Tears welled-up in his eyes the first time we talked about his ship. And it was with obvious pride the day when Tony Rella presented me with several documents to read. On Sunday morning December 7, 1941, Tony was a member of the ship's crew aboard USS NEOSHO (AO-23) moored on “Battleship’s Row,” Ford’s Island, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. NEOSHO (pronounced "nee-OH-sho") arrived in Pearl Harbor from the West Coast the day before, fully laden with fuels. Most of her cargo fuel was off-loaded throughout Saturday evening. During the Japanese surprise attack that Sunday morning, Captain Phillips and NEOSHO’s gallant crew navigated her to safer waters through the intense shelling and exploding bombs -- past the burning ships and the human slaughter that forever marks that awful day. Tony’s ship was totally undamaged; avoiding great peril as her crew expertly sailed the explosive fume laden NEOSHO past those many heavily traumatized and sinking ships of the U.S. Pacific Fleet. Countless acts of unrecognized heroism certainly occurred that day, and just as certain Tony was heavily involved with his responsibility to bring his ship through the devastation. Tony was immensely proud of his service to his Country and his Navy. His active membership and strong participation with the Central New York Pearl Harbor Survivors Association was a source of particular personal pride.
USS NEOSHO was a Fleet Oiler (a tanker) tasked to deliver lifeblood oil and gas to the Pacific Fleet. Tony and the crew affectionately called her “Fat Girl.” Without the support of crews and ships like NEOSHO, the fleet and it’s aircraft simply could not operate. Work aboard Fleet Oilers proved hazardous for all and deadly to some. Loading of airplane and diesel fuel, a high tempo of operations, and a heavy demand of maximizing their cargo deliveries placed each ship’s crew in life and death situations. Tony was a U.S. Navy Machinist Mate, the kind of sailor who maintains much of the ship’s support equipment…the small engines, the pumps, the compressors, the hydraulic systems, and the ventilation, air & water systems. Tony did his job with high professionalism, whatever had to be done to keep and maintain this equipment in top operational condition. Any ship would be dead-in-the-water in relatively short order without the productivity of guys like Tony. But surviving the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor is only part of Tony’s NEOSHO record.
In early May 1942, USS NEOSHO sailed into the Coral Sea north of Australia, in direct service to the American Pacific Fleet. The NEOSHO and her escort ship had been left behind in a “safe area” while the vital American Aircraft Carriers USS YORKTOWN and USS LEXINGTON sought out the Japanese Fleet. On May 7th, just as the major fighting began at the Battle of the Coral Sea, Japanese dive-bombers and torpedo airplanes found and hit NEOSHO and her escort ship, sinking her single escort USS SIMS (DD-409) with multiple bomb hits around midday. Burning and immobilized, the NEOSHO began listing sharply in the rough seas. The horror that followed over the next several days was still on Tony’s face as he talked about these events. Many of Tony’s shipmates lay dead or dying. On confused orders to abandon ship, a large group of shipmates boarded lifeboats and were swept away by the heavy seas, never to be seen again. NEOSHO was sinking as her able crew hung on and battled to save her. They expected rescue soon, but that rescue did not come for over four days. The crew had all but lost faith that rescue would ever come…but then finally a rescue ship appeared on May 11th. There were 293 men aboard NEOSHO just before the attack at the Battle of the Coral Sea. Of these, 184 men died while 109 survived. Just fifteen SIMS crew-members survived her tragic combat sinking, but two of these surviving sailors died from wounds within a few days of their rescue.
Tony Rella was honorably discharged from active duty following WWII as a Chief Petty Officer. He was enormously proud of his Pearl Harbor Survivor Medal, an award that took our government over fifty years to authorize. I’ve always been bothered by the military “awards and commendation” process. So many acts of heroism go unrecognized by the military. Tony, and many guys like him, volunteered to serve before America entered WWII. It was not politically correct in some sectors of American society to volunteer for military service in 1938 thru 1940, with the currents of war increasing as Tony’s naval service began. Then, as now, a vocal minority of misguided Americans were posturing an increasing isolationist view. Several of these appeasers are now marked by history as misguided cowards. Unlike Tony, some Americans had turned a blind-eye to the terrible world events unfolding in Europe and the Far East. But Tony’s heroism stands as a matter of fact and official record. His military service was then -- and is still -- worthy of several significant combat awards that somehow went unwritten, never to be awarded and presented during his lifetime.
The words of General Dwight D. Eisenhower may sum it up best -- “History does not entrust the care of freedom to the weak or timid.” Anthony “Tony” Rella passed away October 25, 2007, we each lost an unsung hero on Tony’s passing that day. Tony…you Sir are fondly remembered and sadly missed. By honorable naval tradition…
“Fair Winds and Following Seas.”
Many background facts presented in this posting were taken from Mr. Del Leu’s web site (www.delsjourney.com). This significant research was published to honor the memory of his late Uncle Bill Leu, and to honor the heroic crew of USS Neosho. Del’s work assisted in the preparation of Tony Rella’s obituary. Shipmate Bill Leu, who passed away in 2003, was also a Pearl Harbor and Neosho survivor...and served with Tony Rella aboard Neosho. Significant background information also came from an article "Fat Girl" published 2/6/1943 in the “Saturday Evening Post” magazine -- and other related papers -- that Tony supplied to me.