Pecos (AO-6)

By: Mike Zambrano, Jr.

Type: General Entry

Published: June 30, 2021

Updated: June 30, 2021


USS Pecos (AO-6) was a Kanawha-class replenishment oiler and the first United States Navy ship named for the Pecos River that runs through New Mexico and Texas. The vessel was originally laid down as Fuel Ship No. 18 on June 2, 1920, at the Boston Navy Yard in Massachusetts but was reclassified an auxiliary oiler (AO). Pecos was sponsored by Miss Anna S. Hubbard and launched on April 23, 1921. It was commissioned on August 25, 1921. Pecos was 475 feet long with a beam of 56 feet. Fully loaded, it displaced 14,800 tons, and its maximum speed was 14 knots. The ship had a crew capacity of 317. Assigned to the Atlantic Fleet, Pecos’s mission was to fuel and resupply ships that were underway, carry mail, tow targets, and participate in tactical exercises. Pecos transferred to the Pacific sometime prior to 1928 and served in the U. S. Asiatic Fleet.

On December 8, 1941, the day after the United States entered World War II, Pecos under Cmdr. Elmer Paul Abernethy departed Cavite Navy Yard in the Philippines. The ship arrived in Balikpapan, Borneo, on December 14 and took on oil and gasoline. It continued to Makassar, Celebes, to fuel American ships and on December 22 departed for Darwin, Australia.

On January 23, 1942, Pecos departed Darwin for Soerabaja (or Surabaya) on the northern coast of Java. There it refueled American, British, Dutch, and Australian ships of ABDACOM (American, British, Dutch, and Australian Command), a hastily-combined fleet of Allied ships assembled to stem the Japanese advance. Eventually, Soerabaja became vulnerable to Japanese air attacks, and on February 3 Pecos departed for Tjilatjap on Java’s southeastern coast. There, the vessel remained in port and refueled Allied warships until February 27, when, needing to replenish its fuel supply, it and the destroyer USS Parrott departed for Colombo, Ceylon. En route, they received word that the Japanese sank the seaplane tender USS Langley. Pecos was ordered to divert course to Christmas Island, embark Langley’s survivors from the destroyers USS Whipple and USS Edsall and steam for Australia; USS Parrott was ordered elsewhere.

On the morning of February 28, 1942, the Pecos arrived and approached the docks of the Christmas Island Phosphate Company. Shortly thereafter, a trio of Japanese bombers appeared and destroyed the plant and radio station. The ships went to general quarters and sped for the protection of a rainsquall; upon emerging, the bombers were gone. The ships continued south at flank speed. In the early morning hours of March 1, 453 of Langley’s survivors were transferred to Pecos. Once complete, Whipple proceeded to Cocos Islands and Edsall to Tjilatjap. Pecos resumed its course for Australia, but at 10:00 (10 a.m.) a Japanese aircraft spotted the ships and reported Pecos’s position to a Japanese carrier group.

At 11:45 (11:45 a.m.), the first wave of Japanese dive-bombers began an attack that lasted approximately three hours and forty-five minutes. The Pecos mounted a defense, but the lack of air cover doomed the ship to uninterrupted airstrikes. The first attack caused the ship to list to port, but crews corrected the list by transferring oil to a different tank and pumping water into another. About two hours after the attack began, some of the crew mistakenly passed the word to “Abandon Ship.” Four life rafts and two whaleboats were put over the side, and a number of crewmen jumped overboard. Those that went over the side soon realized their mistake. Pecos, steaming at 12 knots and still under attack, had no choice but to leave them behind. At 14:20 (2:20 p.m.), after desperately trying to send a distress call, the Pecos’s message was received by the USS Whipple seventy miles to the northwest.

After five direct hits and several near misses, a “bomb exploded near the ship forward on the port side and the ship slowly settled forward….” The list worsened and Pecos began to settle at the bow. At 15:30 (3:30 p.m.), Commander Abernethy gave the order to abandon ship. As Pecos sank, three dive-bombers strafed the men in the water. As the planes approached the ship, Lt. Cmdr. Lawrence McPeake, the executive officer, opened fire with .50 caliber machine guns to drive off the attackers. He was posthumously given the Silver Star for his actions.

Pecos sank at 15:48 (3:48 p.m.); almost 700 men went into the water. According to the official report on the attack and sinking, “the ship slowly settled forward and finally plunged bow first into the sea leaving the stern poised high in the air for an instant before finally sinking.” About 20:00 (8:00 p.m.), USS Whipple arrived and began recovering survivors. About 21:30 (9:30 p.m.), the destroyer detected an enemy submarine and ceased rescue operations to take evasive maneuvers and drop depth charges. Unfortunately the attack killed a number of men in the water. The USS Whipple rescued 220 survivors according to the official report of Commander Abernethy. With the submarine threat looming, however, the decision was made to depart the area; almost 500 men were abandoned at sea.

Whipple arrived at Fremantle, Australia, on March 4, where it disembarked its survivors. USS Pecos was stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on May 8, 1942. The vessel received a battle star for its World War II service.

Rear Adm. E. P. Abernethy, USN (Ret.), “The Pecos Died Hard,” Proceedings, United States Naval Institute Press, December 1969. LTC Sion H. Harrington III, “S1c Henry Thomas Buchanan and the Loss of the USS Pecos,” Erwin History Museum (https://www.erwinnchistory.com/2020/07/s1c-henry-thomas-buchanan-and-loss-of.html#:~:text=On%20January%2023%2C%201942%2C%20the%20day%20after%20Henry,had%20been%20placed%20in%20hopes%20of%20being%20repaired), accessed June 17, 2021. Dwight R. Messimer, Pawns of War: The Loss of the USS Langley and the USS Pecos (Annapolis, Maryland: Naval Institute Press, 1983). Samuel Eliot Morison, History of United States Naval Operations in World War II, Volume III, The Rising Sun in the Pacific, 1931–April 1942 (Edison, New Jersey: Castle Books, 2001). Naval History and Heritage Command: Pecos I (AO-6) 1921–1942 (https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/p/pecos-i.html), accessed June 17, 2021. USS PECOS—Action & sinking of PECOS, 3/1/42 (Enc A–D), Records of the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, 1875–2006, World War II War Diaries, Other Operational Records and Histories, ca. 1/1/42–ca.6/1/46, National Archives Catalog (https://catalog.archives.gov/id/133883589), accessed June 17, 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., “Pecos (AO-6),” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed October 27, 2021, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/pecos-ao-6.

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June 30, 2021
June 30, 2021

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