How a New Breed of Officers Led the Submarine Force to Victory in World War II
These last few months have brought out a number of newspaper stories dealing, at least peripherally, with submarine leadership. The extensive reporting of USS GREEN-VILLE’ s collision with a Japanese training vessel left one with the impression that the Commanding Officer was a victim of the hubris brought about by many earlier successes. (And how many former COs have not said to themselves, “There but for the grace of God … “?). The downing of a jet fighter by our old prop-jet EP-3 and the subsequent incarceration of its crew in Hainan led to a number of comments and articles concerning USS PUEBLO and its capture off North Korea. I saw no articles noting that PUEBLO’s CO, Pete Bucher, is a submariner. Then, on Sunday, April 22, the Washington Post’s feature article in its Style section told of a shooting death, in Alexandria, Virginia, during World War II. The victim, a German U-boat CO POW, may have committed suicide as a result of overpowering stress laid on him by his U.S. captors.
All of the above are brought to mind by the subtitle of Unrestricted Warfare How a New Breed of Officers Led the Submarine Force to Victory in World War Il. This statement led me to believe that there might be some enlightening conclusions on the subject of leadership to be found between the covers. There is an exciting waretime submarine story to be found there, but the answer to the question of “What does it take?” is more clusive.
Mr. DeRose, who is not a submariner himself, has done an admirable job of research and analysis prior to writing his book. He tells the story of a group of officers who first met as shipmates in the wardroom of WAHOO and then went on to serve in other heroic boats, in particular TANG and FLASHER. He spoke to many of the participants in his story, turned up first person accounts by crew members that had never been used before, and thoroughly researched available records in both the U.S. and Japan. Having done his research and writing, he also had the benefit of a careful review by Rear Admiral Roger W. Paine, USN (Ret.), who served in WAHOO with many of the main characters carrying the book’s plot. Captain Murray B. Frazee, USN (Ret.), who served as XO of TANG during her first three patrols, is also credited with having closely read and edited the manuscript. While I don’t recall the author’s having noted other submariner reviewers of the draft of his book, the almost complete lack of technical errors and the author’s meticulous research leads one to think that there were other tough reviewers as well.
The author uses the wardroom officers of WAHOO from the early part of the war as a microcosm for tracing the transition of World War II submarine commanders from the caution in which they were trained in the pre-war fleet to the aggressive and calculated risk strategies and tactics that were so successful in the later stages of the Pacific submarine war.
As the WAHOO story unfolds, we meet Dudley W. Mush Morton. A prologue grippingly describes Morton’s first attack after having assumed command. The attack was conducted in the uncharted waters of a harbor on Mushu Island, a small bit of land off the north coast of New Guinea. The target was a Japanese destroyer which was in the process of attacking WAHOO. After firing five torpedoes that all missed, WAHOO hit the DD (HARUSAME) with a down-the-throat shot at a range of 800 yards. The story clearly and dramatically illustrates the fearlessness and coolness under fire of both Morton and his Exec, Dick O’Kane.
Following the attack prologue, Mr. DeRose uses a flashback to tell the story of WAHOO’s first two patrols and the circumstances under which Morton took command. Mr. DeRose tells a warts-and-all story in which none of the main participants (Morton, O’Kane, and the previous CO, Marvin Kennedy) comes off with the sweet smell of, must I say it?, an officer and gentleman. The junior officers, in particular George Grider and Roger Paine, come across in this story as the two most sensible members of a wildly disparate wardroom. Without going into the details, Morton and O’Kane are two of a kind. They work well together and have a great deal of mutual respect. At the end of the second patrol. Kennedy is relieved, Morton takes over as CO. and. as they say. the rest is history. Many stories have been told of the CO/XO team of Morton and O’Kane, arguably the most successful and certainly the most colorful among a stellar group of tacticians and leaders that populated our WWII Submarine Force. They were both wildly aggressive, with great self confidence and with the emotional swings that made them both unpredictable and capable of showing both cruel, even vicious. behavior toward the enemy and paternal kindness to their crewmembers.
After three highly successful patrols. the Morton/O’Kane team is broken up by O’Kane’s orders to take command of TANG. At this point. WAHOO is sent to San Francisco for a quick banery renewal overhaul. Within three months she is back on the line and, two months later. in the course of her seventh patrol, she is lost with all hands. The date was October 11, 1943, less than ten months after the day that Morton took command.
Four days following WAHOO’s sinking, Dick O’Kane became the commissioning CO of TANG. At the time, it was not known that WAHOO had been lost. However, by the time that TANG was ready for her first patrol, on January 21, 1944, WAHOO was long overdue and presumed lost. During the next ten months, O’Kane led TANG through four war patrols that accounted for at least 23, and perhaps as many as 31, sinkings. In those short ten months, TANG established a record that was unmatched throughout the war. TANG was lost, a victim of a circular run by one of her own torpedoes, on October 25, 1944. A number of her crew, including Dick O’Kane, survived this catastrophe and were imprisoned by the Japanese for the remainder of the war. Their travails are well covered in the book.
The book also covers the exploits of George Grider, who was one of the original wardroom on WAHOO and went on to become the highly successful commander of FLASHER. Grider learned a lot about aggressiveness from Morton and O’Kane, but brought his own thinking into his tactics and became a master of the calculated risk.”
Unrestricted Warfare is one of the best researched and most readable accounts of World War II submarining that I have read. All of the characters come alive through the author’s frequent use of personal anecdote. The answer to what makes a great submarine leader remains elusive. It seems that wartime often brings forth men that, because of their aggressiveness, might not have been successful COs in peacetime. On the other hand, in order to survive, these very aggressive leaders need more than a little luck. In both war and peace, it may well be that the smart money should be placed on the calculated risk takers of the George Grider mold.
And what does this book tell us about today’s leaders as mentioned in the first paragraph of this article? It would appear that Commander Scott Waddle of GREENVILLE comes closest to the Morton/O’Kane model and be too ran out of luck. Pere Bucher and the plane commander of the EP-3 were not willing to sacrifice their crews and ended up as detainees in a foreign country. The pilot of the EP-3 must have had a larger ration of luck behind him since he ended up with a medal while Pete Bucher. who certainly acted as bravely and honorably, finished with a lot less. The German U-boat commander had, according to the Washington Post account. almost as much sunken tonnage to his credit as Monon and O’Kane combined and also “assisted survivors of his sinkings when he could.” Korvetten Kapitan Werner Henke essentially commited suicide by throwing himself in daylight against a barbed wire fence and into a guard tower’s bullets because he had been led to believe that he was about to be transferred to England to be hung as a war criminal. His luck too had run out. Perhaps Dick O’Kane still had a little left-at least he survived the war.