World War veteran recalls carrier sinking in Pacific

Posted: Sunday, May 28, 2000

An Alaska AP Member Exchange

JUNEAU (AP) -- 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 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 members of the Lexington's crew.

''Going to this reunion brought back a lot of the memories,'' said Long.

A draft was already under way when Long, an Oklahoma native, enlisted in the Navy in 1940 at age 21. He wound up on the Lexington as a gunner's mate, responsible for taking care of guns and for manning them during battle.

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

On May 8, 1942, the Lexington was part of a task force of Allied vessels in the Coral Sea that battled a Japanese armada. 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.''

Some of the Japanese planes, however, managed to hit the Lexington. Before the battle 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.''

Long said he could feel the force of their impact.

''It makes you wonder if you're not going down right there,'' he said.

The battle itself was over relatively quickly, he said. The Lexington got underway and was making good speed while taking on returning American planes.

But the ship's interior was burning. Firefighters had to contend with aviation fuel, oil and ammunition.

''It kept exploding (in the) interior, and when it did, the ship would just shake,'' Long said.

Eventually the captain decided it was time to get off. 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 back to the burning ship, and directly into the path of a ship 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 scrambled up onto a small shelf attached to the Lexington just above the water line. The rescue ship picked them up from there.

About 215 of the Lexington's crew were killed in the Battle of Coral Sea. Long wasn't hurt, and he was returned to San Diego.

In 1943, while on a submarine chaser, he met Elwood Mahler, who became his future brother-in-law. Long and Beatrice Mahler 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.

Long worked as a carpenter in Juneau and later for the state Department of Transportation. He retired 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,'' he said. ''I liked traveling on the water and being out at sea and visiting ports.'

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