Lieutenant Ho/will is the Navigator/Operations Officer of USS New Mexico (SSN 779). A 2003 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, he earned a Ph.D. in naval and military history from Ohio State University in 2005. He is the author of “Execute Against Japan “: The U.S. Decision to Conduct Unrestricted Submarine Warfare. published by Texas A&M University Press in 2009, and reviewed in April 2010 issue of The Submarine Review.
Having already published four submarine histories, and co-authored William Anderson’s second memoir, The Ice Diaries (2008), Don Keith should rightly be regarded as the most prolific current historian of U.S. submarine history. His writing captures a sense of adventure during the exploits of the submariners he discusses, a reverence approaching awe when he discusses their bravery and heroism, and expresses the tragedy of their loss. All of these traits are on display in Keith’s latest book, Undersea Warrior, the first dedicated biography of Commander Dudley W. Mush Morton, the famous Commanding Officer of USS WAHOO (SS 238). There have been a spate of recent biographies of submarine aces in the last decade, including new books about Richard O’Kane, Slade Cutter, Red Ramage, and Eugene Fluckey. In light of these recent biographies, Mush Morton certainly merits his own biography. Dick O’Kane, the top submarine ace of the war, and Edward L. Beach, another great U.S. submariner of the war and possibly its finest chronicler, both credited Morton with single-handedly turning the Submarine Force around with his aggressive conduct and unorthodox tactics. In only five war patrols, spanning a little over nine months, Morton sank more shipping than any previous U.S. submariner, earning four Navy Crosses and the admiration of countless submariners. Although not the only factor, Morton’s training and aggressive attitude affected a number of future submarine aces, including O’Kane, George Grider, and John R. Moore.
This is not to say that Morton has not been previously written about. If anything, Morton and WAHOO may very well be the most chronicled topic in U.S. Submarine Force history, with accounts in books by Beach, Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, Clay Blair, Edwin Hoyt, and James DeRose, as well as first-person accounts by O’Kane, Grider, and Forest Sterling. As a consequence, one wonders what Keith could possibly add to this already crowded field of literature.
The short answer is that there is not much Keith could add. Although written with an undeniable sense of excitement that swiftly carries the reader through all seven war patrols, Keith’s account does not expand on the well-told narrative of WAHOO’s war patrols, Morton’s tactics, or the remarkable and heroic actions of her crew. Keith does his best to make an old tale new, but there are only so many ways to write about Morton’s death-defying down-the-throat torpedo shot against HARUSAME in Wewak Harbor or the subsequent 14-hour convoy battle, and at this point, they’ve been done by the other authors listed above. Readers looking for new details or a radically different perspective on Morton at war will be disappointed.
What Keith adds is a human dimension to Mush Morton. In most previous books, including memoirs, Morton’s personality comes across one-dimensionally as someone who was born to be only a submarine commander-almost recklessly brave and a natural leader of men, but with little to no details of his family life, prewar service, or even his hobbies. Using family interviews with Morton’s niece-in-law and children, some of Morton’s correspondence, and interviews with Morton’s acquaintances and friends from before the war, Keith fills in a far more complete portrait of Morton as a man. Readers may be surprised to discover that Morton was a fine sailor, who learned a significant amount about the Chinese coast from tacking through it in his personal sailboat while stationed in the Asiatic Fleet, or that he prided himself upon being an excellent tailor, personally stitching some of W AHOO’s battle pennants.
Keith’s biography of Morton makes it clear that Morton’s success as a submarine commander was neither preordained or even endorsed by the entire Submarine Force. Although some Submarine Force leaders provided providential support at critical junctures, such as Admiral Lockwood and then-Captain John H. Babe Brown, Morton frequently found himself criticized and even on the razor’s edge of expulsion from the Submarine Force. He was relieved from command of DOLPHIN when his division commander lost confidence in his ability to resolve her material problems. And Morton still experienced pointed criticism after proving himself in combat and turning in the top war patrol until that point, nine ships sunk in the Yellow Sea, which ultimately ended up as the second best U.S. submarine patrol of the war.
Keith also asks the question, previously asked by Dick O’Kane, of why Morton never received the Medal of Honor. Based on his correspondence and a submitted citation, Morton was apparently considered for the award. Like James DeRose and some other authors, Keith speculates as to whether Morton’s shooting of survivors from the Japanese transport BUYO MARU, which included Indian POWs, may have torpedoed postwar efforts to award Morton the medal. Although Keith does not bring this up in his book, Morton’s penetration of Wewak Harbor was certainly as daring as similar incursions by Eugene Fluckey and George Street Ill, perhaps more so based on the quality of his chart and the enemy he faced. And Morton’s tenacity and bold aggressive combat, against convoys and other merchant ships, was as dogged and courageous as that of Red Ramage and Dick O’Kane. Indeed, Keith would have done well to ask if these other Medal of Honor winners might have taken the chances they did if Mush Morton hadn’t led the way.
For a historian who has become so well versed in World War II Submarine Force history, Keith makes some surprising errors. Most of these are minor in nature, such as misidentifying USS POMPANO as a Dolphin-class submarine. Some are a little more significant, such as misidentifying a famous photograph of the sinking Japanese destroyer YAMAKAZEY, torpedoed by NAUTILUS in 1942, as HARUSAME, which was sunk by WAHOO. Similarly, he attributes laudatory message traffic from COMSUBPAC to WAHOO in late January 1943 to Vice Admiral Lockwood, who did not take command of the Pacific Fleet Submarine Force until February 1943. Although these errors are minor and do not detract from Keith’s narrative, they illustrate that additional research by the author may well have yielded a stronger biography. And Keith claims that Morton “show[ed] the world how to conduct submarine warfare” (p. t 17), despite the fact that the Gennans had arguably already done so.
Undersea Warrior is a fast-paced and well-written history. Although it brings very little that is new, it certainty is a worthy introduction to Mush Morton and his heroic crew of WAHOO. Those who desire a deeper discussion of the technology and tactics involved may do well to read O’Kane’s Wahoo! or DeRose’s Unrestricted Victory, but those who want to learn about the first U.S. submarine ace and WAHOO’s remarkable story will enjoy Undersea Warrior.
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