The Submarine Force in particular and the Navy, in general, have many traditions. These traditions are passed from one generation to the next and held in great honor. Whether it be the ceremony for crossing the North Pole (and becoming a Bluenose) for the first time or hearing the whistle blow at a retirement ceremony, the Submarine Force is proud of its heritage and the traditions of those that came before them. But one tradition is rarely talked about outside of the submarine community. It is an honored tradition that has deep ties to the Navy and to one of the Submarine Force’s greatest commanders.
In April of 1943, the USS Wahoo (SS-283) was headed out on its fourth war patrol. However, unlike her previous missions, Wahoo would be tested by being sent to the shallow waters of the farthest reaches of the Yellow Sea. This would be the first time a submarine would patrol the area. Tensions ran high as the crew headed the area. To make them feel more at ease, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton and his Executive officer Richard “Dick” O’Kane broke out a cribbage board and began to play. As submarine lore goes, Morton dealt O’Kane a perfect 29, the highest possible hand one can get in the game. It has been said that the crew calculated the odds to be one in 216,000. The crew felt like the hand was a lucky omen. That night, the Wahoo sank two Japanese freighters. Three days later, in another game, Morton dealt a 28-point hand. The following day, they sunk two freighters and a third the next day. O’Kane would leave the Wahoo and the board to command the USS Tang (SS-306) – which went on to break the record for most ships sunk in a patrol. O’Kane would be captured by the Japanese and held until the end of the war. Sixty years later, the lucky cribbage board would find a home once again on the second submarine named USS Tang (SS-563). Ernestine O’Kane sponsored the second Tang.
The game of cribbage was played in the Navy long before WWII, however, the story of Morton’s 29 hand solidified its place in submarine lore and tradition. The game itself is believed to have been invented by British soldier and poet Sir John Suckling in the 17th century. English settlers would bring the game to America where it became popular among sailors and fishermen in New England. The game is played by having a dealer hand out cards to the players who try to score points by discarding cards to a “crib” in several combinations. There is one card set aside that players can combine with their hand to earn more points. However, this card is kept secret until all players have made their moves. The cribbage board is used to keep score with small holes and pegs. One sailor’s lore says that the game is so old that Vice Adm. Horatio Nelson played on a cribbage board made of bone at the 1805 Battle of Trafalgar. The tradition of playing cribbage on submarines has lived on despite the advent of video games and movies as pastime alternatives. It even has been labeled the unofficial game of submariners.
But the game of cribbage is not the only tradition that has been kept alive in the Submarine Force. When the second USS Tang was struck from the Naval Register in 1987, the cribbage board was passed on to the USS Kamehameha (SSN 642), the oldest commissioned submarine in the force at the time. Since this trade, the board has been sent to the oldest commissioned submarine in the Pacific Fleet after the decommissioning of its predecessor. When she was decommissioned in 2002 after 37 years of service, the board was passed onto the USS Parche (SSN 683), the most highly decorated vessel in U.S. History. Parche was decommissioned in 2005 and the board did not reach its next home until 2007- the USS Los Angeles (SSN 688). Upon accepting the board, Commanding Officer, Cmdr. Erik Burian said, “It’s an honor to deploy with O’Kane’s cribbage board. Embarking with a piece of submarine history is a constant reminder of the legacy that we will continue. My crew and I enjoy passing time playing cribbage while not on duty and we are proud that we can carry on the tradition.”
When the Los Angeles was decommissioned in 2011, the board was sent to the USS Bremerton (SSN 698) where it has been kept atop a case of coffee mugs in the wardroom. The crew uses the board often says Cmdr. Wes Bringham. “We play on it. We figure he would have wanted us to.”
In April 2018, USS Bremerton left its home port in Pearl Harbor and headed for her namesake city, the final destination before her retirement. She is scheduled to begin inactivation and decommissioning at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard this month. After her decommissioning, the cribbage board will find its way to a new home and tradition will continue. The board isn’t simply handed over, but in true Navy fashion, its transfer is honored with a ceremony just as any change of command has seen. Cribbage is more than just a game to submariners. It is tied to their heritage and the essence of who they are. And with O’Kane’s cribbage board being kept alive, it serves as a reminder of the greatest of the submariners who came before, the ones that currently serve, and the future.
Quotes and references: