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Home > Family History > USS Neosho

 

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

 

This section of my website is dedicated to the men who served on the oiler U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23) during World War II, including my uncle, Fireman 3rd Class, Bill Leu (1922-2003).

 

There are many little-known stories of World War II.  One of the most fascinating, I believe, 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.

 

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Above The U.S.S. Neosho in Norfolk, Virginia on August 7, 1939.  For a supersized photo, click here.

 
   

Construction of the U.S.S. Neosho began in June of 1938 in Kearny, New Jersey, and she was launched on April 29, 1939.  At that time, the 553-foot long ship was the largest oil tanker in the world.  Four months later, it was commissioned by the U.S. Navy in Norfolk, Virginia, and was officially named the U.S.S. Neosho.  The Neosho, like other Navy oilers during WWII, 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 being commissioned, the U.S.S. Neosho sailed through the Panama Canal to the Puget Sound Naval Yard at Bremerton, Washington, where it was converted to a U.S. Navy ship.  In July of 1941, five months before the United States entered World War II, it was ready for service. 

 

My uncle, Bill Leu, at age 19, signed onto the Neosho in Bremerton that July just before it shipped out, and he served on the Neosho during its entire wartime service, until it was sunk by Japanese dive bombers during an intense battle at the Coral Sea, only 10 months later.  Bill, a Fireman Third Class, worked in the ship's engine room and was very fond of the ship and its crew, a fact that was plainly obvious to me more than 60 years later when his eyes began to mist over as he described his experiences on the Neosho.  As Bill said, "It was a big ship... and it was a good ship."

 

During World War II, the U.S.S. Neosho, like other Navy oilers, had two important missions: 

  • To refuel warships during maneuvers, often at high speed on the open ocean, and

  • To transfer fuel between depots.

In the early years of World War II, the U.S. Pacific Fleet had very few tankers.  Therefore, because of their role as "floating gas stations," the Neosho and the handful of other Navy tankers were often the most precious ships in the Pacific Fleet, frequently surrounded and protected by the other ships during maneuvers.  During its service with the U.S. Navy, the Neosho refueled patrolling fleets, transferred fuel from the mainland to the newly-established Pacific Fleet headquarters at Pearl Harbor, and six months later, battled dozens of Japanese warplanes during the Battle of the Coral Sea.

 

Fierce Action at Pearl Harbor

By April 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 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. 

 

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Above:  The Neosho in Philadelphia in 1939.  This is looking forward from the stack deck on the stern.  The catwalk is on the right.

 

That month, the U.S. Navy decided to relocate its Pacific Fleet from San Diego, California to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to be closer to the action in Asia.  A major problem, though, was fuel.  Since Hawaii had no oil resources, all fuel 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 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.  Around midnight, the Neosho docked at Ford Island, nestled securely between the battleships U.S.S. Oklahoma and U.S.S. California in the middle of "Battleship Row," and almost immediately, the Neosho began transferring aviation fuel to the large tanks ashore. 

 

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, sitting idly at anchor.  During a slight lull in the battle, the Neosho, one of the first ships at Pearl Harbor that morning to get under way, 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 which was not damaged, and Bill, at his battle station with the 3-inch gun on the bow, witnessed the entire attack.  

 

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Above left:  Pearl Harbor, Hawaii about 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941.  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) sits at the Ford Island dock in "Battleship Row."  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 is starting to list.  The U.S.S. Arizona (far left) would explode moments later, instantly killing 1,177 men.  For a supersized photo, click here.

Above center:  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.  For a supersized photo, click here.

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 overturning and it settles in the mud.  The overturned U.S.S. Oklahoma and smoking U.S.S. Maryland lie behind the California.  For a supersized photo, click here.

 

The Battle of the Coral Sea

Six 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 for five days with both sides suffering losses and 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 very different if these two Japanese carriers had been there.

Simply put, before the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S. Navy had encountered almost nothing but defeat, 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 62 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.  

 

Burning and immobilized, the Neosho began listing sharply in the choppy 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 liferafts 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, at the same time that the Neosho was being attacked, American planes from these carriers were busy sinking a Japanese aircraft carrier.

 

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Above left:  The U.S.S. Neosho (right) refueling the aircraft carrier Yorktown in the Coral Sea, about May 2, 1942.  This was five days before the Neosho was attacked by Japanese dive bombers.

Above right:  The Yorktown (right) and Neosho (center) from the rear of a U.S. torpedo bomber (TBD) that has just taken off.  This was just 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 is the only photo that I've ever seen of the Neosho and Sims together.

 

Drifting Alone

The next morning, 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 and, like the men in the rafts drifting away from the ship, expected to be rescued quickly.  However, unknown to everyone, the ship's navigator had plotted the coordinates incorrectly, an error of about 60 miles, coordinates that had been transmitted to the U.S. fleet.  

 

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.  Half 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 that 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, and many of the Neosho's crewmen wept from the deck of the Henley as they watched their beloved tanker sink beneath the waves.

 

 

Jack Rolston

(1924-2010)

As I describe on this page, during the attack on the tanker Neosho at the Coral Sea, dozens of men leaped overboard.  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, but two of these men died shortly after their rescue.  One of the survivors was Jack Rolston.  After recovering in a Brisbane hospital, Jack returned to his home in Missouri in the U.S.

 

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 several months later to ask him a few 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 all this.  Jack asked me not to call him again and I promised I wouldn't contact him in any way.  I also changed Jack's 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 contacted Jack since 2003, but I was greatly saddened to learn of his passing.  I never met Jack but will always hold him in the highest regard.  He was the last of the 68 men, a sad and long-lost story of the war.  I've posted more information about Jack in my Veteran's Forum.

Five days later, another American destroyer, the U.S.S. Helm, picked up four more survivors of the attack several miles away.  These were the only survivors of 68 Neosho crewmen who had jumped into rafts 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, but the other two survived and returned to the U.S. 

 

Only 111 of the 293 men on the Neosho and 13 of the 252 men onboard the Sims survived the attack.  In other words, of the 545 men serving on both ships before the Battle of the Coral Sea, 124 survived while 421 men perished.

 

Had the Neosho been a warship, its saga -- including its unique role at Pearl Harbor, the dive-bombing at Coral Sea, the fate of the 130 men clinging to the listing deck, and the tragedy of the men in the life rafts -- likely would have secured a prominent place in U.S. Naval history.  Because it was an auxiliary ship, though, few people know about the role of the Neosho during World War II.  Therefore, to honor my uncle Bill Leu and the other men who served on board "The Fat Lady," as the Neosho was affectionately called, I'm devoting this section of my website to that valiant ship and to 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.

 

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Above left:  This is the last known picture taken of the U.S.S. Neosho (the bow is to the left).  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 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 right:  Five days later, on May 16, the destroyer U.S.S. Helm discovered four men in a raft.  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, too weak to climb into the whaleboat.

 

Interview With Bill Leu 

Throughout my childhood, I'd heard that my Uncle Bill had served at Pearl Harbor during the 1941 attack and that later his ship was sunk in the Coral Sea.  Although I was fascinated by these stories, Bill, like many veterans, never talked much about his wartime experiences and I never inquired.  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'd 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 week left to live.  After the nurse left, I asked my Dad what he would 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 visit with 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 obliged and 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 daughter, who sat nearby listening to him describe his experiences, were hearing many of these stories for the very 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 lost that afternoon in the Coral Sea, and of the valiant effort of the Neosho's escort, the U.S.S. Sims.

 

I've included the video interview on these webpages so that others can hear his description of the battles.  I've split the interview into two sections:

My father and his brother Bill had an emotional but fulfilling visit that day and my father passed away shortly afterwards.  To everyone's surprise, Bill, who had appeared to be in good health, suddenly passed away six months later.  Although I was saddened that my father and uncle were gone, I was glad that I had recorded some of their memories for future generations to appreciate.  They were both caring, modest and compassionate men with a great deal of character, and I've posted the story of their friendship at News: December 7, 2003.  

 

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Above left:  My uncle, Bill Leu, Fireman 3rd Class, in 1941.  Bill served on the Neosho during its entire active service, from July 1941 until May 1942.

Above right:  My Dad (left) and my uncle Bill Leu during their interview in 2002.  Sadly, this was the last time they saw each other.  My father passed away shortly afterwards and Bill died a few months later.

 

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.