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The Story of Richard O’Kane & U.S. Submariners in the Pacific War

This review started with a query from the Public Affairs Officer of USS FIFE (DD-991) asking for some information regarding the ship’s namesake in preparation for its decommissioning. The Internet quickly turned up many hits that were both informative about Admiral Fife’s World War II experience and interesting enough to cause me to dig deeper into his role in the operation and management of the submarines under his command.

Three items were of immediate interest. The relief of a significant number of commanding officers (CO) after one or two patrols; the influence of Rear Admiral Fife in reforming the organization of the approach party; and the delay in correcting torpedo problems in the first 18 months of the war were puzzling. I turned to the League’s resident WWII scholar, Rear Admiral Mike Rindskopf, for some additional resources. He had just met William Tuohy and suggested that I read his book. Mr. Tuohy had just sent a copy of the book to Jim Hay for a possible review, so I was in business.

Richard H. O’Kane became a principal focus in identifying some of the root causes for the relief of his CO in WAHOO after her second patrol and the establishment of the Morton-O’Kane approach team with O’Kane as executive officer (XO) on the periscope and Dudley W. Mush Morton, the new CO, as the conning officer. Morton also accepted the faulty and unreliable torpedo problem as one to be managed, and focused on hitting the target with each shot rather than using a spread/

Mr. Tuohy implies that Dick O’Kane was instrumental in getting Lieutenant Commander Marvin G. Kennedy relieved and enlisted Rear Admiral Fife in the process. Additional resources confirm this assertion and make it clear that O’Kane was not going to serve another patrol on WAHOO with Kennedy as CO. Fife set up the relief by placing Morton on board as the Makee-Leam on WAHOO’s second patrol, and then relieved Kennedy for the third patrol.

The Bravest Man continues on to describe in some detail the problems in submarine leadership at the start of WWII and reports that about 30 percent of 135 skippers were relieved by February 1943. The discussion of the “skipper problem” is enlightening and is an important lesson to be learned for our current level of conflict.

Fife had proposed that the CO place the XO on the periscope during submerged approaches so that the CO could stand back and place the ship in the best firing position based on all of the intelligence and information available. This organization was unique in submarine operations but several other COs were trying it. Morton told O’Kane that he would make the approaches and that he would conn the ship into the best firing position. That way, Morton said, he would not be scared.

This assignment gave O’Kane all the confidence he needed to become the expert he was to become in command of TANG. The third patrol of WAHOO was one for the record books with a destroyer and four merchant ships sunk. Morton stated that 0 ‘Kane was “the bravest man I know” in preparing awards for his crew.

The freeing up of the CO to watch the overall operation of the ship was finally achieved in the Submarine Force with the improved sonar systems and submerged approach. It took almost 20 years for the surface forces to learn that the CO needed to be in the Combat Information Center instead of on the bridge, getting all of his information through a telephone talker and radio speakers.

Tuohy integrates other submarine history in this 422 page book, making it an interesting narrative along with first person narratives of O’Kane’sexploits as CO of TANG and XO WAHOO. The arrival of Rear Admiral Lockwood in Pearl Harbor started the long-term solution to the torpedo problem. Tuohy discusses the disparate command structure and finger pointing by reviewing seniors and the shore establishment at the source of the problem with no meaningful results other than submarine losses. Lockwood initiated his own investigations that ultimately identified the exploder and depth control problems but it was not until September 1943 that the improved torpedoes showed up in the fleet. The narrative report highlights many of the individuals and operations that made the torpedo scandal what it was-a monument to poor program management and end-to-end testing before sending the weapon to sea.

The continued success of O’Kane as CO TANG is a compel-ling story of what a CO can do with his ship and the desire to succeed. Earlier reports of O’Kane’s rash and foolhardy actions that caused concern with his wardroom and crew settled down as he racked up more ships than any other submarine. Tuohy also writes a compelling account of the circular running torpedo and the sinking of TANG that won First Prize in the 2002 Naval Submarine League Literary Awards. O’Kane’s ultimate capture and return to a hero’s welcome and Congressional Medal of Honor completes an informative book.

Current submarine commanders should review the lessons learned in this book as we prepare our forces for continuing the war against terrorism. Innovative leaders such as Jimmy Fife need to test new ways of operating ships and aggressive COs such as Morton and O’Kane need to challenge the status quo and find ways to meet their current needs with available resources. Finally, the development of the SSGN gives the acquisition community a great challenge to ensure that we do not deliver an untested weapon system to the fleet.

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