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Home > Family History > USS Neosho > The Pearl Harbor Attack > The USS Neosho at Pearl Harbor

 

 

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor  

 

 

 

In July of 1941, my uncle, Bill Leu, signed onto the new Navy oil tanker, the U.S.S. Neosho, in Bremerton, Washington.  When it was launched in 1939, the 553-foot long Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world.  Bill, a 19-year old Fireman Third Class, worked down in the engine room in the "black gang," a moniker held over from the days of coal-fired ships.  

 

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Above:  The U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) in Norfolk, Virginia on August 7, 1939, just after being commissioned.

 

The main task of the Neosho in the days before World War II was to carry fuel from the U.S. mainland to the Pacific Fleet's new base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.  Oahu had been a sleepy island, but that changed fast with the arrival of the Pacific Fleet in the spring of 1940 (see Prelude to War). 

 

One of the most important tasks for the Navy at that time was to build up an adequate supply of diesel and aviation fuel at Pearl Harbor, which meant shipping it in with tankers, such as the Neosho.  From July through November of 1941, the Neosho shuttled back and forth, carrying diesel and aviation fuel from San Pedro, California, to its destination in Pearl Harbor.

 

The U.S.S. Neosho, with a full load of fuel, arrived at Pearl Harbor on Saturday, December 6, 1941, its sixth round-trip since July.  After entering the harbor, it docked at Hickam Air Field, where it pumped a half-million gallons of aviation fuel into the storage tanks there.  

 

Late that evening, the Neosho cast off and headed for the dock at Ford Island, passing the destroyers U.S.S. Henley and U.S.S. Helm, two ships that would figure prominently in the Neosho's fate six months later during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  After passing the battleship U.S.S. Arizona, the Neosho tied up at the Ford Island dock on "Battleship Row," nestled securely between the battleships U.S.S. California and U.S.S. Oklahoma.  Almost immediately, the Neosho began transferring another half-million gallons of aviation fuel to the large fuel tanks on Ford Island.  By 7:55 the next morning, it had just about finished.  That's when, as Bill put it, "all hell broke loose."

 

The Japanese Attack

Bill was just getting off a shift that morning in the Neosho's engine room when he looked up and saw scores of Japanese planes attacking the Pacific Fleet sitting placidly in Pearl Harbor.  Puzzled at first, he scrambled to his battle station on the bow of the Neosho where he watched the entire attack while feeding 3-inch shells to the forward gun, one of the few guns on the ship.  Within minutes, Japanese torpedoes hit the U.S.S. Oklahoma, moored only a few yards away, and she quickly rolled over while trapping hundreds of men inside.  Soon afterwards, a bomb hit the forward magazine of the battleship U.S.S. Arizona, which exploded with a tremendous blast, instantly killing over a thousand sailors.  Battleship Row was the primary Japanese target that terrible morning and the Neosho was right in the middle of the action.  

 

At 8:40 a.m., during a slight lull in the attack, captain John S. Phillips, commander of the Neosho, ordered the ship to make way.  No one was on the Ford Island dock to cast off, so Captain Phillips ordered to his crew, "Chop those lines!"  As the Neosho backed away from the dock amidst a rain of bullets and bombs, she barely cleared the overturned Oklahoma, then headed for the relative safety of a berth at Merry Point on the Oahu mainland, pulling in behind the U.S.S. Castor at about 9:30 a.m..  From there, the Neosho's crewmen watched the second wave of Japanese planes swoop in and attack the smoking remnants of the fleet.  

 

Finally, around 10 a.m., the last Japanese planes left Pearl Harbor, flying back to their carriers north of Oahu, which had already turned around and were speeding back to Japan.  Fortunately for Bill and the U.S.S. Neosho, a planned third wave of air attacks, which had targeted the valuable oil storage tanks around Merry Point, had been called off by the Japanese commander, Admiral Nagumo, who was content with the damage that had already been inflicted. 

 

In their wake, the Japanese planes had decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet:  21 vessels, including seven of the fleet's great battleships, were sunk or badly damaged, 323 American planes were destroyed, and more than 3,000 Americans were dead or wounded. 

 

Aftermath

Amazingly enough, despite many near-misses from bombs and torpedoes, the Neosho was not damaged during the two-hour attack.  That was fortunate not only for Bill but also for everyone else at Pearl Harbor, considering the combustible fuels still in the ship's hold.  If a single bomb had struck the Neosho, it could have created a fiery holocaust.  Due to the quick action of Captain Phillips, though, the U.S.S. Neosho was the only ship moored on "Battleship Row" that morning which was not damaged -- in fact, it didn't lose a single man.  

 

The Neosho, now the only functioning U.S. Navy tanker in the mid-Pacific, spent the next several months criss-crossing the ocean while refueling ships and keeping the fleet going.  In the spring of 1942, it headed down to the Coral Sea near Australia where the Japanese were preparing to invade New Guinea.  There, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S.S. Neosho would meet its fate.

 

 

Click on the maps and photos below to see larger versions.

 

Below:  The Japanese attack plan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (December 7, 1941).

 

 

Below:  I drew this map showing the U.S. Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor, December 7, 1941.  I've shown the route of the U.S.S. Neosho in gray.

Pearl Harbor Map

 

 

 

Below:  A close-up of Battleship Row on the morning of December 7, 1941.

Pearl Harbor Map

 

 

 

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Above left:  Ford Island, just before 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941, at the start of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.  A Japanese plane flies just above the U.S.S. Neosho (center), which is docked at Ford Island.  A plume from a near-miss rises between the U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. West Virginia, moored astern of the Neosho.

Above center:  Battleship Row at about 8:00 a.m.  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) sits at the Ford Island dock.  The U.S.S. California (far right) is oozing oil.  Several torpedo wakes and shock waves are visible in the water.  The U.S.S. West Virginia has just been hit and the U.S.S. Oklahoma is starting to list.  The U.S.S. Arizona (lower left) would explode moments later, instantly killing 1,177 men.

Above right:  The  U.S.S. Neosho (center) at about 8:30 a.m.  An awning, erected for Sunday morning services, covers the bow of the U.S.S. California (left), which is listing and straining at its lines.  The U.S.S. Oklahoma lies capsized behind the Neosho.  This was just before Captain John Phillips ordered the Neosho's lines cut.

 

 Neosho_Backing_Out_Of_Dock_From_Tower_Circled_-_600x450.jpg (63206 bytes)    Neosho_at_Ford_Island_-_From_Corel_Circled2.jpg (57201 bytes)    Merry_Point_Nov_1941_-_From_Corel_Circled.jpg (78956 bytes)

Above left:  By 8:50 a.m., the U.S.S. Neosho (circled) was backing away from its berth and heading for Merry Point.  It had narrowly missed hitting the overturned U.S.S. Oklahoma, which is clearly visible.  Smoke is visible from several battleships.  This photo was taken from the air control tower on Ford Island.

Above center:  By about 9:10 a.m., the Neosho (circled) was still backing but was beginning to swing its bow around.  Counter-flooding kept the U.S.S. California (left) from overturning and it settles in the mud.  The overturned U.S.S. Oklahoma and smoking U.S.S. Maryland lie behind the California.

Above right:  This photo, taken six weeks before the attack, shows where the U.S.S. Neosho tied up at Merry Point (circled) during the Pearl Harbor attack.  It docked here behind the U.S.S. Castor (not shown) and waited out the attack.  The U.S.S. Neosho was the only ship moored on Battleship Row that morning which was not damaged.  Because of his quick action, Captain Phillips received the Navy Cross.  The U.S.S. Neosho was now the Navy's only operational tanker in the mid-Pacific.

 

 

Table of Contents:

U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page

 

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Pearl Harbor Attack  (December 7, 1941)

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Bill Leu Interview:  Pearl Harbor Attack

U.S. Navy Action Report:  U.S.S. Neosho

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942)

The Battle of the Coral Sea:  Summary

Battle Action:  April 30 - May 4, 1942 

Battle Action:  May 5 - May 7, 1942

Battle Action:  May 8, 1942

The U.S.S. Neosho at Coral Sea

May 7, 1942:  The Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting For Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

List of Survivors & Casualties

The Battle of the Coral Sea  (May 1942 - cont.)

Bill Leu Interview:  Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Coral Sea

Action Report of the U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of the U.S.S. Sims

U.S.S. Helm Report

Other Ships at Coral Sea

The U.S.S. Sims (Neosho's Escort)

The U.S.S. Henley (Neosho's Rescuer)

The U.S.S. Helm (Rescued Life Raft)

Coral Sea Scrapbook

S.F. Examiner Article, July 10, 1942

 

Aftermath

President Bush's Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

Obituary of Captain John S. Phillips

 

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

 

Sources & Further Information

The current page is shown in bold.