The U.S.S. Neosho  (AO-23)

 

Above:  The U.S.S. Neosho in Norfolk, Virginia on August 7, 1939, a few months after it was launched.

 

This section of my website is dedicated to the men who served on the navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) during World War II, including my uncle, Fireman Third Class, Bill Leu (1922 - 2003).  I wrote this section shortly after Bill's death to describe the U.S.S. Neosho and the Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

I updated this section in 2022 and as I write this, 18 years after first posting it, I believe it's still the most complete source of information regarding the U.S.S. Neosho and the Battle of the Coral Sea available on the Internet.

 

Above:  The top deck of the U.S.S. Neosho looking forward from the stack deck on the stern.  The catwalk, on the right, extended the full length of the ship

There are many little-known stories of World War II and I believe one of the most fascinating is the saga of the U.S. Navy oil tanker, U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23).  The Neosho (pronounced "nee-OH-sho"), a Cimarron-class oiler, plied the oceans for only three years before it was sunk.  But during that time it encountered some of the fiercest action in the early part of World War II, including the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 and the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942.  Because the Neosho was an auxiliary ship and not a combat ship, few people know its captivating story.

 

The U.S.S. Neosho was designed in 1938 as a joint venture between the oil company Esso and the U.S. Navy.  Per their agreement, Esso would use the tanker during peacetime and would transfer ownership to the Navy if and when the Navy needed the ship.  In those days of diesel engines before nuclear power, tankers were prized commodities in the Navy because they served as “floating gas stations,” refueling Navy fleets on the open ocean, and usually at high speed.  Without tankers, Navy fleets could not operate far from their base.  Tankers also transferred diesel and aviation fuel, known as “avgas,” between depots, another important role.

 

Esso was planning to design the Neosho with a single propeller yielding a cruising speed of 10 knots.  But the U.S. Navy needed a faster tanker, able to keep up with the other ships in the fleet, so the ship was upgraded to dual propellers to provide a cruising speed of 15 knots.  At that speed, the Neosho would be able to comfortably keep pace with Navy fleets and refuel them on the open ocean.

 

Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu in 1941, shortly after he joined the U.S. Navy.

Construction of the U.S.S. Neosho began in June 1938 in Kearny, New Jersey and when it was launched, on April 29, 1939, the 553-foot long ship was the largest oil tanker in the world.  Four months later, with war in Europe looming, the ship was transferred to the U.S. Navy, commissioned in Norfolk, Virginia, and officially named the U.S.S. Neosho.  The Neosho, like other Navy oilers during World War II, was named after a river in the U.S.  It was the second ship given that name, the first U.S.S. Neosho being a gunboat that operated on the Mississippi River during the Civil War.

 

After its commissioning, the U.S.S. Neosho sailed through the Panama Canal to the Puget Sound Naval Yard at Bremerton, Washington, where it was outfitted and converted to a U.S. Navy ship.  In July of 1941, as war in Europe and Asia was raging but five months before the United States entered World War II, the ship was ready for service.

 

My uncle, Bill Leu, at age 19, signed onto the Neosho in Bremerton that July just before it shipped out.  He served on the Neosho during its entire wartime service until it was sunk during the Battle of the Coral Sea near Australia 10 months later.  Bill, a Fireman Third Class, worked in the ship's engine room and was fond of the ship, its captain and its crew, a fact that was plainly obvious to me more than 60 years later in 2003 when his eyes misted over as he described to me his harrowing experiences on the Neosho.  As Bill told me, "It was a big ship.  And it was a good ship."

 

The U.S. Pacific Fleet had very few tankers during the early years of World War II.  Because of their role as "floating gas stations," the Neosho and the handful of other Navy tankers in the Pacific were often the most precious ships in the fleet, frequently surrounded and protected by the other ships during maneuvers.

 

During its service with the U.S. Navy, the U.S.S. Neosho refueled patrolling fleets and transferred fuel from the mainland to the newly-established Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  The Neosho survived the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, an event that plunged America in war.  Six months later the ship fought off dozens of Japanese warplanes during the Battle of the Coral Sea in the south Pacific before it was sunk.

 

Above:  The newly-built USS Neosho in New Jersey in 1939.  At the time of its construction, the Neosho was the largest oil tanker in the world.

Fierce Action at Pearl Harbor

By the spring of 1940, the war in Europe had been raging for eight months.  Germany was preparing to attack western Europe and within weeks, France would fall, leaving England to face Germany alone.  In Asia, Japan had brought China nearly to its knees after several years of bitter war and was hungrily eyeing the oil fields of southeast Asia.  Meanwhile, a strong isolationist movement in the U.S. had kept America out of the war.

 

Above:  Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941 moments after the Japanese attack began.  Several torpedo wakes and shock waves are visible in the water and the U.S.S. California (far right) is oozing oil.  The U.S.S. West Virginia has just been hit and the U.S.S. Oklahoma, behind it, is starting to list.  The U.S.S. Arizona (far left) would explode moments later, killing 1,177 men.

In April 1940, the U.S. Navy decided to relocate its Pacific Fleet from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to be closer to Japanese threat in Asia.  A major problem, though, was fuel.  Since Hawaii had no oil resources, all fuel there had to be imported.  The tanker U.S.S. Cimarron (AO-22) was pressed into action and spent the next several months speeding back and forth across the Pacific, carrying fuel from San Pedro, California to Pearl Harbor, joined in August of 1941 by the brand-new tanker, U.S.S. Neosho.

 

On December 6, 1941,  the U.S.S. Neosho, with my Uncle Bill aboard, pulled into Pearl Harbor with a full load of fuel, finishing its sixth round-trip from the U.S. mainland.  The Neosho docked at Ford Island around midnight, nestled securely between the battleships U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. California in the middle of "Battleship Row."  Shortly afterwards, the Neosho began off-loading the aviation fuel stored in its huge tanks to the large tanks ashore.

 

By the next morning at 7:55 a.m. the Neosho had almost finished unloading its tanks when, as my uncle Bill told me later, "all hell broke loose."  Waves of Japanese planes suddenly attacked and mercilessly pummeled the U.S. Pacific Fleet, which was sitting idly at anchor.  During a slight lull in the battle, the Neosho, one of the only ships at Pearl Harbor that morning to get underway, headed for safety on the Oahu mainland and dodged bombs and torpedoes while shooting down at least one Japanese plane.  The Neosho was the only ship berthed on "Battleship Row" that terrible morning that wasn't damaged, and Bill, at his battle station with the three-inch gun on the bow, watched the entire attack.

 

   

Above left:  The  U.S.S. Neosho (right) 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. 

Above right:  By about 9:00 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 capsizing and it settled in the mud.  The overturned U.S.S. Oklahoma and smoking U.S.S. Maryland lie behind the California.

The Battle of the Coral Sea

Five months later, in May of 1942, the Neosho sailed into the Coral Sea near Australia to fuel the Pacific Fleet, which had gathered there to thwart a Japanese invasion of New Guinea and Australia.  Up to this point, the U.S. had suffered a series of losses in World War II while Japan had enjoyed a continual string of victories and the fate of the war looked bleak for the Allies.  The Battle of the Coral Sea lasted five days with both sides suffering losses.  The battle was important for two reasons:

  • It was the first battle in naval history fought exclusively between aircraft carriers.  Neither surface fleet spotted the other during the battle, underscoring the importance of air power in future naval conflicts.

  • Although the battle was roughly a draw, the Japanese Navy was turned back for the first time in World War II, providing a much-needed morale boost for the Allies.  Also, two of the participating Japanese carriers were too badly damaged to join in the crucial Battle of Midway a month later.  Midway was a stunning American victory, but its outcome might have been different if the two Japanese carriers had been there.

Above:  I drew this map of the Battle of the Coral Sea to show the initial ship deployments and actions.

The Battle of the Coral Sea, though today largely forgotten, was a pivotal turning point during World War II.  Before the battle the U.S. Navy encountered almost nothing but defeat during WWII, while afterwards it encountered almost nothing but victory.

 

The Neosho played an important role in the Battle of the Coral Sea, first fueling the American fleet and then acting as an unwitting decoy.  On May 7, 1942, Japanese dive-bombers, searching for the main American fleet, discovered instead the Neosho and its escorting destroyer, the U.S.S. Sims, mistaking the flat-topped Neosho for an American aircraft carrier and the Sims for a cruiser.  These ships had been left behind in a supposed safe area while the rest of the American fleet had sailed ahead looking for the Japanese fleet.  During a relentless attack by 24 Japanese planes, the U.S.S. Sims valiantly defended the vulnerable Neosho but was sunk with the loss of 237 men.  The only survivors of the Sims, 15 men, clambered into a life boat and headed for the Neosho, which itself had been hit by seven bombs and one Japanese plane shot from the sky.

 

Burning and immobilized, the Neosho began listing sharply in the rough seas.  Afraid that the Neosho would capsize, Captain John Phillips ordered the crew to prepare to abandon ship, but the message got garbled and dozens of men immediately jumped into the water.  Many of those drowned while others, including my Uncle Bill, piled into the three motorized whale boats that slowly circled the ailing ship.  Dozens more clambered onto life rafts that slowly drifted away from the Neosho, most of whom were never seen again.

 

While the Japanese planes were attacking the Neosho and Sims, they had barely missed spotting the bulk of the U.S. fleet, including the vital carriers Lexington and Yorktown.  Had the Japanese planes not spotted the Neosho and Sims, they could well have found the two American carriers.  Incidentally, while the Neosho was being attacked, American planes from those carriers were busy sinking a Japanese aircraft carrier in the Coral Sea.

 

   

Above left:  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the aircraft carrier Yorktown in the Coral Sea, about May 2, 1942.  Less than a week later the Neosho was attacked by a swarm of Japanese dive bombers.

Above right:  The U.S.S. Yorktown (right) and U.S.S. Neosho (center) from the rear of a U.S. torpedo bomber that had just taken off.  This was shortly before the Battle of the Coral Sea.  The small ship on the horizon to the right of the plane's tail fin is the destroyer U.S.S. Sims.  This may be the only photo ever taken that shows the U.S.S. Neosho and U.S.S. Sims together.

Drifting Alone

The next morning, many of the men on the motor whaleboats went back aboard the immobilized Neosho, now listing at 30 degrees with the starboard rail underwater, and Captain John Phillips did a head count.  Of the 293 men onboard the ship before the attack, 20 men were confirmed dead and 158 men were missing, many of whom were on the rafts that had drifted away from the ship.  My uncle Bill and 129 other men – 114 from the Neosho and 15 from the Sims – clung to the deck of the listing Neosho or lingered in the crowded whaleboats tied up alongside.  Like the men in the rafts drifting away from the ship, they expected to be rescued quickly.  But unknown to everyone at the time, the ship's navigator had plotted the coordinates incorrectly, an error of about 60 miles, and those coordinates had been transmitted to the U.S. fleet.

 

 

Jack Rolston
(1924-2010)

As I describe on this page, during the attack on the tanker USS Neosho at the Battle of the Coral Sea in 1942, dozens of men, thinking the ship was sinking, leaped overboard into the rough waters of the Pacific.  Sixty eight men climbed into life rafts, lashed them together, and drifted away from the listing ship without food or water.  The open raft drifted for nine days and only four of the 68 men survived; two of these men died shortly after their rescue.  One of the two survivors was Jack Rolston.  After recovering in a hospital in Brisbane, Australia, Jack returned to his home in Missouri.

 

While doing research for this section of my website in 2003, I learned about Jack and sent him a letter.  He wrote back and kindly sent me several documents, some of which I've posted on this website.

 

I called Jack a few months later to ask him some questions, but his attitude had changed drastically, and he told me that my letter to him months earlier had reopened old wounds.  He said he'd been reliving the horror of the raft incident ever since.  Some of the men on the raft, he said, had been his closest friends back in Missouri and he had watched them die, one by one. 

 

Of course, I felt terrible about this.  Jack asked me not to call him again so I never contacted him again.  I also removed Jack's last name on my website to protect his privacy so that others wouldn't contact him.  In 2012, I learned from one of his relatives that Jack had died two years earlier.  I hadn't talked to Jack since 2003 but was very saddened to learn of his passing.

 

Jack was the last of the 68 men, a sad and long-lost story of the war.  I've posted more information about him in my Veteran's Forum.

   

Despite the battering it had suffered, the Neosho refused to sink, buoyed by her partly-emptied tanks.  The deck of the listing ship, however, was a mess.  Many of the men were burned or wounded and almost everyone was covered with diesel oil.  The men, including Bill Leu, patiently waited in the hot sun for three days without knowing what had happened in the battle, and had almost abandoned the Neosho when they were spotted by a scout plane.  The next day, May 11, they were rescued by an American destroyer, the U.S.S. Henley.

 

After the surviving 123 men were safely aboard the Henley, the destroyer tried to sink the Neosho so the Japanese wouldn't find her.  The ailing tanker was stubborn, though, and it took two torpedoes followed by 146 shells to put her under.  Finally she began to sink, stern first.  Many of the Neosho's crewmen openly wept from the deck of the Henley as they watched their beloved tanker slip beneath the waves.

 

Five days later and many miles away, another American destroyer, the U.S.S. Helm, picked up four more survivors of the attack.  These were the only survivors of 68 Neosho crewmen who had jumped into liferafts and lashed them together shortly after the attack, certain that the Neosho was on the verge of sinking.  The group of 68 men had drifted for nine days in the Coral Sea without food or water, during which all but four perished.  Shortly after the four emaciated, sunburned and nearly-delirious crewmen were rescued, two of them died.  The other two survived and returned to the U.S.

 

Only 110 of the 293 men on the Neosho and 13 of the 252 men onboard the Sims survived the attack.  Putting it another way, of the 545 men serving on both ships before the Battle of the Coral Sea, 123 survived while 424 men perished. 

 

Had the Neosho been a warship, its story – including its unique role at Pearl Harbor, the attack in the Coral Sea, the fate of the men clinging to the listing deck, and the tragedy of the men in the liferafts – might have been one of the most prominent sagas of World War II.  But because it was an auxiliary ship, few people know its captivating and tragic story.

 

Therefore, to honor my uncle, Bill Leu, and the other men who served on "The Fat Girl," as the Neosho was affectionately called, I'm devoting this section of my website to that valiant ship and its staunch defender, the U.S.S. Sims.  If you have photos or stories of the U.S.S. Neosho, I'd be happy to include them in this website.  If so, please contact me.

Radio Dramatization of the Attack

 

This recording, Fat Girl, is from the 1943 radio show "Cavalcade of America."  It's a dramatization of the attack on the U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor and during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

   

The Cavalcade of America was a weekly radio drama series broadcast from 1935 to 1952.  On their website, you can hear a 30-minute radio dramatization, broadcast in 1943, of the attack on the Neosho at Pearl Harbor and its sinking during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  Refer to episode "CALV 430510-330 Fat Girl" at the website: https://archive.org/details/OTRR_Cavalcade_of_America_Singles.

 

At the end, Captain John Philips speaks for a few minutes to commemorate the lives that were lost.  He died in 1975 and I believe this is the only recording of his voice on the Internet.  Links sometimes get broken over time, or disappear entirely, so I've posted that same recording here.

 

Above:  This is the last known picture taken of the U.S.S. Neosho.  It was taken from a Japanese plane about 1 p.m. on May 7, 1942, after Japanese torpedo planes and dive bombers attacked the Neosho and sunk its escort, the destroyer U.S.S. Sims.  Despite a 30-degree list, the ship would continue to float for four days until the surviving 123 crewmen, including my uncle, Bill Leu, were rescued by the destroyer U.S.S. Henley on May 11.

 

   

Above left:  Five days after the U.S.S. Henley rescued the men on the Neosho, on May 16, the destroyer U.S.S. Helm discovered four men in a raft over 50 miles away.  These were the only survivors from a group of 68 men who had drifted away from the Neosho shortly after the attack on May 7.  The Helm's whaleboat is on the left and the Neosho's raft is on the right, partly submerged. 

The four men had floated on the raft for nine days without food or water and were in critical condition.  Shortly after being rescued, two of the four men died and the other two returned to the U.S.  In 2010, Jack Rolston, the last of these men, died in Missouri.  Jack sent me this photo in 2003 and wrote the word, "Me," which you can see above and to the right of his image, as he sat on the raft.  He was too weak to climb into the whaleboat and had to be carried aboard.

Above right:  This is the tanker USS Pennsylvania Sun after an attack by a German U-Boat in the Gulf of Mexico in 1942.  This ship was similar to the Neosho and met a similar fate.  There are some pictures on the Internet saying this is the U.S.S. Neosho burning but they're incorrect.  Above this photo I've posted the only confirmed photo of the U.S.S. Neosho under attack during the Battle of the Coral Sea. 

Interview With Bill Leu 

I had heard occasionally throughout my childhood that my Uncle Bill had at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack and that his Navy ship was later sunk by the Japanese in the south Pacific.  Although I was fascinated by these stories, Bill, like many veterans, never talked much about his wartime experiences and I never asked.  I kept telling myself, though, that one day I'd ask him about it.  Finally, in November of 2002, I had an opportunity to videotape an interview with my 80-year old uncle and his brother, my 79-year old father, Don Leu.

 

I had always wanted to interview my dad and my Uncle Bill together, but unfortunately the circumstances that led to this event were tinged with sadness.  Earlier that fall, my father had been diagnosed with cancer and in mid-November, the hospice nurse told my dad that he had only a few weeks left to live.  After the nurse left, I asked my dad what he'd like to do in the short time he had left, and he said only one thing:  "I want to see my brother Bill."  During their entire lives, my dad and Bill were best friends, so it was no surprise that my father's final request was to see his older brother one last time.

 

The next morning, I drove my dad to Seattle where we spent the whole day with Bill and his family.  During the visit, I videotaped an interview with my dad and Bill, during which I asked them about their experiences in World War II.  I knew this might be my last chance to hear my Uncle Bill talk about his wartime experiences, so I asked him about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of the Coral Sea.  

 

Bill spent 20 minutes telling me about his combat experiences on the Neosho.  As I learned later, this was the first time Bill had told anyone these stories.  His wife and children, who sat nearby listening to him describe his experiences, were hearing many of these stories for the first time.  Bill had kept these painful memories to himself for 60 years and his eyes welled with tears as he remembered the friends he had lost that afternoon in the Coral Sea, and of the valiant effort of the Neosho's escort, the U.S.S. Sims.

 


Video Interview 

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

(December 7, 1941)

(9 minutes, 35 seconds)

 

Above:  Here's my uncle, Bill Leu (right), in 2002 describing the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941, shortly after the U.S.S. Neosho had arrived there.  My dad, also a WWII veteran, is on the left.  This was the last time they saw each other.  Sadly, my father died shortly afterwards and Bill died six months later.

 


 

Video Interview

The Sinking of the U.S.S. Neosho
at the Battle of the Coral Sea

(May 7, 1942)

(12 minutes, 2 seconds)

 

Above:  My uncle, Bill Leu, in my 2002 video interview with him.  In this segment, Bill describes how the U.S.S. Neosho and the destroyer that was escorting it, the U.S.S. Sims, were sunk by 24 Japanese dive bombers during the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942. 

 

 

I've posted these video interviews with full transcripts on the following pages.

 


Epilogue

My father and his brother Bill had an emotional visit that day.  After a lifetime of friendship, they both knew it would be the last time they would see each other.  As we all expected, my father passed away a few weeks afterwards.

 

Of course, I was very saddened by my father's death.  Then I was shocked again six months after my father's passing, in May 2003, when my uncle Bill, who had appeared to be in good health, suddenly passed away.  The loss of my father and uncle within a short span left a large void in my life but I was glad that I had at least recorded some of their memories for future generations to appreciate.

 

Don and Bill were caring, modest and compassionate with a lot of integrity and character.  Having endured the Great Depression and then having defended their country during World War II, they're quintessential members, I think, of what became known later as "The Greatest Generation."  I've posted the story of their lifelong friendship at News: December 7, 2003.

 

   

Above left:  Lifelong best friends:  Bill Leu (left) with his younger brother Don near their house in Skykomish, Washington in 1940 shortly before Bill joined the U.S. Navy.

Above right:  Sixty-two years later and still best friends.  This is my dad (left) and my uncle Bill Leu during their interview in November 2002.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father passed away a few weeks later and Bill died the following May.

 

Table of Contents:

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

>  U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) Home Page

 

SECTION 1:  Background

Specifications of the U.S.S. Neosho

Photo Gallery of the U.S.S. Neosho

The Four U.S.S. Neoshos

 

SECTION 2:  Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941)

Introduction

Prelude to War:  Conflict in the Far East

Bill Leu's Early Years

The U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Attack on Pearl Harbor

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

 

SECTION 3:  Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942)

Introduction

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 Ordeal of the U.S.S. Neosho

May 7, 1942:  The Japanese Attack

May 8, 1942:  Waiting for Rescue

May 9, 1942:  Fading Hope

May 10, 1942:  Neosho Sighted

May 11, 1942:  Rescue

The Battle of the Coral Sea (continued)

List of Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Neosho:  Survivors and Casualties

U.S.S. Sims:  Survivors and Casualties

Interview of Bill Leu:  The Battle of the Coral Sea

U.S. Navy Action Reports:  Battle of the Coral Sea

Action Report of U.S.S. Neosho

Action Report of U.S.S. Sims

Action Report of U.S.S. Helm

Other Ships at the Battle of the 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)

Battle of the Coral Sea Scrapbook

Honolulu Newspaper:  May 8, 1942

S.F. Examiner Article:  July 10, 1942

 

SECTION 4:  Aftermath

Introduction

President Bush's 1991 Speech at Pearl Harbor

Seattle Times Article:  Bill Leu at Pearl Harbor

John S. Phillips, Captain of the U.S.S. Neosho

U.S.S. Neosho Veteran's Forum

Fireman Third Class, Bill Leu

Jack Rolston and the Tragic "Raft of 68"

Links, Sources and Further Information

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