(AO-5: displacement 5,723 tons; length 475 feet; beam 56 feet; draft 26 feet 6 inches; speed 14 knots; complement 144; armament 2 5-inch guns, 2 3-inch guns)
A river in Texas.
The first Neches (AO-5) was laid down 8 June 1919 by the Boston Navy Yard; launched 2 June 1920; sponsored by Miss Helen Griffin, daughter of Rear Admiral Robert Griffin; and commissioned 25 October 1920, Comdr. H. T. Meriwether, USNRF, in command.
Originally classified as Fuel Ship No. 17, Neches received the designation AO-5 before commissioning. Joining the Atlantic Fleet for duty in late 1920, Neches operated out of Boston, Mass. until 3 March 1922. During that period she performed fleet fuel duties along the East Coast, participated in tactical exercises, carried mail and towed targets during gunner exercises. She also made several trips to Port Arthur, Tex. for fuel oil and gasoline.
She fueled at Fall River, Mass. in early March 1922 and then steamed for her new home yard at Mare Island, Calif., and thence to San Diego, her new homeport. During the 1920's, Neches continued operations as a fleet oiler for San Diego based warships. She underwent overhaul commencing 1 May 1926 at Mare Island, (during which a new hydraulic gasoline stowage system was installed). Over the ensuing fifteen years, Neches participated in and helped develop long-range fleet tactics, particular in regards to underway refueling operations, and supplied oil and gasoline to bases in the Canal Zone, Caribbean, and Hawaii.
The oiler was underway from San Diego to Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked that base on 7 December 1941. She arrived 10 December and rapidly off-loaded her cargo of fuel oil. After quickly loading ammunition and supplies, the oiler got underway to Wake Island in company with Tangier (AV-8) on 15 December. Overtaken the next day by Task Force (TF) 14, built around Saratoga (CV-3), Neches followed the relief force westward until 23 January when, following reports that Japanese troops had successfully landed on Wake, the relief expedition was called off.
Neches returned to Pearl Harbor for a refit, and then loaded fuel and gasoline in preparation for an aircraft carrier raid on Wake Island. The oiler departed Pearl Harbor the afternoon of 22 January 1942 as part of TF 11, formed around Lexington (CV-2), and steamed south and west to rendezvous with her destroyer escort.
As low clouds covered most of the sky, visibility was poor owing to darkness and Neches' lookouts gave no warning before 0310 on 23 January, when a violent thud shook the oiler amidships, most likely a dud torpedo. At 0319 a second torpedo struck the oiler on the starboard side abaft the engine room. The explosion caused extensive flooding, shutting down the main engines and warping frames and watertight doors. At 0328 a submarine, the Japanese I-72, was sighted 2,000-yards to port just before another torpedo struck the port side forward, wrecking watertight integrity and dooming the oiler. Deck guns took the submarine under slow, deliberate fire for a few minutes until the list to starboard made it impossible to depress the guns sufficiently.
Neches slowly settled forward and the list to starboard increased steadily. The crew calmly abandoned ship when the decks were awash and watched as Neches slowly sank, taking fifty-six Sailors with her to the bottom. Grouped in four lifeboats, the rest of the crew were rescued by Jarvis (DD-393) six hours later. The loss of the oiler led to the cancellation of the projected raid on Wake.
30 November 2005