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USS Wahoo Is Back: New Nuclear Subs Named for Storied WWII Boats

Nov 20, 2020
by Patricia Kime
University of Virginia fans rejoice: The Navy's newest submarine will be a Wahoo.

Well, not exactly. The newest Virginia-class submarine will be named the USS Wahoo in honor of the legacies of two previous submarines, including a storied World War II vessel that was sunk by a torpedo on Oct. 11, 1943.

Along with the Wahoo, the Navy also announced that another future Virginia-class submarine will be named Tang, also in honor of a World War II boat, whose commander was awarded the Medal of Honor, and a Vietnam-era submarine.

Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite has made a point of naming vessels after others with historical Navy legacies, and Wahoo and Tang certainly fit the bill.

"The success in battle both previous namesakes endured will undoubtedly bring great pride to the future crews of USS Tang and USS Wahoo," Braithwaite said. "Along with the previously named USS Barb (SSN 804), these boats will honor the strong traditions and heritage of the silent service."

Commissioned shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, the Wahoo, SS-238, was a Gato-class submarine and the "most storied boat in the fleet" at the time of its sinking, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.

In seven patrols in the Pacific, Wahoo earned six battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation, having sunk 20 Japanese ships -- 19 of which were destroyed in the boat's last five combat patrols. Wahoo's skipper, Lt. Cmdr. Dudley Walker "Mush" Morton, is considered the third most successful submarine commander of the war, having earned four Navy Crosses. The last was awarded posthumously.

The last days aboard the Wahoo must have been harrowing: Six days before the vessel was sunk, it attacked a Japanese convoy and sank the 8,100-ton troop transport Konron Maru, killing 544 people, including two members of the Japanese House of Representatives.

Revenge followed. The Wahoo was stalked by Japanese forces. According to Japanese records reviewed by Navy historians, when it surfaced the morning of Oct. 11, possibly already having sustained damage, it was fired on by Japanese shore batteries. It then submerged and reversed course, possibly striking a mine in the process.

It was then attacked by five aircraft and surface depth charges, enduring at least 40 bombs and 69 depth charges. When the attack was over, 79 souls aboard were gone.

The boat was located in 2005 by a private group in the La Perouse Strait, between Japanese-owned Hokkaido and Russian-owned Sakhalin, sitting upright in 212 feet of water, largely intact. It had suffered a direct bombing hit to its conning tower.

The second USS Wahoo, SS-565, was commissioned on Memorial Day 1952 and decommissioned in 1988, after serving in the Pacific as part of Seventh Fleet and completing two tours in Vietnam.

The World War II-era USS Tang was commanded by Cmdr. Richard O'Kane, who cut his teeth as executive officer of the Wahoo during that boat's first five patrols, according to the Navy. O'Kane is considered the most successful submarine officer in World War II and earned the Medal of Honor, three Navy Crosses, three Silver Stars and the Legion of Merit with Combat "V" device.

At the height of its operations, the Balo-class submarine Tang, SS-306, sank a Japanese vessel roughly every 11 days. Launched in 1943, the Tang is credited with sinking 31 ships totaling 227,800 tons and damaging two for 4,100 tons.

On Oct. 24, 1944, the Tang fired on a Japanese convoy, striking a tanker and sinking a Japanese destroyer. As it launched a final strike to finish off the tanker, however, the last torpedo, an electric Mark 18, turned around and began heading toward the Tang. Despite an avoidance maneuver by O'Kane, the explosive struck the Tang near its stern.

Nine personnel from the bridge, including O'Kane, were able to swim to the surface. Thirteen sailors inside the submarine also escaped, but only five made it through the night. The remainder of the crew perished. Survivors were picked up by the crews of the vessels Tang had been attacking; they became prisoners of war.

The second USS Tang, SS-563, was the first ship in its class of diesel submarines, commissioned in October 1951. It went on to earn four battle stars for service in Vietnamese waters and later became a training vessel in Groton, Connecticut. It was decommissioned in February 1980. That Tang eventually was transferred to the Turkish Navy and is now a museum attraction.

"Naming Virginia-class submarines is a unique opportunity to reclaim submarine names that carry inspirational records of achievement," Braithwaite said.

Several variants of the Virginia class, projected to include 37 boats, are being built by General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls Industries. Eighteen submarines that have already been commissioned are named for states; one has been named for a person -- retired Virginia Sen. John Warner.

Ten subs under construction or on order are to be named for states. One is to be named for the father of the nuclear Navy, retired Adm. Hyman Rickover, and one will be named USS Barb, in honor of a World War II submarine whose crew conducted the only ground combat operation of the war on the Japanese homeland at the time, blowing up a train on Karafuto Prefecture.

The original Barb, Tang and Wahoo were all named for fish: Barb is a derivation of Barbus, a ray-finned fish; tangs are surgeonfish found in the Pacific; and wahoos are a highly prized sport fish that are native to tropical and subtropical seas.

As an aside, the University of Virginia's official mascot is the Cavalier, but the unofficial nickname for its sport teams, fans, students and alumni is the Wahoos -- a moniker that dates to the late 19th century when "wa-hoo-wa" was a common rallying cry at sporting events, originating at Dartmouth College.

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Photo caption: The U.S. Navy submarine USS Wahoo (SS-238) off the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, California (USA), on July 14, 1943 (Wikimedia Commons)


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