The USS Neosho (AO-23) was not the type of ship to have had stories written about her. She simply was the kind of unglamorous workhorse without which a modern navy could not operate. Her crew got filthy every day, not from combat, but from moving the black oil and other fuels a navy needed. Excepting a few token defensive guns, no one would ever mistake her for a warship. But against all odds, not only did the Neosho have a combat career, she had an extraordinary one.
A Fast Oiler
The Neosho was the second of 12 Cimarron-class oilers built as part of a public-private scheme worked out between the U.S. Navy and the Standard Oil Company of New Jersey (Esso). The Navy knew it would need multiple large, fast oilers to service the fleet but also knew it could not get the money to finance such vessels. Esso was willing to build some new tankers to a design approved by the Navy, but it would not pay for 5 knots of extra speed. The fleet needed its oilers to reach a top speed of 18 knots and to maintain a steady 15 knots, the cruising speed of carrier task forces.
Esso’s needs were much more modest. Its normal requirements were for a ship with a maximum speed of 13 knots and a sustained speed closer to 10. Therefore, toward the end of 1937, the company asked shipyards for two bids, one for a single-screw tanker with 13-knot maximum speed and another for one with two screws and capable of 18 knots. Based on the price difference between the responses, Esso worked out a deal in which it would order a dozen of the faster ships, with the Navy paying the difference.
The Neosho was laid down at Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company of Kearney, New Jersey, on 22 June 1938 and was launched on 29 April 1939. The urgency of the international situation had altered the Navy’s needs to the extent that the ship never joined Esso’s fleet. The Neosho was launched as a naval vessel, already bearing the hull number AO-23. She was named—as were all oilers—for a U.S. river; the Neosho flows from eastern Kansas into the Arkansas River in Oklahoma. Her fitting out included not only the normal pipes and valves of a commercial tanker, but also the complex system of hoists, winches, and hoses needed for underway replenishment.
In this configuration she was commissioned on 7 August 1939, and in late 1940, she entered Puget Sound Navy Yard. When she emerged on 7 July 1941, now commanded by Commander John S. Phillips, she had the valuable additional ability to transport aviation gasoline (“avgas”), a fuel far more volatile and dangerous than bunker oil. She had equipment to fill any void spaces in her bunkers with carbon dioxide, a precaution unnecessary with regular fuel oil. Thus modified, the Neosho immediately was put to work between southern California and the Navy’s main forward base in the Pacific, Pearl Harbor.
Wrong Place, Wrong Time
The gasoline runs quickly became routine. The Neosho would depart San Pedro, California, and arrive at Pearl Harbor approximately a week later. Once through the entrance channel, she might dock at one or more of three different berths, where her cargo would get pumped into storage tanks. She was making her sixth trip ferrying avgas when she entered Pearl Harbor early on 6 December 1941.
Part of the load the ship was carrying went to tanks serving Hickam Field and the rest to Ford Island. She tied up at the wharf at Hospital Point and off-loaded fuel all day Saturday, finishing at dusk. She then made the short trip north and quickly maneuvered alongside Gasoline Wharf, starboard side to; tied up her lines; hooked up her hoses; and resumed emptying her tanks. Her bow was pointing to the southwest, into a small cove on the south side of Ford Island.
Off the Neosho’s port bow was the battleship California (BB-44), moored by herself. Off her starboard quarter were the Maryland (BB-46) and Oklahoma (BB-37), next to each other. The Neosho would finish the job just before dawn Sunday morning, 7 December, and be ready to cast off and back away from the wharf as the sun was coming over Nuuanu Pali to the east. Unfortunately, the sun was not the only thing to light up Pearl Harbor early that morning.
Explosions on Ford Island alerted the watch on board the Neosho. “About 0758 Japanese dive bombing planes were observed. . . . General Quarters was sounded at 0800 and the battery of three 3”-23 caliber [antiaircraft] and one 5”-51 caliber guns was manned immediately and ordered to open fire and fire at will as enemy targets came in range.” The Neosho’s guns began firing at 0805, among the first at Pearl Harbor to do so.
As soon as sufficient steam pressure was available, at approximately 0840, Phillips called across to the wharf for lines to be cast off. But by this time there was no one there to lend a hand. Unwilling to strand any of his crew ashore, Phillips ordered the lines chopped fore and aft. The Neosho backed away from the dock, barely clearing the Oklahoma. She backed nearly all the way across Eastern Channel, then stopped and headed forward and to port in a loop that took her into Quarry Loch (Merry Point). All this was done without orders during the height of the second wave of Japanese attacks. The Neosho officially was credited with the downing of an enemy aircraft. Three crewmen were wounded in two separate strafing attacks; there was no damage to the ship, despite several bombs falling close by.
The withdrawal of the Japanese carrier force may have meant an end to the attack at Pearl Harbor, but for the Neosho it meant, if anything, increased activity. There would be no more quiet “milk runs” between Pearl and the West Coast. A week after the Japanese attack, the Neosho left to support Task Force (TF) 11 on a planned raid on the Marshall Islands. This kind of activity would keep the oiler busy until she found herself attached to Rear Admiral Frank Jack Fletcher’s TF 17 at Tonga in the South Pacific on 27 April 1942.
Climax at Coral Sea
As TF 17 maneuvered during the opening moves of the Battle of the Coral Sea, the Neosho was called on to replenish the USS Yorktown (CV-10) and her accompanying cruisers and destroyers on 1–3 May and again on the 5th and 6th. By late afternoon on 6 May, Fletcher was sure enough that combat with the Japanese was imminent that he ordered the Neosho detached for her safety. She was to retire to Point Rye—a predesignated rendezvous location more than 100 nautical miles to the south—and await Fletcher’s return. The USS Sims (DD-409) was designated as her escort, and the two ships detached at 1725.
The pair reached Point Rye at dawn on 7 May. The Americans and the Japanese sent out scouting missions at dawn in an attempt to locate each other. A pair of Japanese scouts, Nakajima B5Ns (later codenamed “Kates” by the Allies) off the carrier Shokaku, sighted the Neosho and Sims at approximately 0720 and reported them as a much larger force that included aircraft carriers. This was exactly the news the Japanese commanders were waiting for, and they launched a maximum strike of 78 aircraft between 0800 and 0815.
It took some time for the Japanese to realize the mistake the Shokaku scouts had made. A crisis for them began at 0902, when they received word from the strike leader, Lieutenant Commander Takahashi Kakuichi, that all he could see was an oiler and a destroyer. The Japanese commanders assumed he had found a support group trailing behind the previously reported carriers. Takahashi was instructed to maintain contact, but also to commence an area search for the U.S. strike force. This was a perfectly rational decision, but as each minute passed, continuing that search became less and less rational, as the evidence mounted that the U.S. carrier force was elsewhere. It took the Japanese commanders until 1051 to issue a recall, and Takahashi hesitated another 21 minutes before ordering his torpedo bombers and fighters back to their carriers. Thirty-six dive bombers—Aichi D3A “Vals”—including Takahashi’s command aircraft, remained behind.
Phillips knew an attack was coming. Neosho lookouts spotted the Shokaku scouts at 0740, soon after their first sighting report. But the commander assumed the aircraft were friendly. It was only when the main Japanese strike arrived just before 0900 that his doubts mounted, and they were confirmed not long thereafter: “At 0929, a bomb was seen to fall about one hundred yards on the starboard quarter of the SIMS.” The “bomb” was most likely a target marker dropped by Takahashi’s Val. The Sims, whose main battery of five 5-inch/38-caliber guns was capable of engaging Takahashi’s high-flying bomber, opened fire but scored no hits.
At 1003, Takahashi decided to replenish the smoke marker he had dropped more than an hour before. Ten Japanese aircraft overflew the two-ship formation, and three of them dropped target markers. This attack was reported in a message so brief and uninformative that Fletcher, hundreds of miles to the northwest, could have done nothing to help, even if he had had the time and resources to do so; in fact, he had neither. The Yorktown and TF 17’s second carrier, the Lexington (CV-2), were launching strikes that would result in the sinking of the light carrier Shoho.
At 1126, Takahashi’s dive bombers began their attack on the two U.S. ships. The attack was methodical and extremely effective, spanning nearly a half hour. Most of the attackers concentrated their attention on the Neosho; the Sims was not targeted until almost 15 minutes into the attack. But once the Japanese set their sights on the destroyer, they made quick work of her. The senior surviving crewman, Chief Signalman R. J. Dicken, had swum out to a motor whaleboat that had broken loose after the Sims received three bomb hits aft in rapid succession. He was steering the boat aft to check conditions there when the destroyer’s boilers exploded and the ship broke in two. The Sims sank so rapidly that very few of her men made it off the ship before she disappeared. Between the boat he conned and two life rafts he found with a few more survivors, Dicken was able to bring a total of 15 men over to the Neosho, where he put himself and his men at Commander Phillips’ disposal. Approximately 180 officers and men went down with the Sims.
The attack on the Neosho started earlier and lasted longer. She received eight or nine near-misses for damage and seven direct hits. The oiler had a small forecastle, a central superstructure housing the bridge, and a larger after superstructure block—known as the stack deck—built above the engineering spaces, which held the crews’ quarters and most of the defensive weaponry. It was normal practice during general quarters for the captain to take position on the bridge and the executive officer (XO) on the stack deck. It was a reasonable disposition, but one that would lead to problems during the confusion of combat.
The Neosho was in shambles. All seven hits were in the after two-thirds of the ship; four were on or close to the stack deck and left that part of the ship heavily damaged and burning. She was without power; one bomb had exploded in the fire room, and another had partially flooded the engine room. The XO, Lieutenant Commander Francis J. Firth, was badly burned and knocked temporarily unconscious. The ship’s hull was damaged in three places and was taking on water, listing her 30 degrees to port. No one could question the soundness of Phillips’ decision when he ordered his crew to prepare to abandon ship.
This was not an unusual order, but in the chaotic case of the Neosho, with the executive officer in the after superstructure semiconscious, that order was just too confusing. Men began launching the seven undamaged life rafts and following them overboard. Before Phillips recognized what was happening and sent another officer aft to restore order, as many as 150 officers and men had gone overboard. By 1230, two motor whaleboats were in the water with orders to round up the life rafts and get as many men out of the water as possible. With seas rising and no certainty that the Neosho would last the day, the crewmen in the whaleboats gathered what wounded men they found and returned them to the questionable safety of the oiler.
Unwounded men pulled out of the water were dropped off at the life rafts, which were instructed to make every effort to keep close to Neosho. But there was not time to tow the rafts back to the ship before dusk. Back on board the oiler, engineers succeeded in starting a small gasoline-powered generator, which allowed radio messages reporting the ship’s location to be sent. Unfortunately, the location given was incorrect, 15 nautical miles north and 30 east of her actual position.
A Long, Sad End
That the Neosho survived seven direct hits by 250-kilogram bombs is testimony to the inherent durability of oilers and to excellent damage control. She had large holes in her hull, her structure was badly damaged, and with the seas rising later in the day on the 7th, there was no certainty she would stay afloat. But she did, and when she did, Phillips could begin to assess how he could ensure the safety of the 120-odd survivors still on board the Neosho. The life rafts that had been in sight at dusk on the 7th were nowhere to be seen at dawn on the 8th.
The fact that the Neosho had survived the night did not mean she would stay afloat indefinitely. By morning, she had noticeably settled, which did have the advantage of reducing her list somewhat. But it made the ship even more sluggish, and she wallowed in the long swells. Hopes initially were high that she would be found. At about 0100, Fletcher had detached the USS Monaghan (DD-354) to send some messages and to search for the Neosho, but between the incorrect position sent the preceding day and the drift caused by steady trade winds, she was already 25 nautical miles from the point where the Monaghan was searching. Meanwhile on the 8th, TF 17 was exchanging blows with the Japanese main force, heavily damaging the Shokaku while losing the Lexington.
Phillips put his able-bodied men to work stocking the usable boats with water and food and constructing rafts from any available timber. He wanted to be ready in case the ship rapidly began to sink. The engineering staff inspected the fire room and engine room and determined there was no chance of raising steam again. Two of the wounded had died overnight and were buried at sea.
The Neosho’s list again lessened to an average of 23 degrees as she continued to settle during the 9th, but she remained afloat. Three motor whaleboats were in the water, though only one had a working motor, and the No. 2 motor launch was being laboriously manhandled across the ship from its skids on the starboard side. Four more men died of their wounds during the day.
Japanese aircraft searching in front of their reduced carrier force sighted the Neosho, but she was not aware of the sighting, and the Japanese were ordered to withdraw. No Allied aircraft or ship sighted the Neosho this day.
On the 10th, the Neosho remained afloat but continued to settle noticeably; the entire main deck forward was awash. A two-engine search plane, identified as an Australian Hudson, came into sight. The aircraft circled a few times, inquired if they were in trouble, and then flew off to the south. It was not clear if contact had been made. The No. 2 motor launch was put in the water, giving them four boats, two with working motors, enough to hold the survivors. Three more men died of wounds.
By midmorning on the 11th, rising water levels in the engineering spaces raised concerns about the continued stability of the ship, and Phillips began planning to scuttle her rather than wait for her to founder suddenly. Before this plan could be put into effect, a PBY Catalina appeared from the east at approximately 1130, circled the ship twice and then flew off to the south. Ninety minutes later, the USS Henley (DD-391) came over the horizon from the south. The Royal Air Force Hudson that overflew the Neosho the previous day had indeed reported her position, and the Henley had been dispatched from Nouméa to pick up the survivors and sink the derelict. This she did with efficiency; Phillips was the last to leave the ship at 1340, after which she was sunk by the Henley’s gunfire; 123 officers and men were rescued from the Neosho.
The Saga Continues
This still was not the end of the ship’s story. The USS Helm (DD-388) continued the search for survivors and on 17 May found four Neosho crewmen, one of whom died shortly thereafter. They were all that remained of the group of crewmen who had drifted away on life rafts during the night of 7–8 May.
Chief Water Tender Oscar Peterson, who had been horribly scalded shutting steam valves in the Neosho’s fire room, saving many shipmates’ lives during the Japanese attack, died after being rescued but before reaching Nouméa. He received the Medal of Honor.
Phillips, in his after-action report, believed it necessary to censure three of his officers for their actions during or after the battle: the navigator, his communications officer, and an assistant gunnery officer for, respectively, miscalculating the ship’s position, failing to communicate word of the attack adequately before power was lost, and failing to prevent men from abandoning ship without orders. Considerable bitterness and lingering resentment resulted from this action. Phillips never again commanded a ship at sea, apparently by choice. He remained in the Navy, serving primarily in intelligence billets and retiring as a rear admiral in 1947.
CSM R. J. Dickens, USN, “Personal observations of Sims #409 disaster,” 13 May 1942, included in USS Neosho (AO-23) War Diary, 1 April 1942–7 May 1942, Record Group 38 (hereafter RG 38), National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter NARA).
“Engagement of USS Neosho with Japanese Aircraft on May 7, 1942; Subsequent loss of USS Neosho; Search for Survivors,” USS Neosho (AO-23), 25 May 1942, RG 38, NARA.
John Lundstrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1984).
Del Leu, The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor, delsjourney.com/uss_neosho/pearl_harbor/neosho_at_pearl_harbor.htm.
Nimitz Gray Book, War Plans and Files of the Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, American Naval Records Society, Bolton Landing, NY, 2010, ibiblio.org/anrs/graybook.html.
“Report on Raid on Pearl Harbor, T.H., December 7, 1941,” USS Neosho (AO-23), RG 38, NARA.
“Sinking of the USS Sims (DD-409) by Japanese Bombers in the Coral Sea on May 7, 1942,” RG 38, NARA.