| December 1942 found American
forces in the Pacific filled with hopeful expectation for the coming year.
During the previous June, U.S. carriers had won a decisive victory against
the Japanese surface fleet at Midway. Marine and Army forces held their
first offensive gains in the Solomon Islands. Yet in the midst of this
cautious optimism, morale in the U.S. Submarine Force was at a low ebb.
Their discouragement was well founded. Following the Pearl Harbor attack, ComSubPac had been given the primary task of engaging the Japanese while the crippled surface fleet regrouped. While targets were plentiful, a year of patrols had produced meager results in tonnage sunk. Though individual circumstances varied, where ever submariners gathered they shared their concerns about three common trends: poor torpedo performance, overly conservative commanders and an apparent streak of bad luck.
In Brisbane, the sentiments aboard WAHOO typified the general funk most boats were experiencing. Two patrols in active areas had produced only two confirmed sinkings and a blunt reprimand for failure to carry through with an attack on an aircraft carrier. The crew felt they could do better. In her wardroom, two officers in particular were convinced.
The first was Executive Officer, Lt. Richard H. O’Kane. At odds with Captain Marvin Kennedy from the outset, their divergent attitudes and personalities had strained relations to the breaking point. On their second patrol O’Kane had secretly entertained taking the grave step of relieving Kennedy of command. Back in port, he freely expressed his opinion that the key to WAHOO’s future success was Kennedy’s dismissal. His hope being that someone more suitable to the task would take his place.
The other man, thirty-five year old Lt. Cdr. Dudley W. “Mush” Morton, was convinced he knew who Kennedy’s replacement should be. Riding along as a Prospective Commanding Officer on WAHOO’s second patrol, Morton had settled in with her crew as naturally as Kennedy had chafed against it. His personal rapport with O’Kane was complete. Now, with his training patrol over he awaited reassignment to command of another boat. When word arrived that Kennedy was indeed going to be relieved, in a bold breach of protocol he appealed directly to the division commander for the opportunity to take over WAHOO. On December 31, 1942 he assumed command.
The change was felt immediately. Morton clearly demonstrated his dynamic personality to the crew during a pre-patrol address. In it he bluntly described WAHOO as “expendable” and stated his singular goal was to sink Japanese or perish in the attempt. Calling forward his yeoman, Forest Sterling, Morton asked him to take down the names of any man wanting off the boat. None did. Following a period of training in which deck gun drills were emphasized, they sailed on January 16, 1943.
In sharp contrast to his predecessor, Morton gave orders that WAHOO would transit to her assigned area, the Palau islands, on the surface. Prewar doctrine insisted that vulnerability to air attack made daylight surface running prohibitively dangerous. Morton felt that the increase in available time to stalk the enemy warranted the risk. His theory would soon begin to pay off.
As WAHOO approached the northern coast of New Guinea, Morton informed his wardroom that he intended to explore a side bar to their operating orders calling for the “reconnoiter” of a sheltered anchorage named Wewak. When it was discovered that no chart existed of the shallow waters, Morton informed them he would do without. His men quickly improvised a chart based on an illustration in an Australian high school atlas supplied by MM1c Dalton Keeter. Several officers were then shocked to learn that Morton’s interpretation of the word “reconnoiter” included entering the harbor itself for a first hand look. Though third officer Lt. George Grider voiced his reservations, O’Kane and Morton were in complete agreement.
At dawn on January 24, WAHOO crept into the placid waters of Wewak Harbor. In this first combat attempt with a fire control party newly reorganized by Morton, O’Kane manned the periscope while Morton conned the boat. With the Exec making the observations, Morton insisted that his mind would be clear of any distracting visual images thus enabling him to make the most aggressive tactical decisions possible. Their laconic and keenly intelligent fourth officer, Lt.(jg) Roger Paine, manned the Torpedo Data Computer.
After charting the inlets for several hours and traveling nine miles inshore, O’Kane spotted a warship at anchor; the Japanese destroyer HARUSAME. Morton immediately began an approach. As they closed for a final bearing O’Kane was surprised to observe that the destroyer was underway. Calmly shifting strategy Morton fired three torpedoes at the now moving target. Each missed astern. Adjusting for the destroyers’ accelerating speed, he fired two more. They missed as well.
Thoroughly alerted by the white torpedo wakes scarring the surface, HARUSAME bore down on WAHOO. With nothing but mud beneath their keel, Morton ordered the periscope raised and O’Kane called out the range. Firing his last bow tube down the destroyer’s throat from 800 yards, Morton took WAHOO to 90 feet to await its short run. Most of the crew anticipated their own demise.
Seconds later a devastating explosion was heard through the hull. Raising the periscope, O’Kane exclaimed that HARUSAME was broken in two and settling by the bow. With cheers ringing throughout the boat, Morton allowed his men to file past the scope to see the crowds of Japanese swarming their victim’s deck. Fire from shore batteries soon curtailed the celebration and Morton, navigating by sound and dead reckoning, slowly conned WAHOO back out to sea.
Setting course for Palau, Morton again resumed their bold surface passage off the coast of Japanese held New Guinea. Again, it paid dividends. On the morning of January 26, WAHOO’s lookouts spotted smoke on the horizon. Closing for a submerged attack, Morton found three unescorted merchant ships; two freighters and a transport. Consecutive stern and bow tube salvos soon found one freighter sunk, the second damaged but underway and the heavily loaded transport dead in the water. Maneuvering for a killer shot Morton fired a single torpedo at the transport. It ran true to the target but failed to explode. Angrily firing a second, it hit under her stack and in Morton’s words “blew her midships section higher than a kite”.
As noon approached, WAHOO gave chase to the crippled tanker. Unfortunately, three hours of submerged running had depleted her batteries. They watched as the damaged freighter slowly pulled away, accompanied by a tanker new to the scene. Surfacing to put her batteries on charge, Morton ordered his lookouts to track the targets as they went over the horizon and called for a course change back to the scene of the transport sinking.
As WAHOO drew near, Morton ordered the gun crews to their stations. Before them was a group of twenty boats ranging in size from motorized scows down to small launches. Filling them and the surrounding waters were hundreds of Japanese troops, reinforcements for the Imperial defenses on New Guinea. Morton found the possibility of their survival or rescue personally abhorrent. He ordered the 5 inch gun crew to fire a round at the largest boat. The men inside it fled to the comparative safety of the water. As the shell struck home, small arms fire crackled from the other boats. Morton then "opened up with everything they had". Completing a single pass of the area the gun crews destroyed the boats.
Resuming the chase with batteries charged, WAHOO pursued the tanker and damaged freighter into the evening. Attacking on the surface, Morton sank the tanker and put another torpedo into the freighter before being chased under by gunfire. With only two torpedoes remaining, Morton’s efforts to finish off the crippled freighter were consistently frustrated by its erratic zig-zag pattern. It began to appear that she might escape.
Suddenly, a destroyer's searchlight glowed on the horizon. Seizing the moment, Morton surfaced WAHOO and conned her between the light and the freighter assuming she would bolt for the arriving escort. As if on cue, the tenacious Japanese captain abandoned his defensive maneuvering and began to run. It was a fatal error. Manning WAHOO's T.B.T., O'Kane fired their two remaining torpedoes. Both hit their target. An exultant WAHOO withdrew as the destroyer arrived to an empty sea.
Crafting a dispatch to inform ComSubPac of their success, Morton sent: "In fourteen hour running gun and torpedo battle sank destroyer in Wewak, and entire convoy of one tanker, two freighters and one transport and her boats. Torpedoes expended." Elated with the news, ComSubPac ordered them to return via Pearl Harbor.
Even without torpedoes, Morton's aggressive spirit would not rest. On the morning of January 26, another convoy was spotted. Battle surfacing astern, the lead ships fled leaving behind a small, unarmed freighter. While closing to sink it with their deck gun, WAHOO's lookouts sighted an escort closing from the east. Disappointed, Morton refused to dive. Instead he chose to run thinking their pursuer to be a small corvette. In reality it was a destroyer. When it bracketed WAHOO with a salvo of gunfire Morton quickly relented and dove to the amusement (and relief) of his crew. Later, with all four engines making for Pearl, Morton sent ComSubPac an update on their activities: “Another running gun battle today. Destroyer gunning, WAHOO running”.
Cameramen filmed and photographed WAHOO’s arrival at Pearl Harbor on February 7, 1943. Drawing their attention was a broom lashed to the periscope shears. Harkening back to a centuries old practice initiated by the Dutch, it signified a clean sweep of the seas. Later, reporters listened as Morton and O'Kane regaled them with their exploits in a press conference specially arranged by ComSubPac. Released immediately, WAHOO's story ran on the front page of papers across the country, highly unusual for the tight-lipped submarine service.
Upon examining WAHOO’s patrol report, ComSubPac's endorsement was nothing short of glowing. Morton's actions were uniformly praised (including his foray into Wewak and the troop boat gun action) and he was awarded a Navy Cross. General Douglas MacArthur, responding largely to the destruction of the transport and her troops, awarded him the Army's Distinguished Service Medal. For her third war patrol WAHOO received the Presidential Unit Citation. Copies of her dispatches and war patrol report were immediately circulated throughout the service.
The details of WAHOO's patrol blew through the boats like a breath of fresh air. There was no mistaking Morton's style of command. His pre-patrol promise to take the fight to the enemy had been fulfilled with vengeance and flair. Coupled with it came an unspoken challenge to the rest of the service to join in the game.
Join in they did. Buoyed by WAHOO’s example, morale began to rise. And so did sinkings. Confirmed kills rose steadily through the year despite the handicap of defective torpedoes. Operational innovation became the norm as commanders tossed out prewar misconceptions and strove to take the fight to the enemy. Talk of bad luck faded. WAHOO and Morton had lead them past the turning point.