'In Harm’s Way': America’s Greatest Submarine Commander

Richard Hetherington O'Kane (below-right, in his Annapolis graduation photo) was born on February 2, 1911 in Dover, New Hampshire, a town near the Atlantic coast with a population of about 13,000 at the time. His father, Dr. Walter Collins O'Kane, was a professor of entomology at the University. Richard attended Phillips Academy, Andover, NH and the University of New Hampshire at Durham but he didn’t inherit his father’s fascination with bugs. He was more fascinated with the nearby ocean and the men who “went down to the sea in ships.” In 1930 he got an appointment to U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland and was graduated and commissioned Ensign on May 31, 1934.

O’Kane spent a few years on surface ships but he found that a little too tame and transferred to the most dangerous branch of the navy: the submarine service.

In 1938 he got his first submarine assignment as the dive officer aboard the USS Argonaut, a mine laying sub based at Pearl Harbor and the largest submarine in the U.S. fleet. She left on a patrol to Midway Island in late November, 1941, just nine days before the Japanese attack. Argonaut was the first submarine to attempt to engage a Japanese vessel in the war, but the mine laying vessel was ill-suited to the task and the attack failed. When they returned to Pearl Harbor, O’Kane was assigned as executive officer (XO) to one of the newly constructed fleet submarines, the USS Wahoo, destined to be one of the most famous submarines of the Pacific war.

A year later the USS Argonaut would be sunk by Japanese destroyers off Rabaul. The 102 crewman lost was the largest loss of life on any U.S. submarine during the war.

Argonaut was one of fifty-two submarines the U.S. lost in the war. The so-called “silent service” had the highest percentage of killed in action of any branch of the U.S. armed forces in the war. Nearly one in four of all submarine crew members who served in the war were lost in action. But thanks to men like O’Kane, U.S. subs were responsible for over half the tonnage of all Japanese vessels sunk during the war, though they made up only 2 percent of the U.S. Navy’s ships. They wiped out nearly 90% of the Japanese merchant fleet and left the rest with no fuel to operate. Had it not been for the unreliability of American torpedoes in the first part of the war, they would have done it far sooner.

Though the Wahoo would end up as one of the most celebrated and successful U.S. submarines of the war, nicknamed the “one sub wolfpack,” it didn’t start out that way. O’Kane was the executive officer under Captain Marvin Kennedy on the first two war patrols of Wahoo, and they were highly disappointing. The officers and men of the submarine service were all volunteers and knew how dangerous their job was, but wanted desperately to inflict damage on the enemy, and Kennedy, even by his own admission later, was too cautious. Submarine warfare was not for the cautious.

(Left: O'Kane in dress uniform in a photo probably taken during the war.)

U.S. submarines in the Pacific in WWII operated in many ways like 18th century Caribbean pirates until later in the war, when some joined in wolf-pack type patrols. Until then they sailed on their own, usually looking for merchant vessels while trying to avoid the enemy warships escorting them. Unlike those pirates, however, their goal wasn’t to plunder those merchant vessels, it was to destroy them and strangle the Japanese war machine, which was highly dependent on foreign resources that had to get there by sea.

Like those 18th century pirates, success often depended on the boldness of the captain. It was probably Kennedy that O’Kane had in mind when he said after the war, “It’s a big ocean. You don’t have to find the enemy if you don’t want to.” John Paul Jones, who did not try to avoid danger, once said he needed a fast ship because, “I intend to go in harm's way.” O’Kane, and other successful U.S. sub commanders in the Pacific war, epitomized that philosophy.

Morale on the Wahoo following the first two patrols was very low. “The Wahoo was not making much of a record,” O’Kane said, “and we knew it.” O’Kane himself was contemplating asking for a transfer when Kennedy was relieved of the command and replaced by a man who would become a submarine service legend: Lt. Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton.

(Below: O'Kane, left, on the bridge of the USS Wahoo with Dudley “Mush” Morton .)

“Mush," short for the nickname "Mushmouth" he earned at Annapolis based on his slow southern drawl,  had been along as an observer on Wahoo’s 2nd patrol and was the antithesis of the restrained Kennedy. At his first meeting with the full crew he informed them that the Wahoo “was expendable,” that their mission wasn’t merely to return home safely, but to sink Japanese ships. He told them he intended to pursue every single contact and if it was the enemy, “we are going to hunt him down and kill him.” It was just what O’Kane and the crew wanted to hear. Morton offered to allow anyone who had a problem with his “expendable” attitude to leave the crew. He had no takers. O’Kane and Morton became close friends, and O’Kane would later command his own submarine guided by the same principle.

Morton came up with a novel approach with regard to Wahoo’s attacks on enemy ships, putting O’Kane on the periscope. Most sub commanders would man the periscope during attacks and have their XO run the coordination of the attack using all the information from the periscope and sound detection and plotting parties. You’d have to have complete confidence in your XO to reverse that, and Morton’s observations of O’Kane on Wahoo’s 2nd patrol gave him that confidence. Few commanders copied this system, even O’Kane didn’t when he got his own command, but it worked beautifully for the Wahoo.

On Morton’s first patrol the Wahoo traveled on the surface during the day to allow them to better observe the full horizon, something U.S. subs usually only did at night. On their first attack under Morton Wahoo sailed directly into a Japanese held harbor on the New Guinea coast and attacked the Japanese destroyer Harusame, eventually sinking it with a nerve racking “down the throat” shot as it was bearing down on them. At some point during that action a few of the crew may have been regretting their recent decision to remain on the sub.

(Left: A photo of the torpedoed Harusame from the Wahoo's periscope. Note how close the New Guinea shoreline is behind it.)

In the shallow harbor a miss would have meant almost certain destruction by depth charge attack, but they didn’t miss. One of the reasons Morton wanted O’Kane on the periscope was because when you are the one looking at what is happening above, like that destroyer bearing down on them, it took nerves of steel to stay calm, and Morton called O’Kane, “the bravest man I know.” Everyone on the crew now knew that Morton had not been joking when he said they were expendable.

(Below-right: Periscope view of the sinking merchant ship Nittsu Maru, sunk by the Wahoo in the Yellow Sea during their highest scoring patrol.)

O’Kane and Morton would collaborate on three patrols with the Wahoo before OKane was given his own command. Morton’s aggressive command style resulted in fifteen Japanese ships sunk during the three patrols on which O’Kane was his XO, including nine on their second patrol, the 2nd highest total of any patrol by a US sub. On that patrol the hyper-aggressive Morton, frustrated with malfunctioning torpedoes, even surfaced and sank two Japanese freighters with his deck gun. That aggression also resulted in many near misses in depth charge attacks by Japanese destroyers, that most terrifying of all experiences for submariners. In July 1943, the end of their 3rd patrol on the Wahoo, O’Kane left to take command of new sub that was then under construction, the USS Tang.

As had been the case with the Argonaut, the Wahoo would not survive long after O’Kane left. She disappeared on her 5th patrol under Morton in the Sea of Japan in October 1943. After several weeks of no contact with her, it was clear the Wahoo was lost. It wasn’t until after the war that researchers looking over Japanese records were able to ascertain that Morton had once again been running on the surface and was sunk by either bombs or depth charges dropped by an enemy bomber that spotted them in the La Perouse Straits near the Japanese coast. The wreck of the Wahoo was found there in 1995.

The loss was a shock for the navy and nation, but for O’Kane it was a deeply personal tragedy in the loss his good friend “Mush” Morton and the other members of the crew. He and the Tang (pictured below) had two submarine crews to avenge now, and he would not let them down.

O’Kane set out on his first patrol on the USS Tang in January 22, 1944, with those numerous departed comrades ever on his mind, especially his friend “Mush” Morton, and he would make the Japanese pay dearly for those he’d lost. He shortly began earning his reputation as “Killer” O’Kane. He sank five enemy merchant vessels on that first patrol, the same number Morton and the Wahool sank on his first patrol. He got his first after enduring a harrowing depth charge attack when a destroyer spotted them. But he didn’t abandon the attack, and hours later sunk one of the ships in that same convoy. And like Morton, some of O’Kane’s attacks were done at night running on the surface. It was a high-risk, high-reward mode of attack, which perfectly fit the aggressive mindset of both of them.

On Tang’s 2nd patrol they sank no ships, but it was a highly successful patrol nonetheless. They spent most of it on “lifeguard” duty attempting to rescue down air crews around Truk Atoll. O’Kane showed the same determination in this duty as he did in attacking enemy shipping. Often moving so close to shore that he needed air support to reach downed airmen, while their deck guns engaged Japanese coastal guns, O’Kane and the Tang rescued an incredible 22 of 35 airmen downed attacking the atoll while they were on duty there. It was the largest number of airmen ever rescued during one patrol by any U.S. sub. Those men and their families might consider that Tang’s most successful patrol.

(Right: O'Kane (center), poses with the twenty-two air crewmen that Tang rescued off Truk.)

On their 3rd patrol, in June,“Killer” O’Kane earned his nickname as he and the Tang sank ten Japanese ships, the largest number of Japanese ships ever sunk on one patrol. He also commanded the 3rd highest scoring patrol, and was the XO on the Wahoo on the 2nd highest scoring patrol of the war, further enhancing his reputation as the most successful American submarine officer of the war. This patrol was in the Yellow Sea, the same area of the Wahoo’s most successful patrol.

Tang sank another five Japanese and made it home safely on her 4th patrol. O’Kane and the Tang had become legendary in just eight months of combat. Their fifth tour would cement Tang’s record as one of the most successful U.S. sub of WWII, and O’Kane’s standing as America’s greatest submarine commander but Dicken’s might have described it as the best of times and the worst of times.

In the Straits of Formosa in October, on that fifth patrol, the Tang wreaked havoc on the Japanese. He had already sunk several ships when he made a typically daring surface attack on a large convoy on the night of October 24th. Running on the surface they were detected by the escorts, who fired salvos at him as he began his attack. His first salvo of torpedoes hit three vessels. O’Kane and the Tang got an incredible twenty-two hits with the 24 torpedoes he fired on this patrol. 

The attack on this convoy would last into the early morning hours of the 25th, with the Tang taking fire from several different direction. With burning Japanese vessels in various stages of sinking illuminating the area, shells whistling overhead and tossing up geysers of water to their left and right, it was like a scene from Dante’s “Inferno,” but O’Kane pressed the attack. Eventually he had two torpedoes left. He was going to fire them at a freighter he had already crippled and then run for Pearl Harbor and home, but it was not to be.

The first torpedo ran true, but the second ran on a circular course, bringing it right back at the middle of the Tang. O’Kane realized what was happening, but he had just 20 seconds to attempt to get his 310 foot long sub out of the way. Trying to swing the rear of the sub out of the way of the torpedo he screamed the command, “All ahead emergency! Right full rudder!” He very nearly did it, but the torpedo stuck them near the stern and unfortunately for the crew of the Tang this was not one of the duds that had plagued them for so long. The explosion rocked the ship and she sank quickly by the stern. The last order O’Kane gave was to close the lower conning tower hatch, which may have saved a few of the crew who later escaped from the sunken sub.

(Left: The telegraph that the family of one of the Tang crew members, Quartermaster, Second Class Robert Welch, received in November 1944 letting them know he was missing. Click on it for a larger view. Welch, pictured below-right, did not survive.)

O’Kane and eight others on the bridge were swept into the sea and one man from the control room, Lt. Larry Savadkin, made it out of the upper conning tower, going from one air pocket to another until he reached the upper hatch.

Unlike the crews on other ships, submariners wore no life vests because the narrow hatches in the conning tower made them impractical. O’Kane later wrote that he watched as, “Tang’s bow suddenly plunged down to Davy Jones’ locker, and the lonely seas seemed to share in my total grief.” As they treaded water they heard the explosion of their last torpedo sending their last Japanese victim to the bottom. Only Kane and three others, including Savaadkin, survived to the morning. “I swam until I couldn’t swim anymore,” O’Kane later said. “Then I thought of Ernestine [his wife] and swam some more.” Thirteen men from the sub, lying in about 180 feet of water, managed to escape later using the Momsen lung, but only five of them survived to the morning. This was the only known occasion in which it was successfully used in a U.S. sub escape.

O’Kane and the other eight survivors were picked up by a Japanese destroyer the next morning. There they were mingled with the survivors of the ships they had sunk, who angrily beat them. O’Kane later said, rather magnanimously, “When we realized that our clubbing and kickings were being administered by the burned, mutilated survivors of our handiwork, we found we could take it with less prejudice.”

The Japanese considered aviators and submariners "special prisoners of Japan," and imprisoned in the foulest camps with their existence unreported to the International Red Cross. Thus the families of these nine survivors, listed as missing and presumed dead, had no idea their loved one had lived until after the war ended. And very few members of submarine crews, simply due to the fact they so often operated underwater, survived a sinking, so their families would always assume the worst. All nine of the Tang prisoners survived the war for what must have been like a near “return from the dead” reunion with their families, but O’Kane very nearly didn’t. He weighed under 100 pounds at liberation and was suffering from malnutrition, dysentery, and jaundice. He was given a 50-50 chance of survival but he beat the odds and survived once again, as he had done throughout the war.

(Above-right: O'Kane, center, with famous "Black Sheep" commander Greg "Pappy" Boyington to his right on the hospital ship following liberation. They were held in the same Japanese POW camp. The field jacket hides his emaciated body.)

In his service on the Wahoo and the Tang O’Kane had achieved a record unequaled by any other U.S. submarine officer. He was awarded the Medal of Honor for that epic, final patrol. He was also awarded three Navy Crosses and three Silver Stars over the course of the war.

(Left: O'Kane receiving his Medal of Honor from President Harry S. Truman after the war.)

O’Kane remained in the Navy following the war, serving as the commanding officer at the Submarine School in New London, Connecticut for a time. He retired with the rank of Rear Admiral in 1957. Richard “Killer” O’Kane died of pneumonia on February 16, 1994 in Petaluma, California at 83 and was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

O’Kane had served on three different submarines over the course of the war, and all had been sunk with the loss of 260 crewmen. Living in the close confines of a submarine as one of the officers in charge, he would have become intimately familiar with his crew, and only he and a handful of his final shipmates on the Tang survived the war. He probably lost as many close war time comrades as any man who served in the U.S armed forces in WWII.

As has been the case with so many warriors before him and since, those lost comrades were never far from his thoughts for the rest of his life. After he passed away his wife said: "The hardest thing for him for the rest of his life was that he came home … and his men didn't." 

Crew list of the USS Tang. Survivors marked with an asterisk

RELATED LINKS: 

Book: The Bravest Man: Richard O'Kane and the Amazing Submarine Adventures of the USS Tang

Book: Clear the Bridge!: The War Patrols of the U.S.S. Tang

Book: Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous World War II Submarine

(Right: Tang's officers pose following the boat's commissioning in October 1943. Left to right: Lt. Bruce (Scotty) Anderson (not aboard at sinking), Ens. Henry Flanagan (survived), LCdr. Richard O'Kane (survived), Lt. Murray Frazee (not aboard), Lt. Frank Springer (lost), Lt. William Walsh (not aboard), Ens. Fred (Mel) Enos (lost).)

Video: Submarine Warriors Morton and O'Kane 

Video: USS Tang 'The Loss of the Tang' 

Video: Charles Momsen and Submarine Escape 4: The Loss and Escape of the USS Tang

Video: Silent Service S01 E12: Tang vs. Truk

Video: USS Wahoo 'Wahoo's Final Report'

Video: World War II Submarine Warfare - rare footage

The USS Tang -Wikipedia

The USS Wahoo -Wikipedia

USS Argonaut - Wikipedia

On Eternal Patrol – USS Tang (list of lost crew members)

On Eternal Patrol - USS Wahoo (list of lost crew members)

American Submarine War Patrol Reports: USS Tang     USS Wahoo

USS Tang Survivors

Below: The crew of the USS Tang. Most of the men in the photo were lost.

The Tang received four battle stars and was one of only three ships to earn two Presidential Unit Citations for its World War II service.

Medals awarded to Richard O'Kane for his WWII service.

A diagram of the Tang showing where the torpedo hit and how she went down. Click on it for a larger view.

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Tags: Killer O'Kane, Military History, Mush Morton, Richard O'Kane, WWII, World War II, navy, submarine, tang, uss tang, More…uss wahoo, wahoo, war

Comment by xavier owen mcdonnell on October 16, 2016 at 2:53pm

I believe Sub service to be the only 100 % volunteer service in or out upon request I believe the first modern working U.S.sub was the Fenian Ram by Dr. Holland from County Clare I was a Sub sailor for a short stint as soon as I could after I reached  legal age  my doctored birth certificates failed 

that is a incredible story of bravery 

th

Comment by Patrick Francis Deady on October 16, 2016 at 9:51pm

Thanks to the likes of Richard OKane and his men, New Zealand remains a free country. I salute them !

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