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The USS Neosho at Pearl Harbor
U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor
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.
Above: The U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) in Norfolk, Virginia
on August 7, 1939, just after being commissioned.
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
on the maps and photos below to see larger versions.
The Japanese attack plan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii (December 7, 1941).
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.
A close-up of Battleship Row on the morning of December 7, 1941.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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