Richard O’Kane, USS Tang (SS-306)

LCDR Richard O’Kane – Medal of Honor Submariner

Richard O'KaneEven before the USS Tang headed out on its fifth war patrol, its captain, LCDR Richard “Dick” O’Kane was already one of the most successful submariners of the war.  As executive officer of the USS Wahoo (SS-238), under the legendary command of Dudley “Mush” Morton, O’Kane had played a central role in that submarine’s early war achievements.

Taking command of the new Balao-class submarine USS Tang (SS-306), O’Kane continued his winning ways.  In his first four patrols in the Pacific, O’Kane and the Tang sank 17 Japanese ships (72,000 tons) and had earned a Presidential Unit Citation for its third patrol in mid-1944.

Departing Pearl Harbor on September 24, 1944, Dick O’Kane navigated the USS Tang into waters near the Formosa Strait. On the night of October 10-11, 1944, the Tang sank two freighters – Joshu Go and Gita Maru.

Further on her patrol, Tang encountered a large Japanese convoy on October 23 and moved in for a night surface attack.  O’Kane fired a spread of torpedoes that smashed into three different ships, blowing the stern off of the farthest ship in the line.  Coming quickly about to line up its stern tubes, the Tang had to quickly dodge a tanker that had turned to ram the submarine. Missing the Tang, this wayward tanker crashed into another Japanese tanker instead.  Free of immediate danger, the Tang lined up on its immobile target and fired four more torpedoes from its stern at 400 yards.  As the last tanker exploded in flames, O’Kane evaded an escort destroyer bearing down on it.

The very next night, October 24, 1944, the Tang found yet another Japanese convoy.  The ever-aggressive Tang moved in and fired six torpedoes at three of the ships.  Following the convoy, the Tang turned and fired her stern torpedoes at another freighter and a tanker.  The Tang’s torpedoes found the tanker, which blew up, and another struck a nearby Japanese destroyer that had raced around the tanker’s stern.  While the destroyer sank, the tanker remained afire and afloat.

With its last two torpedoes, Tang took dead aim on the listless tanker.  The last of her 24 torpedoes – an electric Mark 18 – broached the surface, made a hard-left turn and circled towards the Tang.  Sensing the immediate danger, O’Kane called for flank ahead speed, but even that maneuver did not save the Tang as its own torpedo – it’s very last – struck the sub near the stern.  The explosion flooded three compartments and the submarine began to sink.  Of the nine officers and men on the bridge, including O’Kane, three were able to swim through the night.  Of the men inside the sinking submarine, 13 were able to escape to the surface using the Momsen Lung, but only 5 of those men were able to swim long enough till being picked up by the Japanese Navy.

On what would have been one of the most successful patrols by any U.S. submarine, a fluke torpedo led to terrible tragedy.  Dick O’Kane and the other survivors were taken on board the Japanese ship by survivors of the ships they had just sunk.  O’Kane would be a POW for the rest of the war.

For this final patrol in which the USS Tang sank seven ships (21,772 tons), the submarine would be awarded its second Presidential Unit Citation and O’Kane would receive the Medal of Honor.  O’Kane and the Tang would ultimately be credited with sinking 24 ships (93,824 tons) – making O’Kane the top submarine skipper of the war*.

USS Tang Damage ReportIllustration showing the mortal damage done to the USS Tang after its final torpedo circled back and struck the submarine near its stern.  (iBiblio.org/Wikimedia)

Born in Dover, New Hampshire, O’Kane was a 1934 graduate of the United States Naval Academy.  He retired from the Navy as a Rear Admiral and passed away in Petaluma, California in 1994.  He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

*  In 1980 the Tang’s total was increased back to its original estimate of 116,454 tons sunk.

USS TangUSS Tang (SS-306) returning to Pearl Harbor after her second War Patrol, Circa May 1944. (Sheldon Levy, USN RET.)

Medal of Honor Citation

For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Tang operating against 2 enemy Japanese convoys on 23 and 24 October 1944, during her fifth and last war patrol. Boldly maneuvering on the surface into the midst of a heavily escorted convoy, Comdr. O’Kane stood in the fusillade of bullets and shells from all directions to launch smashing hits on 3 tankers, coolly swung his ship to fire at a freighter and, in a split-second decision, shot out of the path of an onrushing transport, missing it by inches. Boxed in by blazing tankers, a freighter, transport, and several destroyers, he blasted 2 of the targets with his remaining torpedoes and, with pyrotechnics bursting on all sides, cleared the area. Twenty-four hours later, he again made contact with a heavily escorted convoy steaming to support the Leyte campaign with reinforcements and supplies and with crated planes piled high on each unit. In defiance of the enemy’s relentless fire, he closed the concentration of ship and in quick succession sent 2 torpedoes each into the first and second transports and an adjacent tanker, finding his mark with each torpedo in a series of violent explosions at less than l,000-yard range. With ships bearing down from all sides, he charged the enemy at high speed, exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water, and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern. Expending his last 2 torpedoes into the remnants of a once-powerful convoy before his own ship went down, Comdr. O’Kane, aided by his gallant command, achieved an illustrious record of heroism in combat, enhancing the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.

Richard O'Kane with TrumanCDR. Richard O’Kane receiving the Medal of Honor from President Harry Truman at the White House in Washington DC.  (Naval History & Heritage Command)

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