October 11, 2021 — Many consider the USS WAHOO the most famous American submarine of World War II. Her third patrol, off the coast of New Guinea, turned the tide of the Pacific submarine war.
The captain of the WAHOO was the aggressive, gutsy “Mush” Morton. During his sixth patrol in the Sea of Japan, WAHOO’S torpedoes failed in almost every instance; Morton was furious and brought the sub back to Pearl Harbor.
Submarine commanders were said to get reckless after five patrols – lasting that long made them feel invincible. Morton was no exception; he knew where the enemy was, and he wanted just one more shot. Admiral Charles Lockwood was against Morton going out again – it would be his seventh patrol. The Sea of Japan was extremely dangerous, and the WAHOO had been through some grueling action. Yet Mush Morton was a legend, an inspiration to the submarine force. So the Admiral finally gave in.
The WAHOO was outfitted with the new electric Mark-18 torpedoes, which left no telltale wake as they passed under the ocean’s surface. On September 5, 1943, the WAHOO left Pearl Harbor and reached Midway eight days later. They topped off their fuel tanks and departed again that afternoon. The sub was heading for the Perouse Strait, which led into the Sea of Japan. It was the last time the submarine was seen by American forces.
The WAHOO was to maintain radio silence until a specified time and date. In the meantime, the Navy could only guess what was happening. Three weeks later, on October 5, the Japanese news service announced that one of their 8,000-ton transports was torpedoed in the Sea of Japan. The steamer went down in seconds, taking with her 544 people.
There was another sub in the area at the time – the SAWFISH. Either one could claim this victory, but it was surmised the hit belonged to the WAHOO. Admiral Lockwood eagerly awaited Morton’s report, but at the appointed time, she failed to transmit. Lockwood remained optimistic and continued trying to raise the WAHOO. The hours turned into days and then weeks. In November, the sub was finally listed as missing in action.
Years later, Japanese records and eyewitness interviews formed a picture of what happened to the sub and its crew. On this date in 1943, 6-inch shore batteries on Soya Misaki revealed a surfaced American submarine making a dash through the twenty-mile wide Cape Soya Strait. The Japanese opened fire and the submarine submerged. Within a short time, four Japanese planes arrived on the scene and spotted a trail of oil left behind. The pilots reported they spotted the black conning tower and hull of the sub and began dropping bombs.
By now, the entire coast was on alert, and two submarine chasers joined the battle and began dropping depth charges. At 1207 hours, a bright metallic object, assumed to be part of a propeller blade, was seen in the ensuing explosions. Oil rose to the surface, several more bombs and depth charges were dropped, but no further contact with the submarine was reported.
Japanese records have revealed that the WAHOO sunk four ships during its final patrol. But, nobody has determined why the sub surfaced in the narrow strait in broad daylight or why she didn’t send distress signals. Among the 80 men who died that day was Lieut. Commander Verne L. Skjonsby of Hickson, ND. He was the submarine’s Executive Officer.
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