AO23/A16-3/P15 U.S.S. NEOSHO DETAIL 10/ap

Sydney, Australia,
May 25, 1942.
From: The Commanding Officer, U.S.S. NEOSHO.  
To: The Commander-in-Chief, United States Pacific Fleet.  
Via: (1) The Commander Squadron EIGHT, SERVICE FORCE, PACIFIC FLEET.
  (3) The Commander Task Force SEVENTEEN.
Subject: Engagement of U.S.S. NEOSHO with Japanese Aircraft on May 7, 1942; Subsequent Loss of U.S.S. NEOSHO; Search for Survivors.  
Reference: (a) U.S. Navy Regulations, 1920, Article 712.
  (b) U.S. Navy Regulations, 1920, Article 841(3).
  (c) U.S. Navy Regulations, 1920, Article 874(1), (6).
  (d) U.S. Navy Regulations, 1920, Article 948.
  (e) ComDesDiv SEVEN Confidential Letter FB7/A16-3Serial (010) of May 20, 1942.
  (f) CO U.S.S. HENLEY (391) Confidential Letter DD391/A16-3, Serial (04) of May 19, 1942.
  (g) SOPA (Commander Task Force FORTY-TWO) Confidential Letter H2/"P", Serial (08) of May 23, 1942, with enclosures (References (e) and (f)).
Enclosures: (A) U.S.S. NEOSHO War Diary, May 7-11, 1942.
  (B) Report of Dickens, R.J., C.S.M.(AA), U.S. Navy.
  (C) Report of Executive Officer, U.S.S. Neosho.
  (D) Track Chart, U.S.S. NEOSHO, 0800-1201, May7, 1942.
  (E) "Anti-Aircraft Action by Surface Ships" Report.
  (F) List of Survivors, Known Dead and Missing.
  (G) Reference (e).
  (H) Reference (f).
  (I) Reference (g).
  (J) Medical Officer, U.S.S. HENLEY (391) Letter of May 13, 1942.
  (K) Statements of Censured Officers.

  1. On the evening of May 6, 1942, the Neosho, in accordance with instructions from Commander Task Force SEVENTEEN, proceeded on duty assigned with the U.S.S. Sims as escort, to conform with Commander Task Force SEVENTEEN Operation Order No. 2-42. The Neosho was required to pass through a given geographical point, at one hour after sunrise the following morning, which she proceeded to do. At 0811, May 7, 1942, being in the vicinity of this assigned point and not


    sighting any ships of the Task Force operating in that area, the Neosho proceeded to carry out instructions.

  1. At 0810, May 7, 1942, two planes were observed at a distance of approximately ten miles, bearing 020° T, but no positive identification could be made as they were too far away. It was believed at this time that they were planes from one of our carriers. At 0929, a bomb was seen to fall about one hundred yards on the starboard quarter of the Sims, having been dropped from an enemy plane operating singly. The Sims at that time was patrolling ahead of the Neosho, following a specified zig-zag plan. This plane disappeared heading in a northerly direction. General Quarters was immediately sounded. Battle stations were manned continuously until cessation of the engagement with the enemy at 1218. Speed was increased to eighteen knots. At 1005, sighted approximately fifteen enemy planes approaching from 025° T. These planes made no attempt to attack, but flew parallel to the course of this vessel on the port side at high altitude, well out of gun range and disappeared to the northeastward. The Sims opened fire but no bursts were observed. At 1023, seven more enemy planes approaching from 010° T were sighted. These planes flew parallel to this vessel on the port side, crossed the bow, and disappeared to the northeastward, having made no attempt to attack either the Sims or the Neosho. Sims opened fire shortly after sighting. This vessel commenced firing three inch guns when these planes were within range. At 1033, a group of about ten planes approached from 140° T, of which three planes (twin-engine bombers) commenced a horizontal bombing attack on this vessel, others proceeding to the northeastward. At 1035, these three bombers dropped three bombs simultaneously; the direction of the fall of the bombs was observed closely and the ship was swung hard right to avoid being hit; all bombs fell to starboard and were near misses. These three planes were the only planes observed throughout the entire engagement which were other than single engine.

  2. At 1201, observed approximately twenty-four enemy planes at high altitude, apparently taking position for dive-bombing attacks on this vessel and the Sims. From 1201 to 1218, this vessel was subjected to continuous dive-bombing attacks from all directions. The 20 mm fire of the Neosho was very


    effective. At no time during the engagement did the machine gunners falter at their jobs, notwithstanding the fact that two men were killed instantly right in the midst of the forward group, one of them being decapitated by flying fragments. However, despite any courageous tenacity on the part of the gun crews, it was quite obvious that if a pilot desired to carry his bomb home, he could not be stopped. The greatest majority of the planes diving on the Neosho were forced to deliver their attacks at a high altitude; only three or four dove to within a few hundred feet of the masts. Although the three inch fifty caliber anti-aircraft guns fired throughout the attacks it is difficult to evaluate their effectiveness against the enemy.

  1. The constant maneuvering of the ship so as to head crosswind, and the effective fire of the 20 mm guns, is considered responsible for the large number of near misses. Three enemy planes are definitely known to have been shot down by this ship, of which one made the suicidal run into Gun No. 4 enclosure. It is believed that at least four other planes received sufficient 20 mm hits to render their return to base questionable. Three planes were observed to swerve away without completing their attack, due to the effectiveness of the 20 mm gun fire.

  2. Shortly after the last bomb dropped, the Commanding Officer ordered all hands to "Prepare to Abandon Ship but not to abandon until so ordered". A messenger sent by the Executive Officer from aft came to the Commanding Officer stating that he had been sent to find out what the orders were regarding abandoning ship. The Commanding Officer told him to tell the Executive Officer, "Make preparations for abandoning ship and stand-by". The Commanding Officer had no knowledge of the condition of the Executive Officer. At about 1230, the Commanding Officer ordered the two motor whale boats to be lowered to pick up personnel who had abandoned ship without orders, and to tow all life rafts back to the ship. All undamaged life rafts, seven in number, had been set adrift without orders from the bridge. The many attacks delivered by the dive-bombers were directed at the bridge, and at the after section of the ship containing the engineering installation. With the exception of the 3" gun crews in No. 1 and No. 2 gun enclosures and the forward ammunition and repair parties, all of the ship's personnel were concentrated in


    these two sections. In the immediate vicinity of the bridge, three direct hits and a number of near misses occurred. In the after part of the ship, two direct hits, a suicidal dive of a plane, and the blowing up of at least two boilers, along with several near misses, occurred. It is believed that the destruction of the escort vessel with no other ships in sight, combined with the violent shocks from the several bomb hits and near misses, in many cases rendered personnel incapable of logical thought. It is known that many of the personnel aft, due to the flame resulting from the suicidal dive, smoke, and escaping steam, believing they were trapped with the ship sinking, jumped over the side. The number of men who were critically burned or injured in the after end of the ship, and who jumped over the side, is not known. The two motor whale boats placed men on the rafts and took as many in the boat as the boat officer in each case considered safe. They did not tow the life rafts back to the ship. When the boats returned to the ship, without life rafts, and loaded in excess of capacity with survivors, many of whom were badly injured and severely burned, it was too near sunset to send them back to attempt to locate, and return with, the drifting life rafts. The sea was rough and it was the Commanding Officer's opinion, as well as that of several officers, that the Neosho probably would not stay afloat throughout the night. The rafts were then out of sight. It was the Commanding Officer's conviction at that time that one of the Task Forces with which this vessel was operating would find the Neosho on the following day, if still afloat, and the rafts would then be located and occupants thereof rescued. A muster upon return of the boats showed that of 21 officers and 267 men, including passengers, on board at quarters that morning, 16 officers and 94 men were accounted for, 1 officer and 19 men were known dead, and 4 officers and 154 men were missing. In addition to the above, there were 15 enlisted survivors of the Sims. During the afternoon the wind had increased to force 5-6 and the sea was moderately rough. In the early afternoon it was difficult to see the life rafts from the bridge with the aid of binoculars, and the boats were seen only intermittantly, prior to their return.

  1. Shortly after giving the order to prepare to abandon ship, the Commanding Officer directed the Communications Officer to destroy all the classified material in his possession, and proceeded


    to destroy all classified material in his own possession. This was done to prevent any of this material falling into the hands of the enemy. Due to the above, all subsequent transmissions by radio, using the auxiliary generator, were sent in plain language.

  1. Immediately the Neosho listed heavily, a close watch was kept on the inclinometer in order to detect signs of increased average list with consequent danger of capsizing. Valves to starboard wing tanks #5, #6, and #8 were opened to counteract list; valves to #3, #4, and #7, same side, inoperative due to damage. This vessel, due to the seven bomb hits it received, was listed at an angle of about 30° and without power, but remained afloat in a sinking condition until survivors were rescued by the U.S.S. Henley on May 11, 1942. The U.S.S. Sims, as a result of hits sustained, broke in two and sank at approximately 1230, May 7, 1942.

  2. The narrative of the period May 7-11, 1942, is contained in enclosure (A). When the U.S.S. Henley approached this vessel on May 11, 1942, the following message was sent by her: "HAVE YOU ANY INSTRUCTIONS FOR ME X SHIP IS A TOTAL LOSS SETTLING GRADUALLY X WHAT ARE YOUR ORDERS". The reply received was "EXPEDITE TRANSFER OF SURVIVORS". This was followed shortly afterward by the flag hoist "EMERG VICTOR". In view of the foregoing, personnel were transferred as quickly as possible and not permitted to leave the vicinity of the boats for the purpose of getting either government or personal equipment. Upon arrival alongside the Henley in the last boat the Commanding Officer found that the two Neosho motor whale boats used for transfer of first group of survivors, had already been scuttled by orders of the Henley, and he was informed that the Commanding Officer of the Henley's orders were that no baggage could be brought aboard, that the Henley had to get underway as soon as possible because of possibility of attack by the enemy which was concurred in by the Commanding Officer of the Neosho. All boats had material in them that had been loaded in anticipation of abandoning ship, and making a protracted voyage to Australia, including navigational and ordnance equipment.


  1. A continuous watch was maintained by the Commanding Officer and Gunnery Officer on the list and trim of the Neosho during the period May 7-11, 1942. Because of the serious damage sustained as the result of bomb hits in general, and in particular those in the cargo tanks in the vicinity of the bridge structure where the buckling of the main deck plating was daily increasing, the Commanding Officer was convinced that the Neosho was in danger of breaking in two. In addition, the engineroom, fireroom, and #2 and #3 cargo pump rooms were taking more water each day. It was felt that it would be but a short time before the Neosho woould sink of her own accord or break in two. Having in mind the above conditions the Commanding Officer was convinced that the Neosho could not be salvaged. In view of the above conditions plus the knowledge that: (a) the Neosho was within range of shore based enemy aircraft; (b) enemy submarines were operating in the Coral Sea and (c) that an enemy carrier had been reported not far distant, the Commanding Officer felt fully justified in directing the sinking of the Neosho. In addition, it was felt that the Henley's remaining hove-to in the vicinity to attempt a transfer of equipment from the Neosho would result in unnecessarily jeopardizing the Henley, as well as the lives of approximately 400 officers and men on board. The Commanding Officer of the Neosho therefore asked the Henley to line aft, to expedite sinking. This request was not fulfilled until the latter part of the gun firing, when, after a few well placed hits in the after section, the Neosho quickly settled and sank, stern first, at 1522, May 11, 1942.

  2. The search for survivors was conducted as outlined in references (e) and (f). No survivors were found, and at the conclusion of the search the Neosho detail was landed at Brisbane, Australia, and reported on board the U.S.S. Griffin.

  3. The U.S.S. Helm, which had continued the search after the departure of the Henley, arrived in Brisbane, Australia, on May 18, 1942. They had found four survivors on a life raft on May 16, 1942, one of whom died shortly after being taken aboard. A detailed report of the Helm search has not been received by the Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Neosho. From statements of the three survivors it is known that: (a) they were part of a group of about 68 men who


    were on four life rafts secured together; (b) that the balance of the men had succumbed as a result of lack of water and exhaustion. The men constituting this group, as far as can be remembered by the two survivors on board the Wright at the present time, are indicated in enclosure (F). These survivors stated that they had seen four planes during the time they were drifting, consisting of (1) a plane thought to be a "PBY" on May 10, 1942, quite a distance away; (2) a "PBY" and an Australian "Hudson" on May 11, 1942, a little closer than (1), and (3) a "PBY" on May 12, 1942, fairly close, but they had not seen any ships prior to the arrival of the Helm.

  1. During and subsequent to the engagement, except for isolated instances, the performance of duty of all personnel was of the highest order and in keeping with the traditions of the United States Navy.

  2. Outstanding cases worthy of commendation and praise are submitted herewith:

      FIRTH, Francis J., Lieutenant Commander, U.S. Navy: - As Executive Officer of the U.S.S. Neosho, his battle station was in Battle II, located on the port side aft, just forward of Gun No. 4. When a Japanese plane made a suicidal dive into Gun No. 4 enclosure, this officer was knocked down and rendered unconscious by the concussion of the explosion which occurred, which was immediately followed by an intense fire. Although badly burned about the face, arms, and hands, and suffering excruciating pain, this officer's first thought upon regaining consciousness, when he found the after end of the ship afire, steam escaping in a dense cloud on the stack deck, and the ship listing badly, was the safety of the personnel in his vicinity. He despatched a messenger to the bridge to ascertain the Commanding Officer's wishes with regard to abandoning ship, and did everything within his power to disseminate the Commanding Officer's orders to the men in his vicinity. When his services were no longer required in the after part of the ship he made his way forward and sometime later, on first meeting with the Commanding Officer, reported for further duty and asked what assistance he could render. He did this despite the fact that he was critically burned about the face, hands, and left arm.






  1. The following personnel are commended for their exemplary behavior, initiative, resourcefulness, and untiring obedience in the days subsequent to the attack, 7-11 May, 1942, and are recommended for advancement or promotion as indicated:



  1. The Commanding Officer is constrained to censure the following officers whose performance of duty contributed to unnecessary confusion, made the search for survivors uncertain, and detracted from what was otherwise a glorious achievement in the history of the United States Navy:

      BRADFORD, Henry K., Lieutenant, D-M, U.S. Naval Reserve: -

      1. This officer, at 1123 on May 7, 1942, in a lull in the engagement, acting in his capacity as Navigator, plotted a fix of the sun and Venus in an incorrect manner, and entered the result



  1. The following recommendations are submitted:

    1. That all life rafts be painted yellow, and provided with a tarpaulin which can be quickly slipped off; tarpaulin to be painted the color of the surrounding structure. The Neosho life rafts were painted grey and were extremely difficult for the men in the water, and personnel on board ship, or for searching ships or aircraft, to locate in the water.


    1. That all life rafts be provided with a telescopic stick, similar to a fishing rod, of sufficient strength to permit a flag to be bent on the top, to assist men in the water, and searching boats, ships and aircraft, to locate the raft.

    2. That all ship's boats be fitted for sail, and that a mast, spars, canvas and running tackle be provided in the boat.

    3. That the words "ABANDON SHIP" be deleted from all preliminary orders given; that the preliminary order be "FALL IN AT (or MAN) BOAT AND RAFT STATIONS", and that the words "ABANDON SHIP" be used only when it is desired to accomplish just that, namely, for all personnel to leave the ship.

  1. The Neosho detail left Brisbane, Australia, on May 23, 1942, in accordance with the orders of Commander Task Force FORTY-TWO, and reported aboard U.S.S. Wright, at Sydney, Australia, on May 24, 1942.


Copy to: ComSqdRon EIGHT
  ComSerFor 17.




Last updated: December 14, 2002

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation