Dick O'Kane, shown here wearing a Navy Cross, is one of seven WWII submarine skippers to win the Medal of Honor

Submarine Legend:
Dick O'Kane and the USS Tang (SS-306)

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” – O’Kane, a young veteran of the Pacific submarine campaign, who had previously served as Commander Dudley W. “Mush” Morton’s 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. O’Kane’s bravery and his exploits in combat earned him the nation’s 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 convoy’s track, O’Kane 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 Tang’s name ringing through the annals of submarine history.

Five days later on the evening of 22 February, O’Kane found a five-ship convoy of three freighters and two escorts. O’Kane 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. O’Kane 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, O’Kane 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.”

Tang’s 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, O’Kane finally located a much more tempting target – a ten-ship convoy of five freighters and five escorts. O’Kane 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, O’Kane held the bridge and swung the submarine to attack her attackers. Torpedo tubes empty from the earlier engagement, O’Kane aimed Tang’s 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 O’Kane 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, O’Kane boldly held Tang on the surface and drove into position. When the range closed to 1,000 yards, O’Kane fired six torpedoes: two at a transport, two at a second transport, and two at a tanker. All of Tang’s 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 O’Kane 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, O’Kane rang full speed ahead and sent Tang charging straight at the attackers. This time, though, he wasn’t bluffing. Closing range, O’Kane 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, O’Kane 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, O’Kane vividly described the events that followed:

“All ahead emergency! Right full rudder!” initiated a fishtail maneuver in a desperate attempt to move our ship outside of the speeding torpedo’s turning circle. On our bow, and now coming abeam, the torpedo continued to porpoise as it heeled in the turn, causing the jammed vertical rudder to become momentarily horizontal. In less than ten seconds it had reached its maximum distance abeam, about 20 yards. It was now coming in. We had only seconds to get out of its way.

“Left full rudder” to swing our stern clear of the warhead was our only chance. The luminous wake from our screws, the black exhaust from four overloaded diesels, each told that our engineers were doing their damnedest. The problem was akin to moving a ship longer than a football field and proceeding at harbor speed clear of a suddenly careening speedboat. It would be close.

The torpedo hit abreast the after torpedo room, close to the maneuvering room bulkhead. The detonation was devastating, our stern going under before the topside watch could recover. One glance aft told me that there would be insufficient time to clear the bridge. My order, “Close the hatch,” was automatic, and my heart went out to those below and to the young men topside who must now face the sea.

Our ship sank by the stern in seconds, the way a pendulum might swing down in a viscous liquid. The seas rolled in from aft, washing us from the bridge and shears, and of small consolation now was the detonation of the 23rd torpedo as it hit home in the transport.

Tang’s bow hung at a sharp angle above the surface, moving about in the current as does a buoy in a seaway. She appeared to be struggling like a great wounded animal, a leviathan, as indeed she was. I found myself orally cheering encouragement and striking out impulsively to reach her. Closing Tang against the current was painfully slow and interrupted momentarily by a depth-charging patrol. Now, close ahead, Tang’s bow suddenly plunged down to Davy Jones’ locker, and the lonely seas seemed to share in my total grief.

O’Kane 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 O’Kane 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
United States Submarine Veterans, Inc. (USSVI)

Dick O'Kane and the 22 airmen he rescued during
a carrier strike on Truk Island in April, 1944.