Chief Watertender Oscar Peterson, USN
As we approach the 68th anniversary of the Battle of Coral Sea, it is fitting to remember one of its heroes; because until a month ago his sacrifice went largely unheralded.
His name was Oscar Peterson, a kid from Wisconsin who joined the Navy in 1920. He would spend the rest of his life at sea. By the time World War II broke out, he had risen through the ranks to Chief Petty Officer, and was stationed aboard the oiler USS NEOSHO (AO-23). NEOSHO was there in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese attacked, and was at the Battle of Coral Sea five months later.
In May 1942, after refueling YORKTOWN and ASTORIA, NEOSHO was attacked by Japanese bombers. Believing NEOSHO to be an American carrier, the Japanese hit her seven times with bombs, and once with a plane on a suicide dive.
Chief Peterson led a repair team during the fight, most of whom were injured and incapacitated by fire and explosions. Peterson himself was badly burned. To keep his ship operational, and disregarding the near certainty of further burns, Chief Peterson managed to close four bulkhead steam lines, an action that kept NEOSHO afloat.
NEOSHO was eventually scuttled, but not for another four days, and not before USS HENLEY (DD 391) had arrived and rescued 123 crewmen. In no small part, they owe their lives to Chief Peterson, who died two days after being rescued. He was buried at sea.
For sixty-eight years, the only acknowledgment of his heroic actions was the Medal of Honor that his widow received in the mail. Last month, the Navy held a formal Medal of Honor ceremony in Richfield, Idaho. Peterson’s only remaining family member – one of his two sons – received it on behalf of his father. A grave marker and Medal of Honor flag now stand in the Richfield cemetery.
After nearly seven decades, Chief Peterson was afforded the honor he deserved.
“For extraordinary courage and conspicuous heroism above and beyond the call of duty while in charge of a repair party during an attack on the U .S .S. Neosho by enemy Japanese aerial forces on 7 May 1942. Lacking assistance because of injuries to the other members of his repair party and severely wounded himself, Peterson, with no concern for his own life, closed the bulkhead stop valves and in so doing received additional burns which resulted in his death. His spirit of self-sacrifice and loyalty, characteristic of a fine seaman, was in keeping with the highest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life in the service of his country.”