When the initial ones popped up on his radar screen, Morris Neighbors at first wasn’t overly concerned.
“Enemy aircraft would show up as these little blips of light. And there were just a couple,” he said.
“But then, just like that, they filled up the screen.”
“There were more than I could count,” he recalled. “And that’s when I said, ‘We got to tell somebody quick.’”
As a 19-year-old radar operator on the USS Leutze destroyer during World War II, Neighbors’ job, in theory, was done at that point.
Once the message was relayed to the captain that Japanese planes were headed their way off Okinawa, “all we could do is hunker down and hope the gunners did their job,” he said.
But on this day, it wouldn’t be that simple.
With a group of kamikazes set to zero-in on them, Neighbors soon would find himself in the thick of the action.
Called up on deck to help, he still recalls the terrifying sight of what kamikazes could do.
A sister destroyer had sustained multiple hits and from one end to the other was engulfed in flames, he said.
The Leutze pulled alongside the burning ship, and sailors tried to help put out the fires.
That’s where Neighbors was, a fire hose in his hand, when the next kamikaze came in.
He felt it before he saw it.
“It knocked me off my feet,” Neighbors said of the ensuing explosion, which this time came from his own ship.
Four for fighting
As a boy growing up in Oklahoma, it would’ve been hard for Neighbors to even conceive of such epic sea battles.
“I’d never seen a body of water bigger than the Arkansas River,” said the longtime Skiatook resident, who recently turned 95.
But his youth, while short on spectacle, still offered plenty to captivate Neighbors. And no experience was more central to it than baseball.
Moving around a lot with their father’s oil lease work, Neighbors and his three older brothers played ball wherever they happened to be, including in Tulsa, where they eventually moved.
The best of the four was Bob, the oldest. He went on to play in the majors, including a short stint with the former St. Louis Browns.
Something else the Neighbors boys would have in common was military service.
After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, they all enlisted — including Morris, who was still just 17.
At one point, the Tulsa Tribune ran a short feature about the foursome and where they were serving.
But while they shared a record of service, sadly, the brothers would not share the same outcomes.
Two would be killed in action while fighting for the country — Paul in World War II and Bob later in Korea.
The losses certainly were “devastating,” but Neighbors thinks his parents handled the losses as well as they could.
His own survival, as the baby of the family, offered at least some consolation.
But there was a period, after reports of the attack on his ship hit the papers, when that was very much in doubt.
The family would learn later how close they came to losing him, too.
‘Actually in a war’
Having skipped a grade earlier, Neighbors was just 16 when he graduated from Tulsa Central High School in 1941.
He started college that fall, but after the Pearl Harbor attack in December, he left to join the Navy.
Because he was younger than 18, “I had to get my parents’ permission,” he said. “They were OK with it. They knew I’d be drafted soon, anyway.”
Trained as a radar operator, Neighbors was assigned to the Leutze, which carried around 300 men.
It was there, after shipping out for the Pacific, that Neighbors would first experience being shot at.
It happened in Leyte Gulf in the Philippines, where the Leutze found itself targeted by two aerial attackers, a strafer and a dive bomber.
“That was my first thought of ‘I’m actually in a war,’” Neighbors said. “I’m thinking, ‘Here I am a kid from Oklahoma, never been in a fistfight myself. And here are two guys in state-of-the-art machines trying to kill me.’”
The dive bomber got close.
At the last second, the ship made a hard right. “We literally run right out from under that bomb, and it hit about 30 feet off our port,” Neighbors said.
That’s when he learned, he added, that the radar room wasn’t necessarily safe. The explosion sprayed the ship with shrapnel, and some of it penetrated the walls.
There were 12 guys crammed into the small room, Neighbors said, but somehow, four of the hot metal fragments missed them all.
A fifth did not. Neighbors felt it hit him in the back.
Thankfully, he said, it had slowed enough to do no harm. “Otherwise it would have tore my heart out.”
‘No soft place to fall’
Suicide pilots who deliberately crashed their explosive-laden planes into ships, Japan’s kamikazes were the stuff of American sailors’ nightmares.
Neighbors would find out why during the invasion of Okinawa.
Sitting at the radar screen on April 6, 1945, he was among the first to know and send out the alert that a host of Japanese planes were on their way.
From that larger force, which numbered nearly 400, several would veer off to attack the Leutze and other nearby ships.
The Leutze’s guns were able to shoot down some of them. But a sister ship, the USS Newcomb, was struck by four of the suicide planes, leaving it damaged and on fire.
The kamikaze that would hit the Leutze actually hit the Newcomb first, Neighbors said.
Bouncing off its deck somehow without exploding, it continued on to the Leutze, which by then had pulled alongside the burning Newcomb to render aid.
“It was coming from the Newcomb side, and we couldn’t fire at it,” said Neighbors, who was standing on the Leutze’s bridge with a hose, helping douse the Newcomb’s flames.
The kamikaze, he added, was carrying a 500-pound bomb.
When it hit the Leutze, about 50 feet down from Neighbors’ position, the force of the explosion caused the entire vessel to shift about two feet, he said. “Everybody went down. And there’s no soft place to fall on a ship.”
The blast left behind a massive 40-foot hole.
Reacting instantly and sealing off affected areas, sailors were able to keep the Leutze afloat. However, the damage was enough to put it out of service.
Neighbors recalls helping with clean-up afterward, pulling bodies from the blast area.
Eight men had been killed and several dozen more wounded.
He would’ve shrugged off his own injuries — two badly sprained ankles, a concussion and various scrapes and bruises. However, the ship’s doctor insisted on submitting him for a Purple Heart, which he received.
A few weeks later, Neighbors was at home on furlough when the news broke.
Japan had surrendered. The war was over.
The faces in the four photos all share similar features.
But more than anything, it’s their youthfulness that stands out.
To learn the sad truth — that two of those young faces never had the chance to grow older — you have to read the words alongside them.
Part of a tribute to the Neighbors brothers at the Skiatook Museum, the images on display include one of Paul Neighbors, who like Morris Neighbors went into the Navy.
Paul, who had just gotten married while home on furlough, died in April 1945 in the Atlantic.
“A U-boat put a torpedo into” his ship, the USS Frederick C. Davis, Morris Neighbors said. “It broke it half in two, and it sank within about a minute and a half.”
Bob Neighbors is also pictured. The big-league ball player who became a pilot survived World War II, but he was shot down later in Korea. His remains have never been recovered.
He is one of only six MLB players to die in service to the country and the only one in Korea.
Next to his is a photo of Carl Neighbors. Carl, who served in the Merchant Marine, made it through the war. He died a few years ago.
As the surviving brother, Morris Neighbors often feels like the “last man standing.”
And not just in the context of family. At the last three reunions of his Leutze shipmates, he’s been the lone sailor in attendance, he said. A handful are still living but are no longer able to make the trip.
Neighbors’ daughter, Belinda Stevenson, who attends with her father, said the events still draw a crowd, though.
“It’s become almost like a family reunion because the widows and children of those we’ve lost continue to come.”
“Dad represents all their dads now,” she added.
As a representative of his generation, Neighbors believes his and the current younger generation can now relate to each other.
The end of World War II, he said, “would be like somebody coming today and saying COVID-19 has disappeared altogether. The nation can get back to what they were doing before.
“Because the nation was totally, totally 100% involved in the war effort, physicians, children, nurses, civilians,” he said. “Everybody was involved.”
And when it was finally over, “it was total relief.”
Tulsa Veterans Day Parade
Tulsa’s annual Veterans Day Parade returns Wednesday to downtown Tulsa for its 102nd year.
The parade will begin at 11 a.m. at Third Street and Boston Avenue.
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the parade will be smaller than in years past, organizers said. But it still has 76 registered entries and 2,100 individual participants.
Jim Holman, a Marine Corps and Korean War veteran, will serve as the parade’s grand marshal.
The parade will be televised on KTUL, Channel 8.
September 2019 video: Mourners honor World War II veteran with no family left
Gallery: Photographers find colors of fall foliage around Tulsa
Join a growing group of Oklahomans who believe in supporting local journalism
HIDE VERTICAL GALLERY ASSET TITLES
Get local news delivered to your inbox!
Subscribe to our Daily Headlines newsletter.