by 2004, I had created and posted over 40 webpages on my DelsJourney website that described the story of the Neosho.  That section is now, I believe, the most extensive description of the U.S.S. Neosho, and perhaps the Battle of the Coral Sea, anywhere on the Internet and it all starts here:  https://www.delsjourney.com/uss_neosho/neosho_home.htm

If you don't want to wade through those 40 pages, I've summarized the story of my uncle Bill's ship, the U.S.S. Neosho below.

 

Bill Leu and the U.S.S. Neosho

 

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

... 
 
Above:  The U.S.S. Neosho in New Jersey in 1939, shortly after it was launched.

The U.S.S. Neosho was designed in 1938 as a joint venture between the oil company Esso and the U.S. Navy.  Per their agreement, Esso would use the tanker during peacetime and would transfer ownership to the Navy if and when they needed the ship.  In those days of diesel engines before nuclear power, tankers were prized commodities in the Navy because they served as “floating gas stations,” refueling Navy fleets on the open ocean, and usually at high speed.  Without tankers, Navy fleets could not operate far from their base.  Tankers also transferred diesel and aviation fuel, known as “avgas,” between depots.

Esso was planning to design the Neosho with a single screw (i.e., propeller) yielding a cruising speed of 10 knots.  But the U.S. Navy needed a faster tanker, able to keep up with the other ships in the fleet, so the ship was upgraded to dual-screws to provide a cruising speed of 15 knots.  At that speed, the Neosho would be able to keep pace with Navy fleets and refuel them on the open ocean. 

After a year of construction in Kearney, New Jersey, the U.S.S. Neosho was launched in April 1939.  At 553 feet, it was the largest oil tanker in the world at the time.  War was quickly looming on the horizon, though, so the tanker was transferred from Esso to the Navy and it traveled through the Panama Canal to the naval shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, where it was converted to a Navy ship and commissioned as the AO-23 (“AO” was the Navy’s abbreviation for “Auxiliary Ship / Oiler”).  Most of her crewmen, though, called her the Neosho -- or by her nickname, "The Fat Girl."  As my Uncle Bill told me during the interview, "It was a big ship.  And it was a good ship."

... 
 
Above:  Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941 (click to enlarge).

Bill had volunteered with the Navy in May 1941, before the U.S. entered World War II, and shortly afterwards he joined the Neosho crew in Bremerton as a Fireman Third Class.  The main role of a fireman was exactly that:  to keep the ship’s diesel-fired boilers fired, to provide steam for the engines.  Firemen worked below decks in a group called the “Black Gang,” a term held over from the days of coal-fired ships, when the men were often covered with soot.  It was hard, noisy and grimy work but Bill was up to the challenge.

A year earlier, in 1940, the Navy had moved its main Pacific fleet from San Diego out to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to counter the increasingly aggressive moves made by the Japanese in the Pacific in the years before the U.S. entered the war.  With all those ships now at Pearl Harbor, the Navy needed a fuel depot there, so in the summer of 1941, the Neosho, with Bill aboard, began making trips from San Pedro, California to Hawaii, carrying diesel and aviation fuel to Hawaii. 

The Neosho left San Pedro in late November 1941 loaded with fuel, its sixth trip, and arrived at Pearl Harbor on the evening of December 6.  It pulled up to the dock on Ford Island in the middle of “Battleship Row” around midnight and soon began off-loading its fuel into the tanks on the island, with plans to head back to California in the morning to pick up more fuel.  But the Japanese attack changed all that. 

... 
 
Above:  Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

The next morning, December 7, Bill was getting off his watch just before 8 a.m. when dozens of Japanese warplanes suddenly descended on Pearl Harbor.  Over the next two hours, the planes decimated the U.S. naval fleet, plunging America into World War II.  The Neosho was in the thick of the battle, docked between the battleships U.S.S. California and U.S.S. Oklahoma, which were sunk by the Japanese planes during the attack.  Bill, at his battle station on the Neosho’s bow, witnessed the onslaught. 

Moments after the surprise attack began, the Neosho’s captain, John Philips, ordered the ship’s boilers to be fired up.  Forty minutes later, during a slight lull in the battle, the Neosho had raised enough steam, so Philips decided to make a run for the Oahu mainland.  Not wanting to leave any crewmen behind on Ford Island, Philips ordered his men on the ship to cut the lines with an ax, then the Neosho backed out of its berth, narrowly avoiding the battleship U.S.S. Oklahoma, which had capsized minutes earlier.  The unwieldy tanker maneuvered over to the Oahu mainland, where it took cover from the second Japanese assault, which was just starting.  

Due to Captain Philips’ quick thinking, the Neosho had been the only ship on Battleship Row that morning which was not damaged.  Or as my uncle Bill put it during the interview, “They could’ve sunk us any time, but it was Battleship Day.”

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

 

The U.S.S. Neosho at the Battle of the Coral Sea

After Japanese forces destroyed much of the U.S. Navy fleet at Pearl Harbor, they continued expanding their control of the Pacific over the next few months.  By the spring of 1942, Japan focused on the southwestern Pacific and wanted to deliver a crushing blow to Australia, hoping to force it out of the war. 

To counter the Japanese advances, the U.S. formed a large task force headed by the aircraft carriers Lexington and Yorktown.  On May 1, 1942, the two naval forces – the Japanese from the north and the Allies approaching from the south – converged on the Coral Sea, off the northeastern coast of Australia.  Over the next week, planes from both sides scrambled to find the opposing navies, but the two fleets never saw each other.  The Battle of the Coral Sea would, in fact, be the first naval conflict to be fought entirely by aircraft.

 
 Above:  Initial movements at the Battle of the Coral Sea.
 
Above:  Japanese attack plan at the Battle of the Coral Sea.

On May 6, with the two sides still trying to locate the other, the American commander left the vulnerable tanker Neosho behind the main fleet in a supposed safe zone, with an escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, then the fleet steamed north in search of the Japanese.  The next morning, with the main American fleet far ahead, the Neosho and Sims were spotted by Japanese dive bombers. 

From a distance, the Japanese pilots mistook the flat-topped Neosho for an aircraft carrier and called in reinforcements and soon afterwards, 24 Japanese dive bombers attacked the two American ships.  The Sims bravely tried to defend the Neosho but was struck by a bomb amidships and quickly sank, with the loss of more than 200 men.  The Japanese then battered the lumbering Neosho with seven hits before flying back to their carriers.  The Neosho’s crew, manning their 20-millimeter machine guns, had shot down several planes, including one that dove kamikaze-like into the Neosho’s stack deck in the stern.

Most of the Neosho’s crew abandoned the burning and sinking ship, jumping over the side.  Some, including Bill Leu, clambered into whaleboats that were circling the ship, while others climbed into life rafts, which slowly drifted away from the listing ship.  Still others drowned.  The next morning, the survivors climbed back onboard the heavily-damaged tanker, which was listing at a 30-degree angle with its starboard side underwater.  Diesel oil was everywhere and fires were still smoldering.  Before power was totally lost, the crew managed to radio their coordinates to the main U.S. naval fleet – but they transmitted the wrong location, 30 miles in error. 

Meanwhile, the main American fleet, 120 miles away, was battling tenacious Japanese dive bombers.  The Americans sank one Japanese aircraft carrier and damaged another, while the Japanese sank the carrier Lexington and badly damaged the Yorktown.   On May 8, both sides retreated to lick their wounds.

   
Above:  Action at the Battle of the Coral Sea (April 30 - May 4, 1942).
 
Above:  Action at the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 5 - May 7, 1942).
 
Above:  Action at the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 4, 1942 - Retirement).

There was no sign of the Neosho, however.  A destroyer and a few planes had searched for the beleaguered ship during the battle, using the last coordinates received from the tanker, but with no avail – not realizing they were searching 30 miles from its actual location. 

The Neosho, meanwhile, was a battered wreck, with 123 men clinging to the listing deck in the hot sun.  The empty oil compartments below were buoying the ship, but it was obvious that the Neosho was slowly sinking.  No one on the ship knew what had happened in the battle and no one apparently was coming to rescue them, so Captain Philips decided that the crew's only hope was to lash together the serviceable whaleboats and try to make it to Australia, 500 miles away.  The men spent three days trying to move the boats off the deck of the listing Neosho, using block and tackle gear, and putting the boats into the water. 

On May 10, three days after the attack, the men were trying to assemble the serviceable whaleboats when an Australian Lockheed Hudson plane flew overhead.   They’d been spotted!  Or had they?  No ships arrived that afternoon to rescue them.

The next day around noon, an American scout plane known as a PBY approached the Neosho and circled a few times, then flew off to the south.  Ninety minutes later, an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Henley approached the Neosho from the south and rescued the exhausted, grimy and sun-burned crew.  With the men safely aboard the destroyer, the Henley started firing at the Neosho to scuttle it, so it couldn’t be salvaged by the Japanese.  The Neosho’s crew stood at the Henley’s railing and watched with great sadness as their ship was shelled and then torpedoed.  It was a stubborn ship, though, and despite dozens of hits, it refused to die.  But finally it slipped beneath the waves.  Many of the men, including Captain Philips, had tears in their eyes as they watched it sink into the Pacific, stern first.  The Henley then steamed at high speed to Brisbane, Australia.

The saga of the Neosho’s crew wasn’t over, though.   Five days later, on May 16, and about 100 miles away, the American destroyer U.S.S. Helm rescued four Neosho crewmen who were clinging to a small and nearly-submerged raft,.  They were all that remained of 68 men who had floated away from the Neosho on rafts soon after the attack on May 7.  The four men were delirious and emaciated, and two died shortly after being rescued.  Floating on the open ocean for nine days without food or water, the two survivors had watched their comrades slowly die from thirst, hunger and exposure.  In 2004, I spoke by phone to one of those men, Jack Rolston, who lived in Missouri.  Jack told me that the memories of that week in 1942 had still haunted him greatly.

The Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942)

 

Aftermath

The Battle of the Coral Sea had been the largest and most important naval battle in American history up until that time.  Today, though, the battle has faded into obscurity. 

From a tactical viewpoint, the battle had been a draw with both sides withdrawing.  But strategically, it was a victory for the Americans because they had turned back the Japanese advance in the south Pacific for the first time.  Before the battle, Japan celebrated continual victories in the Pacific, but afterwards it suffered almost nothing but defeat until the end of the war in 1945.  In addition, one Japanese aircraft carrier had been sunk and another damaged during the battle, making them unavailable for the Battle of Midway a month later.  Had those Japanese carriers participated, the result at Midway – an overwhelming American victory – might’ve been very different.

When I began interviewing my Dad and his brother Bill in November 2002, I knew none of this.  I didn’t know anything about the Battle of the Coral Sea and knew very little about Bill’s experience on his ship, the U.S.S. Neosho.  Like many veterans, Bill never talked about his experiences in the war.  All I knew was what my Dad had once told me, that his brother Bill had been at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack and that his ship was later sunk in the Pacific.

But as I listened to Bill’s story that morning, I was utterly entranced.  Sitting nearby, just off camera, were his wife and children, who were equally captivated.  In fact, afterwards they said to me, “We’ve never heard those stories.”  Neither had my Dad.  That's when I realized that Bill had never talked about some of these experiences, especially the sinking of his ship.  During the interview I had bluntly pushed ahead with my questions, sort of like a bull in a china shop.  I suppose if I'd been more sensitive, I wouldn't have asked him those questions -- and none of us would've ever heard these stories. 

After Bill died six months later, I wanted to commemorate the U.S.S. Neosho.  Therefore, as I mentioned above, I spent several months researching its story and created a section on my DelsJourney.com website as a tribute to Bill and his fellow crewman.  During my research, I learned that President George H. W. Bush gave a speech at the 50th anniversary commemoration of the Pearl Harbor attack in which he mentioned Bill by name.  Like many American veterans of World War II, Bill had resented the Japanese in the decades after the war.  His son, Bob, however, chose to attend college in Japan in the 1970s and, years later, he met and married a Japanese woman named Kazue (pronounced "koz-way").  Interestingly, Kazue's father, who was about Bill's age, had trained during the final days of World War II to be a kamikaze pilot against the Americans, but the war ended in 1945 before he could execute his mission.  Bill became very fond of Kazue and her family, a story that was described in a Seattle Times newspaper article here

In 1991, a few months before the 50th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Bob wrote a letter to the White House explaining how his father's attitude towards the Japanese had changed dramatically in the last few years.  President Bush described Bill's story, symbolizing the way our two nations have become close in the years after the war, in his commemoration speech at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1991, which I've posted here.  In fact, Bill Leu was the only Pearl Harbor veteran that President Bush mentioned by name during this commemoration speech.

Probably the most important webpage I created in the section about the U.S.S. Neosho, on my DelsJourney website, is one I call the List of Survivors and Casualties.  As far as I knew, there was no published roster of the 400+ crewmen who served on the Neosho or the destroyer Sims at the time of their sinking.  So in 2003, I spent a lot of time compiling, from various sources, the names of nearly every man who served on those ships and I listed them on that webpage.  Even now, 17 years later, I’ll get an occasional email from someone whose father, uncle or grandfather had served on the Neosho or Sims, asking if I could add their relative’s name to the webpage.  Of course, I'm happy to do that because I want the names of those men, and their sacrifices, to be known.

Other than that page, though, I don’t update my Neosho section too much.  Nevertheless, it continues (apparently) to have an impact.  In early 2012, I received an email from a fellow named Paul Johnson, who said he was a member of the Brisbane Historical Society in Australia.  Paul explained that, although the Battle of the Coral Sea has been largely forgotten in America, it’s still a revered event in Australia, where it’s referred to as “The Battle That Saved Australia.”  Paul told me that each year in May, the historical society in Brisbane holds a ceremony commemorating the battle.  Paul also told me they were planning something extra-special in May 2012 because it was the 70th anniversary of the battle, perhaps the last large affair, given the dwindling number of surviving veterans.  He told me that several American dignitaries were planning to attend the upcoming event in Brisbane, including the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, and the American ambassador to Australia, as well as a few American veterans of the battle.

Paul said he was putting together some displays for the upcoming 70th anniversary commemoration and was wondering if I could help him.  Years earlier, I’d created several graphics and maps about the Battle of the Coral Sea and posted them on my website, which Paul had found, and he wanted to know if I could  send them to him.  I obliged and spent a fair bit of time that spring working on those maps and graphics, then I emailed them to Paul a few weeks before the event.  He printed out my maps and stories and mounted them on large sheets of foam-core, which he displayed at the event.  Paul sent me photos afterwards and told me the event had been a great success.

Most Americans don't know much, if anything, about the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Fewer still know the compelling story of the U.S.S. Neosho and Sims.  My hope is that the battle, and the sacrifices made by those who participated in it, including the men on the Neosho and Sims, will never be forgotten.  Therefore, I'm posting today, on the 78th anniversary of the sinking of the Neosho and Sims, this brief story about them.  As I say, if you’d like to learn more about the U.S.S. Neosho, please refer to my DelsJourney website here

Aftermath (1965 - 2012)

 

 

 
 
 
 

 

Home          About          Contact Me          Privacy