Misfortune at Coral Sea

By Daniel Verton

The majority of accounts of this great naval engagement have glossed over the opening salvo that took place on 7 May between the destroyer Sims (DD-409), the oiler she was escorting, the Neosho (AO-23), and the bulk of the air group from the Japanese strike force. The plight of these two overmatched ships has tended to be a mere footnote to the main battle between the U.S. carriers Lexington (CV-2) and Yorktown (CV-5), and the Japanese carriers Shoho , Shokaku , and Zuikaku . For the men of the Sims and Neosho , 7 May and the four days that followed were struggle between the will to live and the forces of certain death.

Historians have offered a variety of efforts to honor the memory of the 235 men lost on board the Sims and the 179 men who died on board the Neosho . Many of these accounts, however, contradict each other. Although 13 men, including my father, ultimately survived the sinking of the Sims, the testimony of Chief Signalman Robert James Dicken has been the primary account used by historians. Dicken provided an after-action report shortly after being rescued, as did several others from the Sims . There were at least two other survivors whose individual sagas cast significant doubt on the historical record and also raise serious questions about the state of mind of the Sims 's captain, Lieutenant Commander Willford M. Hyman.

One of the survivors, Seaman First Class John C. Verton, was an antiaircraft gunner and the last man to enter the damaged whaleboat after the Sims slid beneath the waves. Severely wounded from the explosion of the Sims 's depth charges, Verton was rushed to a naval hospital in Australia. The Navy never asked him for his after-action report. Another survivor, Fireman Second Class Vito J. Vessia, who conned the whaleboat that plucked Verton out of the ocean, provided a report to senior commanders, but in his words, "none were pleased with the so-called lack of reasoning." Vessia's vehement dissent from the record never was recorded officially.

Fate and the Fat Lady

Riding high on what they believed had been a devastating blow against the Japanese fleet in Tulagi Harbor on 4 May, U.S. Task Force 17 spent 6 May fueling from the Neosho , known affectionately as the "Fat Lady." By late afternoon, she had pumped virtually all of her tanks dry and was ordered by Admiral Frank J. Fletcher to proceed on a southwesterly course for waypoint "Rye."

To most of the crew in the Sims , the order to escort the oiler and miss any potential action against the enemy seemed like a slap in the face for the senior destroyer in the task force. Verton and the rest of the deck force concluded that the captain "must be in the dog house with the admiral." For reasons that likely never will be known, Hyman did not enjoy the same level of respect from the crew as did the ship's former skipper, Lieutenant Commander W. A. Griswold, according to both Verton and Vessia. But there was a more practical aspect to Fletcher's decision that had sealed the ship's fate before the war even started.

Commissioned in August 1939, the Sims began her career making lengthy North Atlantic neutrality patrols. During these difficult journeys, the Sims experienced the first of a series of boiler tube failures that would test her engineering crew's ingenuity almost until the time she was sunk. The first failure occurred off the coast of Iceland in late 1941. The number one boiler ruptured several water tubes, forcing the crew to shut it down. Tapered plugs were fashioned and forced into the tube openings, and the destroyer went back into action. Two additional boiler tube failures would occur after the attack on Pearl Harbor when the Sims was transferred to the Pacific Fleet. The same homemade remedy by the crew kept the ship powered each time, though shakily.

When it came time for action against the Japanese, Fletcher dispatched the Sims with her tenuous boiler situation to guard the Neosho instead of the destroyer Walke (DD-416), as originally planned.

Calm before the Storm

The Sims and her charge detached from the task force in the early evening on 6 May. "It was a real frisky night," recalled Machinist's Mate Second Class Vincent Canole. "The Japs were so close we knew something was up."

The two ships reached waypoint "Rye" at 0730 the following morning. The weather was unusually calm and offered a stark contrast to the rain squalls and rough seas the task force had gone through a few days earlier.

At 0859, a single 500-pound bomb crashed into the ocean less than 100 yards off the Sims 's port side and shocked her crew into general quarters. Her 5-inch guns began pointing skyward. The blasts of the guns rattled and shook the ship to her keel. A single Japanese plane appeared in the sky at 15,000 feet. As Vessia recalls, the order was given for Flank Ahead and both the Neosho and Sims built up speed to 18 knots.

"It was very strange," said Vessia. "We were going in a straight line. No zig, no zag to dodge whatever was being thrown at us. Ordinary precautions during an attack were to have the two screws going in different directions. Port Full Ahead and Starboard Emergency Astern—the reversing of Emergency Full Astern—on both engines to put the brakes on. This was not to be."

Although most accounts have registered the near miss on the front starboard quarter, both Verton and Vessia recall it falling on the port side close enough to wreck the captain's gig and send Hyman crashing to the deck. "The bridge talker relayed the message. ‘Near miss forward, Captain down!'" said Vessia. "‘Port side whaleboat damaged.'"

Unknown to the crew of either ship, before leaving the area the pilot had radioed back to the Japanese carrier force and reported the presence of a U.S. carrier and cruiser. It was a classic case of the kind of misidentifications that plagued both sides during the early stages of the war. The pilot's error would prove to be fateful for the Sims and Neosho ; they soon would face nearly every available aircraft the Japanese carriers could muster.

By 0900, the Sims spotted at least 15 aircraft bearing 25¾ true from the Neosho at high altitude. It soon became apparent to the group of torpedo bombers that the ships identified earlier as a carrier and a cruiser were, in fact, a tanker and a destroyer. They chose wisely not to drop their torpedoes and disappeared to the northeast without attacking. For a brief time, the two crews breathed sighs of relief.

A few minutes after 1000, ten aircraft were spotted approaching at 140¾ true. This time they came in for the kill. The enemy planes disintegrated into an uncoordinated attack formation of several small groups. Both ships put up a barrage of fire, covering their position with a blanket of steel, but scored no hits.

The Sims continued to cut through the waves in a large circle around the Neosho , attempting to defend the slower tanker. On board the destroyer, however, the crew began to yell in protest of the ship's failure to take defensive action, recalls Verton. "Even the older, experienced sailors began to yell above the fire of the guns that ‘this damn ship better start turning,'" said Verton.

The Japanese appeared in force at noon. Although previously classified reports place the number of dive-bombers at approximately 24, in the heat of battle the bridge talker on board the Sims announced the presence of at least 50 planes, according to Vessia. The attack broke apart into a horde of smaller, sometimes individual runs on the ships. The Neosho suffered seven hits, some of which passed right through the near-empty tanker without exploding.

On the Sims , the first direct hit pierced the deck amidships, exploding through the torpedo tubes and opening up a massive gash above the forward engine room. The explosion killed all power and lighting below deck, creating an eerie dark silence amidst the billow of death and confusion. Before the crew could recover from the first hit, the still-moving destroyer absorbed a second hit. Although according to Verton it appeared to enter through the stack, the second hit had, in fact, delivered another blow to the forward engine room.

Vessia, who was stationed in the after fire room, rushed topside to secure the fuel oil stop on the port side, as ordered earlier by Chief Water Tender Edwin Barnett. "What a mess. I could look into the forward engine room from the top deck," Vessia said. "There was nothing but split apart machinery and partially dismembered men I had talked to a few hours before." According to Navy reports, the Japanese pilots dived on the two ships so low that some of the planes exploded from the blasts of their own bombs.

Engineering officer Lieutenant M. Silverstein then ordered Vessia to make his way back below deck to the port side to secure the fuel oil stop. Vessia jumped below deck just as the Japanese commenced strafing the now helpless ship. Canole, who also was below deck during the attacks, could hear the bullets hitting topside and pelting the side of the ship's hull.

Within minutes, the third and final 500-pounder crashed through the upper decks into the after engine room. A large fuel oil heater in the forward fire room shielded Vessia from the blast, which knocked him through the gratings and into the bilges. The blast blew Canole from the ship and into the ocean. He would emerge from the water and find himself staring back at the Sims .

When Vessia finally made his way topside, the result of the Japanese strafing runs lay before him. "What greeted me topside was gruesome," said Vessia. "Silverstein, Barnett, and all the fire room gang were dead. They looked like limp rags on the deck."

Satisfied with their work, the Japanese force broke contact, leaving the two ships sinking in the middle of the Coral Sea. Verton somehow managed to escape death at his gun. The attack left the destroyer broken in two and going down fast, the forward 5-inch gun still firing. "The ship was totally submerged within a matter of minutes after being hit," wrote Radioman's Mate Third Class Kenneth Tevebaugh in a letter to the Navy Department in 1949.

Gunners from the two ships managed to down a total of six enemy aircraft. A look at the Neosho revealed a severe starboard list, violent fires, and the burning hulk of a Japanese attacker sticking out of her stern.

Captain Hyman then appeared on the bridge of the Sims , shouting orders to jettison all heavy ordnance and manually fire off all torpedoes in a vain effort to keep the ship afloat. His orders included a command to remove the 5-inch gun mounts, which, according to Vessia, was extremely irrational given the fact that the mounts weighed thousands of pounds. A junior officer ordered the starboard side whaleboat lowered. The crew dropped it, however, and it floated away with nobody in it. Vessia then requested permission to go after it and the officer grudgingly approved. Swimming through the oil-stained sea, he reached the whaleboat and found its control panel had been damaged and there was a hole on its starboard side.

On the way back toward the now-sinking Sims , Vessia picked up Seaman Second Class Arthur Gober, who had been thrown into the water during the battle. Canole, Fireman Third Class Jones Savage, Machinist's Mate Second Class Edward Munch, and Seaman Second Class Edward LeBlanc managed to climb into the whaleboat, forcing the hole in the hull closer to the water line. Hyman then spotted Vessia and ordered him to proceed to the fantail and assist in putting out the fires that were raging in the after magazine. Arriving at the stern, Vessia and the whaleboat crew watched a group of approximately 25 sailors climb aboard one of the remaining undamaged rafts. This small group drifted away, never to be seen again.

The Sims began to shudder, her mid section beginning to buckle. Crewmen then began lowering the wounded and exhausted down to the whaleboat Vessia had retrieved. Water Tender First Class William Yanny was first to be passed down, bleeding heavily from a large gash in his back. Next came Chief Dicken, long credited with a single-handed rescue of all the Sims survivors. He immediately passed out from exhaustion, according to Vessia. Before they were through, a total of 14 men had reached the safety of the whaleboat.

At the bow, the Sims 's gunnery officer ordered Verton to climb down into one of the other rafts and join him and a group of about 20 sailors. As he pulled himself over the railings, with the bow beginning to point skyward, Captain Hyman began barking orders, recalls Verton. "He yelled down to me from the bridge, ‘Hey sailor, I never gave the order to abandon ship,'" said Verton. Hyman then ordered him back on board to free several men who were pinned beneath a mangled mass of steel wires and cables. The raft Verton had planned to board drifted away.

He tried in vain to cut the men free with whatever was available, but the twisted steel was too strong. Within minutes, the Sims gave a huge groan and began to buckle amidships. Verton dove into the water off the port side and swam as fast as he could away from the sinking vessel. The wind blew the bow toward him as he swam for his life. When he stopped, he looked back as the ocean pulled the stern and bow under at the same time. He watched as Captain Hyman stood on the bridge, "riding her down like one of the captains of old."

The forward gun mount, jammed shut from strafing damage, still held its crew captive but continued to fire sporadically. To Verton's horror, the gun slid under and one final round crashed through the surface. The destroyer's depth charges then exploded, sending a powerful shock wave through the water. Verton, who had managed to swim a good distance from the ship, absorbed the massive blast, which forced the contents of his bowels through his mouth, almost killing him.

"An explosion took place immediately after the ship went down by the stern," wrote Tevebaugh. "Even the clothing was torn from the bodies of the men who were still in the water."

Verton lay in the water, praying to die before the sharks began to circle. "I thought I was the only survivor," said Verton. "Everybody I swam up to was dead. Some were decapitated and bobbed up and down in the water when I approached them." As the sea convulsed, Verton spotted a boat riding the crest of a wave and began yelling with all his might. He spotted Vessia, whom he had known since his first day on board the Sims in 1940.

"We pulled him into the boat and almost immediately we wanted to throw him back over the side," Vessia recalls jokingly. The concussion from the explosion had ripped through Verton's intestines, causing him and the rest of the whaleboat crew great distress.

Water Tender Yanny died from his wounds during the first night, leaving 14 men in the whaleboat when they finally reached the badly damaged and sinking Neosho on the 8th. For three more days, the remaining crew of the Neosho and the survivors from the Sims prepared for the possibility of having to sail to Australia. Verton and Vessia scavenged through the Neosho for supplies while the others repaired the hull in the Sims 's whaleboat and rigged a mast with a sail.

On 11 May, the destroyer Henley (DD-391) located the hapless ship and ended the battered sailors' ordeal. On the trip back to civilization, one more Sims sailor, Seaman Second Class Ed Pieles, succumbed to his wounds and passed away in the Henley . Verton had become the 13th and final survivor of the Sims .

The Aftermath

Verton and the other wounded survivors were rushed away for immediate medical care, while others, including Vessia and Dicken, were interviewed for information on the battle. "They interviewed us in singles. None of them were pleased at the lack of reasoning as to why none of the ship's officers survived," said Vessia. "I began to blast the captain's behavior after the near miss forward that wrecked the captains gig. I began to shout at the utter crime committed by him, in not allowing an orderly abandon ship. The order was never given. Hundreds would have survived instead of the paltry few."

"If those Japanese pilots had been any good, they would have sunk us on the first attack," said Vessia. "But the credit should go to our gunnery department. They put up a zinger of a fight. And they all died. Needlessly."

"There is little I can say, or that anyone can say, the loss is too great," wrote Sims Fireman Third Class George Ernst in 1943. "In fact, as war trades go we drove a hard bargain and stopped the Japs' southward gains to Australia."

The Sims and Neosho played a critical tactical role, if only by accident. The Japanese pilots' inability to identify the two ships correctly led Japanese commanders to deploy the bulk of their aircraft against the two ships, drawing them away from the main U.S. force of the Yorktown and Lexington . When the Japanese air armada finally broke contact with the Sims , they did so with six fewer aircraft.

Verton spent the next month in a hospital in Australia and never was approached by the Navy for his account of the battle or the failure of Captain Hyman either to order an abandon ship or take the proper defensive action during the attack. Word of Verton's survival would not reach his family until June. Until the day he died from cancer in 1994, Verton credited Vessia—and not Chief Dicken—with conning the whaleboat and saving his life in the Coral Sea.

In 1944, the Navy commissioned the Hyman (DD-732) in honor of Lieutenant Commander Willford M. Hyman. In 1970, she was struck from the Navy list and sold for scrap.

Mr. Verton is a senior writer with Computerworld magazine in Washington, D.C., and is a former U.S. Marine officer.

The following primary sources from the National Archives were used:

   1. Fire Controlman Third Class George Ernst, letter to Max Tachna, 9 June 1943.
   2. Allen Jones, assistant head, Chief of Naval Personnel's Casualty Assistance Branch, letter to        Sneed family, 22 February 1974.
   3. Fireman Second Class Vito J. Vessia, letter to Tachna family, 8 July 1943.
   4. Radioman's Mate Third Class Kenneth W. Tevebaugh, letter to Navy Department, 1 July 1949.

The author also conducted interviews with both his father, John Verton, and Vito Vessia.

 

Mr. Verton is a senior writer with Computerworld magazine in Washington, D.C., and is a former U.S. Marine officer.

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