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NavSource Online: Service Ship Photo Archive

USS Neches (AO-5)

On 7 December 1941, USS Neches was enroute to Pearl Harbor arriving three days after the Japanese attack. Quickly discharging her cargo she departed on a round trip to San Diego for more cargo fuel. Under the command Commander William B. Fletcher Jr., the Neches next was assigned to deliver a cargo of 45,000 barrels of fuel oil, 8,700 barrels of diesel fuel, and 100,000 gallons of gasoline to the western Pacific. At 1540 local time on 22 January 1942, the overloaded tanker departed unescorted from Pearl Harbor. Aboard were 18 officers and 218 enlisted, the latter including 65 sailors on board for transport.

At 0310 on 23 January, the USS Neches was hit on the starboard side by a dud torpedo; the resultant clang was thought by the duty watch to have been a watertight door slamming. A second torpedo hit the starboard side aft at 0319, flooding the engine room and killing those in the sleeping compartment above. A third torpedo fired by the Japanese Imperial Navy's submarine HIJMS I-172 struck USS Neches on the port bow at 0330.

A minute later, gun crews on the port side 5-inch guns and .50-caliber machine guns commenced firing at the submarine, now seen dimly on the moonless night to be about 1,000-1,500 yards away. A few moments later, one of the ship's 3-inch guns also got off a few rounds at the sub, which was believed to have fired her own deck gun several times. As the ship's starboard list increased it became impossible to depress her 5" guns enough to engage the submarine, which became lost from view. Unable to save the ship Commander Fletcher ordered abandon ship at 0430.

At 0437, just as Commander Fletcher stepped off the starboard bridge wing, the ship disappeared beneath him. Most of the oiler's boats and life rafts had been launched successfully, but when a crew muster was taken after dawn, 57 enlisted personnel were missing and presumed lost. The survivors were spotted soon after dawn by patrolling seaplanes, and a Catalina landed to take off the most seriously wounded. By 1100, the remaining crew had been rescued by the destroyer USS Jarvis (DD-393). Neches was the first Navy oiler lost during World War II; a new oiler, USS Neches (AO-47), was commissioned 16 September 1942.

Contributed by Joe Radigan MACM USN Ret.

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