Hidden in the corners of WWII history is a story that is almost hard to believe is actually true.
Today we will cover the second part of what we started last week with the story of her escort during the Battle of the Coral Sea, the USS SIMS (DD-409)
We are talking about the story of the Pearl Harbor survivor, and in the immediate time following the attack, the only fleet oiler in the Pacfic, the CIMARRON class fleet oiler, U.S.S. Neosho (AO-23).
Sent along with her escort and its gimp engineering plant away from the coming battle - instead, through her distraction she became a critical part of it.
An enemy scout does a poor job and mistakes an oiler and a destroyer as a carrier and a cruiser ... and the full weight of the enemy falls upon them.
I just finished a great book, The Ship That Wouldn't Die: The Saga of the USS Neosho- A World War II Story of Courage and Survival at Sea. The book tells this story in an outstanding way - and this Sunday we will have the author on Midrats to discuss.
Until then, let's go to the official report after the battle. Read it all - especially the officers put on report - but here is the start;
1). On the evening of May 6, 1942, the Neosho, in accordance with instructions from Commander Task Force SEVENTEEN, proceeded on duty assigned with the U.S.S. Sims as escort, to conform with Commander Task Force SEVENTEEN Operation Order No. 2-42. The Neosho was required to pass through a given geographical point, at one hour after sunrise the following morning, which she proceeded to do. At 0811, May 7, 1942, being in the vicinity of this assigned point and not sighting any ships of the Task Force operating in that area, the Neosho proceeded to carry out instructions.
2). At 0810, May 7, 1942, two planes were observed at a distance of approximately ten miles, bearing 020° T, but no positive identification could be made as they were too far away. It was believed at this time that they were planes from one of our carriers. At 0929, a bomb was seen to fall about one hundred yards on the starboard quarter of the Sims, having been dropped from an enemy plane operating singly. The Sims at that time was patrolling ahead of the Neosho, following a specified zig-zag plan. This plane disappeared heading in a northerly direction. General Quarters was immediately sounded. Battle stations were manned continuously until cessation of the engagement with the enemy at 1218. Speed was increased to eighteen knots. At 1005, sighted approximately fifteen enemy planes approaching from 025° T. These planes made no attempt to attack, but flew parallel to the course of this vessel on the port side at high altitude, well out of gun range and disappeared to the northeastward. The Sims opened fire but no bursts were observed. At 1023, seven more enemy planes approaching from 010° T were sighted. These planes flew parallel to this vessel on the port side, crossed the bow, and disappeared to the northeastward, having made no attempt to attack either the Sims or the Neosho. Sims opened fire shortly after sighting. This vessel commenced firing three inch guns when these planes were within range. At 1033, a group of about ten planes approached from 140° T, of which three planes (twin-engine bombers) commenced a horizontal bombing attack on this vessel, others proceeding to the northeastward. At 1035, these three bombers dropped three bombs simultaneously; the direction of the fall of the bombs was observed closely and the ship was swung hard right to avoid being hit; all bombs fell to starboard and were near misses. These three planes were the only planes observed throughout the entire engagement which were other than single engine.
3). At 1201, observed approximately twenty-four enemy planes at high altitude, apparently taking position for dive-bombing attacks on this vessel and the Sims. From 1201 to 1218, this vessel was subjected to continuous dive-bombing attacks from all directions. The 20 mm fire of the Neosho was very effective. At no time during the engagement did the machine gunners falter at their jobs, notwithstanding the fact that two men were killed instantly right in the midst of the forward group, one of them being decapitated by flying fragments. 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. The greatest majority of the planes diving on the Neosho were forced to deliver their attacks at a high altitude; only three or four dove to within a few hundred feet of the masts. Although the three inch fifty caliber anti-aircraft guns fired throughout the attacks it is difficult to evaluate their effectiveness against the enemy.
4). The constant maneuvering of the ship so as to head crosswind, and the effective fire of the 20 mm guns, is considered responsible for the large number of near misses. 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. It is believed that at least four other planes received sufficient 20 mm hits to render their return to base questionable. Three planes were observed to swerve away without completing their attack, due to the effectiveness of the 20 mm gun fire.
You may try to hide from war, but war may not hide from you.
5). Shortly after the last bomb dropped, the Commanding Officer ordered all hands to "Prepare to Abandon Ship but not to abandon until so ordered." A messenger sent by the Executive Officer from aft came to the Commanding Officer stating that he had been sent to find out what the orders were regarding abandoning ship. The Commanding Officer told him to tell the Executive Officer, "Make preparations for abandoning ship and stand-by." The Commanding Officer had no knowledge of the condition of the Executive Officer. At about 1230, the Commanding Officer ordered the two motor whale boats to be lowered to pick up personnel who had abandoned ship without orders, and to tow all life rafts back to the ship. All undamaged life rafts, seven in number, had been set adrift without orders from the bridge. The many attacks delivered by the dive-bombers were directed at the bridge, and at the after section of the ship containing the engineering installation. With the exception of the 3" gun crews in No. 1 and No. 2 gun enclosures and the forward ammunition and repair parties, all of the ship's personnel were concentrated in these two sections.
In the immediate vicinity of the bridge, three direct hits and a number of near misses occurred. In the after 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. It is believed that the destruction of the escort vessel with no other ships in sight, combined with the violent shocks from the several bomb hits and near misses, in many cases rendered personnel incapable of logical thought. It is known that many of the personnel aft, due to the flame resulting from the suicidal dive, smoke, and escaping steam, believing they were trapped with the ship sinking, jumped over the side. The number of men who were critically burned or injured in the after end of the ship, and who jumped over the side, is not known. The two motor whale boats placed men on the rafts and took as many in the boat as the boat officer in each case considered safe. They did not tow the life rafts back to the ship.
When the boats returned to the ship, without life rafts, and loaded in excess of capacity with survivors, many of whom were badly injured and severely burned, it was too near sunset to send them back to attempt to locate, and return with, the drifting life rafts. The sea was rough and it was the Commanding Officer's opinion, as well as that of several officers, that the Neosho probably would not stay afloat throughout the night. The rafts were then out of sight. It was the Commanding Officer's conviction at that time that one of the Task Forces with which this vessel was operating would find the Neosho on the following day, if still afloat, and the rafts would then be located and occupants thereof rescued. A muster upon return of the boats showed that of 21 officers and 267 men, including passengers, on board at quarters that morning, 16 officers and 94 men were accounted for, 1 officer and 19 men were known dead, and 4 officers and 154 men were missing. In addition to the above, there were 15 enlisted survivors of the Sims. During the afternoon the wind had increased to force 5-6 and the sea was moderately rough. In the early afternoon it was difficult to see the life rafts from the bridge with the aid of binoculars, and the boats were seen only intermittently, prior to their return.