The U.S.S. Neosho
During the Attack on Pearl Harbor

(December 7, 1941)

 

In May 1941, my uncle, Bill Leu, enlisted in the U.S. Navy and 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 from the small logging town of Skykomish, Washington, was assigned to the Neosho's engine room in the "black gang," a term held over from the days of coal-fired ships.  When Bill enlisted in May, America hadn't yet entered World War II, though the war had been raging in Europe for nearly two years.  And in Asia the Japanese had been extending their reach after their invasion of China, ten years earlier.

 

Above:  The Navy tanker U.S.S. Neosho in 1939.

The main task of the Neosho in the days before America entered World War II was to carry fuel from California to the Pacific Fleet's new base at Pearl Harbor, on the island of Oahu in Hawaii.  Oahu had been a sleepy tropical island of little interest to the U.S. government for many decades but that suddenly changed in 1940 when the Navy decided to move its Pacific Fleet headquarters there from San Diego to be closer to the growing Japanese threat in Asia.  One of the most important goals for the Navy in the Pacific at that time was to build up an adequate supply of diesel and aviation fuel at Pearl Harbor, and that meant shipping it over to Oahu using Navy tankers, such as the Neosho.  From July through early December of 1941, the Neosho shuttled back and forth across the ocean, carrying diesel and aviation fuel from San Pedro, California, to its destination at Pearl Harbor.

 

Carrying a full load of fuel, the U.S.S. Neosho 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.

 

Above:  Bill working in the engine room of the U.S.S. Neosho.  The ghost faces are from a double-exposure.

Late that evening the Neosho cast off and headed for Ford Island in the middle of Pearl Harbor, quietly passing by dozens of anchored ships, including the destroyers U.S.S. Henley and U.S.S. Helm.  The crewmen on the Neosho were oblivious to the important role those two ships would play in the Neosho's tragic fate six months later during the Battle of the Coral Sea.  After passing the battleship U.S.S. Arizona, the lumbering tanker tied up at the Ford Island dock on "Battleship Row," nestled securely between the battleships U.S.S. California and U.S.S. Oklahoma.

 

Around midnight the Neosho began transferring the rest of its fuel, another half-million gallons of aviation gas, to the large storage tanks on Ford Island.  By 7:55 the next morning, December 7, the Neosho had almost finished off-loading its fuel.  Bill was just about ready to finish his shift down in the engine room when, as he told me many years later, "All hell broke loose."

 

I've drawn several maps below to illustrate the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Click on each to see a larger version.

The Japanese Attack

Above:  The Japanese attack plan at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on December 7, 1941.

Bill was just getting off his shift in the Neosho's engine room on the morning of December 7, 1941, when he looked up and saw scores of Japanese planes attacking the U.S. Navy's Pacific Fleet, which was sitting placidly in Pearl Harbor.  Puzzled at first, he scrambled to his battle station, running the length of the Neosho's catwalk and finally reaching the ship's three-inch gun on the bow.

 

Bill was the first man to reach his battle station on the bow but was baffled to discover that everything was locked up.  The other men arrived after a few minutes and, with the Japanese planes continuing to attack, Bill began feeding three-inch shells into the ship's bow gun.  He and his colleagues were trying to blunt the Japanese assault but, as he told me years later, "You aren’t going to hit no airplane when they’re right on top of you and with a three-inch shell."  He watched the attack unfold while continuing to feed three-inch shells to the forward gun, one of the few guns on the nearly-defenseless tanker.

 

Minutes after the attack began, Japanese torpedoes hit the U.S.S. Oklahoma, moored only a few yards away, and the ship quickly rolled over, trapping hundreds of American sailors 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 men.  Battleship Row was the primary Japanese target that terrible morning and the Neosho was in the middle of the fierce action.

 

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

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 and flew back to their carriers, 250 miles north of Oahu and steaming fast 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 on the U.S. Navy.

 

In their wake, the Japanese planes had decimated the U.S. Pacific Fleet.  Twenty-one U.S. 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 U.S.S. Neosho was not damaged during the two-hour assault.  That was fortunate for Bill and everyone near the Neosho 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 helping to keep the fleet operational.  Had the Neosho been sunk or damaged at Pearl Harbor, the effectiveness of the U.S. fleet during the months afterward would've been severely hampered. 

 

In the spring of 1942, the Neosho accompanied a large U.S. Navy task force that was sailing down to the Coral Sea in the south Pacific, where the Japanese were preparing to invade New Guinea and threaten Australia.  There, at the Battle of the Coral Sea, the U.S.S. Neosho would meet its tragic end.

 

Below:  Close-up of Battleship Row at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii on the morning of December 7, 1941.

 

 

U.S.S. Neosho at Pearl Harbor  (December 7, 1941)

   

Above left:  Ford Island at 7:55 a.m. on December 7, 1941, at the start of the surprise Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.  A Japanese plane flies just above the U.S.S. Neosho (circled), 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 right:  Pearl Harbor around 8:00 a.m. 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.

 

   

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 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 the overturned U.S.S. Oklahoma, which is visible.  Smoke is rising from several stricken battleships.  This photo was taken from the air control tower on Ford Island.

 

   

Above left:  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. 

Above right:  This photo, taken in October 1941, 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 not damaged.  Because of his quick action Captain Phillips received the Navy Cross, but the U.S.S. Neosho was now the only operational tanker in the mid-Pacific. 

 

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 (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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