(above)Wahoogets underway for her seventh
war patrol after refueling at Midway Island Sept. 13, 1943.
Photo courtesy of the Naval Historical Center
by Capt. Thomas A. Logue, Jr., USNR and Bryan MacKinnon
Setting sail after topping off at Midway Island in the late summer of 1943, headed for the Sea of Japan, the legendary Gato-class submarine, USS Wahoo (SS-238), was never to be seen again…until now. After considerable effort by many individuals and organizations from many countries, her final resting place has been confirmed by the U.S. Navy. She was discovered last summer, fatally damaged but in one piece, by a Russian dive team between the Japanese island of Hokkaido and the Russian island of Sakhalin, in the La Perouse (Soya) Strait.
Many of today’s nuclear-trained submariners may be only dimly aware of Wahoo’s accomplishments during World War II in the Pacific theater. On the occasion of Wahoo’s discovery, our intent is to recount some of her history and highlight some of the revolutionary tactics she employed under her commanding and executive officers, Cmdr. Dudley W. Morton and Rear Adm. Richard H. O’Kane. We also want to report some of the details of her discovery last year. Over the past eleven years, Bryan MacKinnon, grand-nephew of Dudley Morton, led the effort to find Wahoo and determine the circumstances of her loss. For us, Wahoo’s discovery represents a significant way-point in personal journeys that started very early in our lives.
Dudley “Mush” Morton, the Submarine Force’s Rising Star
By the summer of 1943, everybody in the Pacific Submarine Force had heard of Dudley “Mush” Morton and Wahoo. They had become an overnight sensation after Wahoo’s third patrol conducted off New Guinea earlier that same year. As part of his tasking for his first patrol as commanding officer (CO) of Wahoo, Morton’s patrol orders included the directive: “Adjust speed, if possible, to permit daylight reconnaissance vicinity Wewak Harbor, New Guinea.”2
After consulting with his officers for their interpretation of “reconnaissance,” Morton made his intentions clear. He decided it meant enter the harbor, submerged, and sink as many enemy ships as possible. Upon conducting a periscope survey of an inlet for which he had no official charts, he detected a Japanese Shiratsuyu-class destroyer apparently at anchor. He commenced firing a salvo of bow torpedoes only to discover that the destroyer was actually underway and his torpedoes would miss astern.3 He fired his last bow torpedo at 800 yards range using a “down the throat” shot as the now fully alerted destroyer charged Wahoo’s periscope with intent to ram. Morton obligingly kept the periscope raised to lure the destroyer into
the path of his final torpedo. Morton later reported that this torpedo had “blown off the bow” of the destroyer.4 After snapping some photographs through the periscope, Wahoo commenced a 3-knot, 7-mile, submerged egress using dead reckoning and passive sonar alone.5 On the same patrol—two days later—Morton attacked and believed he had sunk an entire convoy composed of two freighters, a troop transport, and a tanker during an all day pursuit with multiple torpedo and gun attacks.6 Mush Morton, who had a flair for the terse message writing required of all submarine communications, composed the following for Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC):
SANK DESTROYER IN WEWAK SUNDAY
AND IN FOURTEEN HOUR RUNNING
GUN AND TORPEDO BATTLE TODAY
SANK CONVOY OF ONE TANKER TWO
FREIGHTERS AND ONE TRANSPORT
DESTROYING HER BOATS
PROCEEDING PEARL HARBOR
VIA FAIS ISLAND7
This patrol had been the most successful to date for an American submarine in the Pacific theater and was sorely needed for morale. Later when Wahoo returned to Pearl Harbor from her fifth patrol, Morton flamboyantly ordered a broom lashed to the periscope to highlight their success, reminiscent of the 17th century Dutch Admiral Martin Tromp who reputedly had adorned his flagship’s masthead in similar fashion announcing his success in “sweeping” away his British adversary.8
Wahoo was christened “The One-Boat Wolf Pack” and after her third patrol, Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz awarded Morton a Navy Cross. For sinking the troop transport, General MacArthur awarded him the Army Distinguished Service Cross. The Wahoo and her crew were awarded a Presidential Unit Citation. Word of Morton, Executive Officer (XO) Richard O’Kane, the crew of Wahoo, and their achievements using daring, quick-thinking tactics spread rapidly throughout the Force. But this success was actually brought about through innovative thinking and protracted, intense effort by two committed and highly-driven submarine officers.
Fire Control Party
Morton and O’Kane were of like minds when it came to the aggressive pursuit of an enemy and, as such, they ended up “rewriting the book” on enemy pursuit
tactics.9 Pre-war doctrine had called for submarines to conduct submerged passive sonar approaches only.10 Those surface ships that might happen their way were susceptible to attack. This resulted in few encounters and consequently low numbers
of enemy ships engaged and sunk. Due to their lack of success and reluctance to pursue and engage the enemy aggressively, many submarine commanding officers in place at the start of the war were replaced.
O’Kane had felt the sting of underachievement on Wahoo’s first war patrol. Wahoo’s first commanding officer, Lt. Cmdr. Marvin Granville Kennedy, passed up what could have been Wahoo’s biggest prizes of the war. The first was a midget submarine mother ship that they had misidentified as a seaplane tender and the second, an aircraft carrier.11 In both cases, a lack of experience and aggressiveness allowed these highly valued targets to get away without Wahoo ever reaching a firing position. O’Kane had hoped that Morton’s presence as a prospective commanding officer (PCO) during Wahoo’s second patrol would change their luck. And although their second patrol near the Solomon Islands was relatively successful—they believed they had sunk a surfaced submarine and a tanker—both O’Kane and Morton knew they could accomplish much more.12 They also witnessed first-hand the stress placed on the CO during these approaches and attacks and later privately critiqued his every move.13 Armed with this data, they got to work.
Morton relieved Kennedy on New Year’s Eve 1942 and Morton and O’Kane implemented a new twist to the traditional fire control party. But their idea required that the captain have extreme confidence in his XO, in this case Richard H. O’Kane, later Roger W. Paine, Jr., and finally Verne L. Skjonsby. In a remarkable display of leadership and faith in his subordinates, Morton promoted his XOs to the role of “co-approach officer,” assigning them to the periscope to perform all observations and fire all torpedoes.14 Thus O’Kane was granted a tremendous training opportunity that served him well both on Wahoo and later as captain of the USS Tang (SS-306). Morton wisely believed that a commanding officer should always dispassionately retain the big picture, especially during approach and attack. In the concluding section of Wahoo’s third patrol report, Morton summarized their innovation and his faith in his XO:
The fire control party of this ship was completely reorganized prior to and during this patrol. The XO, Lt. R.H. O’Kane in the co-approach officer (role). He made all observations through the periscope and fired all torpedoes. The CO studies the various setups by the use of the submarine attack course finder (ISWAS) and analyzing the torpedo data computer (TDC) and does the conning. A third officer assists the CO in analyzing the problem by studying the plot and the data sheets. On the surface the XO mans the target bearing transmitter (TBT), and makes observations and does the firing; the CO conns. This type of fire control party relieves the CO of a lot of strain and it gives excellent training to all hands, especially the XO. It is recommended that other ships give it consideration and thought.
The conduct and discipline of the officers and men of this ship while under fire were superb. They enjoyed nothing better than a good fight. I commend them all for a job well done, especially Lt. R.H. O’Kane the XO, who is cool and deliberate under fire. O’Kane is the fightingest naval officer I have ever seen and is worthy of the highest of praise. I commend Lt. O’Kane for being an inspiration to the ship.15