The Sinking of USS Neches

by R.D. "Bob" White

The first Neches (AO-5) was laid down 8 June 1919 by the Boston Navy Yard and commissioned 25 October 1920; Comdr. H. T. Meriwether, USNRF, in command.
(AO - 5: dp. 5,723; l. 475'; b. 56': dr. 26'6": s. 14 k.; cpl. 144; a. 2 5", 2 3")

This is the first assignment for me after boot camp, September 6, 1941. I can clearly remember being unloaded from a truck on the dock with the Neches tied up along side. Not only did she look like a scow but the odor coming from her was almost unbearable, but what else would you expect from a navy oil tanker. At the time I went aboard, her main deck was about three or four feet above the dock. After getting my gear stored and going back out on deck, was I surprised to see that the dock was now about three or four feet above the deck of the ship. I had no idea that she was being loaded with oil and getting ready to get under way. I still thought how in the world would I be able to stand this odor.

I was an apprentice seaman and worked in the deck force. That included handling the lines getting under way and tying up, chipping paint and repainting was our main job it seemed. The first time we went to sea it was as calm as could be except for the rolling swells. That constant up and down, up and down soon got to me and I got as sea sick as you could imagine. It seemed to me I would have to get better to die. After about two days I began to recover. After recovering from the sea sickness I no longer was aware of the odor of the ship ever again. I began to get my sealegs and could walk the length of the ship with no trouble. I thought now I am beginning to become a real sailor.

Our first destination was Pearl Harbor. I could hardly believe that I was going to Hawaii. It was nice but it was not like a vacation. I made three or four more trips on the Neches, one more to Hawaii then to Midway Island and back to the states. From the states to Kodiak, Alaska and Sitka, Alaska in one trip. That trip was the roughest weather and seas that I had ever seen. We had some military vehicles on our cargo deck, a full load of oil and several fifty five gallon drums of gasoline lashed down on the main deck. Several drums came lose and I was one of several that had to go out and wrestle those drums and secure them again. While out there the main deck was awash most of the time and ever once in a while a solid wall of water would come through the space between the cargo deck and the main deck. At that time we all would hang on to the beams overhead. One of the guys was so short that he had to jump to grab a beam. One time he missed and when the water cleared we could not see him. Looking around finally we saw him hanging over the side with only the single cable lifeline going around the deck in the middle of his stomach. He looked like a drowned rat.

We were on our way from San Pedro to Pearl the next trip. We left San Pedro on December 1, 1941 with a load of oil and also had some kind of small surface craft in tow, that we were taking to Pearl Harbor. Sunday morning December 7, 1941 we were all out on the main deck having captain's inspection. This was the regular peace time navy routine. During inspection a radio operator came out of the radio shack, which was on the boat deck above us, and gave the captain a message. It read: "Pear Harbor under attack by the Japanese. Sink tow and make it in if you can."

We had two five inch guns and two three inch guns aboard so we had target practice and did sink the tow. Before we arrived in Pearl the captain broke up the living arrangement of the crew. He moved half on the engineers forward and half of the deck force abaft. That way he would not lose all of his engineers or deck force at one blow. In that move I went forward. We arrived in Pearl Harbor December 10, 1941 just three days after the Japanese attack. We went right past battleship row and everything was still smoking, the whole harbor was covered with oil. I had never seen anything like this before and hope I never see it again. I saw my brother's ship as we were coming in but he was getting underway so I did not get to see him. I might say that he was in Pearl during the attack and he was aboard a ship in the Japanese harbor during the signing of the surrender of the Japanese.

The Neches made one trip out of Pearl and refueled a task force. That was the first and only time I ever saw a tanker refuel ships at sea. We refueled the Saratoga, an aircraft carrier, and some of her escort vessels. We could have two destroyers along side at the same time, one on the port and one on the starboard. I do remember that the Saratoga's flight deck did come down and strike the port bridge wing of the Neches because of rough seas, but it did not do much damage. The reason I remember is, that is where I stood lookout watches.

On January 22, 1942 the Neches, with as much of a load as she could carry, left Pearl alone about five in the afternoon heading west to refuel another task force. We were to meet an escort the next morning at sea. That morning about three o'clock we had a torpedo hit just about midship, but it was a dud that did not explode. Next a torpedo on the starboard side hit on the stern, killing almost all of the crew aft and destroying our engine room. At that time everyone knew that we were under attack by a Japanese submarine. I fell out of my bunk, grabbed my clothes under my arm, slid my shoes on and headed topside. On the Neches under the focsle was our carpenter shop where our life jackets were stored. One of the guys remembered that he had several hundred dollars in his locker that he had won at poker so he went below to get it. He never came back. I was dressing and just finished tying the last belly band of the life jacket when the next torpedo hit just below us on the port side. The concussion was so strong that it knocked a lot of us off our feet and made us disorientated for a short time. I reported to my battle station on the bridge and was told to go abaft to the boat deck and help free all the life boats. Since we had no power for our wenches all we could do was to release all turnbuckles on the motor launches and hope that they would float clear after the ship sunk. We did put four donut rafts over the side. While working with the life boats the Japanese sub surfaced and started firing at us with their deck gun. It was a real dark night, not even the moon was shining. All three of the shots the sub made you could hear the shells screaming as they went overhead. The Neches had one five inch and one three inch on the port side that started firing as rapidly as they could, not knowing if we were doing any good or not, but just firing in the general direction of the sub. After three shots from the sub, we did not hear anything else. The Neches was listing to the starboard and going down by the bow. The guns kept firing until they could not depress enough then stopped firing. Most of the crew came abaft to where the life boats were and when the word was given to abandon ship they jumped in and swam for the life rafts. I was just about one of the last to leave the ship and when I did all I had to do was just step off into the water. We were real lucky that the first torpedo was a dud, because there never was a oil leak or anything to cause a fire. If that first torpedo had exploded we all would still be going up.

The Neches went down rather quickly. From the beginning to the end was just about an hour or less. Our luck still holding, we did recover all of our life boats that had floated after the ship sank. By a little after daylight we were all in the life boats and out of the water. The captain spoke to all of us and calmed us down and told us that the radio operator got off an SOS with our location and we should hear or see something before long. We were all worried that the Jap sub might reappear at any time, but it never did. A muster list was read to check who was present. During that time it was as quiet as a mouse. In all we had lost fifty seven crew members. Our position was Latitude 21.1 degrees north Longitude 160.6 degrees west.

After an hour or so a PBY sea plain came into sight. They saw us and dropped a smoke bomb and landed and loaded three injured men into the plain. After leaving us all of their cigarettes, candy bars and taking some pictures of us they took off for Pearl. About noon a destroyer came over the horizon and spotted us with no trouble. It turned out that they were the one that was going to be our escort to the task force we were going to refuel. When we were all aboard the destroyer all of the life boats and rafts were sunk. The crew of the destroyer really were good to all of us. They opened their lockers and gave their clothes to any of our crew that did not have any, because some left the Neches without pants, shirts, and shoes. The captain was in his pajamas. That ride to Pearl on a destroyer was the fastest I had ever been on water. The stern of that destroyer sank down and the bow rose up and we really moved. I don't know how fast we were going , but I know it was a lot more than flank speed.

Arriving in Pearl we all drew new clothes and gear the next day. That day we got a report from Ford Island that one of their PBYs spotted a Jap sub on the surface that had been damaged so bad that it could not submerge. Needless to say they dropped one right down the conning tower and that was the end of that. We took it for granted that it was the sub we had an encounter with. Most of the survivors of the Neches were assigned to the USS Sperry (AS-12) a new sub tender under construction at Mare Island. All of that and being around subs while aboard the Sperry until February 1943 led me to the submarines for the duration of the war.

I arrived in Mare Island February 19, 1942, along with most of the Neches survivors who were assigned to the USS Sperry, which was still under construction. I remained aboard the Sperry until she returned to Pearl from Australia. After making three war patrols on the submarine USS Finback, I went back aboard the Sperry for the trip to Majuro back to Pearl then out to Guam. I left the Sperry November 26, 1944 at Guam heading state side for the first time since Sperry left the states on her first trip to Pearl.

September 6, 1941 to January 23, 1942
Sunk by a Japanese Sub
July 1997

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