Alabama author Don Keith is fascinated with World War II and has written six books on the conflict, including his latest work, "The Ship That Wouldn't Die" (400 pages, hardcover, NAL Caliber), set for publication on Tues., April 7, 2015. Keith's book tells the story of the Japanese attack on the American oiler USS Neosho and the crew's struggle for survival in the treacherous waters of the Coral Sea.

Don Keith is an Alabama author with nearly 30 works of fiction and non-fiction on a variety of subjects to his credit. But he is fascinated with World War II and has written six books on the conflict, including his latest work, "The Ship That Wouldn't Die" (NAL Caliber, hardcover, 400 pages, $27.95). 

Battleship Row at the U.S. Navy base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, during the Japanese sneak attack on Dec. 7, 1941. The USS Neosho, a tanker that could hold 140,000 barrels of fuel, can be seen in the distance backing out. [Via]

Keith's book, using some of the techniques of the non-fiction novel, describes an attack on the USS Neosho, an important American oil tanker that could hold 140,000 barrels of fuel, by Japanese airplanes in May 1942. 

The USS Neosho refueling the USS Yorktown. [Via]

Using eyewitness accounts and declassified documents, Keith describes the crew's heroism and struggle for survival, as their slowly sinking ship drifted -- lost and defenseless -- in the treacherous, shark-infested waters of the Coral Sea. 

U.S. Navy Capt. John S. Phillips, who commanded the USS Neosho when it was sunk in May 1942. His cool, determined leadership in the incident earned him a Silver Star. [Via]

The author is scheduled to sign copies of "The Ship That Wouldn't Die" during an appearance at Alabama Booksmith in Homewood on Tuesday at 4 p.m.

Keith also participated in an email exchange with to tell us more about the book; his love for military history; his fascination with World War II and the Americans who fought in it; and the writers who influenced him. 

You referred to the attack on the Neosho as one of the "last untold" stories of World War II? Why had the story not been told before?

War stories usually concentrate on warships or invasions, admirals and generals, big battles and major events. There have been more than 500 books written about Pearl Harbor and likely more than that on D-Day. I prefer to relate history on a more personal level and use those smaller stories to relate to the bigger picture. 

What were the elements of this horrific incident that hooked you and why?

The Neosho's escort battleship was sunk, and the Neosho was adrift without power, afire and in danger of exploding at any moment, and obviously sinking.  The crew -- what was left of it after more than 50 died outright and more than 150 jumped overboard into the shark-infested waters -- got to work even as the attack raged, trying to save the ship and prepare to abandon her when she inevitably went down.  But they were 500 miles from land.  Many of those who went overboard during the attack ended up on life rafts, without food, water or shelter, and drifted away.  None of them knew that wrong co-ordinates had been radioed to the fleet during the attack and rescue ships were looking for them in the wrong place. What those men did to remain afloat for four long days and to keep spirits up is a true testament to human endurance and bravery. The experiences of those in the rafts were horrific, and only four of the 158 who started out were eventually rescued. That did not come until nine days later. 

The USS Neosho shown in an aerial photo taken by the Japanese after they struck the ship with their aircraft. [Via]

Is there an overarching theme or message that you see in the story -- something positive despite the loss of life?

Two things:  First, just the sheer bravery and tenacity of the men who worked so hard to stay afloat and to prepare to take to the few lifeboats they had left.  I am always fascinated by stories of normal people placed in unbelievably challenging situations who do remarkable things. Their experiences and how they overcame adversity can be an inspiration to all of us. Second, in war, it is the grunts, the foot-soldiers, the "snipes" -- the men who work below the decks to keep the ship under power and afloat -- that determine the outcome of the conflict. I dedicate the book to the enginemen, the water-tenders, the commissarymen, the firemen and other blue-collar sailors who do their jobs in obscurity and without glory. 

You seem to be drawn not just to World War II stories, but to Navy -- and especially submarine -- tales.

I know a strong brotherhood develops in foxholes or in the cockpit of a B-17, but there is absolutely no stronger bond than between men who serve aboard submarines. In World War II, every man had to be able to perform any duty on the boat, from cooking dinner to driving the sub. If any man made a mistake, it could cost everyone his life. As noted above, I am drawn to human stories, and in the confined spaces of a submarine -- where your life depends on your buddies -- there are still many untold stories of bravery and skill in the face of overwhelming odds

The book makes use of some the techniques of creative non-fiction or the non-fiction novel. What draws you to use that method?

I'm a storyteller, and I want to place readers into the story, let them get to know the characters as real people. I do extensive research -- almost every sentence requires it -- and I only use dialogue or thoughts that I am reasonably certain are accurate and reflect what was actually spoken and thought... by these people. My real goal in my non-fiction is to tell stories and introduce characters to a broader readership, not just scholars or history buffs, though I do want to make them aware of new material I often locate. I want these real-life people and what they did to be exposed to more readers so they can get the recognition they deserve. Simply put, I want my subjects to be accessible to all readers. 

What fascinates you about World War II and the people who fought it?

Average people placed into unbelievably challenging situations who do remarkable things. 

Did you serve in the military?

Other than Air Force ROTC while at the University of Alabama -- it was required of all male students in the 1960s -- no.  

Do you have a particular interest or fascination with military life?

My fascination is with human conflict and how people perform under unimaginable pressure. I believe there are lessons in their experiences for all of us in meeting our own daily challenges. War stories -- especially those that play out on such small stages as inside submarines or aboard ships at sea -- certainly contain plenty of examples of people who performed bravely and, sometimes, those who did not.  

Any favorite writers or profound influences on what you do, in terms of style or technique of even subject matter?

I really admire the way authors like Laura Hillenbrand ("Unbroken"), Stephen Ambrose, and David McCullough take history and turn it into so much more than treaties, dates, and facts and figures. They breathe life into long-gone characters. One of my worries is that we cause students to be bored with history -- and literature, too, for that matter -- by turning it into mostly memorization and "A, B, C, or D" on a multiple-choice test. History is just as fascinating as Harry Potter or the "Hunger Games" if told properly, accurately and entertainingly. I had a few teachers who made it real, including Dr. David Mathews at the University of Alabama. He eventually became president of the school and a member of President (Gerald) Ford's cabinet. 

In your work, have you learned anything about the so-called "Greatest Generation" that' either reinforces -- or perhaps goes beyond -- the clichés or the things we've already heard about them and their sacrifices?

That was the last war of its kind that will ever be fought. The bad guys were obviously bad, and the good guys eventually won a clear, lasting victory. Citizens were unanimously united against the enemy, willing to sacrifice for victory. Otherwise incompatible allies joined together to conquer an identifiable common enemy. Armies marched across borders, Marines invaded beaches to eliminate a discernible foe, and sea battles and assaults were planned months in advance. Due to many factors, I don't think there will ever be a war of that nature fought again. 

The question and answer session with Keith was edited for length and clarity. 

In addition to military histories, Keith writes military-themed novels, including an ongoing series of thrillers about submarines co-authored with former nuclear submarine skipper George Wallace. He and Wallace have published two thrillers already -- "Firing Point" and "Final Bearing" -- and have a third book in the works, according to Keith. 

"Firing Point" is to be made into a feature film beginning this summer in New Orleans with stars Billy Bob Thornton, Gerard Butler and Common, according to a recent report at 

Keith has two other film projects in the works and is making a decision about the next non-fiction book project he wants to pursue. "My publisher really wants me to stay in WWII, preferably in the naval arena, because I have such a following there," he said. 

For more information about Keith and his books, both fiction and non-fiction, go to his web site at

The author also recently created a web site -- -- designed to give people a way to capture and archive oral histories from surviving participants from World War II and other important historic events.  

To read all of's ongoing coverage of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, click here.

Another aerial photo of the dying USS Neosho after a Japanese attack in the Coral Sea. [Via]

Article written by Jesse Chambers | on Do not reproduce, copy or distribute this article. WW2live has special and granted permission from the Jesse Chambers to use this article.


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