Rescue of "Yorktown" pilots from Guadalcanal

At 1640 on May 4th the destroyer Hammann, Commander True commanding, was detached from Task Force FOX to search for the pilots of two Yorktown fighter planes which had force-landed on Guadalcanal Island. The planes were reported to have come down at a point near Cape Henslow, which was about 42 miles distant from the task force at the time of the Hammann's detachment. The order specified that the destroyer search no longer than would enable her to rendezvous with the combination of forces at daylight the following morning, at latitude 15°00' S., longitude 160°00' E.

Proceeding at 30 knots, the Hammann reached a point about 6,000 yards off the coast of the island. For a while intermittent rain squalls and a heavy overcast obscured vision, but at length a white marker (parachute) and the two planes were sighted on the beach about 2 miles east of the cape. A short rain squall obscured the beach for a time after this first sighting, but by 1820 a motor whaleboat, with a crew of five in charge of Ensign Robert P. F. Enright, had been launched. The small boat reached a point about 150 yards off shore from the planes, where heavy surf and the steepness of the beach made further progress inadvisable.

The two pilots, Lt. (j.g.) Elbert S. McCuskey, and Ensign John P. Adams, sought to paddle out to the whaleboat in rubber life rafts taken from their planes, but were thrown back by the surf. Coxswain G. W. Kapp then swam through the breakers with a line and all three men were pulled out to the whaleboat. Ensign Enright had been ordered to destroy the planes and tried unsuccessfully to do so with small arms fire. Before being pulled out to the boat the pilots had destroyed all confidential gear and papers but had been unable to fire the planes. When


shooting from the boat proved ineffectual, Lieutenant McCuskey took a Very pistol and swam in with a line for another try. While swimming ashore he became fouled in the line, freed himself only after great exertion, and collapsed upon reaching the beach. Darkness had fallen by this time and the people in the boat did not know, until they fired a flare which revealed him on the beach, whether or not he had made it.

A further complication developed because the depth of the water beneath the whaleboat precluded satisfactory anchoring. Position had been kept by running the engine, but when Lieutenant McCuskey discarded his line the slack fouled the whaleboat's propeller and the small craft started drifting into the surf. While other members of the crew paddled, Boatswain's Mate A. S. Jason dived overboard and succeeded in clearing the propeller with knife and hacksaw. Kapp then attempted to carry a line ashore but failed. Jason again went overboard. He reached shore with a line and both he and McCuskey were hauled back to the whaleboat. Before leaving they made additional efforts to destroy the planes without success, and finally gave up in view of the need for haste. The whaleboat returned to the destroyer at 2118, and the Hammann was able to rejoin the task force at the appointed rendezvous.

Loss of the Neosho and Sims.

Upon being detached from Task Force FOX on May 6th, the Neosho, with Sims as escort, proceeded southward in accordance with fueling arrangements. The ships had reached a position at latitude 16°01' S., longitude 158°01' E. by about 0800 of the 7th, when planes began to be contacted both by radar and visually. For a time it was thought possible that the planes were ours. However, at 0929 the Sims, then moving ahead of the Neosho as antisubmarine screen, was attacked by a single reconnaissance type plane which dropped one bomb about 100 yards off the destroyer's starboard quarter. According to Sims survivors, the plane, which came over at an altitude of about 15,000 feet, was not seen before the bomb fell.

Both our ships at this point sounded general quarters and built up speed to 18 knots. After one or more false alarms occasioned by radar contacts, 15 aircraft were clearly sighted bearing 025° true from the Neosho at a high altitude. They flew past on the port side and then disappeared to the northeastward without making any attempt to attack. The Sims fired on the aircraft without visible effect. A few minutes


later 7 more planes were observed approaching from 010° true. These likewise flew parallel to our ships for a time but made no attacks. Both the Neosho and Sims fired on them as they passed to port.

At 1033 still another group of planes, 10 in number, approached from 140° true. Three of them, all twin-engined bombers, made a horizontal run on the Neosho, dropping three bombs from a high altitude. All fell to starboard, two within 25 yards. Both ships fired on the attacking planes, but apparently no hits were made and the enemy flew off to the northeastward.

Planes continued to show on the radar screen, but no more appeared until 1201, when approximately 24 enemy dive bombers were sighted at a considerable altitude, apparently maneuvering into position to attack. The Sims thereupon moved back to take up position on the Neosho's port quarter. Both our ships were attacked heavily during the ensuing 15 or more minutes. The enemy planes dived from all directions and the sequence of events was lost in the confusion and destruction which followed.

Only 13 enlisted men survived of the Sims' entire complement. Although their stories conflicted, it was apparent that the destroyer took at least 3 direct hits from bombs estimated to weigh 500 pounds. As near as can be determined, 4 enemy planes dove extremely low on the Sims. People aboard the Neosho said afterward that none of the 4 survived their dives, being either shot down or destroyed by the blast of their own missiles. Nevertheless, bombs exploded in both the forward and after engine rooms and wrecked the Sims. All power was lost and the ship stopped. Her topside was a shambles. The Sims' commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. Willford M. Hyman, immediately turned the men who had survived the bomb explosions to assisting the repair party to throw overboard all weight possible. While this effort to keep the ship afloat was being made, one motor whaleboat and two life rafts were launched. The whaleboat was ordered to go aft and try to extinguish a fire in the after deck house and flood the after magazine. As the small boat moved around the bow the Sims seemed to break amidships. She went down slowly, stern first. All hands began leaping into the water and swimming clear, but as the water reached the top of the stack a terrific explosion occurred and the water was immediately covered with oil. A moment later another smaller explosion took place. Surviving fireroom men did not believe either explosion could have been the boilers,


since all pressure had been lost. The consensus was that the depth charges or warheads had gone off. Whatever the case, the blasts contributed greatly to the loss of life. Lt. Comdr. Hyman was last seen on the bridge giving orders in an attempt to save his ship.

The one Sims whaleboat which had been launched reached the Neosho at about 1445, and 15 men were taken aboard the tanker, 2 of whom later died. Chief Signalman R. J. Dickens, who was in charge of the whale-boat, said that he had picked up all survivors he had seen where the destroyer went down.

While the Sims was under attack the Neosho also was having severe difficulties. The greater number of the enemy bombers concentrated on her. It was an unequal struggle from the beginning, and although the Neosho's .20-mm gunners stuck to their weapons manfully, shooting down three planes and damaging others so that they were forced to pull out of their dives prematurely, the oiler received seven direct hits and at least eight near misses. The hits, as near as could be determined, were in the following sequence:

  1. Port side main deck at the transverse bulkhead separating No.7 and No.8 port wing tanks.
  2. Starboard stack deck near No.3 gun enclosure, penetrating to the after center bunker tank before exploding.
  3. Forward of the stacks on the center line at frame 30, piercing to the fireroom before exploding.
  4. In the bridge structure on the port side, penetrating the main deck and exploding in No.5 port wing tank.
  5. On the starboard side of the main deck abaft the bridge structure, exploding in No.6 starboard wing tank.
  6. On the main deck, starboard side, forward of the bridge structure, penetrating the transverse bulkhead separating No.3 and No.4 starboard wing tanks.
  7. On the starboard side of the main deck, penetrating into No.8 starboard wing tank.

Further damage was done to the Neosho by one of the three enemy bombers which was shot down. This plane, although in flames, made a suicide landing on deck, crashing into the No.4 gun enclosure. The gun was damaged and intense fires broke out at once and spread aft over the stack deck. This occurred about 1214.


Soon after the last bomb fell, the Neosho's commanding officer, Comdr. John S. Phillips, ordered all hands to prepare to abandon ship but not to do so until the word was passed. Lt. Comdr. Francis I. Firth, executive officer, although knocked unconscious and badly burned by the explosion of the plane which crashed on deck, recovered sufficiently to relay the order, and later reported to Commander Phillips for further duty. But unfortunately all hands did not conduct themselves in such a manner. The crash of the enemy plane aboard, coming hard upon the terrific damage wrought by the bomb hits and coupled with the sudden sinking before their eyes of the Sims, seemed to unnerve some of the Neosho's crew. Several of the men on the after deck began leaping into the sea without orders. Furthermore, seven undamaged life rafts were set adrift. Sadly enough, a junior officer gave directions concerning this abandonment although he had received no orders from the bridge.

About 1230, Commander Phillips detailed two motor whaleboats to pick up personnel who had leaped overboard and to tow back the drifting life rafts. The whaleboats returned overloaded with men taken from the water. They had not been able, thus crowded, to take any rafts in tow, and by the time they had put the men back aboard the Neosho it was considered too near sunset to send them out again. Not only was darkness coming on, but the sea was making up, the wind having increased gradually to a force of 5-6 as the day wore on. Distress calls had been sent to Task Force FOX, and it was hoped that ships sent to the rescue would be able to find the rafts the next day.

Meanwhile, although fires had been brought under control, the Neosho was obviously a doomed ship. Despite pumping, water continued to rise within her, and her main deck was buckling gradually in a manner which threatened her with breaking in two at any moment.

A muster upon return to ship of the whaleboats showed 16 officers and 94 men accounted for; 1 officer and 19 men known dead, and 4 officers and 154 missing, besides the 15 men from the Sims. Many were wounded and several later died.

In spite of all the damage she had absorbed the Neosho remained afloat. During the night of the 7th three whaleboats, one of them from the Sims, were kept in the water near the port side to pick up survivors in case the Neosho capsized. All classified material was ordered destroyed in order to prevent its falling into enemy hands. Thereafter all radio


transmission had to be sent in plain language. Sending was possible because of an auxiliary transmitter.

On the morning of the 8th an effort was made to determine the Neosho's position. The ship had developed a 26° list to starboard, that edge of the main deck being under water. It was impossible to raise steam. All movable gear on the starboard side was thrown overboard in an attempt to correct the list. After an unsuccessful attempt to break the starboard anchor chain, it was let go with a run, but the bitter end held. The Neosho was drifting 280° all the time at an estimated speed of 1.4 knots. The list to starboard had been reduced by only about 3°.

By 1012 on the 9th the Neosho's position was taken as latitude 15°35' S., longitude 156°55' E. The men continued making floats and rafts of all available gear, and rigged masts, spars and sails for all available boats. The three motor whaleboats were still in the water alongside, but by this time the motor of only one was operable, and this one had the others in tow.

The morning of the 10th dawned with no help in sight, but at 1230 a plane appeared to the south and as it came closer was identified as an Australian Hudson bomber. The Neosho flashed her name and hoisted the international distress signal. The plane, meanwhile, had asked if the ship was in distress, and upon receiving an affirmative answer circled several times and flew off to the southward. The Neosho also gave her position but received no reply.

Nothing further of note occurred until the 11th. By this time it was apparent that the Neosho had settled appreciably during the night, and the distortion of her plates also had increased alarmingly. At about 1130 a final conference of the officers was held regarding abandoning ship and the best course to the Australian coast. However, about this time a Navy PBY flying boat from the Tangier appeared from the east, circled twice and moved off to the south. Within an hour and a half a destroyer, later identified as the U.S.S. Henley, was sighted approaching from the south. The Henley hove to on the Neosho's port side and by 1412 had removed all survivors.

When all hands were aboard the Henley, Commander Phillips, explaining that his ship was a total loss, asked that she be sunk. The Henley complied, firing two torpedoes and several rounds of 5-inch. The Neosho went down, stern first, at 1522. The position was latitude 15°35' S., longitude 155°36' E.


The Henley searched the area until dark for the men who had abandoned ship, without results. She then headed for Brisbane, Australia, in order to take the wounded to hospitals as soon as possible. While underway at 0100 on the 12th, however, she received orders to return to the scene of the Neosho's bombing and make a wider search. Again the effort was fruitless, and she proceeded to Brisbane.

In the meantime, Commander Phillips discovered that his navigation officer had improperly plotted the position of the Neosho at the time of the attack, and that the error had led to a search being made from an improper position. Therefore on the 14th another destroyer, the U.S.S. Helm, was dispatched (both the Henley and the Helm were sent out from Noumea, New Caledonia) to make a search for survivors on the basis of the corrected attack position.

On the 16th the Helm sighted an empty Neosho whaleboat, and on the 17th, at latitude 15°16' S., longitude 155°07'30" E., 4 Neosho survivors were picked up from a life raft. All were in a critical condition from exposure, and 1 man died soon after being taken aboard. The other 3 reported that they had abandoned the Neosho at 1155 on the 7th, leaving the ship in one of 4 rafts lashed together and carrying 68 men in all. Their story was one of exhausted water and food because neither was rationed; of men becoming crazed and leaping into the sea or perishing on the rafts. Of the original 68, only 4 were alive after 8 days.

The Helm searched until sunset of the 17th, and then proceeded to Brisbane, arriving on the 19th. Tangier planes maintained a search without success until the 22d.

Enemy aircraft attack on the support force, May 7th.

After being detached from the main body of Task Force FOX, the support force, under command of Admiral Crace, proceeded to Jomard Passage at a speed of 25 knots. Ships present were the heavy cruisers H. M. A. S. Australia (flag) and U. S. S. Chicago, the light cruiser H. M. A. S. Hobart, and the U. S. destroyers Perkins, Farragut, and Walke. At about 0840 radar indicated that the formation was being shadowed by three planes. One of these aircraft, a twin-float monoplane, was sighted by the Chicago, but it stayed well out of gun range. No other planes were sighted until 1427, when a formation of 10 or 12 single-engine monoplanes with retractable landing gear approached the ships from astern on a parallel course to port. At this time the support


force was in latitude 12°00' S., longitude 151°31' E., in formation "Victor". The planes passed within about 6,000 yards of the Farragut, which was on station bearing approximately 300° from the guide ship, the Australia. Several ships opened fire briefly but no hits were made, and the planes passed rapidly ahead and out of sight.

At 1505 more enemy planes, which had been detected by radar, approached the formation from dead ahead. Estimates of their numbers varied between 10 and 14; descriptions best fitted the Mitsubishi type 97 heavy bomber. They were twin-engine aircraft armed with torpedoes. Few people agreed as to just what happened during the ensuing crowded minutes. Our ships were deployed thus:


Farragut    Australia    Walke
X                  X               X

Hobart        Chicago
X                   X

Fire was opened by the leading ships in the formation at a range of about 6,500 yards, and as nearly as can be determined two enemy planes, including the formation leader, were shot down almost immediately, whereupon the planes broke their tight V formation and came on in smaller groups from both port and starboard of the Perkins. The tactics of but nine enemy planes are described in available reports. Only five torpedo tracks were observed, and of these two were seen passing by the Australia and three by the Chicago. Whatever the truth of the matter, the ships maneuvered radically, put up a heavy curtain of fire, and avoided all torpedoes. After dropping, the planes strafed ships in the path of their retirement. The Chicago had seven men wounded topside, two of whom later died. While this was going on most of the ships' guns that would bear continued firing, and at least two more enemy planes were shot down. Many gunners claimed hits. The Chicago said that five enemy aircraft had been shot down; the Perkins' estimate was four to six. Within 10 minutes of their appearance the surviving enemy planes were out of sight to the north.

While the torpedo attack was in progress additional enemy planes had been picked up by radar, and very shortly afterward our force was again under attack. This was a level bombing attack from an altitude vari-


ously estimated from 14,000 to 24,000 feet. Approaching from directly astern, the bombers, described as the Mitsubishi type 96, apparently selected the Australia as their target. A salvo of bombs 500 yards in diameter straddled the Australia, but no hits were made and two misses which shook the cruiser slightly caused no damage. Some time later two planes were observed shadowing our formation, but no further action occurred.

Several minutes after this high-level attack, a V of three more bombers passed over and dropped a salvo of bombs from a high altitude. According to Admiral Crace, these three planes subsequently were identified by means of photographs as United States Army B-26 bombers. He said their bombs fell close to an unspecified destroyer seven cables from the Australia.

The Walke's commanding officer, Lt. Comdr. Fraser, also remarked on this incident of the support force being attacked by friendly planes. He described them as four-engined Flying Fortresses, however, and reported that their bombs fell just astern of the Farragut.

Results of a direct hit on the Yorktown, May 8th.

The bomb which struck the Yorktown's flight deck penetrated a vertical distance of 50 feet from the point of impact to the point of detonation, piercing a total thickness of 1.68 inches of steel deck plating.

The hole in the flight deck was clean. The holes in the hangar and second decks were jagged and somewhat larger. The ship's shell was not punctured. The flight and galley decks were not harmed, but the hangar deck was bulged across its entire breadth from frame No.100 to frame No.115.

A hole 4 feet in diameter was blown up through the second deck 8 feet inboard of the bomb impact hole, and the entire deck in the marine living compartment was bulged upward. Also, the transverse bulkheads of this compartment were badly bulged forward and aft. However, they did not rupture, and all doors remained secure, though severely warped.

When the bomb hit the second deck it pierced the general lighting and battle light and power circuits for the damaged area, causing short circuits. Several people in the fire parties were shocked, one seriously.

A hole 6 feet in diameter was blown out of the third deck, with the deck turned and peeled back over an area of 35 square feet. The entire deck in compartment C-301-1L was bulged upward, and the ship's


service store and office, soda fountain, engineer's office, and laundry issue room were wrecked.

The fourth deck was not ruptured but was dished downward over an area of 40 square feet. The inboard bulkhead of the forward engine room access truck, and the after bulkhead of the laundry storeroom were shattered. Two watertight doors were severely damaged and a large hatch cover was thrown about 15 feet up into the No.2 elevator pit. The transverse bulkheads and doors joining four compartments were blown out

Minor fires broke out in the aviation storeroom, and the flash of the explosion passed up to the hangar overhead, causing a small paint fire directly above the bomb impact hole. A minor fire also broke out in the marine living compartment.

The explosion was responsible for 37 of the 40 deaths aboard the Yorktown and for many of the 26 serious injuries.

Hoses attached to fireplugs in the hangar were led to the bomb hole and No.2 elevator pit and used to extinguish the fires on the three decks below. By chance, a shorted power circuit in the aviation storeroom started the sprinkling system, and this aided the fire parties materially. The fire and repair parties performed excellently. Noteworthy was the action of Lt Milton E. Ricketts, officer in charge of repair No.5. His men all killed, wounded, or stunned by the bomb blast immediately below his station, and himself mortally wounded, Lieutenant Ricketts opened the valve of a fireplug, partially led out the hose and directed a stream of water into the fire before dropping dead. This was the first hose put on the fire.

Only two near misses caused perceptible damage, and this was restricted to piercings of the hull above the water line.


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Last updated: September 14, 2002

Transcribed and formatted by Jerry Holden for the HyperWar Foundation