This Day in History: USS Tang's Last Mission
On this day in 1944, USS Tang sinks, the victim of her own malfunctioning torpedo. A handful of sailors would survive, only to be captured by the Japanese. Then-Lt. Commander Richard O’Kane survived his captivity and would be awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions in the hours before Tang’s demise.
The audacious commander was a legend of World War II, once called “America’s undersea ace of aces.” During Tang’s five war patrols, O’Kane is officially credited with sinking 24 enemy ships.
He believed 33 to be a more accurate number.
Tang’s final engagement came during the Battle of Leyte Gulf, near the Philippines. Tang’s crew was then scanning nearby waters for enemy activity. Late on October 23, a convoy of about 10 enemy ships was spotted near the Taiwan Strait.
The enemy vessels were loaded with supplies, meant to reinforce the Japanese at Leyte Gulf.
The convoy was zigzagging, but O’Kane had the enemy vessels in his sights. He surfaced and fired four torpedoes, aimed at three different ships, before the Japanese realized he was there. Explosions rocked the water, but O’Kane had a new problem: An enemy transport was plowing toward him, apparently intent on ramming Tang.
“It was too close for Tang to dive,” historian William Tuohy explains. “Tang had to cross her bow. O’Kane rang up flank speed and hard left rudder. The maneuvering room laid on emergency power . . . . Tang almost brushed the transport, the two vessels passing in opposite directions at the combined speed of 40 knots. The submarine was in the middle of a rousing free-for-all.”
The transport barely missed Tang but was now headed straight towards another Japanese freighter. As the two neared each other, O’Kane used the opportunity to send more torpedoes their way.
He was soon diving, leaving chaos in his wake: Three freighters and a transport had been destroyed. In the confusion, the Japanese were shooting at each other.
The next night, Tang found another large convoy. O’Kane ordered Battle Stations Surface and prepared to strike. Just then, the lead ship turned on searchlights, which helped O’Kane to see. He fired on the leading ships, taking at least one down quickly.
“With ships bearing down from all sides,” O’Kane’s Medal citation says of the next chaotic minutes, “he charged the enemy at high speed, exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water, and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern.”
Oil on the ocean surface had caught fire. Tang was firing and being fired upon. O’Kane managed to pull his submarine away from the worst of it, then turned to fire his last two torpedoes. He planned to fire, then leave. The attack had been wildly successful.
It wasn’t to be. Instead, the second torpedo malfunctioned and circled back within seconds of leaving Tang. The crew had little time to react before the torpedo slammed into Tang’s stern. Half were killed instantly. As the stern went down, the bow flipped up, throwing men into the water. In the meantime, only a handful would make it out of the submerged submarine, using a new underwater escape device—the Momsen Lung.
Ultimately, only 9 of 87 survived. They were rescued several hours later—sort of. A Japanese destroyer picked them up, making these men POWs for the rest of the war.
O’Kane survived his captivity and was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman. He retired as a rear admiral in 1957.
“O’Kane was probably one of the finest skippers I served under,” a Tang survivor said many years later. “He was stern, but fair. And I think everyone on board had complete faith in his ability.”
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Benjamin Brimelow, How the most successful submarine in US Navy history ended up sinking itself (Business Insider; Oct 20, 2020)
Katie Lange, Medal of Honor Monday: Navy Rear Adm. Richard O'Kane (Department of Defense; Oct. 25, 2021)
James Scott, The War Below: The Story of Three Submarines That Battled Japan (2014)
Medal of Honor citation (Richard Hetherington O'Kane, WWII)
United States Submarine Losses World War II: Tang (SS 306) (Naval History Heritage and Command)
William Tuohy, The Bravest Man: Richard O'Kane and the Amazing Submarine Adventures of the USS Tang (2001)