Leaders of the Deep: Top WWII Submariners and their Submarines

By K. Cecilia Sequeira, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division

World War II saw great advancement in U.S. submarine technology and tactics as well as impressive leadership.  Unfortunately, battle success stories were often kept from the public due to the necessarily stealthy nature of the service.  However, the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) and surviving WWII submariners have recognized a few top skippers and their submarines.

* According to the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) figures in Theodore Roscoe’s “United States Submarine Operations in World War II.”

In “United States Submarine Operations in World War II,” Theodore Roscoe credits USS Flasher (SS 249), with sinking the highest enemy tonnage (100,231) during the war. Flasher, like most submarines of its time, was named after a fish. Commissioned on Sept. 25, 1943, USS Flasher earned three Presidential Unit Citations and six battle stars. USS Flasher was decommissioned on March 16, 1946.

USS FLASHER (SS 249) Nov. 4, 1943. Photo by J.H. Ruhmland.

USS FLASHER (SS 249) Nov. 4, 1943. Photo by J.H. Ruhmland.

USS Wahoo (SS 238), commissioned May 15, 1942, was credited with sinking 20 enemy ships (60,038 tons) during WWII. It makes the top-ten list for ships sunk during WWII, but it is most well-known for its leadership. USS Wahoo’s second skipper was Lt. Cmdr. Dudley W. “Mush” Morton, who appointed (then) Lt. Richard H. O’Kane as USS Wahoo’s executive officer. WWII survivor accounts remember both men as innovative, daring, and successful. It is no coincidence they both rank in the list of top three WWII submarine skippers for number of ships sunk.

According to NHHC, unlike most commanding officers of the time, Morton was known for entrusting O’Kane (his executive officer) with manning the periscope, a job usually reserved for the commanding officer. (Then) Lt. George Grider, explained delegating this to the executive officer “left the skipper in a better position to interpret all factors involved, do a better conning job, and make decisions more dispassionately.”

Cdr. Richard O’Kane photographed shortly after being awarded the Medal of Honor around March 1946. Catalog: 80-G-702334

Cdr. Richard O’Kane photographed shortly after being awarded the Medal of Honor around March 1946. Catalog: 80-G-702334

Morton also had the confidence of the Sailors he commanded. According to Mark Robert’s “An Oral History of U.S. Navy Submarines,” Radioman 1st Class William Young (Ret.), who completed three tours on Wahoo, said, “Capt. Morton would come on board the Wahoo every time before we went out and say, ‘Now we’re going to go in harm’s way. Anyone who wants to get off can get off, no questions asked…’ Not one person ever left. If he would have said, ‘we’re all going to go out and we’re all gonna get killed,’ we would have gone [anyway]. That’s the kind of a guy he was.  I never saw another skipper like him.”

A painting depicting “Mush” Morton by an unknown artist (1965). NHHC catalog: NH 65810

A painting depicting “Mush” Morton by an unknown artist (1965). NHHC catalog: NH 65810

Unfortunately, the story of USS Wahoo ends in tragedy. On Oct. 11, 1943, the date Wahoo was due to exit through La Perouse Strait, Japanese records show an antisubmarine aircraft found a submarine and dropped three depth charges, an anti-submarine warfare (ASW) weapon designed to explode at a preset depth under water. All aboard the Wahoo were lost and began what Sailors of the submarine service describe as their eternal patrol. “Mush the Magnificent” Morton was posthumously awarded a fourth Navy Cross and USS Wahoo earned six battle stars for World War II service and one Presidential Unit Citation.

Skippers Table_SequeiraRanking sixth among leading WWII submarines, based on the number of ships sunk, USS Seahorse (SS 304) is also credited with sinking 20 ships (72,529 tons) during WWII. Commissioned on March 31, 1943, USS Seahorse hosted a famous Skipper: Cmdr. Slade D. Cutter (who later retired as a captain).

(Then) Chief Petty Officer Joseph McGrievy served as Chief of the Boat (COB) under Cutter on Seahorse. When Cutter became skipper, McGrievy heard a rumor that some of the men aboard didn’t want to go to sea with him, because they thought he was a “madman” (22, Roberts). When confronted with the rumor, Cutter replied, “At quarters tomorrow morning, make a list of those who don’t want to go and we’ll have them transferred” (22, Roberts). One man stepped forward and the rest made four successful patrol runs on USS Seahorse. McGrievy described Cutter as “the second biggest ship sinker, who sunk the most ships in the least number of runs” (23, Roberts). Remembering him fondly, he noted, “Slade was the guy who changed my life” (26, Roberts). USS Seahorse (SS 304) received three Presidential Unit Citations and nine battle stars for World War II service and was decommissioned on March 2, 1946.

Cdr. Slade D. Cutter, Commanding Officer of USS Seahorse (SS-304). Catalog: 80-G-K-13287

Cdr. Slade D. Cutter, Commanding Officer of USS Seahorse (SS-304). Catalog: 80-G-K-13287

 

The USS Rasher (SS 269), a diesel submarine, also makes the top-ten list. Rasher is credited with sinking 18 ships (99,901 tons), was awarded four Presidential Unit Citations for outstanding performance in combat patrols during WWII patrols, earned seven battle stars for service during WWII, and two more for service off Vietnam. For all their success, however, WWII diesel submarines lacked basic living standards most take for granted today. Thomas Innocente, a fire controlman, who earned his submarine warfare pin aboard Rasher, said “the only way you can accurately describe a nuclear submarine is to have served on a diesel submarine” (136, Roberts). Innocente recalled USS Rasher had two one-thousand gallon distillers, but one of them was always broken. He claimed showers were nonexistent on USS Rasher, unless your mission allowed, and even then it was seawater, which left persistent salt residues that caused severe itching. Nuclear submarines came later and introduced the luxury of washing machines and a weekly freshwater shower. According to Innocente, even the air in nuclear submarines smelled better than air in diesel submarines, thanks to a new air filtering system dubbed “Amnie” (138, Roberts). The first nuclear powered submarine, USS Nautilus IV (SSN 571), was commissioned on Sept. 30, 1954.

To learn more about historical U.S. Navy submarines visit history.navy.mil. To access the WWII submarine patrol reports, digitized by the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association, click here.

Further Reading:

Commander Task Force Seventeen Operation Plan 1-45

https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/c/commander-task-force-seventeen-operation-plan-1-45.html 

Current Doctrine Submarines USF 25(A)

https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/c/current-doctrine-submarines.html

United States Submarine Losses, World War II

https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/united-states-submarine-losses.html

The U-boat Threat in the Caribbean: Opportunities Lost

https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/u-boat-in-the-caribbean.html

Ultra and the Campaign Against the U-boats in World War II

https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/u/current-doctrine-submarines-usf-25-a.html