The Bravest Man: Richard O'Kane and the Amazing Submarine Adventures of the USS Tang - William Tuohy O’Kane, winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor, learned many of his aggressive tactics from his time as exec on the Wahoo under the command of Dudley “Mush” Morgan. Morgan did all sorts of things that most commanders considered fool-hardy including steaming on the surface during daylight when within flying distance of Japanese bases. Everyone else remained submerged during daylight, hunting only at night. He also had the temerity to define “reconnoiter” as going right into an enemy held harbor. They managed this incredible feat using a child’s atlas; the maps supplied to them by the Navy showed only indentations in the coast of New Guinea. It just happened that a crewman had purchased a child’s atlas in Australia as a present for his son which contained a foldout map of Australia and clearly showed the location of a Japanese base at Wewak.

One of the most controversial acts of a commander during wartime occurred while O’Kane was exec on the Wahoo . They had just successfully torpedoed a large troopship and Morgan ordered the sub to machine gun the lifeboats forcing the troops into the water. he rationalization was that these were troops headed to reinforce other Japanese engage in battle against U.S. forces. Many were killed and Morton said later that the troops had opened fire on his sub. O’Kane said the sub had fired first on the troops, and his recollection would seem to be more accurate since as it turned out, the troops were not Japanese but rather Indian POWs being taken to Japan (this fact was not mentioned by the author in his overly hagiographic account of the episode) and it’s unlikely they would have shot at the sub, especially as they were unarmed prisoners, although I’m sure their were many armed Japanese troops aboard as well. Nevertheless, had this been an action undertaken by a Japanese or German sub against supposed American troops, the commander would have been charged, no doubt, with war crimes. Clay Blair, the doyen of submarine historians, says the sub fired first. War sucks, either way. I suppose I would be a disciple of Sherman and all out war. The idea of war with rules does seem to be a bit oxymoronic. **

Review to follow. More information at http://www.uboataces.com/articles-war-criminal.shtml.

Tuohy discusses the “skipper problem.” In the early stages of the war, submarine captains were chosen from the ranks of those who had been trained during peacetime. It had been the conventional wisdom to have subs used as reconnaissance ships and to stay out of harms way, spending most of the time underwater, rarely on the surface. This meant they usually returned from patrol with no kills. Ironically, the execs, much younger, sometimes had more actual war experience and it was these execs (O’Kane being a splendid example) who developed changes in tactics. Morgan deliberately ignored the conventional wisdom, stayed surfaced and attacked aggressively. He, and his exec, O’Kane, were very successful, (the Wahoo under Morgan was later lost at sea) and soon skippers who returned from patrol with no or few kills were replaced after two patrols.

It wasn’t just a “skipper” problem. Differences in tactics and strategy, not to mention personal animosity led to command altercations and petty decisions based on personal differences rather than what might be good for the submariners. Clay Blair in his definitive work on submarine warfare in WW II lays blame for lackluster results in 1942 squarely on the commanders. They fought over where R&R sites should be located (Carpenter wanted them away from the temptations of cities) to who might have written a little poem poking fun at the admirals at Pearl Harbor (the author, the skipper of the Haddock almost lost his command for distributing “subversive” literature) to where the command should be located (it was split between Freemantle, Pearl Harbor, and Perth) not to mention MacArthur who wanted to use subs only to deliver small groups of special forces rather than use them to sink ships.

And let’s not forget the infamous torpedo problem. The Navy’s Ordnance Bureau refused to listen to skipper’s complaints about their torpedoes which they claimed were failing at a rate of 43%. Both the depth settings (discovered later to be because they were tested with water, which is lighter than TNT, in place of the warhead) were off by about 11 feet, and the magnetic exploders were defective. Regretfully, it was the commanders at the highest levels, several of whom at done stints at the Ordnance Bureau, who refused to let the skippers test the torpedoes or change settings. The issue came to a head when Admiral Lockwood took evidence of the faulty torpedo magnetic exploders to Admiral Nimitz who then ordered them to be disconnected. Admiral Christie in Freemantle, who had been instrumental in design of the magnetic exploder, told skippers leaving Freemantle they were required to use the magnetic exploder. So when in Crhstie’s command area, the skippers had to engage the exploder; when in Lockwood’s (large area west of Pearl Harbor) they had to dismantle them. Ridiculous.

After devoting about a third of the book to O’Kane’s experiences with Mush Morgan, the author steps back and takes a look at his experiences at the Naval Academy and family. One of the things I really enjoyed about this book was the analysis of family pressures and an analysis command relationships. I also enjoyed the detail related to construction of a sub and the latitude granted each construction firm and skipper to make design changes. Interesting.

O’Kane was assigned to new construction: the Tang. He had a fetish for training and he tested the new sub as well. The normal test depth was 425 feet. He took her gradually down past the stop point on the depth meter, 600 feet and that dive of an estimated 625 feet was considered the deepest ever recorded for a U.S. submarine that survived. At each depth where a fitting broke, or a leak occurred, he returned to the surface and back to the shipyard, where the item was replaced and/or strengthened; then he went back and dove deeper. Scared the shit out of the crew, but the dives provided valuable information and confidence in the boat that was useful later.

Behavior under depth charging was of great interest to the Navy, and the experience of the Puffer became a textbook case for learning how men held up under extreme stress. The sub had remained under for 39 hours with the AC shut off to quiet the ship. Psychological examination revealed something surprising. It wasn’t the leaders who saved the ship, but those who were hardly noticed when things were operating normally: The worriers and the hurriers all crapped out, leaving the plodders to bring the ship home.” Clearly, the only way to judge a man’s value was wait until he was seen under stress before making final judgment. (Tuohy borrows quite liberally and perhaps excessively from United States submarine operations in World War II. By Theodore Roscoe, You can see the appropriate context at http://books.google.com/books?id=5lTI_dF4jocC&pg=PA275&lpg=PA275&dq=puffer+depth+charging&source=bl&ots=z7MVfo-J-j&sig=DkiI2M8Bx9G2O6zE8m9_cO5if9c&hl=en&ei=zo3rTYLlEYPpgQf2yeXhCQ&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=3&ved=0CCMQ6AEwAg#v=onepage&q=puffer%20depth%20charging&f=false pages 275-280)

Very interesting book and I have gone on too long as I tend to do.

** There is a competent summary of the action against the Boyu Maru troopship at http://www.warfish.com/patrol3con.html. The Wikipaedia has an excellent summary of the wartime patrols of the Wahoo at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_Wahoo_(SS-238)