Self-Destruction: How the USS Tang Was Doomed by Its Own Torpedo

World War II History

Self-Destruction: How the USS Tang Was Doomed by Its Own Torpedo

This submarine had a promising career, but it was cut short by a tragic accident.

Key point: The submarine had sunk several ships and its captain had earned the Medal of Honor. Yet, this boat met a surprising fate.

During World War II, the United States employed 288 submarines, the vast majority of which raided Japanese shipping in the Pacific, thus preventing the enemy’s vital supplies and reinforcements from reaching the far-flung island battlefields. One of the most outstanding of those 288 submarines was the USS Tang, launched on August 16, 1943, at the Mare Island (Calif.) Navy Yard. Her commander, Richard O’Kane, a 1934 graduate of the Naval Academy, would earn the Medal of Honor and the Tang would receive two Presidential Unit Citations. Only one other submarine was so honored.

Malfunctioning torpedoes plagued the Navy throughout much of World War II; “fish” that veered off course or failed to detonate when they struck their targets were not uncommon. On March 26, 1944, while on her fourth war patrol off Palau, the USS Tullibee became the first American submarine in World War II to be sunk by one of her own torpedoes. Of the 80-man crew, only one survived.

The only other submarine to be sunk by a wayward torpedo was the Tang. On her fifth war patrol, October 24, 1944, between China and Formosa (today Taiwan), an errant torpedo circled back and sank her, killing most of her crew. One of only eight men to escape was Motor Machinist’s Mate Clayton Decker.

Motor Machinist’s Mate Clayton Decker’s Story

WWII HISTORY: Mr. Decker, please give us a little of your background.

DECKER: I was born in Paonia on Colorado’s Western Slope in 1920. When I was seven, we moved to Menlo Park, California. After my freshman year in high school, I returned to Colorado, finished high school, then enrolled at Colorado A&M in Fort Collins (today Colorado State University). I was also married and had a two-year-old son. In December 1942, I quit school and joined the Navy.

WWII: Why the Navy?

DECKER: The one thing I always heard about the Navy was that your bunk and the chow hall went right along with you. That appealed to me. I went to torpedo school in Norfolk, Virginia, graduated as a Third Class Torpedoman, and selected the submarine service. The submarine branch is strictly voluntary, and you got extra pay. I needed that extra pay because I had a wife and son. During the summer, while I was in college, I worked down in the coal mines in Paonia, so I knew I didn’t have any problems with claustrophobia.

WWII: How did you get assigned to the Tang?

DECKER: The Navy sent me to submarine school at New London, Connecticut; I spent three months there, then went to Mare Island, California. I was assigned to the Tang—a new submarine that had just been built and was about to be commissioned. World War II submarines were named after fish, and I’m told the Tang is a tropical fish.

I was on the commissioning crew for the Tang in October 1943. I went through the trial runs. We made our shakedown cruise from Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo, California, down to San Diego for deep-diving tests and to see if the boat was seaworthy. On January 8, 1944, we arrived at our home base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

WWII: How many combat patrols did the Tang make during the war?

DECKER: We only made five patrols, and on our second patrol, we never fired a torpedo. I’ll tell you about that one in a minute. During World War II, the average patrol was about 70 days. The two determining factors for the length of a patrol were fuel and ammunition. We carried 24 torpedoes—10 tubes forward and four tubes aft. In order to have a successful patrol and get a star in your combat pin, you had to sink at least one enemy ship. In terms of ships sunk and tonnage sunk, the Tang was number one. Some other submarines had from 10 to 15 patrols; we were number one with only four patrols.

WWII: You must have had an outstanding commander.

DECKER: Dick O’Kane was without a doubt the finest submarine skipper in the entire Navy—an absolutely first-class officer.

WWII: What was your job aboard the Tang?

DECKER: Well, my rating was torpedoman. In those days, very few of the submarines had boatswain’s mates, but we had one. His name was Bill Leibold. The boatswain’s mate was in charge of all “right-arm ratings,” and a torpedoman was a right-arm rating. Bill Leibold really cracked the whip, and I guess I didn’t live up to his expectations, so I was broken down to seaman first class and sent down to the “black gang.”

On our first patrol, our executive officer, Murray Frazee, selected me to be permanent bow planesman. He said he selected me because I had a “knack for catching the bubble.” That’s a glass arc tube with a bubble in it. When we started to dive, I’d have to rig the bow planes—they looked like big elephant ears. I sat on a bench forward of the control room with a big wheel in front of me, like a steering wheel in a car. Right behind me was the bulkhead where the radio shack was. I was kind of wedged in there.

On our first patrol, in February 1944 in the Marianas, we had 16 hits in 24 attempts. Our third patrol was in June and July and went from Pearl to the East China Sea and Yellow Sea, where we sank 10 ships. All totaled, on our four patrols, we were credited with sinking 31 ships with a combined tonnage of 227,800.

WWII: What about that patrol on which you didn’t fire any torpedoes?

DECKER: That was our second patrol, in March 1944. While we were out, we received a message to rescue a bunch of Navy carrier pilots who had been shot down during the battle of Truk Atoll. We pulled 22 flyers out of the water; they weren’t hurt physically. We had a crew of 87 and now we had an extra 22 to accommodate—talk about “hot bunking!” Admiral [William F.] Halsey wanted all of those flyers back in service as fast as he could get them, so we went back to Pearl Harbor. We did not get a star in our combat pin for that patrol, but Admiral Halsey gave every member of the Tang crew the Navy Air Medal. That really causes a lot of conversation at a submariners’ reunion—submariners with the Navy Air Medal!

WWII: I’ll bet!

DECKER: Our fifth and final patrol was from Hawaii to the Formosa Straits, between Formosa and Foochow, China—some of the shallowest water in the Pacific. We used to hate to patrol there because it was only 200 feet deep or less. We knew the Japs could set off depth charges at 200 feet. A depth charge is nothing more than a 55-gallon drum half full of TNT. When it gets flipped into the sea, it takes on saltwater and sinks. We weren’t too fearful of a depth charge going off above us or to the side. But if it went off below us, it could blow the water out of our ballast tanks and give us positive buoyancy and pop us to the surface like a cork. We’d be a sitting duck for whoever was after us.

WWII: Tell us a little more about these ballast tanks.

DECKER: The submarine is like a cylindrical tube. Surrounding that tube are the ballast tanks, with flood valves on the bottom and vent valves on the top. When we’d go on a patrol, we’d open the flood valves and lock them open; you don’t maneuver with them—you do all your maneuvering with just the vent valves. An empty ballast tank has air in it. When you open the vent valve, you let the air out and water comes in the flood valve immediately, giving you negative buoyancy. That’s what a submarine needs to take it down.

The Tang’s Last Patrol

WWII: What about your fifth patrol?

DECKER: We were on station in the Formosa Straits for almost a week and a half. It was two in the morning, October 24, 1944. The pips on the radar screen showed a convoy of 35 ships. We steamed over and, sure enough, it was a convoy. Our troops were landing on Leyte then and the Japs were apparently sending this supply convoy to Leyte. There were also a goodly number of destroyers and destroyer escorts, which we didn’t like because they were the guys with the depth charges. Normally, the convoys would zigzag, two abreast. In this case, they were all in a line, really rolling on. It was just like a shooting gallery for us.

Skipper O’Kane decided to get ahead of them and wait for them to come on. Now, after you attack, you have to get away from the action because they’re mad; they’re hunting for you. Also, the boys responsible for reloading the torpedo tubes had to do it with a block and tackle; they couldn’t reload if we were maneuvering. So after we fired, we got away from the action, stopped, reloaded, then resumed the attack. Of these 35 ships, we sank 13.