Introducing One of America's Deadliest Submarine (That Was Sunk by Its Own Torpedo)

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December 22, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: USS TangClayton DeckerWorld War IIImperial JapanU.S. Navy

Introducing One of America's Deadliest Submarine (That Was Sunk by Its Own Torpedo)

The USS Tang (SS 306) was America’s most successful submarine until it was sunk by one of its own torpedoes. Clayton Decker was one of only eight seamen who survived the sinking.


WWII: What about the other three men who were in the chamber with you?

DECKER: Bill Ballinger came up. He was no more than four feet away from me and he’s drowning. He’s screaming, he’s vomiting. If you don’t believe in the Man Upstairs, I want to tell you something. A voice told me, “Don’t touch that man! Don’t you reach out and touch that man! Absolutely don’t do it!” I was told later that if Ballinger had touched me, I wouldn’t be here today. It’s a known fact that a drowning man can pull a horse under water. If he’d gotten a hold of me, I’d have drowned with him.

Here’s what we figured happened: the relief valve on a new Momsen lung was folded with a clip around it. When George Zofcin helped me put on my lung, he took the clip off. I surmise that Bill Ballinger didn’t take the clip off his, so his lungs burst because there was no way for him to exhale.

Taken Prisoner by the Japanese

WWII: What about the other two men?

DECKER: The other two boys in our first wave never came to the surface. We figured they got out of the chamber but let go of the line and got trapped in the superstructure. In the next wave of four, only one man made it. It was Lieutenant (j.g.) Hank Flanagan. Eventually, there were six of us in the water for about five hours. The last man to come up was in bad shape; he had taken on a lot of water and was close to drowning.

Finally, the same Jap destroyer escort that picked up O’Kane and the other three guys—the P-34—picked us up. They had a whaleboat and were rowing it with their rifles. They rowed over to us and we got aboard and they rowed back to the P-34. I was the last man up the ladder. I looked back. The Japs didn’t even try to give CPR to the drowning guy; they just dumped him over the side. That made five of us. We got up on the steel deck and here’s the skipper and the three other officers. Now there were eight survivors total from the Tang. Those of us who used the Momsen lung are the only ones who ever escaped from a sunken submarine and lived to tell about it.

On this destroyer escort, there were survivors from the ships we had sunk. There were guys who had been down in those engine rooms who had been scalded by steam—they looked like lobsters. They’re looking at us with hate in their eyes—we’re the guys who had done this to them.

We then got the worst treatment we had all the time we were prisoners. We submariners were fair-skinned; all we had on were our shorts, and they kept us on this hot steel deck under a blazing sun for five days and five nights. We were a mass of blisters. Those Jap survivors would grab us by the hair and stick lit cigarettes up our noses. They just beat the s*** out of us. No water, no food. We thought, this is the end.

WWII: Where did they take you?

DECKER: To Formosa. They tied our hands behind us, put black hoods over our heads, a line around us, and marched us through Taipei, the capital. They made us hold up a sign that said something like, “Here’s an example of the superior race.” Little kids and old ladies came out and hit us with sticks.

Then they took us to an army camp outside of Taipei and threw us in a potato cellar overnight and we all ate raw potatoes. Didn’t wash them or anything. The next day they took us to a port and put us on a ship loaded with sugar that was going to Yokohama. From there we went inland to a POW camp called Ofuna, near Yokohama. We were there until February 1945. We were beaten, tortured, starved. We came down with scurvy and beriberi. Our one source of entertainment was American air strikes on Japan. From Ofuna we went to the camp at Aomori, which was an island in Tokyo Bay.

From February to August 1945, my cellmate at Aomori was Greg “Pappy” Boyington, the Marine pilot of “Black Sheep Squadron” fame. He had been shot down over Rabaul about a year earlier; he also had been at Ofuna. We weren’t classified as POWs—we were “Special Prisoners of the Empire of Japan.” They claimed that when we sank Japanese ships, 90 percent of the persons on board were civilians. We were accused of making war on civilians and so weren’t entitled to POW status. As a consequence, we only got half the normal food ration and we weren’t allowed to mingle or associate with any other prisoners in any of the camps we were in.

After the war ended, we were liberated. It was August 28, 1945. Twenty-one prisoners were on the first flight back to the United States, and I was that 21st person. Twenty officers and this one enlisted man. I asked Boyington, “Pappy, did you get me on this flight?”

He just grinned and said, “Aww, Deck, I didn’t have anything to do with it.” But I know he did.

Giving the Tang Full Credit for Its Combat Success

American submariners in the Pacific compiled an outstanding combat record and played a major role in strangling Japan’s wartime economy. U.S. submarines sank nearly five million tons of shipping, including 1,113 merchant ships and 201 warships. The victory was costly, however, as 52 submarines and 3,505 submariners were lost. But, undeniably, the courage of those in “the silent service” made a tremendous contribution to victory in the war for America and her Allies.

After the war, O’Kane, by then a rear admiral, felt the Tang had not been fully credited for all the enemy ships it had sunk. By piecing together official U.S. and Japanese naval reports, he arrived at 31 official sinkings, for a total of 227,800 tons. No other American submarine had sunk more.

When Clay Decker’s flight landed at the Oakland (Calif.) Naval Air Station, he immediately called his wife to let her know that he was home safely; he received another jolt—believing him to be lost at sea, she had remarried in his absence.

Clay Decker received the Silver Star, returned to Colorado, and in 1947 married Anne Reinecker; they had a son and a daughter. He was a district supervisor with Skelly Oil for 15 years before starting his own company, Decker Disposal. He retired in 1986 but remained active in veterans’ affairs.

On Memorial Day weekend, 2003, at the age of 82, he passed away, proud to the very end that he had been a member of the storied Tang.

Flint Whitlock, author of numerous articles and books on World War II, writes from Denver, Colorado.

Originally Published December 28, 2016

Updated February 20, 2016

This article by Flint Whitlock originally appeared on the Warfare History Network.

Image: Wikimedia Commons