How the Tanker USS Neosho Helped Save U.S. Carriers in Battle of Coral Sea

 
USS Platte (AO-24) refueling USS Philippine Sea (CVA-47) and USS Watts (DD-567), 1955
 
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Undoubtedly, some types of U.S. Naval ships, past and present, are more recognizable, more famous, more flashy than others. Aircraft carriers and battleships immediately come to mind. Less likely to be noticed or lauded are the behind-the-scenes workhorses of the fleet, such as the humble tanker or fleet oiler.

According to the website American Merchant Marine at War, “During World War II, American tankers made 6,500 voyages to carry 65 million tons of oil and gasoline from the U.S. and the Caribbean to the war zones and to our Allies. They supplied 80% of the fuel used by bombers, tanks, jeeps, and ships during the War.”

Tankers were a valuable commodity, considering each one had a liquid capacity of roughly 6 million gallons. Plenty of thirsty fighting ships depended on them for refueling at sea to carry out their combat missions.

The U.S. Navy fleet oiler USS Neosho (AO-23) refueling the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV-5), 1 May 1942, shortly before the Battle of Coral Sea

One of these tankers was USS Neosho (AO 23), nicknamed “Fat Girl” and “floating gas station.” Launched in 1939, she was the second of the Cimarron class of fast tankers. With larger engines, these ships could attain a speed of 18 knots to meet the Navy’s specific requirement for faster refueling ships.

Neosho survived Pearl Harbor without a scratch, served a crucial role in the Pacific for several months, and provided one last valuable service to the fleet during her death at the Battle of the Coral Sea in May 1942.

When the Japanese infamously attacked Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941, Neosho was present, located between the battleship USS California and the rest of Battleship Row. Considering the beating that the Japanese gave the occupants of Battleship Row, it is remarkable that Neosho escaped completely unscathed, even from accidental hits.

She got underway, passing so close to the burning USS Arizona that her sailors could feel the heat, but managed to navigate safely past the flames. Her captain, Commander John S. Phillips, later received the Navy Cross for relocating the tanker during the attack. His citation reads, in part:

USS Arizona during the attack

At the time of the attack the U.S.S. NEOSHO was moored alongside the gasoline dock, Naval Air Station, Pearl Harbor, and had just completed discharging gasoline at that station. When fire was opened on enemy planes, Commander Phillips realized the serious fire hazard of remaining alongside the dock as well as being in a position that prevented a battleship from getting underway, [and] got underway immediately.

Mooring lines were cut, and without the assistance of tugs, Commander Phillips accomplished the extremely difficult task of getting the ship underway from this particular berth in a most efficient manner, the difficulty being greatly increased by a battleship having capsized in the harbor.

The U.S.S. Neosho, Navy oil tanker, cautiously backs away from her berth (right center) in a successful effort to escape the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941.

That the Japanese did not succeed in destroying the fuel storage tanks at Pearl Harbor is one of the main factors credited for why the Americans rebounded as quickly as they did afterward. It is worth noting that the Japanese likewise missed a golden opportunity to destroy Neosho, the only Cimarron-class tanker in the Pacific at the time, heavily targeting the battleships while allowing another valuable fleet asset to escape scot-free.

Walter Lord, in his book Day of Infamy, recorded that one Zero even held its fire while passing Neosho, which seemed “just a waste of good bullets.”

For the next few months, Neosho stayed busy, generally accompanying the carrier fleets, although sometimes she had to transit alone if there were no escorts to spare. Her sister oilers Platte (AO 24) and Sabine (AO 25), took part in operations against the Marshall and Gilbert Islands as well as the bombardment of Wake Island.

Neosho got in on some action in March 1942 as part of the USS Lexington (CV 2) task force strikes on Salamaua and on Lae on the New Guinea coast. 

Sabine (foreground) and the guided missile cruiser Albany in the Caribbean Sea in March 1967

In May 1942, Neosho was assigned to Task Force 17 centered around the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown (CV 5) which was in the Coral Sea hunting for the Japanese fleet that was heading to attack Port Moresby, Australia. After Neosho fueled Yorktown and Astoria (CA 34) on May 6, she was detached from the main force along with the destroyer USS Sims (DD 409) as her escort, and was sent southward to await the fleet at their next refueling rendezvous. 

Early the following day, scout planes from the Japanese carrier Shokaku spotted the two ships and misidentified Neosho as a carrier. This led the Japanese promptly to launch all the available aircraft onboard Shokaku and Zuikaku to go after her.

78 dive bombers, torpedo planes, and Zeros arrived in Neosho‘s vicinity and, likely to the mystification of the ships’ crews, kept appearing and disappearing for a couple hours as they hunted for the nonexistent American aircraft carrier. However, one plane did drop a bomb near Sims and the ships fired at the planes anytime they got close enough.

USS Neosho

Once the Japanese realized that misidentification of Neosho had sent them on a wild goose chase, most of the planes departed, but not all of them — after all, the ships might as well be sunk first. So it was that “Fat Girl,” ignored at Pearl Harbor, now had the full attention of two or three dozen Japanese dive bombers, with one lone destroyer as backup. 

Sims made a heroic effort to protect Neosho, but was hit amidships by three bombs right away. In short order her boilers exploded, tearing the ship in two. Sims sank so quickly that only 15 of her sailors, 2 of them fatally wounded, were able to make it over to Neosho in a whaleboat.

Neosho had not been standing idly by during Sims’s demise. Commander Phillips, in his after-action report, recorded:

“The 20 mm fire of the Neosho [sic] was very effective. At no time during the engagement did the machine gunners falter at their jobs…. However, despite any courageous tenacity on the part of the gun crews, it was quite obvious that if a pilot desired to carry his bomb home, he could not be stopped…. Three enemy planes are definitely known to have been shot down by this ship, of which one made the suicidal run into Gun No. 4 enclosure.”

USS Sims

Once Sims sank and Neosho was left to contend with the swarming dive bombers alone, the assault was brutal. Phillips noted: “In the immediate vicinity of the bridge, three direct hits and a number of near misses occurred.

In the aft part of the ship, two direct hits, a suicidal dive of a plane, and the blowing up of at least two boilers, along with several near misses, occurred.” When the planes departed, Neosho was powerless, drifting, and sinking. It seemed a foregone conclusion that the ship would not survive.

During the chaos, 158 of her sailors either found themselves trapped aft and so driven overboard by fire and escaping steam, or heard garbled versions of Phillip’s order to “Prepare to Abandon Ship but not to abandon until so ordered,” and had abandoned ship anyway with all the intact life rafts. Tragically, the 68 who made it onto the rafts, none of which held food or water, would not be found for 9 days. Of the 158 who went overboard, only 4 were recovered alive.

Neosho burning, 7 May 1942.

Neosho refused to give up and sink, at least not yet. Valiant efforts were made at damage control by the survivors of the attack who remained onboard. 16 officers and 94 enlisted men kept Neosho afloat, even though she was damaged beyond repair, continually taking on more water, and listing 30 degrees in rough seas.

Phillips later submitted eight “outstanding cases worthy of commendation and praise” in his after-action report, including that of Chief Watertender Oscar V. Peterson, who made the ultimate sacrifice to help save his ship and shipmates. Phillips recounted:

“PETERSON was in charge of the repair party stationed in the crew’s mess compartment adjacent to the upper level of the fireroom, with the additional specific duty of closing the four main steam line bulkhead stop valves during the battle, should damage dictate the need for shutting down these valves. When the bomb exploded in the fireroom the iron door leading from the fireroom to the mess compartment was torn open and the force of the explosion from the bomb, steam lines, and boilers knocked PETERSON down and burned his face and hands. In spite of noises indicating further damage being done by bombs to other parts of the ship, personal injury and lack of assistance because of serious injury to other men in his repair party, PETERSON worked his way into the fireroom trunk over the forward end of the two forward boilers, when escaping steam had dissipated sufficiently to permit him to reach the bulkhead stop valves, and closed these valves. By so doing, he received additional severe burns about his head, arms, and legs, which resulted in his death on May 13, 1942.”

A wave breaks over the main deck, engulfing hose crew, as Neosho (AO-23) refuels Yorktown (CV-5) early in May 1942, shortly before the Battle of Coral Sea

The other seven cases detailed by Phillips are equally gallant accounts. As a result of his captain’s recommendation, Peterson was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor. 

From May 7-11, Neosho‘s survivors held on, with little choice but to remain on the crippled ship although the captain was certain that at any time she might “sink of her own accord or break in two” as the main deck plating began to buckle. The destroyer USS Henley (DD 391) came to their rescue on the 11th, and after taking the survivors on board, complied with Phillip’s request to scuttle Neosho. 

USS Henley (DD-391)

The plucky oiler, just over 3 years after she had first been launched, met her end as usefully as she had lived, for it is possible that had Shokaku and Zuikaku‘s entire complement of aircraft not been distracted in the wrong direction for several hours by an oiler that turned out to be an unintentional decoy carrier, they may have instead attacked the real carriers in full force that morning in the Coral Sea.

Read another story from us: “Lady Lex” – USS Lexington Aircraft Carrier 

Indeed, an hour after Neosho was sighted, other Japanese scout planes actually spotted Lexington and Yorktown. Faced with conflicting information and wondering if the Americans had split their carrier forces, the Japanese decided to proceed with the attack to the south. Thus the fate of Neosho was sealed, but the carriers were saved from the onslaught that sank both Neosho and Sims.