Now that the youngest of our World War II veterans, with but a few exceptions, are in their 80’s, I fear that, as they die, memory of them will die also. While teaching history in college for more than 30 years—15 of those at UCLA, where a single class could have more than 400 students—I was the target of book representatives from a dozen or more publishers. Nearly every year, I was presented with sample copies of new U.S. history textbooks. Each new textbook devoted more space to obscure figures of modest significance who were black or American Indian or female. I searched the same books in vain for mention of the most prominent of our World War II heroes. Where was the most decorated American, Audie Murphy? The hero of the Battle of Midway, Wade McClusky? The first recipient of the Medal of Honor, Butch O’Hare? The top ace, Dick Bong? The top naval ace, Dave McCampbell? The top Marine ace, Pappy Boyington? The commander of the 101st Airborne who replied “Nuts” to the Germans and held fast at Bastogne, Anthony McAuliffe? Or the submarine ace of aces, Dick O’Kane? Nowhere to be found. These were the heroes I learned about as a child. They were written about in books, depicted in movies, and, most importantly, were the topic of conversations in the homes and neighborhoods of America.
The Silent Service held a special fascination for many, and Hollywood was not remiss during the 1940’s and 50’s in portraying American submarines in death-defying missions against the Japanese in the Pacific. Two hundred and fifty U.S. Navy submarines went on at least one patrol during World War II. Fifty-two never returned. Their epitaph: “Overdue, presumed lost.” More than 3,500 submariners lost their lives, a fifth of all who went on patrol. Their rules of engagement were simple: “Find ’em. Chase ’em. Sink ’em.” And the submariners did just that, sending more than 1,100 Japanese merchant ships and 214 Japanese naval vessels to the bottom.
The submariner who sank the most Japanese ships was Richard “Dick” O’Kane. He performed best under the greatest pressure in the most dangerous circumstances. Before he went into action, he was described by a fellow officer as talkative and boastful and something of a loose cannon. The same officer said that, once a battle commenced, O’Kane
was calm, terse and utterly cool. My opinion of him underwent a permanent change. It was the most dramatic example I was ever to see of a man transformed under pressure from what seemed almost adolescent petulance to a prime fighting machine.
The prime fighting machine, first as the executive officer of Wahoo and then as the commander of Tang, sank 31 Japanese ships. Once, while on the surface and surrounded by Japanese ships, O’Kane sent Tang headlong into a Japanese destroyer that was racing directly at her. O’Kane miraculously put his last torpedo into the bow of the enemy ship, and down she went, allowing Tang to escape. If sinking the most Japanese ships and a surface duel with a Japanese destroyer were not enough, O’Kane also set the record for rescuing downed American pilots. During April 1944, he guided Tang dangerously close to reefs at Truk to rescue pilots by the ones, twos, and threes until he had 22 smiling aviators aboard his sub.
Although the Japanese had many chances to sink the daredevil O’Kane, they never succeeded. O’Kane sank himself. In October 1944, after sinking five Japanese ships in a series of spectacular encounters in the narrow waters of the Formosa Strait, O’Kane was gunning for a sixth Japanese ship when one of Tang’s own torpedoes malfunctioned, turned about, and hit the sub. The explosion rocked the boat from stem to stern. O’Kane and eight others on the bridge were hurled into the sea. Hanging on to debris, they watched as Tang’s stern suddenly sank, pulling the rest of the sub to the bottom, 180 feet below.
About two-dozen sailors remained alive inside Tang, her stern resting on the ocean floor and her sleek hull pointed toward the surface at a steep angle. An officer alone in the conning tower took a deep breath, opened a hatch, and made a free ascent to the surface. A dozen others, some with the Momsen lung, were able to get out of the sub also. Eight made it to the surface alive. Only five survived to be captured by the Japanese. The officer in the conning tower and the others were the only American sailors in the entire war to escape from a sunken submarine.
Meanwhile, O’Kane and the eight men with him swam, treaded water, and clung to wreckage. By the next morning, only O’Kane and four others remained alive. Picked up by a Japanese destroyer, they were beaten and interrogated. Taken first to Formosa, they were eventually confined in a prison camp near Tokyo. The Japanese failed to notify the Red Cross, as required by conventions, of their capture. O’Kane and the others would remain missing in action for the duration of the war. The Japanese tortured and interrogated O’Kane almost daily. He was near death when liberated, weighing only 88 pounds and wracked with scurvy and beriberi. He slowly recovered from the inhuman ordeal and testified at the Tokyo war-crimes trials. His gallantry during the war earned him the Medal of Honor, three Navy Crosses, three Silver Stars, and, for wounds sustained, the Purple Heart. The Annapolis graduate remained in the Navy until 1957, serving for two years as the CO of the Submarine School and retiring as a rear admiral.
Jack Kennedy, the commander of a PT boat who also served as President of the United States, said, “A nation reveals itself not only by the men it produces, but also by the men it honors, the men it remembers.” Yet, America’s most decorated sailor of World War II who put nearly a quarter-million tons of Japanese shipping on the bottom, hastening the end of the war and saving countless Marine lives on Pacific islands, is left unmentioned in today’s textbooks.
Roger D. McGrath is the author of Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes.
This article first appeared in the October 2007 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.
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