This was one of the first stories I discovered a few years ago when I started this project and it is a story of ‘what ifs’. Seaman 2nd Class David Huntsman, only 18 years old, was the 5th casualty from Weber County. He was stationed on the USS Neosho, a fleet-oiler. She survived the attack on Pearl Harbor, firing her guns as her captain moved her to a safer harbor.
For the next five months, the Neosho sailed with aircraft carriers. Late in April, the Japanese threatened another attack against Australia and she joined Task Force 17, in what would become the Battle of the Coral Sea. Her job was to keep the aircraft carriers in the Pacific Fleet, fueled for battle.
The Battle of the Coral Sea was historic because it was the first battle ever to be fought between aircraft carriers. On May 7, 1942, Japanese dive-bombers, searching for the main American fleet came upon the Neosho and the USS Sims. The two ships had been left behind, in what was considered a safe area while the main fleet sailed ahead looking for the Japanese fleet. The website of the USS Neosho, described the battle:
“During a relentless attack by 62 Japanese planes, the USS Sims valiantly defended the vulnerable Neosho but was sunk with a loss of 237 men. The only survivors, 15 men, clambered into a life boat and headed for the Neosho, which had been hit by several bombs and a Japanese kamikaze plane.
“Burning and immobilized, the Neosho began listing sharply in the choppy seas. Afraid that she would capsize, Captain John Phillips ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship, but the message was garbled and dozens of men immediately jumped into the water. Dozens more made it onto life rafts that slowly drifted away from the Neosho..
“The next morning … the immobilized Neosho, now listing at 30 degrees, Captain Phillips did at headcount. Of the 293 men onboard before the attack, 20 men were confirmed dead and 158 were missing.”
Despite the battering, the Neosho did not sink. They waited in the hot sun for rescue and 3 days later they were spotted by the USS Henley. After taking the survivors aboard, they proceeded to sink the Neosho so that the Japanese would not find her. It took two torpedoes and 146 shells to send her to the bottom.
The men in the life rafts had expected to be rescued at any time. Unfortunately, the ship’s navigator had plotted the coordinates incorrectly, an error of about 60 miles. The rescuers were looking in the wrong place.
Going back to the website:
“Five days later (after the rescue of the survivors on the Neosho), another American destroyer, the USS Helm, picked up four survivors of the attack several miles away. These were the only survivors of the group of 68 men, who had jumped into the rafts and lashed themselves together shortly after the attack, certain that the Neosho was on the verge of sinking. The group had drifted for nine days in the Coral Sea without food or water, during which all but four had perished. Shortly after the four emaciated, sunburned and nearly delirious crewmen were rescued, two of them died.”
In the Battle of the Coral Sea, only 111 men of the 293 men on the Neosho and 13 of the 252 men on the Sims survived. But that battle gave the main fleet time to locate the Japanese.
The circumstances of the Neosho caused the Navy to paint all life boats yellow.
When I learned the story all I can think about were the what ifs. What if they hadn’t obeyed the abandon ship order. It seems that most did not. And what if the navigator had given the correct coordinates. It’s the thing I find in all of these stories. Just one change of circumstances would change the whole story.
Seaman Huntsman was not the only Weber County casualty from the Battle of the Coral Sea, but that is another story for another day.
He was survived by his father, James F. Huntsman, 2256 Ogden Avenue, three sisters and three brothers. Brother Richard was also in the Navy, and Samuel was in the merchant marines.
He is listed on the Tablets of the Missing at the American Cemetery in Manilla.