Family History >
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,
(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
The U.S.S. Neosho in Norfolk, Virginia on August 7,
1939. For a supersized photo,
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,
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:
refuel warships during maneuvers, often at high speed on the open ocean,
transfer fuel between depots.
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
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.
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.
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
"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.
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,
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,
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,
The Battle of the Coral Sea
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
With Bill Leu
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.
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
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:
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,
compassionate men with a great deal of character, and I've
posted the story of their friendship at News:
December 7, 2003.
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.
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.
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