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Acclaimed naval historian Don Keith tells one of the most inspiring sea stories of World War II: the Japanese attack on the American oiler USS Neosho and the crew’s struggle for survival as their slowly sinking ship drifted on the treacherous Coral Sea.
May 1942: the United States closed in for the war’s first major clash with the Japanese Navy. The Neosho, a vitally important but minimally armed oil tanker was ordered away from the impending battle. But as the Battle of the Coral Sea raged two hundred miles away, the Neosho was attacked, setting the ship ablaze and leaving it listing badly. Scores of sailors were killed or wounded, while hundreds bobbed in shark-infested waters. Fires on board threatened to spark a fatal explosion, and each passing hour brought the ship closer to sinking. It was the beginning of a hellish four-day ordeal as the crew struggled to stay alive and keep their ship afloat. Only four of them would survive to be rescued after nine days.
Working from eyewitness accounts and declassified documents, Keith offers up vivid portraits of Navy heroes in this tale of a ship as tough and resilient as its crew. The Ship That Wouldn’t Die captures the indomitable spirit of the American sailor—and finally brings to the surface one of the great untold sagas of the Pacific War.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.20(d)|
About the Author
Don Keith is the award-winning author of Undersea Warrior, War Beneath the Waves, In the Course of Duty, The Ice Diaries, and other nonfiction works on American naval heroism. He is also the coauthor, with George Wallace, of the submarine thrillers Final Bearing and Firing Point.
Read an Excerpt
BOOKS BY DON KEITH
May 6, 1942, in the Coral Sea, between the Solomon Islands and Australia
“Abandon ship! Everybody, get off the ship!” the wild-eyed, red-faced sailor yelled as he ran through the vessel’s forward compartments. “She’s goin’ down, boys, if she don’t blow up first!”
Another sailor, busy passing up ammunition to the gun crew above, had no reason to doubt the truth in what his shipmate was screaming. From his station in the number one magazine—where shells were stored to feed the forward-deck gun—the barely twenty-year-old sailor could see nothing that was going on outside the hull, but could certainly feel the thuds and tremors, and heard the thunder as his big ship took vicious hits at the bow and amidships.
After a morning of cruel teasing, the vessel was now catching full-bore hell from a sizable and determined swarm of Japanese dive-bombers. Though the guns on his ship were firing back, it was clear—even down here in the dark, smoke-filled magazine—that the enemy planes were homing in, inflicting what could be mortal damage.
One near hit exploded in the water just on the other side of the ship’s starboard hull from where the sailor worked. The resulting shock wave almost knocked him and his buddies to the deck. The men regained their balance, and eventually their hearing, as they kept hoisting shells up to those who were manning the bow gun, doing their best to fend off their attackers.
Each man working in the magazine fully expected a bomb to crash through the deck above him at any second and light off the explosive ordnance stacked all around. They also knew the likelihood of some stray spark touching off the fumes from the cargo of fuel oil they carried in the big tanks directly below their feet.
The high-pitched chatter on the ship’s communications system confirmed that their vessel was taking one hell of a drubbing. Shipmates were dying.
“Let’s get the hell out of here!” the man next to the sailor yelled. “If all that fuel below . . .” But the man turned and disappeared before he finished stating the obvious, his words overcome by the roar of explosions and the rattle of the ship’s antiaircraft guns.
The young sailor paused, looked around, and ran after his buddy. He took a detour to grab his life vest, which he kept stowed beneath his bunk.
It was not there. Some son of a bitch had apparently decided he needed it worse than his shipmate did. The sailor knew he would have to go into the sea without it.
Once topside, what he saw almost stopped his bounding heart. An enemy plane, its flaming wreckage still discernible as an Imperial Japanese Navy dive-bomber, had crashed into the stack deck, aft of the bridge. Bombs had found the fire room and engine room, letting loose superheated steam and setting fire to leaking oil. Gray-black smoke clouded the sky as it climbed toward the midday sun. Flames swirled upward from back there. There was chaos on the deck. Even as some men fought the fires and tended to the injured, others were running or jumping overboard, some bleeding, some badly burned.
For the moment, no more enemy planes could be seen, no bombs falling, no machine guns strafing the deck. As he considered the near-fifty-foot jump into the water without a life vest, the sailor wondered if it might be the better option to wait right where he was, to see if the attack was over, if the ship might stay afloat for a while. He might be able to help fight the fires and care for the injured, too.
But something else felt out of kilter. The deck. Beneath his feet, the deck—normally solid and dependable except in the heaviest seas—was tilted just enough for him to notice. Somebody nearby dropped a wrench, and the sailor watched as it slowly slid away along the deck plates toward the far side of the massive vessel.
They were listing already, taking on water.
The ship was actually going to sink beneath them, go down suddenly, just as their escort destroyer, the USS Sims, already had. Some of the men stationed topside had witnessed that ship’s quick death as it happened. The sailor had heard them talking about it over the communication system.
He hesitated no longer and ran to the starboard rail. Where were the lifeboats? Off to his right, one whaleboat hung at a skewed angle, dangling alongside the ship’s hull, halfway down to the water. Only one man was aboard the boat. It looked like the gunnery officer, the sailor’s direct boss whenever they were at battle stations. He was clearly having trouble launching the craft by himself.
But why was he trying it alone? That was not the way the drills went. If they were abandoning the ship, that whaleboat should have carried an assigned crew of men who were familiar with how to get the vessel launched quickly but safely and then knew what to do with the craft once they were in the water.
There were no life rafts anywhere in sight on deck, either. The sailor could see empty rafts—at least a half dozen—riding along the wave tops several hundred yards out from the ship, just beyond where burning oil covered the sea’s surface. He could see no other lifeboats out there yet.
On each side of him, men ran over and leaped into the sea without hesitation. A couple of them, he noticed, were officers.
If the officers were getting off the USS Neosho as quickly and by any means they could, then its sinking was certainly imminent. His best chance to survive was to get into the water as well. Then, assuming he lived through the impact with the surface after jumping that far, and that a shark did not find and swallow him, he would try to swim away from the doomed ship. Swim far enough away so that the big oiler would not suck him all the way to the bottom with her when she plunged downward.
The sailor took one more look down and swallowed hard.
It was a hell of a long way. The waves were murky, blanketed with thick oil. Back toward the stern, the slick burned brightly, an arc of smoky fire stretching from beneath the ship out to a hundred yards or so. The nearest life raft was a daunting swim away, partly through oil, then over rolling, white-capped waves. The thing seemed to be getting smaller, drifting farther out all the time.
One of his buddies stood next to him then, taking in the same panorama of smoke, fire, mayhem, and panicked and wounded sailors. The man took a deep breath, held his nose, and leaped feetfirst.
The sailor climbed the rail, looked down once more, then up at a serene, cloudy sky from which so much deathly hail had just rained down on them.
He crossed his arms over his heart, closed his eyes tight, held his breath, and stepped off his listing ship into the Coral Sea.
We have witnessed this morning the attack of Pearl Harbor and a severe bombing of Pearl Harbor by army planes, undoubtedly Japanese. It’s no joke. It’s a real war.
—From first-known broadcast radio news report from Hawaii, December 7, 1941
December 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor, Oahu, Hawaii
Surely the most powerful instinct hardwired into man is survival. It often manifests itself as a fight or flight for self-preservation when faced with a deadly threat. When we encounter a mortal menace, the hypothalamus in our brain immediately kicks into gear and issues a series of commands. Nerve cells amp up to force heightened awareness. Adrenaline surges into our bloodstream. Our heart rate zooms, pumping more blood than normal to organs and muscles, especially to extremities to fuel a fight or a quick getaway.
This mechanism explains how people can survive an ordeal that should kill them. It may also be the reason that they sometimes panic and do exactly the wrong thing.
At a berth at Ford Island in Pearl Harbor, a young sailor named Bill Leu was passing a typical early morning with his shipmates in the engine room of a U.S. Navy ship when suddenly someone came running through, yelling something improbable, impossible.
They were under attack.
Leu had just come off duty after a long night in the ship’s engine room. A member of the “black gang,” the “snipes”—or, as Leu termed it, the “lowest of the low” when it came to duty aboard a naval vessel—he was officially a fireman third class. Yet he and his fellow firemen were typically described by using a term—the black gang—left over from a time when ships ran on steam power produced by burning coal.
Leu had been in a black mood that morning, for sure. Saturday night in Pearl Harbor, near Honolulu in beautiful Hawaii, and he had spent it down in the bowels of the USS Neosho (AO-23), the huge tanker ship on which he served. Spent it staring at the oil-streaked mugs of the other sailors who drew the short straw instead of getting leave, drinking and dancing with some of the friendly hula girls at one of the clubs near Waikiki.
Now, once they finished pumping the last of the fuel oil out of her seemingly bottomless tanks, an empty Neosho would head out to the northeast and away from the pleasures of Hawaii. She would ride high on the water, rolling and swaying all the way back to the fuel depots at San Pedro, in Los Angeles. There they would fill her up once more and do the same thing all over again, making yet another quick turnaround for the “milk run” back to Hawaii. About the only thing they could look forward to was trying to time the circuit to put them back in Honolulu for weekend liberty, and then maybe home for Christmas.
A native of Skykomish, Washington, Leu had chosen the Navy of his own free will. He could not complain much about life aboard the tanker ship. For the most part, it was all right, even if it was hot and greasy and dirty and loud. He liked his shipmates, and there was usually a day or two of shore leave at one or the other end of the circuit, even if the Navy did keep them awfully busy lately.
Once he was out of high school, Leu’s mother told him he could live at home rent-free for one year while he worked and saved money for college. He labored hard on a railroad section gang for a bit, then worked part-time in a mill while helping his father in his struggling grocery store in Skykomish, a tiny logging town in the mountains east of Seattle.
Soon Leu decided he was hardly college material, but he certainly had no interest in returning to the section gang or the mill. The Navy began to look more and more inviting. Posters in the recruiting office featured artists’ renderings of beaches, exotic ports, smiling men in their dress whites, and long-haired girls waiting to welcome sea-weary sailors. As it turned out, Leu would not have much of an ocean view where he worked and bunked on the ship.
He was assigned duty on the brand-new “fleet replenishment” vessel, a Cimarron-class “tanker” or “fleet oiler,” the largest and fastest of its type built to that point. The ship had been dubbed the Neosho, named, as all oilers were, for a river. The Neosho River is a tributary of the Arkansas and winds almost 500 miles through Kansas and Oklahoma. The vessel’s size was imposing, even to a teenager who had seen plenty of ships operating in the waterways around Seattle.
A colossal craft designed to carry a cargo of almost 150,000 barrels of oil, the Neosho was 553 feet long and 75 feet wide, yet capable of reaching a speed of 18 knots. First launched in 1939, the tanker soon underwent more work to prepare her for a specialized job, refueling ships in a fleet while at sea. The ship was at nearby Bremerton shipyards when Bill Leu reported aboard for duty in May 1941, just two months before her final conversion to fleet tanker was to be completed. Then, in July, she and her crew went to work, transporting fuel from various ports on the West Coast to the storage tanks at military facilities in Pearl Harbor. It was interesting enough duty. Leu learned a lot about Navy life, and it was certainly more fun than his previous jobs. Besides, there was no war going on—at least not one involving the United States—so as long as they followed all the precautionary rules for handling the fuel they carried and everyone did his job correctly, it was as safe as riding a cruise ship.
• • •
“The Japs are bombing us! The damned Japs are bombing us!”
After coming off duty, Leu and his buddies had been below in the engine room when the peaceful morning exploded. Guys just back from downtown were bragging about their adventurous night on liberty, while the ones who had stayed aboard groused about an evening stuck in purgatory. Above the din of their complaints came what sounded like thumps, along with the roar and whine of aircraft engines.
They thought little of it. Somebody speculated that the noise was likely the damn Army flyboys deliberately torturing the sailors at Pearl Harbor with a blaring early-morning drill. The pilots would know that many of the swabbies were hungover and hurting so early on a Sunday.
That was when the red-faced sailor came running from compartment to compartment, proclaiming that they were under attack.
Leu felt the first surge of adrenaline and rapid heartbeat as he dashed to the ladder that led to the upper deck of his ship. He knew precisely what to do even before the klaxon sounded to tell them. He and his shipmates had been subjected to seemingly endless drills in preparation for moments such as this. As he raced toward his duty station, the grating, distinctive General Quarters alarm began sounding throughout the ship, sparking in him a new burst of energy.
He had a long way to go, all the way from the engine room aft to the ship’s five-inch gun at the bow. Once topside, he was galloping full speed along a catwalk. Smoke was everywhere. The overwhelming clamor of airplane engines, antiaircraft guns, and explosions was excruciating.
Then he glanced over and saw something that would stick in his mind for the rest of his life. He stopped in his tracks and stared, wide-eyed.
A lightning-quick airplane buzzed so close, he thought its single propeller might clip the top of one of Neosho’s masts. It was a Japanese B5N “Kate” bomber, zooming so low and so near to Leu’s ship that the young sailor could clearly see the pilot’s face. The flier had his canopy open and was laughing as he pulled up and away, toward the few puffy clouds overhead. The plane had just dropped a deadly load, aimed at one of the seven U.S. battleships moored two abreast, all very near where Leu’s ship was tied up.
The torpedo ran true and struck home. The impact of the blast pressed against his face and chest, nearly sucking all the air from his lungs, and flinging him to the deck. The explosion temporarily deafened him.
Heart pounding, Leu almost fell down, but he caught the handrail for balance and watched the plane for a few seconds as it roared away. The bold, red, rising-sun symbols were clearly visible on the aircraft’s fuselage and on the underside of its wings.
“Meatballs.” That was what some called the Japanese rising-sun emblem.
Leu could scarcely believe what he was seeing and hearing, what he was feeling. Across the water, the big warship USS Oklahoma had already been listing crazily, even before the laughing pilot’s bomb struck home. Now, not even a football-field length off the stern of the Neosho, the Oklahoma was clearly capsizing as frantic sailors fled her decks, diving into a big, blazing pool of black, oil-covered water.
Men were dying by the hundreds. Leu watched from where he stood, mouth open in disbelief, observing the surreal scene.
But his instincts and adrenaline had already kicked in. All he could think of now was getting to his station as he was trained to do. And then doing whatever he could to try to erase the grins off the faces of those damned Japanese pilots.
• • •
Seaman Harry P. Ogg had drawn somewhat better duty aboard the Neosho than did Bill Leu. Like his shipmate, Ogg had experienced a tough upbringing during the Great Depression, working the fields of south Texas around Harlingen for pennies a day and then helping out in the little grocery store run by the grandmother who raised him. Later, the family moved up to Corpus Christi, and that was where Ogg went to high school.
He was a senior, struggling with math, when a good friend suggested that he quit school and that the two of them join the Navy together. Ogg had often listened to the audacious stories conjured up by the merchant seafarers around Corpus Christi. It sounded like an adventurous life, visiting exotic ports of call far from the choking dust, chattering cicadas, and backbreaking labor he had experienced most of his young life. Besides, as a seaman first class, he would be paid a whopping twenty-one dollars a month—much more than he made in the sunbaked fields—plus three square meals a day.
Ogg’s job aboard the Neosho was to shadow the officer of the day and relay messages between him and the captain. On the morning of December 7, he had drawn early duty, which meant an early breakfast, served before 0600. Always an early riser from his days in the fields, first dibs on breakfast was something Ogg considered a nice benefit of his job on the tanker. The food was pretty good, and getting to it early meant it was plentiful, too.
After eating, he went as usual to assist the quartermaster in raising the ship’s flag, her “colors.” Since the ship was still hooked up and in the process of off-loading fuel to the storage tanks on Ford Island, the men were careful to keep the distinctive “Baker” flag hoisted. That was their way of making sure that anyone approaching their craft by air or water would be aware that the ship was discharging dangerous cargo. In this case, it was high-octane aircraft fuel that was being pumped from one of the ship’s compartments into storage tanks ashore.
Just as they finished raising the flag and were climbing a ladder to the catwalk, Ogg first heard and then saw something odd. Five or six airplanes were approaching from the north over Ford Island at high speed, clearly diving, racing directly toward Neosho. They were “flat-hatting,” a term Ogg had heard the Army pilots use for flying way too low to be safe.
“Jesus!” the quartermaster exclaimed. “Don’t they see we’re flying ‘Baker’? They’re not supposed to be coming anywhere close to us.”
An officer approaching from the other direction stopped to look, eyes wide. His jaw fell open in horror. No one bothered to salute him.
“Boys, look at that ‘meatball’ on their sides,” the officer shouted. “That’s Japanese. They’re Japs!” Just then the phalanx of aircraft passed directly overhead, made a swooping turn, and zoomed back toward them, this time even more precariously low, seemingly a few dozen yards above the clear green water of the harbor. Ogg and the other two men on Neosho were standing on one of the highest parts of their ship. They felt the wind the planes had ginned up as they roared overhead, their screaming engines deafening.
Ogg and the others watched with shock as the pilots pointed their noses not toward the tanker but directly for the USS Oklahoma, the closest of the seven big battleships tied up in tandem nearby.
The officer had to yell to be heard over the ruckus of what was clearly an actual air assault, not an Army prank. His words made it somehow official: “Damn! We’re in a war now!”
As the officer turned and dashed away toward the ship’s bridge, Harry Ogg remained frozen in place, still disbelieving what he was witnessing. For some reason, he glanced at his wristwatch.
It was 7:55 a.m.
As the Kates and Aichi D3A “Val” airplanes bore down on the Oklahoma, Ogg was thinking that if only he had a rock, he could throw it and likely hit one of the bastards. They were close enough that he could see the face of the pilot of the nearest bomber. The airplane’s canopy was open, and Ogg could easily make out his Asian features and the determined expression on the man’s face. He wore some kind of unusual helmet, with a dashing little white tassel on top.
Something big and solid fell from beneath the Japanese aircraft and the pilot immediately pulled up and away toward the high morning sky, barely avoiding crashing into the battleship’s rigging. The fallen object left a white trail through the green water as it ran just below the surface straight toward the warship. Ogg could see men standing on the deck of the Oklahoma, watching with as much curiosity and amazement as he and the quartermaster were.
Then, with an earsplitting boom, a flash of fire, and a miasma of smoke and debris, the torpedo hit home.
Someone running past told Ogg to go to his General Quarters station, but the alarm sounded simultaneously with the order and Ogg was on his way, anyway. His adrenaline had kicked in.
His assigned station was near a locker filled with rifles. A gunner’s mate was supposed to be there with the key to the locker so that each man could be issued a rifle and ammunition, but he was nowhere to be seen.
Fat lot of good we can do with thirty-aught-six rifles against dive-bombers, Ogg thought. But at least they could do something besides watch and shake their fists while the airplanes pounded the regal vessels lined up helplessly unprotected along “Battleship Row.”
Somebody, somewhere, with some rank, sent orders for them to grab fire axes and break into the lockers to get their weapons. Or maybe it was just one of the sailors standing there in the maddening confusion, frustrated, who issued his own command. At any rate, they did just that, and were soon shooting furiously at the meatballs on the planes’ wings as they roared overhead before banking hard and unleashing more hellfire on the battlewagons.
Meanwhile, the bright, sunny morning had turned dark as night. Impossibly thick, black smoke eclipsed the early tropical sun. Thunderous explosions and the raucous whine of the airplane engines and the continual clattering of the guns on the decks of the ships split the air until Ogg could hear hardly anything at all.
Still, he kept firing, kept trying to get lucky with a well-placed rifle bullet into an open cockpit. Like trying to pick off armadillos in the cotton fields back home with a .22 rifle from the bed of a bouncing truck.
Someone grabbed his shoulder, shouting something in his ear.
“What?” he screamed back. He tried to read his shipmate’s lips.
“The captain says we got to make a run for it!”
“We got to get under way, away from the mooring!” the man yelled.
Ogg shrugged his shoulders. So? The skipper had the wheel and the engine order telegraph on the bridge. He could steer them anywhere he wanted them to go.
“We’re still tied up. Nobody’s over there on the dock to untie our lines. Captain says we got to cut ’em loose ourselves!”
Then Ogg understood. Once untethered, they were going to steam right through an open stretch of water while under attack from scores of Japanese planes, with a series of massive tanks beneath their feet that still held thousands of gallons of some of the most flammable liquid on earth.
He dropped his impotent rifle, grabbed one of the axes they had used to break into the gun locker, and ran after the other man.
• • •
Captain John Spinning Phillips was proud of the big tanker he skippered, pleased with the vital service she performed to keep ships and airplanes ready for whatever might be coming their way in the next few troubled months and years.
If an army traveled on its stomach, a modern navy required fuel oil if it was to carry out its mission. Wind and coal no longer provided propulsion for most seagoing fighting vessels. And with aircraft carriers rising in importance, that meant aviation fuel had to be delivered for those airborne war machines, too. Whatever components made up a fleet, they all demanded fuel wherever they might be located—a fact that assured that there would be oilers in the mix, filled with the quencher for the incessant thirst of the warships and carrier-based aircraft.
The Neosho had been launched and commissioned directly into the Navy in 1939, unlike many of the similar models, then finally completed and placed into service in July 1941. The other tankers were originally turned over new to Standard Oil or the Keystone Tankship Corporation as merchant vessels to be used under contracts between the Navy and the shipping companies. Should war ever break out, the contracts stipulated that the ships could be taken back by the Navy. The Neosho had skipped the civilian service step.
With the ominous hubbub going on around the Pacific Rim and the saber rattling of the Japanese Empire, more than a few people had remarked to Phillips that the name Neosho sounded more like one of Emperor Hirohito’s ships than an American vessel.
“No, it’s about as American as it gets, a river in Kansas with an Indian name,” had become his standard rejoinder. Neosho was an Osage word meaning “clear water.”
Captain Phillips had finished his breakfast just before eight o’clock. He was making his way to the bridge to oversee the off-loading of the last of their cargo of fuel and preparations to get under way back to California when the first Japanese aircraft roared directly over his ship. The captain was as stunned as Leu, Ogg and the rest of his crew.
Phillips began issuing orders. General quarters were to be sounded. The battery of three three-inch, twenty-three caliber antiaircraft guns and the single five-inch, fifty-one-caliber gun were to be manned immediately. He also instructed the gunnery crews to fire at will as enemy targets came into range.
As Phillips stood on the bridge of his ship, watching his men shoot in futility, he came to a frightening realization. He and the Neosho were sitting squarely in the midst of what were obviously the attackers’ primary targets. Though he surely dreaded it, the captain understood exactly what had to be done.
So far, the planes were dropping bombs and torpedoes primarily aimed for the battleships, most of which were sitting in a line two abreast along the eastern shoreline of Ford Island. Each warship had her bow aimed directly at the Neosho except for the California, which lay to the tanker’s southwest, a few hundred yards away. Those battleships were so close that, from where he stood, Phillips could feel the shudder of direct hits and the searing heat from out-of-control fires. He watched men jumping overboard, landing in oil-fed flames on the water’s surface.
The assault on the battleships had been single-minded and relentless, but the Neosho was moored right there in the middle of them. Inevitably, the oil tanker would become a target, intentionally or not. With a direct hit, she would be nothing more than a massive incendiary bomb. Although they had off-loaded much of their fuel, there was more than enough high-octane gas still aboard Phillips’s tanker to cause a monstrous blaze. The vapors left in the bunkers alone, even more volatile than the fuel, would be enough to ignite an enormous explosion.
They were still secured to the onshore storage tanks. If the ship exploded, those would certainly be destroyed as well. If a single bomb or torpedo found the Neosho, the resulting inferno would create even more of a disaster than the one that was already playing out all around them. The storage tanks would be vital to those warships—if any—that might survive this hellish attack.
Then, in an instant, that disaster grew worse. It would be more than enough to push Phillips to do what he knew he had to do.
Only a few minutes after sounding General Quarters, Phillips and all of his crew members who were topside felt, heard, and witnessed a cataclysmic explosion. They would later learn that a single bomb had found the exact path to the magazine on one of the battleships, the USS Arizona, berthed about eight hundred yards away. Debris from the detonation rained down on the Neosho.
Of all the deaths during the Pearl Harbor assault, half came at that instant as the result of that single blast.
Captain Phillips was now even more acutely aware of what might happen if his ship took a hit. His action report would show that he had another realization, even as he watched in horror all that was happening all around him.
His replenishment vessel was the only one of its type and size anywhere in that part of the world at the time. It would take days to get another one out to the middle of the Pacific. If the Neosho ended up on the sandy bottom of the harbor or blown apart, no serious response to this attack—and Phillips was savvy enough to already know there would be one—could be mounted until far too much precious time had been lost.
There was one other problem. The Oklahoma had capsized just a few hundred feet from the Neosho’s bow. USS Maryland, resting between the Oklahoma and the dock, starboard side toward the shore, was now not only fully exposed to the attackers but also effectively hemmed in by the Neosho and her sunken sister. The battleship could not move if her captain were to decide to try to make a run for the mouth of the harbor and the open sea.
Phillips took one glance across the smoke-shrouded harbor, at the swarm of attacking Japanese aircraft, at the blazing, smoking battlewagons, and came to a quick decision. There seemed to be a momentary lull in the assault’s ferocity. He would try to take his ship away from the mooring, across the way to a safer location on the other side of the harbor, even if he could not see his destination at that moment. That would take them away from the battleships, away from the fuel storage tanks, and give the Maryland a way out of her corner. Though the tanker would be an easy target during the transit across the open harbor, the captain knew he had to do what it took to give them the best odds of saving the Neosho as well as the onshore storage tanks.
Phillips gave the order to make immediate preparations to get under way to Merry Point, Berth M-3, a distance of no more than a mile. Such a short trip was nothing on a normal day. On this particular bloody Sunday morning, that single mile across no-man’s-land looked more like a hundred.
“Captain, there’s nobody on the dock to cast off our lines from the bollards,” someone reported. No wonder. Nobody would be waiting around over there, exposed to shrapnel and machine-gun fire, just in case the big tanker might decide to take a cruise.
“Get some men with axes and chop the lines!” Phillips ordered.
At 0842, they were loose and backing away from the dock with, at least for the moment, fewer Japanese buzzing around. Some planes still zoomed around overhead, viciously strafing with gunfire anything beneath them. The occasional bomb or torpedo still plummeted down, aimed for what remained of the nearby warships.
Maybe the attack was about over. Maybe these were stragglers, mopping up.
But from what Phillips was hearing on the radio, there would soon be a second wave coming in from the north. At least as many planes as in the first assault.
That confirmed his decision. The “fight” was not working out so well. It was time for “flight.” The time to move was right damn now.
He had to get a virtually defenseless Neosho and her fume-filled fuel tanks away from the storage facility on Ford Island, away from the blazing battleships. Then, without help, he would have to maneuver dangerously close to the hulk of the capsized Oklahoma, steam across the harbor, and somehow make it to a marginally safer berth across the way.
And he had to get all this done in one hell of a big hurry.
Bill Leu was so busy at his battle station at the bow of the Neosho, where the number one gun was located, that it came as a shock to him and his shipmates when the ship abruptly began to move beneath them. After finally getting access to the magazine, the men had to use a rudimentary method of hauling shells up to the three-inch deck gun located just above them. They hooked boxes that held the shells to a block-and-tackle and lifted them topside, one container at a time. Each box held only three shells. Once topside, the shells were handed along from one man to another—Leu was one of those men—to the point where they could be loaded into the gun and fired. It seemed to be a lot of work for no results.
“We hit the sky every time,” Leu later sardonically reported.
Aiming at and hitting the diving and zooming attack planes with the types of guns the Neosho carried was almost impossible. Leu wished for a machine gun, convinced that they had shown up for a gunfight with a knife.
Leu had already witnessed the awful explosion of the Arizona. As he worked, passing the shells, he also saw the Nevada, docked at the far end of Battleship Row from the Neosho, suddenly move away from her mooring. She appeared to be attempting to make a run for it, to get away from her sister ships, even though she was already listing noticeably from flooding through open wounds in her hull.
As she steamed into clear view in the harbor, Leu could see Japanese planes buzzing the fleeing battleship like bees around their hive, peppering the Nevada with bullets and bombs. As Leu would learn later, the ship’s captain had, indeed, decided to pull away. With the harbor commander’s permission—or urging—he wanted to try to get away from the far end of Ford Island to a position where his big vessel would not block the harbor’s ship channel should she go down.
Leu, busy passing ammunition, was unable to watch her complete the valiant effort. The Nevada would soon deliberately run aground across the channel from Hospital Point. There, in the mud, dangerously exposed, she would continue to fight back, shooting down more of the attack planes. Her wreck would not block the harbor, either. Sixty of her crew members lost their lives. Two of her crew would receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that day, and their ship would live to fight once more, pulled from the mud, overhauled, and sent back into battle the following October.
Unbeknownst to the crew of the Neosho, they were about to try the same trick as the Nevada. Leu was surprised when he felt the ship moving, backing away from their berth. Though the attack had lessened a bit in the last few minutes, there were still planes in the sky, bullets raining down on the battleships, and bombs and torpedoes falling. The order came to keep firing at anything overhead, to step it up if at all possible if it appeared any of the aircraft were zeroing in on the oiler.
Bill Leu gasped. From his vantage point, he could clearly see that they were moving straight back, toward the upturned bottom of the Oklahoma. Having so far avoided getting blown out of the water by the Japs, they were now about to collide with a sunken one of their own, and as fast as they were reversing, it would be quite a jolt when they hit. He braced himself for impact.
But then, seemingly only yards from crashing into the doomed battleship, the Neosho swung around and pointed her bow toward the far side of the harbor. As they left behind the awful phalanx of listing and burning battleships, Leu could only shake his head in admiration as he heaved the next shell. The skipper and crew had done a fine job of getting under way from a mooring without the help of a tugboat.
As he glanced up, Leu could see off to their starboard the awnings that had been erected on the decks of California in preparation for church services later that morning. But no service would be conducted this day. Instead, prayers would be uttered in panic and amid chaos, spoken in hoarse whispers, not calmly in unison and in response to a chaplain.
Away from their berth and no longer covered by a black shroud of billowing smoke, the Neosho was dangerously exposed, alone in open water. At least she was far enough away from anything else that if she took a hit, the resulting blast would only claim the ship and her crew of nearly three hundred men. Inevitably their movement drew the attention of the attacking aircraft.
Bill Leu and his shipmates, bracing themselves against the back-and-forth sway of the ship as she steamed a deliberately erratic course, stepped up the relay, passing shells even faster. The three-incher fired furiously into a sunny sky, even as the Japanese continued to launch their own brand of lightning bolts and thunder.
• • •
Harry Ogg had already deduced that the Japanese attackers were fixated on the battleships and destroyers. Still, he assumed they would start shooting at the big oiler and the onshore fuel storage tanks once the pilots were sure they had done in their primary objectives. Certainly when a fresh wave of planes thundered in from the north, anything not already ablaze would become targets.
Ogg continued to angrily fire his rifle at the buzzing fighters, as ordered, still hoping an accidental bullet might find a crucial engine component or strike one of the planes’ three crew members. Someone had told him that Japanese aircraft ran with less armor in order to achieve more speed and maneuverability. Over and over, he had witnessed confirmation that the dive-bombers were both fast and maneuverable, but he saw no evidence that the rifle bullets were of any particular concern to the attackers.
After getting word to cut the lines to the bollards, Ogg understood that the skipper intended to make a dash across the harbor, over to where the tenders usually went. Tenders were small boats that carried the sailors from their duty ships to Merry Point Landing so that they could catch a ride into town for liberty. Someone said the captain might be planning to hide the ship behind one of the big warehouses over there, or they just needed to get as far away from the battleships as they could. But first they had to steam across the open harbor without getting themselves killed.
Sure enough, just as they cleared one of the done-for battleships and swung the bow toward Merry Point, Ogg spotted two Japanese planes that appeared to veer away from yet another run at Battleship Row and head in their direction.
It was immediately clear they were pointing toward the Neosho, not at one of the blazing, smoking battleships behind her.
Ogg aimed his rifle, fired, and prayed.
• • •
Captain Phillips watched through his binoculars as the stern of his big ship just avoided clipping what was left of the Oklahoma. Then, with enough clearance available so that they would not swing back into the overturned vessel, he ordered top-forward speed and aimed the bow of his oiler toward the other side of Pearl Harbor.
They would zigzag as much as they could without running aground, trying to give the Japanese as tough a target as possible. Meanwhile, his men would continue to punch the sky with what meager antiaircraft fire they could manage. Maybe one of the bastards would accidentally run into enough shrapnel to do some damage. Or maybe his guys would bother them enough that the planes could not get a good attack angle on the oiler.
Only minutes after leaving Ford Island behind, an approaching plane appeared to take a hit from his ship’s bow gun. The aircraft began a decided sideslip at low altitude and disappeared from view into the clouds of smoke.
Just then, two other aircraft bore down on his vessel as she steamed across the harbor. The deck gunners had seen the planes, too, and directed as much fire their way as they could manage. Simultaneously, both aircraft turned sharply, showing the tanker their underbellies, and flew off to harass somebody else.
In just over half an hour after fleeing Battleship Row, the Neosho sidled up to a berth next to USS Castor (AKS-1), a supply vessel. Somehow, Phillips and his tanker had made it across the harbor with no damage, though two bombs had landed near enough to rattle not only the ship’s infrastructure but the crew’s nerves. Harry Ogg heard that one crew member had taken a bullet in the leg, but Captain Phillips’s action report would not mention any casualties. That was despite the fact that, as Phillips noted in his report, the men at their gunnery stations on deck were in dangerously exposed positions.
Crew members on the Castor immediately began transferring ammunition across to the tanker, just in case the next wave had a different set of priority targets. As they worked, a lone Japanese plane approached from the north and strafed them, then roared off toward the Pacific. Amazingly, nobody was hit.
Soon after taking on the ammunition, crew members aboard the Neosho watched as a second wave of about 170 planes zoomed in from the north—the first had consisted of 181 aircraft—and resumed pounding the battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and other vessels. The attack was still concentrated on the very territory along Ford Island where the Neosho had so recently been moored.
From their new berth at Merry Point, the crew could now do little more than watch the assault and listen to the ominous thumping of exploding bombs and torpedoes. When attackers were slow to pull up from their bombing runs or strayed too near, Neosho’s guns targeted them as best they could. In reality, though, there was still little expectation of doing any real damage.
The Japanese would lose only twenty-nine airplanes that morning, less than 10 percent of their total attack force. The oiler’s gun crews had gotten one of them.
Finally, at 1136, Captain Phillips allowed his men to relax. The second assault had been over for more than two hours and the anticipated third wave of attackers never showed up. He finally had the chance to draw a big breath and reflect on just how proud he was of the way his crew had responded to the events of this awful day.
“The gunnery discipline of the battery was excellent, as was the discipline of the ship control, repair parties, and engineering personnel,” he later reported. His officers had performed well, too, including several naval reservists who had limited real-world experience. Of course, Phillips was one of only a few men on the ship who had actually served during wartime.
The Neosho was the only vessel moored along Battleship Row that morning that suffered no damage.
Phillips would soon receive high recognition for his own performance that day. His clearheaded thinking and quick action during those few hours at Pearl Harbor would earn him the Navy Cross, the second-highest honor for valor bestowed by the Navy. The citation read in part, “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 under way, got under way immediately. Mooring lines were cut, and without the assistance of tugs, Commander Phillips accomplished the extremely difficult task of getting the ship under way from this particular berth in a most efficient manner, the difficulty being greatly increased by a battleship having capsized in the harbor. The conduct of Commander Phillips throughout this action reflects great credit upon himself, and was in keeping with the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service.”
Phillips had made several correct assumptions that morning that led to his decision to cut his lines and risk racing across the harbor. One, not mentioned in his Navy Cross citation or in his own cryptic action report, was soon validated.
In President Roosevelt’s speech the next day requesting a declaration of war from Congress, he urged American forces to “gain the inevitable triumph.” That would have been almost impossible to fulfill if the Neosho had gone up in a fireball while sitting in Berth F-4 at Ford Island, or even if she had been damaged and made temporarily less than seaworthy. The skill, quick thinking, and daring of Phillips and his brave crew did more than simply avoid another catastrophic blast among all the others mushrooming around them that day. Their survival assured that a rapid American naval response to the Japanese attack would even be possible.
Allowing the Neosho to survive was only one of the mistakes the Japanese made that morning. Others included not waiting for the aircraft carriers to return from patrol, not being more aggressive in attacking fuel storage tanks and repair facilities, and not targeting submarines that were moored nearby.
The Neosho would be the only oiler available in the central Pacific for weeks. Fleets do not travel far without fuel. Carrier-based aircraft are useless without aviation gasoline.
With a war now to be waged, this particular vessel had become even more crucial to the U.S. Navy. Americans—furious, demanding revenge, and clamoring to go to war—were united in the cause. An immediate response was required to preserve morale and to assure the Japanese that their sneak attack had not, as intended, jammed the gears of the American war machine in the Pacific. Nor had it shocked the people of the United States into inaction.
The Neosho had an even more important job to perform. She would now be able to do it as no other ship and crew could. She would get to it, beginning the very next day.
Battleships have long carried a great deal of panache among the world’s navies, especially since the early 1900s. Once called “dreadnoughts” after the 1906 British Royal Navy vessel that bore that name, twentieth-century battleships were distinguished by their array of immense guns, their use of steam propulsion, and, to be sure, their size. They were well suited to do what warships are supposed to do: destroy and kill. As larger and more deadly ships were put into commission, naval tacticians naturally assumed that future sea battles would most often start between, and be dominated by, big battleships. Before the vessels could actually see each other, they would begin hurling huge shells from their large-caliber guns. Ultimately the clashes would end with surviving dreadnoughts firing point-blank at closer range until a ship surrendered, fled, or was sunk, much as had happened with sailing ships in another era.
The Japanese had been among the first to commit to building a larger fleet of the more sizable battleships, starting with Satsuma, which was laid down in 1904. The Russo-Japanese War of 1904 and 1905 confirmed for the Imperial Japanese Navy that sea battles would be fought at great distances, requiring deck guns capable of launching ordnance at enemy vessels and shore installations from well beyond the horizon. They were certainly aware of the fright value of a massive ship, guns booming, dropping shells out of the sky onto faraway targets. The IJN’s continued infatuation with dreadnoughts carried over into the beginning of World War II. Japan built the two largest and most heavily armed battleships ever constructed, the first two of the proposed “three sisters.” The Yamato and the Musashi were each more than 860 feet in length and displaced an amazing 72,000 tons. The Yamato was commissioned a week after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The Musashi followed soon after, in the summer of 1942.
The decision to concentrate the Pearl Harbor attack on warships moored along Battleship Row was driven by a prejudice that had been held by many in the Japanese navy for at least the previous half century. Yet for some officers, airpower had altered the balance at sea. Planes had successfully operated off ship decks since the Japanese first launched an air raid off a vessel in September 1914. Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, commander in chief of the Combined Fleet, had been a strong proponent of carriers since before the war, even as his colleagues’ commitment to the “three sisters” battleships persisted.
A new era of sea warfare required a different kind of capital ship. One reason for this was simply because of the vulnerability of the battleships, and especially to the specific ordnance that could be delivered by airplanes in wave after wave, overpowering the big ships’ defenses.
Quick progress in aircraft technology between the wars assured that carriers would soon play a bigger role than battleships in modern combat. Airplanes could launch off aircraft carriers and then range out hundreds of miles from their mother ship to hunt and pounce on those extremely large and inviting targets. Then they could return to a continually moving base, refuel, and return to the skies from an entirely different point in the ocean.
It did not take the Japanese long to realize the changing nature of nautical warfare, and to come around to Admiral Yamamoto’s way of thinking. The third of the “sisters,” the Shinano, was already well under construction in the Yokosuka Naval Arsenal on Tokyo Bay when the decision was made to convert her to an aircraft carrier instead.
• • •
As the world’s navies evolved to take advantage of emerging technology during World War I and after, the fuel used to propel many of their vessels changed, as well. Coal was no longer the primary fuel burned to make steam in ships’ boilers to power their engines. Prior to World War I, warships had to make their way to coal stations at strategically located and friendly ports around the world (there was a massive one at Pearl Harbor), or rely on ships, called colliers, which came to them at sea. Colliers were typically lashed to warships long enough for a sufficient load of coal to be transferred over, much of the work being done by hand. With bigger battleships, this operation could take as long as twelve hours.
The rise of aircraft carriers brought a need for a different kind of replenishment ship. The flattops now required oil to make steam in their own huge boilers. The airplanes that flew off the carriers’ decks had no need for coal, either. They thirsted for aviation fuel.
The tanker, or oiler, became a vital part of any country’s navy, and a key member of a fleet or task force. With thousands of airplanes in the fleets of the world to keep filled up, the need was for bigger and bigger replenishment ships.
The U.S. Navy’s first oiler, the Arethusa (which eventually carried the hull number AO-7), was built by the British. Acquired by the United States in 1893, she was at first used primarily to carry water. She began delivering oil to the Atlantic Fleet in 1910. Later classes of oilers were bigger but slower. Some tankers were actually purchased from commercial shipping companies as needed.
By the time the first three Cimarron-class tankers were launched in 1939, the ships had become huge, but were still able to steam remarkably fast for their bulk. Those first three were the Cimarron (AO-22), the Neosho, and the Platte (AO-24). Each was designated a “T3-S2”-type vessel. The T meant they were tankers. The 3 indicated that each ship had a length greater than five hundred feet. S2 was for the type of propulsion. S meant steam turbine and 2 indicated the ships were propelled by twin screws.
They were propelled rather quickly, too. Despite their size and weight when fully loaded, they could scurry along at 18 knots, about 21 miles per hour. Speed and range were important. They would be called upon to steam from distant locations, where the fleet might be operating, to depots where they could refill their storage tanks, and then hurry back loaded with oil and catch up with the fleet again. That was a tall order. Even the older carriers such as the Lexington were capable of better than 32 knots (37 miles per hour).
The Neosho was laid down at Federal Shipbuilding and Drydock Company in Kearny, New Jersey, along the Hackensack River, with an official start-of-construction date of June 22, 1938. She was commissioned more than fourteen months later on August 7, 1939, with Commander E. A. Mullan as her first skipper. His job was to take the big ship through her sea trials and, eventually, transit down the East Coast, through the Panama Canal, and on to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington. There she underwent more conversion to meet the specific requirements of a fleet tanker, which were different from those of a ship bound for commercial tanker use. These included installing weapons, equipment for refueling ships while at sea, and even more fire-prevention gear and systems. There she also continued to assemble her crew of about three hundred men.
She was officially placed into service on July 7, 1941. The next month, in a change-of-command ceremony, the keys to the Neosho were passed from Commander Mullan to her new captain, an experienced forty-six-year-old named John Spinning Phillips.
Commander Phillips was born February 28, 1895, in Alexandria, Virginia, but grew up in Oradell, New Jersey, fewer than twenty miles up the Hackensack River from the shipyard in which the Neosho would be constructed more than forty years later. Appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, in 1914, Phillips was an active student, singing bass in both choir and glee club. He performed well academically, earning a 4.0 grade point average in languages. He made both the wrestling and tennis teams but was forced to give them up due to a bad knee. His true passions, though, were dancing, which appealed to the ladies, and golf, a game he picked up at the age of fifteen. He excelled at both.
Phillips graduated as part of the academy class of 1918, though he actually received his degree and commission in 1917. Right out of the academy, Phillips found himself in the midst of World War I. Because of the conflict raging across the globe, his class had been rushed to completion and assignment.
He served as an officer aboard USS South Dakota (ACR-9), an armored cruiser, escorting troopship convoys from the East Coast of the United States to the midpoint of the Atlantic Ocean. There British warships picked up the convoy for the remainder of the crossing while the cruiser would either meet an American-bound convoy or hustle back to the United States to do it all over again.
Phillips immediately experienced the tension and tactics of a shooting war. German U-boats were inflicting heavy losses on shipping, and the South Dakota and her crew were in constant danger. It was stressful duty. The young ensign learned a great deal about running a warship in enemy waters, as well as handling a crew that was continually under threat from a vicious and well-trained enemy.
Table of Contents
Part 1 Pearl Harbor 7
Chapter 1 Meatballs for Breakfast 9
Chapter 2 Merry Point 24
Chapter 3 Fat Girl 33
Part 2 The Coral Sea 53
Chapter 4 Operation MO 55
Chapter 5 Out of Harm's Way 65
Chapter 6 Scratch One Flattop 82
Chapter 7 Two Specks on the Horizon 87
Part 3 Order Attack 95
Chapter 8 High-Level Attack 97
Chapter 9 Déjà Vu 103
Chapter 10 Look-see 110
Chapter 11 Hard Aport! 117
Chapter 12 "Abandon the Bridge" 126
Chapter 13 Courageous Tenacity 146
Chapter 14 Snipes and Bilge Rats 154
Chapter 15 "Prepare to Abandon Ship" 164
Part 4 Adrift 177
Chapter 16 Long Odds and a Tenacious Corpsman 179
Chapter 17 Help on the Way 192
Part 5 199
Chapter 18 Unwitting Decoys 201
Chapter 19 Going to Work 210
Chapter 20 Sixty-Four Miles 220
Chapter 21 Drifting 229
Chapter 22 First Hope 239
Part 6 Survival 249
Chapter 23 Dashed Hopes 251
Chapter 24 Ours or Theirs? 262
Part 7 Wit's End 271
Chapter 25 Emerg Victor 273
Chapter 26 Praise and Dereliction 283
Chapter 27 The "Hundred Hour Rule" 292
Chapter 28 The Scarecrow on the Surface of the Sea 301
Epilogue: Beyond the Bow 313
Author's Note 339