An acclaimed naval historian tells one of the most inspiring sea stories of World War II: the Japanese attack on the American oiler USS Neosho and the gutsy crew’s struggle for survival as their slowly sinking ship drifted—lost, defenseless, and alone—on the treacherous Coral Sea.
In May 1942, Admiral Jack Fletcher’s Task Force 17 closed in for the war’s first major clash with the Japanese Navy. The Neosho, a vitally important tanker capable of holding more than 140,000 barrels of fuel, was ordered away from the impending battle. Minimally armed, she was escorted by a destroyer, the Sims. As the Battle of the Coral Sea raged two hundred miles away, the ships were attacked by Japanese dive bombers. Both crews fought valiantly, but when the smoke cleared, the Sims had slipped beneath the waves, and the Neosho was ablaze and listing badly, severely damaged from seven direct hits and a suicide crash. Scores of sailors were killed or wounded, while hundreds bobbed in shark-infested waters. Fires on board threatened to spark a fatal explosion, and each passing hour brought the ship closer to sinking. It was the beginning of a hellish four-day ordeal as the crew struggled to stay alive and keep their ship afloat, while almost two hundred men in life rafts drifted away without water, food, or shelter. Only four of them would survive to be rescued after nine days.
Working from eyewitness accounts and declassified documents, Keith offers up vivid portraits of Navy heroes: the Neosho’s skipper, Captain John Phillips, whose cool, determined leadership earned him a Silver Star; Lieutenant Commander Wilford Hyman, skipper of the Sims, who remained on his vessel’s bridge throughout the attack and made the ultimate sacrifice to try to save his ship; Seaman Jack Rolston, who pulled oil-soaked survivors out of the water and endured days adrift in an open life raft; and Chief Watertender Oscar Peterson, whose selflessness saved the lives of innumerable shipmates and earned him a posthumous Medal of Honor.
A tale of a ship as tough and resilient as its crew, The Ship That Wouldn’t Die captures the indomitable spirit of the American sailor—and finally brings to the surface one of the great untold sagas of the Pacific War.
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Don Keith is the award-winning author of Undersea Warrior, War Beneath the Waves, In the Course of Duty, The Ice Diaries, and other nonfiction works on American naval heroism. He is also the coauthor, with George Wallace, of the submarine thrillers Final Bearing and Firing Point.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
BOOKS BY DON KEITH
May 6, 1942, in the Coral Sea, between the Solomon Islands and Australia
“Abandon ship! Everybody, get off the ship!” the wild-eyed, red-faced sailor yelled as he ran through the vessel’s forward compartments. “She’s goin’ down, boys, if she don’t blow up first!”
Another sailor, busy passing up ammunition to the gun crew above, had no reason to doubt the truth in what his shipmate was screaming. From his station in the number one magazine—where shells were stored to feed the forward-deck gun—the barely twenty-year-old sailor could see nothing that was going on outside the hull, but could certainly feel the thuds and tremors, and heard the thunder as his big ship took vicious hits at the bow and amidships.
After a morning of cruel teasing, the vessel was now catching full-bore hell from a sizable and determined swarm of Japanese dive-bombers. Though the guns on his ship were firing back, it was clear—even down here in the dark, smoke-filled magazine—that the enemy planes were homing in, inflicting what could be mortal damage.
One near hit exploded in the water just on the other side of the ship’s starboard hull from where the sailor worked. The resulting shock wave almost knocked him and his buddies to the deck. The men regained their balance, and eventually their hearing, as they kept hoisting shells up to those who were manning the bow gun, doing their best to fend off their attackers.
Each man working in the magazine fully expected a bomb to crash through the deck above him at any second and light off the explosive ordnance stacked all around. They also knew the likelihood of some stray spark touching off the fumes from the cargo of fuel oil they carried in the big tanks directly below their feet.
The high-pitched chatter on the ship’s communications system confirmed that their vessel was taking one hell of a drubbing. Shipmates were dying.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” the man next to the sailor yelled. “If all that fuel below . . .” But the man turned and disappeared before he finished stating the obvious, his words overcome by the roar of explosions and the rattle of the ship’s antiaircraft guns.
The young sailor paused, looked around, and ran after his buddy. He took a detour to grab his life vest, which he kept stowed beneath his bunk.
It was not there. Some son of a bitch had apparently decided he needed it worse than his shipmate did. The sailor knew he would have to go into the sea without it.
Once topside, what he saw almost stopped his bounding heart. An enemy plane, its flaming wreckage still discernible as an Imperial Japanese Navy dive-bomber, had crashed into the stack deck, aft of the bridge. Bombs had found the fire room and engine room, letting loose superheated steam and setting fire to leaking oil. Gray-black smoke clouded the sky as it climbed toward the midday sun. Flames swirled upward from back there. There was chaos on the deck. Even as some men fought the fires and tended to the injured, others were running or jumping overboard, some bleeding, some badly burned.
For the moment, no more enemy planes could be seen, no bombs falling, no machine guns strafing the deck. As he considered the near-fifty-foot jump into the water without a life vest, the sailor wondered if it might be the better option to wait right where he was, to see if the attack was over, if the ship might stay afloat for a while. He might be able to help fight the fires and care for the injured, too.
But something else felt out of kilter. The deck. Beneath his feet, the deck—normally solid and dependable except in the heaviest seas—was tilted just enough for him to notice. Somebody nearby dropped a wrench, and the sailor watched as it slowly slid away along the deck plates toward the far side of the massive vessel.
They were listing already, taking on water.
The ship was actually going to sink beneath them, go down suddenly, just as their escort destroyer, the USS Sims, already had. Some of the men stationed topside had witnessed that ship’s quick death as it happened. The sailor had heard them talking about it over the communication system.
He hesitated no longer and ran to the starboard rail. Where were the lifeboats? Off to his right, one whaleboat hung at a skewed angle, dangling alongside the ship’s hull, halfway down to the water. Only one man was aboard the boat. It looked like the gunnery officer, the sailor’s direct boss whenever they were at battle stations. He was clearly having trouble launching the craft by himself.
But why was he trying it alone? That was not the way the drills went. If they were abandoning the ship, that whaleboat should have carried an assigned crew of men who were familiar with how to get the vessel launched quickly but safely and then knew what to do with the craft once they were in the water.
There were no life rafts anywhere in sight on deck, either. The sailor could see empty rafts—at least a half dozen—riding along the wave tops several hundred yards out from the ship, just beyond where burning oil covered the sea’s surface. He could see no other lifeboats out there yet.
On each side of him, men ran over and leaped into the sea without hesitation. A couple of them, he noticed, were officers.
If the officers were getting off the USS Neosho as quickly and by any means they could, then its sinking was certainly imminent. His best chance to survive was to get into the water as well. Then, assuming he lived through the impact with the surface after jumping that far, and that a shark did not find and swallow him, he would try to swim away from the doomed ship. Swim far enough away so that the big oiler would not suck him all the way to the bottom with her when she plunged downward.
The sailor took one more look down and swallowed hard.
It was a hell of a long way. The waves were murky, blanketed with thick oil. Back toward the stern, the slick burned brightly, an arc of smoky fire stretching from beneath the ship out to a hundred yards or so. The nearest life raft was a daunting swim away, partly through oil, then over rolling, white-capped waves. The thing seemed to be getting smaller, drifting farther out all the time.
One of his buddies stood next to him then, taking in the same panorama of smoke, fire, mayhem, and panicked and wounded sailors. The man took a deep breath, held his nose, and leaped feetfirst.
The sailor climbed the rail, looked down once more, then up at a serene, cloudy sky from which so much deathly hail had just rained down on them.
He crossed his arms over his heart, closed his eyes tight, held his breath, and stepped off his listing ship into the Coral Sea.
We have witnessed this morning the attack of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes, undoubtedly Japanese. It’s no joke. It’s a real war.
—From first-known broadcast radio news report from Hawaii, December 7, 1941
December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii
Surely the most powerful instinct hardwired into man is survival. It often manifests itself as a fight or flight for self-preservation when faced with a deadly threat. When we encounter a mortal menace, the hypothalamus in our brain immediately kicks into gear and issues a series of commands. Nerve cells amp up to force heightened awareness. Adrenaline surges into our bloodstream. Our heart rate zooms, pumping more blood than normal to organs and muscles, especially to extremities to fuel a fight or a quick getaway.
This mechanism explains how people can survive an ordeal that should kill them. It may also be the reason that they sometimes panic and do exactly the wrong thing.
At a berth at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, a young sailor named Bill Leu was passing a typical early morning with his shipmates in the engine room of a U.S. Navy ship when suddenly someone came running through, yelling something improbable, impossible.
They were under attack.
Leu had just come off duty after a long night in the ship’s engine room. A member of the “black gang,” the “snipes”—or, as Leu termed it, the “lowest of the low” when it came to duty aboard a naval vessel—he was officially a fireman third class. Yet he and his fellow firemen were typically described by using a term—the black gang—left over from a time when ships ran on steam power produced by burning coal.
Leu had been in a black mood that morning, for sure. Saturday night in Pearl Harbor, near Honolulu in beautiful Hawaii, and he had spent it down in the bowels of the USS Neosho (AO-23), the huge tanker ship on which he served. Spent it staring at the oil-streaked mugs of the other sailors who drew the short straw instead of getting leave, drinking and dancing with some of the friendly hula girls at one of the clubs near Waikiki.
Now, once they finished pumping the last of the fuel oil out of her seemingly bottomless tanks, an empty Neosho would head out to the northeast and away from the pleasures of Hawaii. She would ride high on the water, rolling and swaying all the way back to the fuel depots at San Pedro, in Los Angeles. There they would fill her up once more and do the same thing all over again, making yet another quick turnaround for the “milk run” back to Hawaii. About the only thing they could look forward to was trying to time the circuit to put them back in Honolulu for weekend liberty, and then maybe home for Christmas.
A native of Skykomish, Washington, Leu had chosen the Navy of his own free will. He could not complain much about life aboard the tanker ship. For the most part, it was all right, even if it was hot and greasy and dirty and loud. He liked his shipmates, and there was usually a day or two of shore leave at one or the other end of the circuit, even if the Navy did keep them awfully busy lately.
Once he was out of high school, Leu’s mother told him he could live at home rent-free for one year while he worked and saved money for college. He labored hard on a railroad section gang for a bit, then worked part-time in a mill while helping his father in his struggling grocery store in Skykomish, a tiny logging town in the mountains east of Seattle.
Soon Leu decided he was hardly college material, but he certainly had no interest in returning to the section gang or the mill. The Navy began to look more and more inviting. Posters in the recruiting office featured artists’ renderings of beaches, exotic ports, smiling men in their dress whites, and long-haired girls waiting to welcome sea-weary sailors. As it turned out, Leu would not have much of an ocean view where he worked and bunked on the ship.
He was assigned duty on the brand-new “fleet replenishment” vessel, a Cimarron-class “tanker” or “fleet oiler,” the largest and fastest of its type built to that point. The ship had been dubbed the Neosho, named, as all oilers were, for a river. The Neosho River is a tributary of the Arkansas and winds almost 500 miles through Kansas and Oklahoma. The vessel’s size was imposing, even to a teenager who had seen plenty of ships operating in the waterways around Seattle.
A colossal craft designed to carry a cargo of almost 150,000 barrels of oil, the Neosho was 553 feet long and 75 feet wide, yet capable of reaching a speed of 18 knots. First launched in 1939, the tanker soon underwent more work to prepare her for a specialized job, refueling ships in a fleet while at sea. The ship was at nearby Bremerton shipyards when Bill Leu reported aboard for duty in May 1941, just two months before her final conversion to fleet tanker was to be completed. Then, in July, she and her crew went to work, transporting fuel from various ports on the West Coast to the storage tanks at military facilities in Pearl Harbor. It was interesting enough duty. Leu learned a lot about Navy life, and it was certainly more fun than his previous jobs. Besides, there was no war going on—at least not one involving the United States—so as long as they followed all the precautionary rules for handling the fuel they carried and everyone did his job correctly, it was as safe as riding a cruise ship.
· · ·
“The Japs are bombing us! The damned Japs are bombing us!”
After coming off duty, Leu and his buddies had been below in the engine room when the peaceful morning exploded. Guys just back from downtown were bragging about their adventurous night on liberty, while the ones who had stayed aboard groused about an evening stuck in purgatory. Above the din of their complaints came what sounded like thumps, along with the roar and whine of aircraft engines.
They thought little of it. Somebody speculated that the noise was likely the damn Army flyboys deliberately torturing the sailors at Pearl Harbor with a blaring early-morning drill. The pilots would know that many of the swabbies were hungover and hurting so early on a Sunday.
That was when the red-faced sailor came running from compartment to compartment, proclaiming that they were under attack.
Leu felt the first surge of adrenaline and rapid heartbeat as he dashed to the ladder that led to the upper deck of his ship. He knew precisely what to do even before the klaxon sounded to tell them. He and his shipmates had been subjected to seemingly endless drills in preparation for moments such as this. As he raced toward his duty station, the grating, distinctive General Quarters alarm began sounding throughout the ship, sparking in him a new burst of energy.
He had a long way to go, all the way from the engine room aft to the ship’s five-inch gun at the bow. Once topside, he was galloping full speed along a catwalk. Smoke was everywhere. The overwhelming clamor of airplane engines, antiaircraft guns, and explosions was excruciating.
Then he glanced over and saw something that would stick in his mind for the rest of his life. He stopped in his tracks and stared, wide-eyed.
A lightning-quick airplane buzzed so close, he thought its single propeller might clip the top of one of Neosho’s masts. It was a Japanese B5N “Kate” bomber, zooming so low and so near to Leu’s ship that the young sailor could clearly see the pilot’s face. The flier had his canopy open and was laughing as he pulled up and away, toward the few puffy clouds overhead. The plane had just dropped a deadly load, aimed at one of the seven U.S. battleships moored two abreast, all very near where Leu’s ship was tied up.
The torpedo ran true and struck home. The impact of the blast pressed against his face and chest, nearly sucking all the air from his lungs, and flinging him to the deck. The explosion temporarily deafened him.
Heart pounding, Leu almost fell down, but he caught the handrail for balance and watched the plane for a few seconds as it roared away. The bold, red, rising-sun symbols were clearly visible on the aircraft’s fuselage and on the underside of its wings.
“Meatballs.” That was what some called the Japanese rising-sun emblem.
Leu could scarcely believe what he was seeing and hearing, what he was feeling. Across the water, the big warship USS O...
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