Neches (AO-5)

By: Mike Zambrano, Jr.

Type: General Entry

Published: March 3, 2021

Updated: March 4, 2021


USS Neches (AO-5) was a Kanawha-class replenishment oiler and the first United States Navy ship named for the Neches River in East Texas. The vessel was originally laid down as Fuel Ship No. 17 on June 8, 1919, at the Boston Navy Yard in Massachusetts but reclassified an auxiliary oiler (AO). Neches was launched on June 2, 1920, and commissioned on October 25, 1920. Her first captain was Cmdr. H. T. Meriwether, USNRF.

Neches measured 455 feet in length with a beam of 56 feet. Unloaded, it displaced 5,400 tons, could carry 7,843 tons of oil, and its top speed was 14.3 knots. Initially, Neches’s complement consisted of approximately 134 officers and men, however that number varied depending on its mission. Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, the oiler’s mission was to fuel and resupply ships that were underway, carry mail, tow targets, and take part in tactical exercises. It remained with the Atlantic Fleet until March 1922 and then transferred to the Pacific. During the next fifteen years, Neches steamed to Pearl Harbor, Midway, and Kodiak and Sitka, Alaska. It often received upgrades at Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, and operated out of San Diego.

On December 1, 1941, Neches left San Diego and was bound for Pearl Harbor. The ship was loaded with oil and towing a hulk to be used for damage control training exercises at Pearl Harbor. On the morning of December 7, still en route, the crew was undergoing inspection when a radio operator gave the then-captain, Cmdr. William B. Fletcher, USN, a message: "Pearl Harbor under attack by the Japanese. Sink tow and make it in if you can." The hulk was set adrift and scuttled.

On December 10, Neches arrived at Pearl Harbor, unloaded its cargo, and was assigned to Task Force 14 (TF14), which consisted of the aircraft carrier USS Saratoga (CV-3) and several cruisers and destroyers. Shortly after the Pearl Harbor attack, TF14 was assigned to ferry supplies and reinforcements to the besieged U. S. Marines on Wake Island in the central Pacific. While Saratoga refueled at Pearl Harbor, Neches and the seaplane tender USS Tangier (AV-8) departed on December 15. The remainder of TF14 rendezvoused with Neches and Tangiers the next day. The slow pace of Neches, the fueling of ships and rough seas delayed the task force. On December 23, 1941, one day before the task force was scheduled to arrive, Wake Island fell to the Japanese. TF14 was forced to turn back and returned to Pearl Harbor.

On the afternoon of January 22, 1942, Neches departed Pearl Harbor and carried a full load of oil, diesel, gasoline, stores, and provisions. The ship’s mission was to provide logistical support for Task Force 11 (TF11), consisting of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington (CV-2) and several cruisers and destroyers. Neches was to fuel the TF11 prior to its January 27 raid on Japanese-occupied Wake Island. At 3:00 a.m. on January 23, Neches was proceeding on a course of 268 at 12 knots, 121 nautical miles west-by-northwest of Pearl Harbor. In order to make the ships’ rendezvous, zigzagging was not ordered. Lookouts reported an object that appeared to be a submarine at about 500 to 1,000 yards. Identification was difficult because the moon had set and it was dark.

At 3:10 a.m., observers on the bridge and fantail heard a thud amidships on the starboard side and determined that it was an enemy torpedo that had failed to explode. At 3:19 a.m. a second torpedo struck the starboard side near of the ship near the engine room. The explosion wrecked the bulkhead and caused extensive flooding that created a 2 to 3 degree list to starboard. At 3:30 a.m. a third torpedo struck the forward part of the ship on the port side and exploded. An outline of the submarine could be seen, so at 3:31 a.m. Neches’s No. 2 and No. 4 5-inch guns, one 3-inch gun, and .50 caliber machine guns on the port side opened fire on.

The crew continued firing until 3:35 a.m. when Neches’s guns could no longer depress low enough to engage the target. Though the submarine fired two more torpedoes, both missed. Neches began to settle at the bow, and by 4:30 a.m. its list increased to 35 to  40 degrees. Commander Fletcher gave the order to abandon ship, and at 4:37 a.m. Neches sank. Consequently TF11 had no means of refueling, and the raid on Wake Island was cancelled.

Commander Fletcher ordered the boats to assemble. At 7:30 a.m., a U. S. Navy PBY Catalina patrol plane spotted the survivors and landed and took aboard three injured men and the ship’s medical officer. Upon taking roll call, Commander Fletcher found that fifty-six enlisted men were missing. Between 10:30 and 11:00 a.m., the destroyer USS Jarvis (DD-393) arrived and pulled the men from the water. Incredibly, neither torpedo ruptured the fuel tanks on the Neches, and the ship flooded so quickly that there were no fires to detonate the ship’s ammunition magazine. If either had occurred, there would have been a greater loss of life. The survivors were returned to Pearl Harbor and re-assigned. In an account by Neches survivor R. D. White, many crewmen were sent to Mare Island and assigned to the USS Sperry (AS-12), a new Fulton-class submarine tender, scheduled for commission on May 1, 1942.

In less than seven weeks of wartime service, USS Neches earned a Combat Action ribbon (for its action on January 23), an American Defense Service Medal with a fleet clasp, an American Campaign Medal, an Asiatic-Pacific Medal, a World War II Victory Medal, and a Purple Heart for the fifty-six lives lost on January 23.

John B. Lundsrom, The First Team: Pacific Naval Air Combat from Pearl Harbor to Midway (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 2005). Samuel Eliot Morison, History of the United States Naval Operations of World War II, Volume III, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 193—April 1942 (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1947–1962). Naval History and Heritage Command: Neches I (AO-5) (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/n/neches-i.html), accessed February 18, 2021. “United States Pacific Fleet Base Force USS Argonne, Flagship. Report of Comdr. William B. Fletcher, Jr. U.S. Navy regarding Loss of U.S.S. NECHES (AO5) As a Result of Enemy Action January 23, 1942,” USS Neches: Sinking of by Enemy Sub on 1/23/42 (2 End), Marked Confidential, Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875–2006, Series: World War II War Diaries, Other Operational Records and Histories, ca. 1/1/1942–ca. 6/1/1946, National Archives Catalog (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/133980928), accessed February 18, 2021. USS Neches (AO-5), NavSource Online: Service Ship Photo Archive, NavSource Naval History (http://www.navsource.org/archives/09/19/19005.htm), accessed February 18, 2021. “USS Neches Lost By Submarine Torpedo Attack January 23, 1942,” BUSHIPS—USS Neches Torpedoed & Sunk, 1/23/42, Record Group 38: Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875–2006, Series: World War II War Diaries, Other Operational Records and Histories, ca. 1/1/1942–ca. 6/1/1946, National Archives Catalog (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/134079273), accessed February 18, 2021. R. D. “Bob” White, “The Sinking of USS Neches,” personal account, July 1997 (http://www.ibiblio.org/hyperwar/USN/ships/dafs/AO/ao5-sunk.html), accessed February 18, 2021.

Categories:

  • Military
  • World War II

Time Periods:

  • World War II

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Mike Zambrano, Jr., “Neches (AO-5),” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/neches-ao-5.

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