Our Finest Hour
[Intel Source: The Sub Report] Two recent articles in Florida newspapers discussed a "tolling the bell" ceremony honoring local submariners lost on Oct. 24, 1944. The first, from the St. Augustine Record (registration required; another copy not requiring registration is here) described that day as "the single worst day in U.S. submarine history"; the other, from the Palatka Daily News, describes that day, when three submarines and 168 submariners were lost, as "...that ignominous [sic] day."
I disagree. While the losses of the USS Shark II, USS Tang, and USS Darter were a cause for mourning, their sacrifices were in no way "ignominious".
The USS Darter was lost while participating in the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the largest naval battle in history. Darter, in company with her sister ship USS Dace, found and engaged the "Center Force" of the Japanese Fleet. In addition to informing headquarters of the sighting, they combined to sink two Japanese heavy cruisers and damage another. Darter ran aground while moving to engage the enemy again; she contacted Dace, and after all confidential equipment was removed, the entire crew of Darter was rescued.
The circumstances surrounding the loss of USS Shark II are murkier, since there were no survivors. Evidence shows that she had attacked and sunk a ship carrying American prisoners, and was likely engaged in surfaced rescue operations when she was attacked and sunk.
Much more is known about the loss of one of the most famous submarines of WWII, USS Tang. Her commanding officer, CDR (later RADM) Dick O'Kane, is arguably the most successful wartime submarine officer ever, as his record as XO on USS Wahoo and CO of USS Tang attest. Here's the record of the attack in which Tang was lost:
"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... [It hit.]
"...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."
CDR O'Kane was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions.
What these actions have in common is not "ignominity", but evidence of the bravery, daring, and self-sacrifice of the submariners of WWII. Americans nowadays are repelled by any loss during military conflict, and forget that in WWII we were facing an implacable, well-armed enemy who wanted to win as badly as we did... losses were to be expected, while still being regretted. The loss of one sub, without casualty to the crew, is a good trade for the sinking of 2 heavy cruisers; even if they hadn't sunk the cruisers, the contact report they made was priceless. The crew of USS Shark II was lost trying to save their brothers who had been taken prisoner; the USS Tang helped break the back of the Japanese Empire as much as any other ship in the war. The "worst day in submarine history"? No -- this day, as much as any other, was what showed the world the best side of American submariners. While we honor the sacrifice of the crews, we should continue to thank them for "showing us the way".