by Mark Denger
The five World War II patrols of the Balao-class diesel submarine USS Tang (SS-306) are legendary in U. S. submarine history. Tang was brilliantly commanded by Commander Richard H. Dick Killer OKane, a young veteran of the Pacific submarine campaign, who had previously served as Commander Dudley W. Mush Mortons Executive Officer aboard the Gato-class submarine USS Wahoo (SS-238). During an eight-month period in 1944, Tang wreaked havoc on Japanese shipping by sinking 24 enemy vessels, displacing more than 90,000 tons. OKanes bravery and his exploits in combat earned him the nations highest military decoration, the Congressional Medal of Honor.
On 22 January 1944, Tang departed Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, to conduct her first war patrol. On the morning of 17 February, the lookouts spotted a convoy of two Japanese freighters, their escorts, and five smaller ships. Skillfully plotting and intercepting the convoys track, OKane moved Tang in for the kill. Suddenly, an escort appeared at 7,000 yards and closing fast, which forced Tang deep. After evading five depth charges from the escort without damage, Tang returned to periscope depth and resumed the attack. When the range of the nearest freighter, Gyoten Maru, reached 1,500 yards, Tang fired a spread of four torpedoes. Three of them found their mark, and Gyoten Maru went under the first victim of an explosive career that would send Tangs name ringing through the annals of submarine history.
Five days later on the evening of 22 February, OKane found a five-ship convoy of three freighters and two escorts. OKane brought the submarine in on the surface to a range of 1,500 yards. With Tang dead in the water, and holding her breath, he fired a spread of four torpedoes at the freighter Fukuyama Maru, which blew up and sank instantly. OKane quickly maneuvered Tang for a second close-range attack, found another target, Yamashimo Maru, and sent it to the bottom. After sinking two more freighters in the next three days, and with all its torpedoes expended, Tang returned to Pearl Harbor. On its maiden war patrol, Tang had sunk five ships of 21,400 tons displacement.
After a quick turnaround at Pearl Harbor, OKane drove Tang to Truk Island, where it assumed lifeguard duty in preparation for a late April carrier strike. During this operation, Tang rescued 22 of the 35 airmen shot down creating an immediate and widespread demand for further submarine lifeguard service. Two relatively uneventful patrols followed in quick succession.
On 24 September 1944, however, Tang departed Pearl on what was to be her fifth and final war patrol. Ordered to the southern reaches of the East China Sea and the Formosa Strait, Tang took station and began a foray that was to be officially described as the most successful patrol ever made by a U. S. Submarine.
Tangs first encounter with the enemy occurred on the evening of 10 October, when she torpedoed and sank two heavily laden freighters. Following nearly two more weeks of searching, OKane finally located a much more tempting target a ten-ship convoy of five freighters and five escorts. OKane decided to stop this convoy with a surface attack. And stop it he did! He stealthily maneuvered inside the escorts, where he fired nine torpedoes at point-blank range, sinking three of the freighters: Toun Maru, Wakatake Maru, and Tatsuju Maru. The battle that ensued was a ferocious free-for-all. With freighters blowing up and escorts dashing about in a frenzy, Tang dodged and weaved through a storm of bullets and shells. Looming out of the battle smoke, a troop transport bore down and attempted to ram Tang. Emergency speed and hard left rudder saved the submarine. Boxed in by the infuriated Japanese destroyers who now were charging toward Tang, OKane held the bridge and swung the submarine to attack her attackers. Torpedo tubes empty from the earlier engagement, OKane aimed Tangs bow at the nearest destroyer and charged at full speed. The bluff worked. Unwilling to risk a possible torpedoing, the destroyer veered away, and Tang raced out through the cordon of escorts. Despite the depth charges flailing in her wake, Tang reached quiet water unscathed and submerged.
The following evening Tang found yet another convoy, and OKane again attempted to maneuver inside the escort on the surface. However, as Tang closed in this time, she was detected before reaching attack position, and immediately came under 5-inch and 40-millimeter gunfire from the escorts. Undaunted, OKane boldly held Tang on the surface and drove into position. When the range closed to 1,000 yards, OKane fired six torpedoes: two at a transport, two at a second transport, and two at a tanker. All of Tangs torpedoes hit with a series of shattering blasts that tossed up clouds of fire and debris. The glare of burning ships, spitting guns, tracer bullets, and exploding shells lit up the night. As OKane maneuvered Tang for another target, a destroyer charged the submarine at 30 knots, while two destroyer escorts rushed at Tang from the opposite direction. With the three burning ships directly off the bow, the submarine was boxed in again. Just like the previous night, OKane rang full speed ahead and sent Tang charging straight at the attackers. This time, though, he wasnt bluffing. Closing range, OKane fired three fast shots to clear the way. The first struck the tanker; the second hit the transport and stopped it dead in the water; and the third struck the destroyer and brought it down too. With the night sky blazing, Tang dashed through the gap and withdrew temporarily to reload the last two torpedoes.
When ready, OKane moved in to finish the crippled transport. As he gave the order to fire, there was no hint of impending danger. The first torpedo ran straight toward the target, trailing its luminescent wake. The second torpedo, however, broached the surface and began a circular run back towards Tang! The lookouts stared in shock. In his book, Clear the Bridge, OKane vividly described the events that followed:
OKane and the eight other men on the bridge were hurled into the water. One other officer in the conning tower escaped to join them. During the night, these ten men tried to hang together, but one by one they slipped away. By dawn, only OKane and three others were left to be picked up by the Japanese.
The story was different below decks. Thirty men had survived the blast. They gathered in the forward torpedo room with the intention of getting out through the forward escape trunk. Only five would survive the ascent and subsequent exposure in the water. In all, eight of the crew survived. They served out the remainder of the war in a Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) camp.
Mark Denger is the
Los Angeles - Pasadena Base Commander of the