In A Nutshell
On October 24, 1944 one of the most successful, destructive submarines of World War II fired the last torpedo it had in an attempt to sink a warship it had previously wounded. This proved to be its undoing as the torpedo malfunctioned, circled around, and sunk the USS Tang.
The Whole Bushel
Despite only going out on five patrols, the USS Tang was one of the most devastating submarines to serve in WWII, credited with sinking 31 ships for a total of roughly 227,800 tons sent to a watery grave. The Tang‘s captain, Commander R.H. O’Kane, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The vessel itself was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation twice during her brief career.
On October 24, 1944 at 6 AM, the Tang found a convoy of enemy vessels in the Formosa Straits (between China and Taiwan) and engaged in an amazing fight against overwhelming odds. Several large enemy tankers were loaded to capacity with planes and crates full of war material being escorted by multiple destroyers. In quick succession, the Tang hit two of the tankers and readied an attack on the third as the destroyers bore down on them with all guns blazing. The Tang fired a torpedo meant for the third tanker and managed to sink a destroyer at the same time (it’s unclear if friendly fire was involved, but the sub was given credit for both hits).
As chaos reigned above, the sub dove deep and assessed the situation. The crew determined that the destroyers were unable to pinpoint their location and the third tanker was damaged but still floating. With two torpedoes remaining, they made the fateful decision to resurface and finish off the last tanker. Both torpedoes proved devastating, with one striking the wounded tanker and the other malfunctioning tragically. The last torpedo began circling around and struck the Tang dead on, sending it to the bottom of the sea.
The crew of the Tang had to wait to try escaping as a Japanese ship circled above them dropping depth charges for a short while before joining the other escort ships in saving their own sailors. The crew took that time to destroy all the printed materials they had on board in case the Japanese later sent divers down to investigate, but after the survivors made it to the surface, they were picked up by one of the Japanese ships. They were set upon and beaten, for which O’Kane had one thing to say: “When we realized that our clubbings and kickings were being administered by the burned, mutilated survivors of our own handiwork, we found we could take it with less prejudice.”
The nine survivors of the USS Tang spent the remainder of the war in a series of prison camps. Only after the war ended and the men were debriefed did the details of their last mission become known. After retiring from the Navy Richard O’Kane wrote two books about his WW2 experiences: Clear The Bridge and Wahoo.