Bravest Man
The Bravest Man: The Story of Richard O'Kane & U.S. Submariners in the Pacific War

(William Tuohy)

(For a used hardcover copy from Amazon, click on the dust jacket or the title; click here for the paperback)

Audacity and Heroism, Underwater

The Wall Street Journal
December 31, 2001

"It's a big ocean," Dick O'Kane once told me. "You don't have to find the enemy if you don't want to."

O'Kane was 60 when we met. He was a compact man, straight as a ramrod, with a small smile and bushy eyebrows. He loved to talk, especially on technical matters, but he seldom spoke about what it was like to be a submariner in the Pacific, in a war that claimed the lives of 22% of the Americans who went to sea in the pig boats, as submarines were called. It was a pleasure to meet him again in William Tuohy's "The Bravest Man" (Sutton, 422 pages, $29.95) and learn more about his remarkable accomplishments in World War II.

That a submariner need not find the enemy was brought home to O'Kane in 1942 on his first patrol in Wahoo, a sub under an older captain who had learned caution in the peacetime Navy. The cautious skipper was replaced by Dudley "Mush" Morton, who with O'Kane's support made Wahoo the deadliest American boat in the Pacific, sinking nine ships on one ferocious patrol through the Yellow Sea, between China and Korea. "You can't afford to flinch," Morton said; "you can't afford to give up. You must constantly keep 'rassling, and keep shooting till you destroy him."

Wahoo was later lost with all hands, not including O'Kane, who by then -- the fall of 1943 -- had the command of Tang, another sub. He soon proved that he too had a great desire to keep 'rassling and to sink Japanese ships, despite the second-rate torpedoes supplied to American submarines. The steam-driven Mark 14 torpedo routinely ran deeper than it was set to run, going below its targets, and often exploded prematurely, or not at all. But the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance refused to allow changes to it, preferring to believe that the fault lay with the skippers.

On its first patrol, Tang sank five ships; on its second, it rescued 22 American airmen, shot down in the battle for Truk at the center of the Pacific's Caroline Islands. On its fourth patrol, it set a U.S. record by sending 10 enemy ships to the bottom, despite new torpedoes that were sometimes as balky as the old.

As a skipper, Richard O'Kane was audacious, persistent and inventive. (He adapted a pianist's metronome so that it could measure the speed of enemy ships.) He was willing to go up against the shore, if that's where the enemy was to be found. (He once fired three torpedoes while Tang was stuck in the mud and backing off at full throttle.) Yet he always had an escape route in mind -- and he took care of his people. Sailors clamored to join Tang, despite its record of going in harm's way.

Alas, having a good captain is never enough. On Tang's fifth patrol, the odds caught up with O'Kane, and he had the unhappy experience of watching his 24th and last torpedo circle back to explode on the boat's stern. The men on the bridge were thrown into the water, but their troubles were scarcely over. It was the middle of the night, and they had no flotation gear. This wasn't bravado: The hatch was only 26 inches wide, and a life vest might cause a man to stick fast and endanger everyone aboard.

"I swam until I couldn't swim any more," O'Kane recalled in later years. "Then I thought of Ernestine [his wife] and swam some more." When morning came, 9 of the 87 crewmen were still alive, including some who had made the first-ever escape from a submarine sunk in combat. They were picked up by a Japanese destroyer, whose captain treated them decently but delivered them to starvation, torture and slave labor at Yokohama. Like aviators, submariners were classified as "special prisoners of Japan," imprisoned in the foulest camps with their existence unreported to the International Red Cross. Again O'Kane survived the impossible, to be reunited with his family and to receive the Medal of Honor from the hand of President Harry Truman.

The author of "The Bravest Man" is himself a U.S. Navy veteran, who in 1968 won the Pulitzer as a reporter in Vietnam. Mr. Tuohy takes a curious approach to his story, first writing about Wahoo, then O'Kane's earlier life, and finally Tang and later events, interrupted by chapters on what the rest of the American sub pack was doing. This can sometimes be confusing. And the line-editing in the book is sometimes careless. But "The Bravest Man" is well worth reading, especially in a winter when the USS O'Kane is on watch in the Arabian Sea, carrying the bravest man's name and legacy into the 21st century.

O'Kane died in 1994 at the age of 83, a good age for a man who had experienced the prison camps. His last words, Ernestine O'Kane told me, were for his shipmates trapped on the sinking Tang: Half a century on, the skipper was still trying to take care of his people. "I don't think a day went by in his life," she said, "when Dick didn't think about Tang and his crew."

Mr. Ford is the author of "The Only War We've Got: Early Days in South Vietnam" (iUniverse).