Before Richard O’Kane became commander of the wildly successful USS TANG (SS-306), was awarded a Medal of Honor, survived a Japanese POW camp, and attained the rank of rear admiral, he served as executive officer of USS WAHOO (SS-238) under LCDR Marvin “Pinky” Kennedy and, later, the legendary submarine skipper LCDR Dudley “Mush” Morton. O’Kane would later credit Morton with helping him hone the skills that made him into an accomplished and much-loved C.O., but on 18 March 1943, O’Kane had something else to thank Mush for: an epic hand of cribbage.
In his history of the boat, entitled Wahoo: The Patrols of America’s Most Famous WWII Submarine, O’Kane writes that cribbage was the card game of choice for the entire crew; the wardroom was no exception. The officers played in times of boredom and times of stress, and also, as in the late afternoon of the 18th, for nothing more than fun. After Morton wrote his night orders, he and his X.O. sat down for a game. “I am told that I learned to count on our cribbage board,” O’Kane wrote in his book, “so all of the intricacies of the game, the value of hands, and scoring had become quite automatic. So this night, when Captain Morton dealt me three fives and the jack of the missing suit, I instantly realized that my chances were approximately one in forty of cutting the remaining five of spades for a perfect twenty-nine cribbage hand. I let out a whoop, calling, ‘This could be it!’ Hands going forward to the movies filled the doorways to watch the cut, and all protocol was brushed aside for such an event. I cut, and this time it was their whoop, for face up for all to see was the five of spades.”
It was a momentous occasion. “Richie [LT Richie N. Henderson] signed the five; the captain signed the jack; while Roger [LT Roger W. Paine, Jr.], Chan [LT Chandler C. Jackson], and Jack [LT(jg) John B. Griggs] signed the other fives. Wahoo being a cribbage-playing ship, we had constant visitors for a look, and later a repeat viewing after the movies. By then, remembering what we could from our math course in permutations and combinations, various odds…filled our sheets of lined paper. The chief of the boat has singular authority in settling shipboard differences, and this time Pappy Rau [CTM Russel H. Rau] produced a well-thumbed book of facts. Pappy read: ‘Some mathematicians figure the odds at one in a quarter million.’ ”
Many crewmembers felt this impossibly rare hand was a sign of good luck. The following day would not disappoint. Early in the morning, WAHOO sank a freighter; four hours later, she damaged a second one which might have been sunk had one of her torpedoes not been a dud.
Two days later, “with breakfast and the grand strategy decisions finished, the captain reached for the cribbage board. The first two hands were relaxing, and then Morton dealt again. I picked up my cards to find four fives. That’s not too rare, counting the two discards as extra chances, but it was the makings of a twenty-eight cribbage hand, needing only the cutting of any face card or a ten. We had a quorum watching as I cut a jack for the captain, allowing him to peg two, while my twenty-eight hand ran out the rubber game. Captain Morton exploded, ‘Why, I’ll never play another game with you,’ and tore the remaining cards into bits, pitching them through the pantry window.” Moments later, a freighter was spotted. WAHOO promptly sent it to the bottom.
Later that day, O’Kane sat down to calculate the odds of his second stellar hand. “In [a twenty-eight hand], only the four specific cards, the fives, are required, and to go with them any face card or ten. There being sixteen of those versus the one specific card required for the twenty-nine hand, I had just divided Pappy’s figure by 16 giving 1 in 15,625. And the commander agreed that it should be close enough for submarine use. I made a duplicate of the odds and called [St3c Jesus C. Manalesay], who took the sheet aft to be typed and to go with the signed hand that was on display in the control room. Even the noncribbage players would see those figures, and coupled with the previous hand, might join the ranks of those who heeded omens.”
Today, O’Kane’s good luck remains with the submarine fleet: his personal cribbage board is kept in the wardroom of the Navy’s oldest commissioned submarine.