Friday, August 12, 2016

Pearl Harbor's Neosho Fuels Fog of War

Review by Bill Doughty
With USS California in the background, Neosho maneuvers across Pearl Harbor to Merry Point.

In the middle of the harbor during the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 1941 the oiler USS Neosho (AO-23) made its way–dodging enemy attack–from Battleship Row to a safer area at Merry Point.

Across the harbor, in West Loch for degaussing, USS Helm (DD-388) responded to the attack by returning fire and making its way out into the Pacific to sink an Imperial Japanese Navy two-man submarine.

Today, historians consider the attack on Oahu by the IJN a failure. The vulnerable fuel reserves at Pearl Harbor were not hit. Many of the U.S. fleet's "Tin Can" destroyers were not hit and would be bristling for revenge.

Although American battleships were destroyed, they were already becoming obsolete with the rise of aircraft carriers in the 1940s. And the Pacific Fleet's carriers, including USS Lexington (CV-2) and USS Yorktown (CV-5), were not at Pearl Harbor at the time.

Five months later the fates of the above-named U.S. Navy ships would intersect in the Battle of the Coral Sea, with USS Neosho playing an unexpected key role.

Through evocative storytelling and documented reports, historian Dan Keith gives us an interesting slice of history from the perspective of the fuel replenishment ship USS Neosho, an unintentional decoy during the Battle of the Coral Sea. That role of "unwitting decoy" helped Rear Adm. Frank Fletcher achieve a measure of success despite the tragedy that struck the tanker and its escort USS Sims.

"The Ship That Wouldn't Die: The Saga of the USS Neosho–a World War II Story of Courage and Survival at Sea" (2016, Penguin Random House) shows us how important fuel was (and is) to the fleet.
"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."
USS Neosho skipper Capt. John Phillips
Fletcher ordered the CO of Neosho, Capt. John Spinning Phillips, to take his oiler to what was thought to be a safer area of the Coral Sea, far from the impending battle with IJN ships and planes. But the tanker was spotted and mistakenly identified by a Japanese pilot as an aircraft carrier; the escort destroyer USS Sims was misidentified as a cruiser. This error caused Adm. Chuichi Hara to deploy his dive bombers to attack Neosho and Sims, leaving his forces vulnerable to the U.S. Navy. Ultimately, the error may have saved the USS Yorktown, which would go on to fight and win at the Battle of Midway.

Such are the fates and mistakes in the fog of war.

Keith explores how an order "prepare to abandon ship" was miscommunicated and misinterpreted, causing sailors to prematurely leave the badly damaged Neosho, in some cases following officers who were part of a breakdown in leadership.

Dozens of IJN planes attacked and sank USS Sims and crippled USS Neosho.

In the aftermath, some survivors suffered on rafts and boats that drifted toward Australia. Meanwhile, aboard the oil tanker, in the hours and days after the attack, after fires were extinguished but while the ship continued to take in seawater:
USS Neosho (AO-23) burns after dive bomber attacks by Imperial Japan.
"Some brave members of the Neosho crew made quick, dangerous trips below, gleaning food, water, blankets, cots, mattresses, medicine, lights, batteries, life belts, and anything else they might need to make the night more bearable or to survive in the sea should the ship go down. Some of the scavengers said quick prayers before disappearing down the ladders. From the way the ship was leaning, with seawater rushing in and waves rocking the helpless vessel, they judged she could capsize or sink at any minute. Anyone belowdecks risked being taken down with her into the deep before he could climb out. What's more, fires still burned below, filling the lower compartments with dense, deadly smoke and fumes. With limited electrical power, there was no way to vent the noxious and explosive vapors outside the ship."
Keith's work is a tribute to the men who fought and suffered in the Pacific War and brought an end to totalitarianism in Japan.

He carefully documents what happened to the men and ships connected to the loss of Neosho during and after the war. The story also illuminates how fuel is considered in the calculus of warfighting, logistics planning, and command-and-control.

The dangerous volatility of fuel–which in a larger sense brought about the Pacific War when Imperial Japan invaded other countries for fossil fuels and other resources–is shown on a deckplate scale here, impacting sailors.

Documentation about the Neosho and the other ships comes from oral histories and other reports, including comprehensive U.S. Navy records.
"The 'Nimitz Graybook' was a tremendous aid in understanding and documenting all that was going on at the higher levels of the Navy in the spring of 1942, especially as it affected the Battle of the Coral Sea. This 4,000-page collection consists of volumes of accumulated documents, briefing papers, and other material that show an amazingly complete wartime 'diary' of Admiral Chester Nimitz, running from December 7, 1941, through August 31, 1945. The materials, gathered during the war by the CINCPAC staff at Pearl Harbor, are now part of the Papers of Chester W. Nimitz at the Archives Branch of the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington, DC, and in 2012 were digitized and made available to the public via the Internet as a cooperative effort of the Naval War College and the NHHC."
Some repetition by Keith–along with several regrettable ethnic epithets to describe Japanese people–detract from an otherwise valuable and entertaining saga.

No comments: