Honolulu, Hawaii • October 11, 1943
On this date in 1943 the USS Wahoo, a Gato-class (early World War II) submarine under Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton, was sunk in the La Pérouse (Soya) Strait, the channel that separates the northern Japanese island of Hokkaidō and the Japanese-held southern half of Sakhalin Island (today’s Sakhalin Oblast in Russia’s Far East). Armed with ten torpedo tubes, the Wahoo was one of the most celebrated submarines of World War II, sinking more Japanese cargo and transport ships than any other submarine up to that time. By her fifth patrol she had set a record for sinking nearly 95,000 tons and damaging over 31,000 tons in only 25 patrol days. On her last patrol the Wahoo sank four ships for 13,000 tons.
The USS Barb sank more tonnage. During seven war patrols between March 1944 and August 1945, the Barb was officially credited by the Japanese with sinking 17 vessels totaling 96,628 tons, including the 20,321 ton escort carrier Un’yō. Interestingly, under the cloak of darkness Barb’s sailors conducted the only ground combat operation on Japanese soil (South Sakhalin Island), planting a bomb on a rail line that later wrecked a train. The USS Tang, a Balao-class submarine (successor to the Gato-class), sank 31 ships displacing 231,000 tons in her short twelve-month career (five war patrols) under her commander Richard O’Kane. The total of ships and tonnage sunk was the highest for a single commanding officer. On the Tang’s third patrol she sank more Japanese ships—ten—than any other submarine patrol of the war. Submariners accounted for less than two percent of the entire U.S. Navy in World War II, but they accounted for sixty percent of Japanese merchant marine losses and thirty percent of Japanese Navy losses.
Submariners faced enormous danger: more than 20 percent lost their lives aboard their vessels, and a submariner was six times more likely to die than a sailor on board a surface ship. As a submarine skipper, the Wahoo’s “Mush” Morton was something of a daredevil. During the short ten months he commanded the sub, he lined up an impressive number of “firsts”: first to penetrate an enemy harbor and sink a ship therein, first to successfully use a down-the-throat shot, and first to wipe out an entire convoy (four ships) single-handedly. After three arduous war patrols, Morton was given the highly dangerous assignment of penetrating the Sea of Japan, the body of water sandwiched between the Japanese Home Islands and the Asian mainland. The loss of Morton and 80 officers and enlisted men aboard the Wahoo profoundly shocked the submarine force. All further forays into the inland sea ceased, and it was not breached again until June 1945.
U.S. Submarines Wahoo and Tang, 1941–1944
Left: Cmdr. Dudley “Mush” Morton (left) and his executive officer Lt. Richard O’Kane in the conning tower of the Wahoo on January 26, 1943, possibly targeting and sinking the Japanese troop transport Buyo Maru, north of New Guinea, on the sub’s third patrol. O’Kane would later assume command of the USS Tang.
Left: A broom on the Wahoo’s periscope on its return to Pearl Harbor, 1943. The broom indicated the oceans were “swept clean.” The pennant flying from the snorkel reads, “Shoot the sunza bitches.”
Left: The USS Tang off Mare Island Navy Yard, California, December 1943. The Tang received four battle stars and two Presidential Unit Citations for her wartime service. Her commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Richard O’Kane, former executive officer of Wahoo, received the Medal of Honor for Tang’s final action against Japanese shipping in the Formosa Strait when his sub was sunk by its own flawed torpedo on the night of October 24/25, 1944. Captured by a Japanese destroyer and imprisoned in several POW camps, O’Kane and eight crew members lived to tell about it.
Right: Downed U.S. airmen on a Vought OS2U Kingfisher near Truk Lagoon await rescue by the USS Tang, 1944. (The OS2U was a catapult-launched observation floatplane.) On her second war patrol, the Tang was assigned to lifeguard duty near Truk. The Tang rescued 22 downed airmen and transported them to Hawaii at the conclusion of her patrol.
Contemporary Film Describing World War II Submarine Service