May 7, 1942: Mistaken identity caused the loss of two American ships during the Battle of the Coral Sea. The
destroyer USS Sims DD-409, lead ship in the class, and the USS Neosho AO-23 had refueled the USS
Yorktown CV-5 and the USS Astoria CA-34 during the battle and were en route to the next fueling point when
they were located by a Japanese reconnaissance aircraft. The pilot signaled to Admiral Takagi that he had
located a small aircraft carrier and cruiser traveling unescorted when in fact it was a destroyer and a fleet
oiler. Admiral Takagi ordered air attacks at once.
The first attack came at 09:30 when fifteen high level bombers appeared overhead, the attack produced no
damage to the ships but the Japanese were not finished. At 10:38 ten more aircraft dropped bombs and once
again the attack failed. The third attack came from the carriers
Zuikaku and Shokaku, 36 dive bombers were
dispatched and this time the bombs found the mark.
The Sims was attacked relentlessly and even though every anti-aircraft gun was firing the Japanese pilots scored three direct hits. Two of the bombs exploded in the engine room and broke her back, she buckled and
began to make her plunge to the bottom. Just before she went under one of her magazines exploded killing
many who were in the water. Of her entire crew only fourteen survived. They were picked up by the Neosho.
The Neosho however had also been damaged. She had been hit seven times by bombs and crashed by one of
the attacking aircraft but, shot three of them down. She was burning and dead in the water, sixty-eight of her crew abandoned the burning ship in a life raft but those who remained fought gallantly to save the Neosho.
Chief Watertender Oscar V. Peterson was one of those gallant men. Despite his injuries he risked his life to
close the bulkhead stop valves, in doing so he was severely burned. His actions helped save the ship but it cost
him his life, he died of his wounds May 13 onboard the Henley.
He was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The fires were brought under control and she remained afloat, drifting until she was found by an Australian Air Force aircraft on May 11. A USAAF PBY
came overhead and radioed her position to his base and at 13:00 the
USS Henley DD-391 arrived to remove the survivors. The fourteen men from the Sims and the one hundred and nine from Neosho were safely onboard the Henley when she fired two torpedoes and sank the Neosho.
Only four of the sixty-eight men who had abandoned the Neosho were found alive, they were picked up by the
USS Helm DD-388 on May 17, ten days after the battle. The loss of these two ships may have spared the US an
even heavier loss in the Battle of the Coral Sea. The Japanese had diverted resources away from locating the main body of the US carrier force because the pilot incorrectly identified the Neosho as a carrier. The sacrifices
made by the men of the Sims and the Neosho may have saved the US carrier force from an earlier attack which
might have caught the US carriers with aircraft on the deck. The American and Japanese forces did not find each other until the 8th, at which time they both launched their aircraft. The two attacking forces passed each other
en route to the others carriers, if the Japanese had attacked on the 7th the result may have been different.