"Mush the Magnificent" - US Submarine Ace in the Pacific

By John Dudek 20 Mar 2015 0

Location:  Wewak Harbor, Northern New Guinea.  23 January, 1943, 1440 hours.

Executive Officer Dick O'Kane peered through the submarine periscope at the sight of a Japanese Fubuki class destroyer moored some 3,000 yards distant from the submerged and slowly approaching USS WAHOO, a Gato class boat.  After creeping and manoeuvring nearly blind for some nine hours through the unknown and uncharted Wewak Harbor looking for ships and with land now on three sides of them, this prize target finally presented itself.  Standing nearby was the submarine commander Lieut. Comdr. Dudley W. "Mush" Morton on his first war patrol as skipper of the WAHOO.  Mush Morton was something of an unorthodox submarine commander. In this case, during any attack Morton preferred to con the boat while the Exec made periscope observations.  Morton believed his mind would be totally clear to make more aggressive tactical decisions possible, especially if he were free from any visual images. Morton and O'Kane didn't know it, but they were on the verge of sailing into submarine lore and legend.  As they prepared to fire three torpedoes, the Japanese destroyer lookouts must have spied the feather of white water from the surfaced periscope in the utterly calm harbor waters, because the destroyer began moving.  O'Kane reported “Captain she's gotten underway moving out of the harbor.  Angle ten degrees on the port bow."  The hunter was now in danger of becoming the hunted.  Morton made the proper changes in course before saying.  “Ready. Stand by to fire... fire one... fire two... fire three.”

The boat shuddered as three torpedoes were launched. Steam torpedoes of the day left a white wake the size of a two lane highway, easily seen from any alerted destroyer.  O'Kane continued.  "First torpedo missed astern.  Second torpedo missed astern.  Third torpedo missed astern."  The sounds of groans echoed throughout the submarine.  Morton shouted.  "Get another set up!" soon followed by “Fire four!".  The Exec remaining at the periscope said.  "Target turning away.  The fourth missed.  She's swinging around and headed right at us.”   "All right" said Mush.  "Get set for a down-the-throat shot." It is what the term suggests, the act of firing a torpedo directly at an oncoming warship hoping to strike it at its narrowest point.  Such an act thus far remained more in the realm of unproven theory than in fact.  "Range Eighteen hundred yards." Again Mush lined up the WAHOO for the shot before saying “Fire Five!".  O'Kane remaining at the periscope soon said "Captain we missed him.  He's still coming.  He's getting close."  Without missing a beat, Morton said "Stand by to fire six."  "When shall I fire Captain?" "Wait t'll she fills four divisions in low power."  "Captain, she already fills eight."  For once even Mush was rattled.  "Well for God's sake FIRE!  Take her deep!"  WAHOO rigged for a depth charge attack and awaited her end at a shallow harbor depth of only ninety feet. Meanwhile its crew made peace with their maker.  Suddenly a loud explosion echoed nearby that broke a number of light bulbs in the submarine while causing flakes of cork insulation to rain down from above.  After nearly a minute of silence, a crewman shouted "Jeez' maybe we hit him!"  Mush replied  "Well by God maybe we did!  Bring her back up George."  The executive officer raised the periscope and reported  "There she is. Broken in two."  Utter bedlam broke out aboard the submarine as each crewman was allowed to view the broken Japanese destroyer through the periscope.  Morton immediately rewarded his shaken crew with a large tot of medicinal brandy as they slowly retraced their steps to leave Wewak Harbor.

 

 

Dudley Walker "Mush" Morton was a dynamic, utterly fearless, yet personable submarine skipper and a natural born leader of fighting men.  The nickname of “Mush” was short for “Mush-mouth”, a name he picked up in college because of his decided southern drawl way of talk.  Described as a "happy warrior" who exuded happiness, good humor and joy whenever entering into combat.  His infectious, positive "can-do" outlook was electric and never failed to fire up his crew. Although prone to take great chances while playing against long odds, he continued winning big against the Japanese and single headedly raised the morale with the entire US Submarine Force with the tales of WAHOO's mostly successful five war patrols over ten months.  During the previous two years of war, the U.S. Submarine Force Pacific was beset by a multitude of problems ranging from faulty torpedoes, old or worn out pre-war submarines to overly cautious, timid leadership. During this time too, most USN pre-war submarine attack doctrine was largely discarded as a new generation of aggressive and talented submarine skippers came into the fore.  Unrestricted submarine warfare against the Japanese Empire also came into its own during this time, eventually becoming a major contributing factor in the final defeat of Imperial Japan.  Mush Morton and the crew of the WAHOO were a major player in this.  Morton helped re-write "the book" of standard operating procedure sub tactics as he went along.  He preferred running his submarine primarily on the surface during daylight hours, while relying on both his top side look-outs atop the main mast and his radar to warn him of any approaching danger. He placed great faith and relied heavily upon both his officers and enlisted men's abilities and they responded in kind in a highly skilled, professional manner. They went on to sink 19 Japanese merchant and warships, making him the third highest scoring U.S. submarine ace in WWII.  Dick O'Kane, Morton's Exec later went on to become the top scoring U.S. submarine ace of WWII while serving as Captain of the USS TANG by sinking 24 Japanese ships.

Within days of the Wewak Harbor incident, USS WAHOO achieved even more notoriety when she happened upon a four ship Japanese convoy of two unescorted transports, a tanker and one merchant ship on 26 January off the northern coast of New Guinea. In a running gun and torpedo battle, WAHOO sank three of the four ships while giving chase to the fourth.  The following day, he made a rushed surfaced attack on the survivor.  Standing down in the control room conning tower, one officer said to another "If either one of those torpedoes hits, I will kiss your royal ass."  Both torpedoes hit, sinking the ship immediately.  Exulting on the bridge at his final victory Mush missed the most unusual ceremony ever performed in the conning tower of the mighty WAHOO. After expending all of its torpedoes, Morton radioed Pearl Harbor saying: "In a fourteen hour running gun and torpedo battle sank destroyer in Wewak, and entire convoy of one tanker, two freighters and one transport and her boats. Wahoo gunning, convoy running."

Even without torpedoes, Morton's aggressive spirit would not rest.  On 27 January, another convoy was spotted. Battle surfacing astern, the lead ships fled leaving behind a small, unarmed freighter. While closing to sink it with their deck gun, WAHOO's lookouts sighted a warship escort closing from the east. Disappointed, Morton refused to dive. Instead he chose to run thinking their pursuer to be a small corvette. In reality it was a destroyer. When it bracketed WAHOO with a salvo of gunfire Morton quickly relented and dove to the amusement (and relief) of his crew. Later, with all four engines making for Pearl Harbor, Morton sent ComSubPAC an update on their activities: “Another running gun battle today. Destroyer gunning, WAHOO running."  WAHOO returned to Pearl Harbor with tiny Japanese flags flying and a broom affixed atop the periscope shears to signify a "clean sweep" of the enemy.  This single war patrol was the most successful submarine foray of any in the previous two years of war.  Tales of the patrol swept through the US submarine force like a freshening wind, giving heart to both its officers and crews.  Overnight, “Mush” Morton achieved instant stardom and great notoriety, while becoming the favored "fair haired boy" to ComSubPAC  (Commander Submarine Force Pacific)  Admiral Charles Lockwood, who referred to him as a "One submarine wolf pack." Mush was awarded the Navy Cross and Distinguished Service Cross for his actions during his first war patrol.

Morton's second war patrol went off much like his first.  WAHOO's patrol grounds were in the shallow waters of the Yellow Sea in the area around the Yalu River.  Once again Morton kept the WAHOO primarily on the surface both in daylight and darkness except for a routine morning trim dive.  WAHOO sank nine ships for a confirmed tonnage of 20,000 tons, making him the most successful submarine skipper so far in the war.  No USN Captain had ever sunk as much enemy shipping.

A key component during the war in the Pacific was the Gato class submarine, named for sea creatures like most U.S. Navy subs. They were the first massed produced US Submarine class in WWII.  Reliable, durable, well armed and built with crew comfort in mind for long patrols, the 77 submarines of this class blazed a trail of Japanese ship destruction across the far Pacific.  The Gato's were 311 feet in length and 27 feet in width.  Propelled by four diesel engines, they had a top surfaced speed of 21 knots and 9 knots submerged while running on their 4 electric motors. They had an operating range of 11,000 miles.  Equipped with air conditioning for crew comfort in the largely tropical Pacific Theatre of Operations, they also had large refrigeration and freezer units aboard to carry vast amounts of both fresh and frozen foods, making their crews the best fed sailors in the US Navy during their oftentimes 75 day long war patrols.  Armed with 10x 21-inch torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft, their standard load of 24 torpedoes gave them an impressive offensive punch.  Secondary armament for the submarines were a single 3-inch, 4-inch or 5-inch deck gun along with a variety of lighter 20mm. and 40mm. anti aircraft guns.  They were crewed by six officers and 54 enlisted men.

 

 

Some of the Gato class submarines more notable triumphs were:

The USS ALBACORE sank the Japanese aircraft carrier and fleet flagship TAIHO during the Battle of the Philippine Sea.

USS BARB while on her 12th patrol in July 1945 landed a small team from her crew on the shore of Patience Bay on Karafuto. They placed charges under a railroad track and blew up a passing train. The BARB also conducted several rocket attacks against shore targets on this same patrol, the first ever by an American submarine.

USS CAVALA sank the Japanese aircraft carrier SHOKAKU. SHOKAKU was one of six Japanese carriers that had participated in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

USS COBIA sank a ship carrying Japanese tank reinforcements which were en route to the island of Iwo Jima.

USS COD went to the rescue of a grounded Dutch submarine O-19, taking its crew on board and destroying the submarine when it could not be removed from the reef, the only international submarine-to-submarine rescue in history.

USS FINBACK recovered downed pilot LT. JG. George H. W. Bush, future President of the United States, after his torpedo bomber was damaged and eventually ditched during a bombing mission in the Pacific.

USS FLASHER was the top-scoring U.S. boat of the war, with 100,231 tons officially credited to her by the Joint Army-Navy Assessment Committee.

USS HARDER was the only submarine commander of the war (perhaps the only one ever) to sink five enemy destroyers four in a single patrol.

USS TUNNY sank the Japanese submarine I-42 on the night of March 23, 1944, after the two subs dueled for position for over an hour. A week later TUNNY engaged the battleship MUSASHI and inflicted enough damage for MUSASHI to return to dry dock for repairs.

USS DARTER and DACE conducted an aggressive and successful attack against Japanese fleet units during the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Leyte Island in the Philippines in October 1944. The two boats sank the heavy cruisers ATAGO and MAYA and severely damaged the heavy cruiser TAKAO.

 

 

Mush Morton's third war patrol as skipper of the WAHOO took him to the far northern Kurile Islands in support of the US Army invasion landings on Attu and Kiska Islands.  WAHOO's role was to wait in ambush for any Japanese fleet units who might try and contest the amphibious landings.  When no sortie was forthcoming, he was released for further patrol duties.  In spite of having a load of defective torpedoes, the WAHOO still managed to sink three out of the six ships he attacked.  Returning to Pearl Harbor, Morton bitterly renounced the Mark XIV torpedoes to Admiral Lockwood.

 

 

WAHOO'S next patrol took them to the Sea of Japan in that nation's supposedly safe and secure back yard.  Once again defective torpedo problems plagued WAHOO and he managed to sink only two ships out of nearly a dozen he attacked in this otherwise target rich environment.  WAHOO'S final war patrol took her back to the Sea of Japan, this time with a load of new and improved electric torpedoes.  Entering the Sea of Japan through the La Perouse Strait in October 1944, no further communications were ever heard from WAHOO.  The official Japanese news agency reported that one of their ships was sunk off the west coast of Honshu with a heavy loss of life.  In addition, post war findings showed that Morton sank three other ships before disappearing forever, following an aerial attack by Japanese anti submarine aircraft.  Admiral Lockwood later concluded that this attack fatally holed the WAHOO and that she plunged to the bottom of the straits taking down "Mush the Magnificent" and all hands.

Admiral Charles "Uncle Charlie" Lockwood ComSubPAC (Commander Submarine Force Pacific)  later wrote a truly fitting epitaph for the man and his crew: "When a natural leader and born daredevil such as Mush Morton is given command of a submarine, the result can only be a fighting ship of the highest order, with officers and men who would follow their skipper to the Gates of Hell…. And they did." Lockwood added: "Morton lined up an impressive number of 'firsts' during the short ten months that he commanded Wahoo: first to penetrate an enemy harbor and sink a ship therein; first to use successfully a "down the throat" shot; and first to wipe out an entire Japanese convoy single-handed."

A fine and fitting tribute to a one of a kind skipper.  "Sailor, rest your oar!"

 

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