CDR Richard H. O’Kane
Richard Hetherington O’Kane was born in Dover, NH, on February 2, 1911, the son of Dr. and Mrs. Walter O’Kane. After attending Phillips Academy and the University of New Hampshire, O’Kane entered the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in 1934. Following his graduation, O’Kane served aboard the USS Chester and USS Pruit, before reporting to sub school at Sub base NLON.
Upon completion of his training in 1938, he served aboard the USS Argonaut until reporting for duty in fitting out USS Wahoo at Mare Island, California. He served as Executive Officer of Wahoo from her commissioning in May 1942, after which he saw her through five war patrols, until July 1943 when he was detached, (just before she was announced overdue and presumed lost in November 1943.) O’Kane was awarded the Silver Star Medal with 2 gold stars, a Letter of Commendation with accompanying medal, and Presidential Unit Citation ribbon for his outstanding service on Wahoo.
In August 1943, O’Kane returned to Mare Island, where he oversaw the building of USS Tang. He assumed command of Tang at her commissioning on 15 October 1943. In the following weeks, O’Kane trained his crew (in combat tactics and attack techniques) and tested the abilities of his new ship.
In early January 1944, Tang arrived at Pearl Harbor to engage in her first war patrol. Within a few weeks, Tang was sent to the waters off of Palau, where O’Kane was met with his first real chance at scoring a hit. On the early morning of 17 February, Tang’s radar lit up with the presence of eight vessels – two large, one medium destroyer, and five small anti-sub vessels. As O’Kane became excited at the prospect of an attack, one of the smaller escort vessels made it way to the surfaced Tang. O’Kane called out orders for submersion and within one minute had Tang nestled deep below the surface. The escort vessel dropped a mere five charges before returning to her convoy. O’Kane brought Tang to the surface and released four torpedoes. While the first torpedo missed its target, the remaining four hit square – sinking the medium ship, the 7,000 ton Gyotin Maru. Surprisingly, this attack, while not unnoticed, did not lead to the onslaught O’Kane was expecting and Tang was able to easily make her escape.
A month later, Tang and her crew returned to Pearl Harbor having spent her 24 torpedoes, while scoring 16 hits, including five ships.
Tang’s second war patrol consisted of lifeguarding – where submarines rescued downed US pilots. While it did not share the same excitement for O’Kane as sinking Japanese vessels, it was an important operation, and of course it was done with the panache that only O’Kane could deliver. Upon surfacing, O’Kane would use Tang’s deck guns to attack and confuse the Japanese shore stations. Over the next two days in Japanese infested waters, Tang carried out seven pick-up ops, saving an amazing total of 22 pilots. O’Kane and Tang returned to Pearl Harbor feeling somewhat dejected as they had ‘scored no hits’, but their dedication, to the downed pilots, was much heeded and never forgotten.
Tang set out on her 3rd war patrol on June 8, setting course for the East China Sea, southwest of Kyushu. There she made contact with a convoy of 6 cargo ships and 15 escort vessels – a massive group. The radar was too crowded to easily discern one vessel from another, so O’Kane decided to attack on the surface, under the protection of the night sky. Under this surprise attack, he sank 4 vessels with 6 torpedoes – quite an accomplishment!
O’Kane and Tang headed back to Pearl Harbor with a final tally of 10 ships destroyed, using only 15 torpedoes – a feat for which he would be awarded his second of five Navy Crosses.
Tang’s next patrol took O’Kane and his crew into enemy waters, off Honshu. There was anti-submarine activity everywhere. Rather than turning away, O’Kane went in head-on. The Japanese cargo vessels, Joshu Go and Oita Maru, approached Tang’s position. In typical fashion, O’Kane decided to pounce on the opportunity. Almost immediately after the decision to attack, sonar picked up the presence of a fast-approaching gunboat. O’Kane ordered 3 torpedoes dropped, while watching anxiously in his periscope. What O’Kane saw next was not what he expected – the stern side of a fast-approaching gunboat just missing Tang by inches. Shocked, O’Kane gave the order to dive and prepare for depth charges. As Tang began her decent, O’Kane was rewarded with seeing the torpedoes he had previously sent, hit their mark.
Tang was hit hard by the depth charges dropped by the Japanese gunboat they had so narrowly missed. Tang was tossed about in the concussion of the relentless depth charges. “Light bulbs shattered and glass cracked…cork insulation sprinkled down from deck head seams, and paint began to flake from the bulkheads.” O’Kane ordered the crew to steer Tang directly beneath the gunboat. As she made her way, more depth charges were dropped. Tang’s hull flexed under the pressure; many of the men were tossed as others struggled to maintain power, but O’Kane maintained course and was rewarded with the silenced sonar probe of the gunboat. O’Kane took the opportunity handed him and brought Tang to deeper water. This would not be the last time that Tang would encounter this gunboat.
Nearly two weeks passed without activity. O’Kane theorized that the Japanese, having suffered a severe blow to their fleet, were anchoring their ships under the protection of darkness. To test this theory, O’Kane returned to Miki Saki at sunset. The first vessel they came across was the very same gunboat that had nearly ended them. She was anchored in the bay of Owase Buan. O’Kane could almost taste the sweetness revenge would serve. He took Tang astern of the resting gunboat and ordered a single torpedo fired at the target. The torpedo missed its target, burying itself in the bottom of the bay 100 yards away. A second and third torpedo surprisingly also missed their mark; seemingly due to a mechanical issue. O’Kane ordered a fourth torpedo fired. This one hit its mark – sinking the gunboat and its crew.
O’Kane continued his onslaught, always tempting fate and finding some way to escape unscathed. Little did he know, O’Kane’s luck was about to change. On October 24, one month after leaving Pearl Harbor, Tang picked up a large convoy on radar. Bringing Tang to visual range, O’Kane made note of the field and quietly made his way into the convoy. O’Kane chose two transport vessels and a tanker as his first targets. Tang released six torpedoes – all hitting their mark. The explosions caused a panic and the sky lit up with the flashing of signal lights, haphazard gun fire, and the burning remains of the ships. Intent on finishing the job, O’Kane turned his attention to a cargo ship and tanker that were off his stern. O’Kane sent the bearings, range, and speed to the Torpedo Data Computer (TDA) operator in preparation for attack. As he awaited confirmation, a barrage of shells exploded all around Tang. In his intense focus, O’Kane had failed to notice the Japanese destroyer hidden nearby in the darkness.
As the destroyer let go its next round, O’Kane got the news he was waiting for and gave the immediate order to “Fire! All ahead Flank!” Three torpedoes hit the tanker and a fourth detonated while underneath the vessel. As if in sympathy, (or perhaps due to an internal explosion caused by an overheated magazine store), the destroyer exploded in the night. Pleased, O’Kane ordered Tang out of the area, to reload the bow tubes with her last two torpedoes.
Tang and her crew quickly returned to continue the attack. O’Kane saw that the freighter, while crippled, was still upright – something he intended to fix. The two last torpedoes were released. The first one hit its mark, sending the freighter to the bottom. The second torpedo however, went astray and within seconds of its release, sped back towards its owner. The torpedo struck Tang in her torpedo room. O’Kane ordered the upper-conning tower hatch closed, seconds before she fell below the waves. Remarkably, O’Kane and eight of his bridge party made it to the surface where they were captured by the Japanese. Sadly, all but fifteen of O’Kane’s crew would lose their lives on Tang, as she settled 180 feet below the surface.
All told, Tang, O’Kane, and his crew sank 24 enemy ships – a feat matched only by the Tautog, which needed three captains to do so. Upon his release from prison camp, O’Kane returned to the U.S., where he received the Congressional Medal of Honor by President Truman.
All information garnered from Captains of War, by Edwyn Gray.