USS Wahoo (SS 238) Commanding Officer Lt. Cmdr. Dudley W. “Mush” Morton (R) speaks with his Executive Officer Lt. Richard H. O’Kane (L) on the open bridge at Pearl Harbor after the submarine’s third war patrol circa Feb. 7, 1943.
On Oct. 11, 1943, nearly a month into the seventh patrol, a multi-hour combined sea and air attack involving depth charges and aerial bombs sunk the submarine. Lt. Commander O’Kane had been detached prior to that patrol to assume command of the USS Tang.
Adm. Gary Roughead, commander, U.S. Pacific Fleet, declared that the sunken submarine recently discovered by divers in the Western Pacific is the World War II submarine USS Wahoo (SS 238). Official U.S. Navy Photograph, now in the collections of the Naval Historical Center. Taken from http://www.history.navy.mil/photos/images/g30000/g35725.jpg
Shooting Down the Throat: Mush Morton and the USS Wahoo
Without a doubt, the one submarine commander who instilled aggressiveness and tenacity into the US submarine force was Dudley W. “Mush” Morton. This assessment of America’s greatest submarine commander is from author and historian, Lt. Joel Ira Holwitt, USN, who also has the distinction of being on active duty with the US Navy Submarine Service. The quote is from Lt. Holwitt’s outstanding book, Execute Against Japan: The US Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare (five stars).
In the beginning of the war in the Pacific, many American U-Boat skippers lacked aggressiveness. They didn’t lack courage but they lacked the aggressiveness to close with the enemy and grapple with him — to take the calculated risk necessary to force an engagement. It took Mush Morton to show them how.
Aggressiveness in war usually means throwing the rule book away and writing your own rules for combat. And Dudley Morton was not a man to be bound by rules which didn’t make any sense on active operations. So when he took command of the USS Wahoo, he drilled his officers and crew relentlessly and they learned to do things they had never practiced in peacetime because they weren’t by the book. “Shooting down the throat” was most definitely not by the book yet this is what made Morton so legendary and it occurred in what became his most famous engagement.
A Japanese destroyer had come upon Morton and the Wahoo and he had fired a “fan” of four torpedoes. The destroyer turned into them, “combed the tracks,” and all the torpedoes missed. Continuing her turn, the destroyer came pounding down the straight line which would take her to the apex of the fan, which is where the US submarine had to be and obviously was, since the periscope was sticking up out of the water.
Morton didn’t flinch. “Keep your scope up and we’ll shoot that SOB down the throat,” he said. The USS Wahoo had only two torpedoes left. Given the relative position of the two vessels, Morton would only have a thirty second window to fire his torpedoes. With the destroyer charging him, he and his fire team waited until the right moment. “Fire one!”
With the Japanese destroyer bearing down on them, they had only moments and the first torpedo missed. The second one had to get a hit or they would be depth charged out of existence. Morton did not fire his second torpedo until the bow of the destroyer was only 750 yards away. Since the torpedo needed to run 700 yards before it armed, this was as close as you could cut it. Immediately on firing the second torpedo, Wahoo went deep but as she did so the destroyer fired a full pattern of depth charges which exploded very close to the Wahoo and gave her a beating.
The crew braced for the second pattern of depth charges from the Japanese destroyer which could easily sink their submarine. But there weren’t any depth charges. Instead there was a completely different kind of noise. The last torpedo had hit hard and exploded with such force it practically tore the Japanese ship in half. The noise the crew heard was the Japanese destroyer breaking up.
This story, which is absolutely true, became legendary in the American submarine force in the Pacific during World War Two and set the standard for the aggressiveness the US Navy wanted in its submarine commanders.
Sources: Execute Against Japan: The US Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare by Lt. Joel Ira Holwitt, USN and Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous World War II Submarine by Richard H. O’Kane (three stars)