William Tuohy is a retired correspondent of the Los Angeles Times, a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize for war reporting from Vietnam and the Overseas Press Club Award for war coverage from the Middle East. He served in the U.S. Navy aboard the submarine rescue vessel, USS FLORJKAN. He has recently finished a book, The Bravest Man. on Richard 0 ‘Kane and U.S. submariners in World War II.
(The sinking of the Russian submarine KURSK prompted wide speculation about how the crew might have gotten out. The last successful escape from a sunken U.S. sub was that of USS TANG, in wartime, deep in enemy waters.)
The ordeal of TANG began about 0230 on October 25, 1944, in the dark waters of the Formosa Strait between Taiwan Island and the China coast. On the bridge, Commander Richard H. O’Kane was stalking a transport he’d damaged earlier in attacks that downed five Japanese ships. It was TANG’s fifth war patrol. O’Kane maneuvered into a perfect night surface set-up to fire the last two of his 24 torpedoes. Two shots, a transport down, and back to the barn. Stateside overhaul and leave.
Under O’Kane’s command, TANG had run up a dazzling record in nine months in action. TANG won a Presidential Unit citation for her first three war patrols; scoring a top 10 Japanese ships sunk on the third patrol , with Murray Frazee as Executive Officer.
Now, O’Kane fired one fish at the transport. It hit-just as he ordered the last torpedo tired. In the forward torpedo room, Pete Narowanski said happily, “Hot dog, course zero nine zero, head her for the Golden Gate!”
The bridge party watched closely in the dark. To their horror,the final torpedo broached. The luminous wake showed it turning sharply left. It began porpoising above and below the surface, heading back. TANG was threatened by her own torpedo, a dreaded circular run.
“All ahead emergency!” O’Kane shouted. “Right full rudder!”
This was his desperate attempt to push TANG outside the erratic torpedo’s turning circle. The torpedo was 20 yards off TANG’s port beam and heading toward the 311 foot long submarine.
“Left full rudder.” O’Kane hoped to fishtail the sub’s stem clear of the oncoming torpedo. It would be close.
A devastating explosion blasted TANG’s stem, which sunk immediately, the three after compartments flooding.
“Close the hatch,” O’Kane ordered, to protect the conning tower below. It was too late. As TANG’s stem went under, the bow flipped up, throwing the bridge personnel into the dark ocean. O’Kane was tossed overboard. So were Chief Boatswain’s Mate Bill Lebold and Radio Technician Floyd Caverly. Caverly remembers that Radioman Charles Andriolo, a lookout on the periscope shears admitted he couldn’t swim and went down as the bridge sank. Bill Leibold heard Chief Quartennaster Sidney Jones calling to Gwuter’s Mate Darrel Rector (whose appendix was removed aboard SEADRAGON on a war patrol). Caverly saw Gunner’s Mate James White strike off toward China, as did Lieutenant (j.g.) John Heubeck. Caverly linked up with Leibold. They decided simply to float until daylight.
When the errant torpedo struck, Lieutenant Larry Savadkin was operating the torpedo data computer in the conning tower, near Radioman Edwin Bergnam, manning the sonar. Savadkin was cool under pressure. Before volunteering for sub duty, he’d won a Silver Star and Purple Heart aboard the destroyer USS MAYRANT during a Gennan bombing attack off Sicily. His friend and shipmate was Lieutenant Franklin D. Roosevelt, Jr ., the President’s son.
Savadkin saw TANG was in extremis. Water was pouring into the conning tower and down into the control room. The rushing water and steep deck angle were knocking people down, throwing them around in a tangled mess. The lights were out. Savadkin grabbed the smooth sides of the periscope. Water rose rapidly. What a hell of a way to die, he thought. His head popped into an air pocket. He wondered how long the air would last and whether one really fell peacefully asleep before suffocating and felt no pain; whether drowning was more painless than suffocating. He realized staying put wasn’t going to get him home.
At first Savadkin thought TANG turned turtle. Which way to go? He didn’t want to end up in the pump room. He touched a knob. It was the engine order telegraph. That meant he was near the ladder to the bridge. He pulled himself up through the hatch, and found another air bubble. He thought he was under the bridge cowling.
A sailor popped up in the dark and asked, “Who is it?”
“Mr. Savadkin. Who are you?”
“Bergman. Do you know where we are?”
“I think we’re under the cowling.”
“What are you going to do?”
Savadkin told Bergman they had to get out of TANG’s fairwater and make it to the surface. Larry ordered Bergman to hang onto his legs. Savadkin pushed off from the air pocket and began swimming with his anns. Moments later, Savadkin felt Bergman let go. Savadkin was committed and kept rising, expelling his breath on the way up. He thought it was 60 feet or so. He knew he had to exhale as he rose. As he felt his lungs about to burst, he broke the surface. It was a free ascent without a Momsen lung, the first American attempt in wartime.
There was no sign of Bergman. Nor of anyone else. Savadkin got his trousers off, tied the legs and waist, and fashioned himself an impromptu life buoy, like water wings. He thought he was the only man to get off TANG alive.
Below in TANG, the men in the control room succeeded in closing the hatch to the conning tower but only after tons of water poured through. All was chaos. TANG’s bow was still at an extreme angle. Men were flying around the control room. One damaged his neck, another his spine there were broken arms and legs.
A hero on this terrible night was Clayton 0. Decker, a barrelled-chested motor machinist’s mate from Colorado, who was in the control room. Decker thought hard. The rear companments-torpedo room, motor room, after engine room-were flooded, everyone presumed dead. The only usable escape hatch was in the forward torpedo room. But with a 45 degree angle to the boat, the crew couldn’t scramble forward to get there. Decker knew TANG had to get level if there was any hope of getting out.
Decker was familiar with the hundreds of valves, lines and tanks aboard. Most of the hydraulic systems, he knew, had backups that could be hand-operated. He recalled there was a lever which opened the vent valves flooding ballast tanks, to let TANG settle on an even keel.
Decker swung up on the chart table. He wrapped his legs around a stanchion bracing himself. He reached up and grabbed the ballast tank lever, like a broom handle. He pulled out the locking pin and with the weight of his body, yanked the lever down. The ballast tanks flooded and TANG’s bow sank to the bottom, leveling off at 180 feet.
Decker and crew members who were mobile stumbled forward from the control room past officer’s country, above the battery room, to the torpedo room, bringing the injured in blankets.
Jesse DaSilva, a tall motor machinist’s mate, was grabbing a cub of coffee in the mess room when the torpedo hit. He recalled the submarine whipping around “like a giant fish grabbed by the tail.” Someone dogged down the watertight door between the forward and after engine rooms, sealing off the rear three compartments.
Overhead, Japanese patrol boats began depth charging. DaSilva led several men from the messroom into the control room. There, unfortunately, an officer burned classified documents in a waste basket, which created acrid smoke. DaSilva recalled that someone tried to blow the boat to the surface, but the compressed air passed through ruptured tanks.
DaSilva scrambled forward to the torpedo room. He estimated there were 30 to 40 men gathered there. The air was foul. The lights dimmed as the batteries shorted out. Battle lanterns were turned on.
Escape procedures in the torpedo room were delayed because of the depth charging. No one wanted to leave the boat in the midst of underwater explosions. Nobody had done this before. There were Momsen lungs packed aboard TANG. Every sailor in Sub School used the lung in the escape towers in New London or Pearl Harbor. Most never practiced the procedure again. Submariners stoically accepted they would never use the lungs, since escape was made from only shallow depths. Most assumed they would go down with their boat.
The drill was for three or four men at a time to climb the ladder to the escape trunk, or chamber, and close the lower hatch to the torpedo room. The chamber contained gauges for depth, inside and outside pressures, and an air manifold to fill the Momsen lungs. Seawater was allowed to enter the trunk until the air pressure inside was equalized with the sea outside. The escape hatch-actually a rounded, rectangular door-would be opened outside the pressure hull. A line would be released, extending to the surface with a small buoy attached. The men would climb out of the submarine through the escape door and make their way slowly up the line. When the last man was out, the escape hatch would be closed by a lever inside the torpedo room. The water inside the trunk would be released into the bilges. The exercise would be repeated. That was the theory, fine on paper, more difficult when lives depended on it.
In the torpedo room, methods of escape were discussed, under Lieutenant (j.g.) Hank Flanagan, the torpedo officer. Some suggested firing the crewmen from a torpedo tube. Flanagan argued the air pressure during the shot would be fatal . Besides, how many of the broad shouldered men could fit in a tube 21 inches in diameter? Others suggested returning aft to the control room to see if they could get out via the conning tower. But fumes from an electrical fire were spreading and no compartment aft was habitable.
When the depth charging ceased, the first escape was led by Lieutenant (j .g.) Mel Enos, and two others. It was confusing inside the chamber. Enos left the escape hatch before the line and buoy were released. He was not seen again. The others stayed inside the chamber. They disagreed on procedure and were reluctant to take action for fear of endangering their shipmates below. The men in the torpedo room waited more than 30 minutes until men returned to the torpedo room. They refused to try again. The failure of the first escape left some crewmen depressed.
A second attempt by Lieutenant Flanagan was also botched when the escape party got disoriented because of the extra air pressure in the chamber. They found it hard to breathe. The severe pressure made their voices sound high pitched and almost inaudible. Their ears hurt terribly . Flanagan nearly passed out. They returned to the torpedo room. The re-emergence of Hank Flanagan, a tough mustang, left others unsettled. If Hank couldn’t do it, how could they?
Bill Ballinger, the popular Chief of the Boat, led the next attempt. He called for volunteers. Clay Decker considered Ballinger a salty dog so he stepped forward.
“I’m with you, Bill.”
Decker grabbed his buddy, Motor Machinist’s Mate George Zoftin, who had a small house in San Francisco, which their wives shared.
“Let’s get our ass outta here, George.”
“No, Clay. I’ve got to confess. I can’t swim.”
Decker found this hard to believe. A sailor who couldn’t swim? In submarines?
“George, when you close the mouthpiece on the Momsen, it acts like a Mae West. You can hang onto the buoy that’s at the end of the line.”
“Clay, you go now. I’ll go with the next wave.”
Decker and Ballinger put on their Momsen lungs. There was a release valve at the bottom of the device that let air out. But the brand new lungs came tied with a wire around the release valve. If the wire wasn’t undone properly, air could not be expelled and would back up into the user’s lungs.
Zoftin untied the release valve on Decker’s Momsen, thereby probably saving his life. Decker was loathe to leave his buddy behind but he had to move with the others into the escape trunk. George Zoftin pulled himself into a bunk and appeared to go to sleep.
Ballinger and Decker bled oxygen into the lungs from the manifold. They flooded the chamber to their armpits as the air pressure became intense. Ballinger opened the outside door to the hull. He found the buoy and line and Decker began paying it out to the surface. Decker tied the lower end of the line to a steel rung on the ladder outside the pressure hull.
There was another complication: to get out of the escape door, a man had to bend his head and clamber over the sill. This was easy enough to do in broad daylight. But in the pitch darkness of
deep water, it took some doing. Then there were a few steps up a ladder leading to TANG’s decking. In the unfamiliar blackness, it was easy to get hung up in the space between the hull and the decking. With the disorientation in the depths, it was difficult to tell which was up.
Decker calmly followed the drill: he climbed out of the escape door, got up the few steps of the ladder, and hung onto the line while moving up. He paused at the knots at intervals on the line. He finally reached the surface. He found his face was bleeding but didn’t feel pain. He decided he’d come up a little fast. Not fast enough to get the bends, but enough to break the blood vessels in his face.
On the surface he saw Chief Ballinger bleeding badly and thrashing around. He appeared to be drowning. He went under before Decker could reach him. Decker figured he had come up way too fast, letting go of the line, or he failed to remove the wire around the lung’s release valve. Decker didn’t see the other two sailors who had come with them. He hung onto the buoy.
Below things were disintegrating. The Momsen lungs had no internal air supply. They needed to be connected to TANG’s air manifold to load them. The submarine’s oxygen supply was dwindling. The air was stifling. Smoke was seeping in from the battery room, irritating men’s throats. Sailors were coughing. They tried to use their Momsens to breathe.
Torpedoman Hayes Trukke led the next escape attempt, entering the chamber with Torpedoman Narowanski, and two others. Narowanski was a colorful sailor who was wearing swimming trunks and a loud Hawaiian sport shirt. He stuffed a can of soup in his trunks. Trukke, not knowing the status of the escape line or buoy, carried a life ring-a souvenir picked up from YAMAOKA MARU which TANG had sunk.
Trukke tried to fill his Momsen from the air manifold but found it was almost dry. He began to get dizzy. He remembered a description of the free ascent technique of rising to the surf ace by exhaling all the way. Lungs expanded by compressed air in the submarine could be expelled all the way up. But his shipmates decided against an escape without oxygen in their Momsens.
Hayes Trukke determined to go while he was still conscious. He grabbed the life ring and stepped out of the door onto the pressure hull and scrambled up through the deck opening. He made a free ascent, allowing his lungs to expel air as he rose. He reached the surface still holding the life ring. Trukke was ex-hausted and sick and vomited for half an hour. He heard Clay Decker calling to him . They tied the life ring to the escape buoy for extra support.
Trukke’s two companions climbed down from the escape chamber. But Pete Narowanski stayed in the chamber and waited for the next group to come up.
In the boat, the fire in the battery room caused paint to peel on the bulkhead, further fouling the air. Many men were gagging. Some appeared unconscious, lying in bunks. A few crewmen entered the escape chamber, decided they couldn’t breathe and climbed down. Some feared an error would jam up the works and endanger the chances of those waiting to escape. Lassitude set in, partly from the heat, pressure, and lack of air. The deadly carbon dioxide level mounted. As time dragged on, some men expressed no desire to escape, though they knew the alternative. Their conversations turned to family and loved ones. The badly injured could hardly make the escape attempt, though Chief Pharmacist’s Mate Paul (Doc) Larson patched up their bruises and fractures . A chief petty officer gave an encouraging talk about conserving energies. Then he climbed into a rack and seemed to go to sleep. Other sailors appeared to prefer to die quietly in TANG rather than face the dangers outside: drowning on the way up or on the surface; or, worse, at the hands of the Japs.
A revived Hank Flanagan led a fourth escape party, joining Torpedoman Narowanski in the chamber. He called for two more volunteers. Jesse DaSilva who had been waiting said, “Hell, I’m not afraid to try.” He climbed into the chamber with a sailor behind him. But the second man hesitated and stepped down. Another sailor took his place. The hatch was closed, the flood valve opened, and seawater filled the chamber. It was hard to breathe but Jesse DaSilva got his Momsen lung strapped on. The outside door was opened. Jesse ducked his head under water, got over the threshold, climbed the few rungs, grabbed the ascent line, wrapped his feet around it, and started up in the blackness. He saw how shipmates might easily become disoriented and tangled in the decking.
DaSilva remembered to stop every ten or fifteen feet to allow the nitrogen in his blood to adjust. Take your time, he told himself. He rose slowly, what would be waiting above? Finally the water grew clearer and he broke the surface. He was surprised to see the sky was faintly light. He’d been in TANG for several hours since the explosion.
Hank Flanagan was on the surface. Pete Narowanski made it too. Jesse believed the chances were against anyone else getting out of TANG. He spotted Clay Decker and Hayes Trukke hanging onto the buoy, treading water. Then he saw two more heads bob up: Dock Larson, and a black steward’s mate, who he thought was Howard Walker. Larson was in bad shape, blood pouring from his nose and mouth. Clay Decker held onto him. But he was only semi-conscious, probably dying, and his head kept going underwater. The steward’s mate was 50 feet away, possibly because he lost his grip on the line. DaSilva and Trukke swam toward him, but the sailor began flailing, he head went under water, and he disappeared in the fast moving current.
Dasilva and Trukke swam back to the buoy, linking up with Flanagan, Narowanski, Decker, holding Larson. Narowanski and Trukke could see the coast of China. They decided to swim for it but found the current running strongly against them. They returned to the buoy.
Hank Flanagan thought as many as 13 men got out of the escape chamber. Hayes Trukke believed the figure was probably ninemen. There was never a precise accounting of who left the chamber for the outside sea.
It was an incredible escape. Never before had a U.S. sailor escaped by the Momsen lung from a sunken sub. It was a tribute to the stamina, fortitude and nerve ofTANG’s survivors, weakened by cold, dark, fear, and shock. And it was a remarkable display of courage and resourcefulness against nearly insurmountable odds.
The men stayed together. They planned somehow to float to China. But soon they saw a Japanese patrol boat picking its way toward them in the brightening sky. It was the P-34 searching for survivors of the ships TANG sunk. It spotted the six U.S. sailors hanging onto the buoy and sent a whaleboat to pick them up. The Japanese coxswain cut the buoy line, losing physical contact with TANG and possible salvage. The survivors were rowed to the patrol craft. Doc Larson was unconscious and failed to respond. As the TANG crewmen struggled up a rope ladder to the P-34, Clay Decker saw the Japanese lift up the medic and throw him over the side. Decker didn’t know whether Doc Larson was alive or dead.
The TANG crewmen were amazed to find their skipper, Dick O’Kane, aboard the ship along with Larry Savadkin, Bill Leibold, and Floyd Caverly, who had kept afloat all night. Seventy-eight shipmates were lost. TANG’s men were beaten by Japanese survivors aboard P-34, but as Dick O’Kane reflected, “When we realized our clubbings and kickings were being administered by the burned, mutilated survivors of our own handiwork, we found we could take it with less prejudice.”
O’Kane and TANG’S crew spent the rest of the war in POW camps. They were beaten and tortured and their skipper, Dick O’Kane, was singled out for the worst treatment. Neither the U.S. government nor their relatives were informed they were alive. A skeletal O’Kane was very close to death of beri-beri and malnutrition when Japan surrendered.
On March 27, 1946, President Harry Truman presented Commander Richard H. O’Kane with the Medal of Honor. TANG was awarded a rare second Presidential Unit Citation for the fourth and fifth patrols. O’Kane’s decoration topped his three Navy Crosses, three Silver Stars, Legion of Merit, Commendation Ribbon, and three Presidential Unit Citations (one for WAHOO), making him arguably the most decorated U.S. naval officer in the war.
As submarine records were revised post-war, Dick O’Kane and TANG led all the rest. His total of sinkings updated by Commander John D. Alden’s recent research came to 27 ships, making him by far the leading skipper and TANG the highest scoring sub in ships sunk. O’Kane’s third patrol was the single most successful patrol with ten ships down, and the last run of TANG accounted for
eight Japanese ships, the second highest scoring patrol.
Captain Edward L. Beach, a heroic wartime submariner, observed, “TANG was the best”, and Dick O’Kane, “the most daring skipper.”
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