Relatives of Wahoo skipper gather to remember anniversary of sinking

The submarine’s last target was an 8,000-ton steamer with 544 passengers on board.

It was later determined from Japanese reports that a Japanese plane spotted the USS Wahoo (SS-238) while it was exiting the Sea of Japan through the narrow La Pérouse Strait.

After a sea and air attack involving depth charges and aerial bombs that spanned several hours, the Wahoo was finally sunk on Oct. 11, 1943, with 80 crew members on board, including its famed skipper, Dudley W. Morton, better known as “Mush.”

The Wahoo and its crew are among the 52 submarines and 3,500-plus submariners who were lost during World War II. 

Seventy-five years to the day after the Wahoo was sunk, nearly 30 of Morton’s relatives, including his daughter, Edwina Thirsher, gathered last week at the gymnasium that bears his name at the Naval Submarine Base, where today’s submariners are trained to take submarines out to sea. 

Thirsher was just a year-and-a-half old when her father left for the Wahoo's seventh and last war patrol. She has no memory of him. What she’s learned about him since has been garnered mainly from her mother and people who knew him, but also from books and history programs.

“I said to my brother one day, ‘I feel like I’ve grown up with a ghost,’ because everywhere we’d go, we’d meet someone who knew about him, and they’d tell us a story,” Thirsher, 76, said during an interview last week.

Her father was 36 when he died, much older than the majority of his crew and other submariners at the time. The average age of a submariner in World War II was 19. In addition to Thirsher, he left behind a son, Douglas, who celebrated his fourth birthday just two days before the Wahoo went missing, and his wife, Harriet. 

Morton took command of the Wahoo, a Gato-class diesel-electric submarine, on Dec. 31, 1942, after the submarine’s second war patrol. One of the most renowned skippers of the war, he was known for being aggressive, and for his unorthodox practices. For example, while most submarine commanders at the time manned the periscope during attacks, Morton gave that job to his executive officer, Richard “Dick” O’Kane, a sign of his high confidence in him.

“He fostered a questioning attitude and looked at new ideas with an open mind,” Capt. Paul Whitescarver, commanding officer of the base, told guests at the 75th anniversary event at the base last week. “And he sought input from the most junior teammates as they may have the best idea and he must be open to capturing that idea.”

Under Morton's command, Wahoo was responsible for sinking 19 cargo and transport ships for a combined total of 55,000 tons, making it the “highest scoring" boat and Morton the highest scoring commander. 

But that was far from the submarine’s only achievement. It was the first to penetrate an enemy harbor and sink a ship; first to successfully execute a down-the-throat shot (World War II terminology for aiming a torpedo at a directly approaching boat); and the first to destroy an entire enemy convoy single-handedly. 

Thirsher recalled a story her mother told her about when her father and the Wahoo were in the Sea of Japan on his sixth war patrol. He had a “boatload of bad torpedoes,” so he went back to Pearl Harbor to speak with Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, the commander of the Submarine Force Pacific Fleet, who was in a meeting with top military officials. 

“He walked in, and he told them what he thought about their torpedoes and where they could put them. He wrote a letter to my mother, and he said, ‘Harriet, I’ve just ruined my career in the Navy. I should be coming home soon,’” Thirsher said. 

Of course, that wasn’t true.

Don Keith, author of the book “Undersea Warrior: The WWII Story of ‘Mush’ Morton and the USS Wahoo,” described Morton as “a sailor’s skipper” who promised to watch out for his crew members. 

At his first meeting with the full crew, Morton, who was an observer on the Wahoo’s second patrol, told them that “they and their ship were expendable, and their job was to end the war as soon as possible, and thus save more lives,” Keith said. 

He told them that anyone who did not want to be a crew member under such circumstances could leave the boat, with no questions asked and no ramifications. 

“I don't think I need to tell you that not a single man took the captain up on that offer,” Keith said. 

The Wahoo earned six battle stars in addition to being awarded the Presidential Unit Citation for its third war patrol. Morton received the Navy Cross with three gold stars in lieu of a second, third and fourth award, and the Army Distinguished Service Cross. 

Thirsher said Rob Simmons of Stonington, a Republican who represented Connecticut’s 2nd Congressional District until 2006, was working to get her father the Medal of Honor but then was unseated by Joe Courtney, a Democrat who still holds the seat.

Ironically, the election occurred just days after the Navy announced on Oct. 31, 2006, that a sunken submarine discovered by divers in the Western Pacific was the Wahoo. Thirsher said that while her family knew that was likely where the submarine had been sunk, it officially gave them closure. 

“Once we knew, it was like, he was down in the water where he belongs,” she said.

j.bergman@theday.com

 

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