World War II vet remembers battle of the Coral Sea

Juneau man among the survivors of torpedoed warship

Posted: Friday, May 26, 2000

The torpedoes, the bombs and the sinking of the ship weren't even the worst parts of the Battle of the Coral Sea for Nello Long.

Most unnerving was being adrift in a lifeboat with a ship bearing down on him.

Long, 80, was aboard the U.S. aircraft carrier Lexington on May 8, 1942, when it went down in the Coral Sea. He recently relived the memory of that day -- and of less dramatic naval days -- at a reunion in Anchorage of 39 of the nearly 3,000 men of the Lexington crew.

``Going to this reunion brought back a lot of the memories,'' said Long, who worked in Juneau as a carpenter and for the state before retiring.

Men were beginning to be drafted when Long enlisted in the Navy in 1940 at age 21. He wound up on the Lexington.

 

Long during his Navy career.

COURTESY OF NELLO LONG

The 880-foot-long aircraft carrier patrolled shipping lanes between Pearl Harbor and Australia, where the Japanese were sinking American supply ships. Long had experienced one previous, and successful, battle aboard the Lexington before the Battle of the Coral Sea.

He was a gunner's mate, responsible for taking care of guns and for manning them during battle.

On May 8, 1942, the Lexington was part of a task force of Allied vessels in the Coral Sea that battled with a task force of Japanese ships. Long's job was to fire at oncoming Japanese planes.

``And we knocked some of the planes down,'' Long said. ``Our gun got credit for shooting one down.''

He was part of an eight-person crew manning a 1.1-inch, four-barrel, ``pom-pom'' anti-aircraft gun. ``They shoot pretty fast, I don't know, 100-and-something rounds a minute,'' he said.

Some of the Japanese planes, however, managed to hit the Lexington. Before it was over the Lexington had been hit by two torpedoes and two bombs, according to the book ``Victory at Sea: World War II in the Pacific.''

``None hit right next to me,'' Long said. But he could feel their force. ``It makes you wonder if you're not going down right there. It really shakes the ship.''

The battle itself was over relatively quickly, he said.

``Then we thought we were going to be all right,'' he said. The ship got underway and was making good speed for a while and taking on returning American planes.

But the battle had taken its toll: The interior of the ship was burning. Firefighters had to contend with airplane fuel, oil and ammunition. ``It kept exploding (in the) interior and when it did the ship would just shake,'' Long said.

The walls of the ship had been painted many times, and as the paint heated up, it popped off. ``I know several folks who were burned that way,'' Long said.

Finally, the captain decided it was time to get off. ``I think it was about five hours before we actually had to abandon ship,'' Long said.

It was an orderly abandonment. One report of the sinking describes departing crew members' shoes being lined up neatly on the flight deck as if for inspection.

Long recalls simply going down a line on the side of the ship into a raft. Several rafts were lashed together, with the whole group tied to a motorized vessel hauling them to safety.

But the knot holding the raft he was in apparently wasn't secure, because the raft slipped loose from the others. That left him and several other crew members adrift without a paddle.

The loose raft floated right back to the burning ship -- and right into the path of another ship that was coming alongside the Lexington to pick up more stranded sailors.

That was probably even more terrifying than the battle, Long said.

He and the others on the raft managed to scramble up onto a short shelf called a blister that extended from the side of the Lexington about a foot above the water line. The ship headed their way was able to rescue them, rather than ram them.

About 215 of the Lexington's crew were killed in the Battle of Coral Sea. ``I knew one or two,'' Long said. ``Our division officer was one.''

Long wasn't hurt, and he was returned to San Diego. From there he was sent to Miami to go through submarine-chaser training. The rest of the war took him from New York to Maine to Maryland to Bermuda and finally back to the Pacific.

It was in 1943 on the sub chaser, as it was called, that he met his future brother-in-law, Elwood Mahler. He began writing to Mahler's sister Beatrice, and they were married within a month of his leaving the Navy in 1946.

They lived in California until 1963 and then moved to Juneau, where Long's brother was living. They also wanted to help out with a fledgling Church of Christ congregation in Juneau.

Long worked as a carpenter in Juneau. ``I think I built or helped build up to about 20 houses,'' he said. He also worked for the state, retiring from the building section of the state Department of Transportation in 1986.

Long said he doesn't mind thinking back to his days on the Lexington.

``It brings back scary times, the battle, but I enjoyed being aboard the ship. It was interesting. Planes landing. They don't just come to a stop. It's a sudden stop with that hook.

``I liked traveling on the water and being out at sea and visiting ports,'' he added. Before he joined the Navy, the Oklahoma native had never seen the ocean.

He and his wife now live on Fritz Cove Road on the beach side with a view of the water. The house has become too large for them, he said, so they plan to move to a condominium, but it will also have an ocean view.

``We didn't want to leave the water if we could help it,'' he said.



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