From Phillips Academy, Andover in World War II, by Leonard F. James, pages 197–198
RICHARD HETHERINGTON O’KANE ’30
Medal of Honor, Navy Cross with Two Gold Stars
Silver Star Medal with Two Gold Stars, Legion of Merit
Richard Hetherington O’Kane climaxed an outstanding record of conspicuous achievement in the submarine service with an act of gallantry and intrepidity which will be recorded among the epics of American naval history. Commanding the submarine Tang on her fifth and final war patrol, Commander O’Kane left base on September 24, 1944, to intercept Japanese transports being rushed to the Philippines to block the American advance on Leyte. After picking off single enemy ships on her patrol up the Formosa Straits, the submarine sighted a convoy on the night of October 23rd and sank five ships in that engagement, a “submariner’s dream.” The next night another convoy was spotted near Turnabout Island off the China Coast. In rapid succession two big transports and two tankers were sunk, followed by a third transport. Then a destroyer charged under the sinking vessel’s stern and headed for the Tang. Almost simultaneously the last tanker blew up, at least one torpedo was seen to hit the last transport, and an instant later the destroyer blew up. The twenty-fourth and last torpedo was fired at the cripple, circled rapidly and struck the Tang only twenty seconds after it left the tube. The gallant submarine sank immediately, credited with sinking 110,000 tons of enemy shipping, the highest sinking score on a single patrol of any submarine in the war. Only the skipper and eight others survived the explosion, to be imprisoned on Formosa until the end of the war. For his final war patrol, Commander O’Kane received the Congressional Medal of Honor.
“Boldly maneuvering on the surface into the midst of a heavily escorted convoy, Commander O’Kane stood in a fusillade of bullets and shells from all directions to launch smashing hits on three tankers, coolly swung his ship to fire at a freighter and, in a split second decision, shot out of the path of an onrushing transport, missing it by inches. Boxed in by blazing tankers, freighters, transports and several destroyers, he blasted two of the targets with his remaining torpedoes and, with pyrotechnics bursting on all sides, cleared the area. Twenty-four hours later, he again made contact with a heavily escorted convoy steaming to support the Leyte campaign with reinforcements and supplies and with crated planes piled high on each unit. In defiance of the enemy’s relentless fire, he closed the concentration of ships and in quick succession sent two torpedoes each into the first and second transports and an adjacent tanker, finding his mark with each torpedo in a series of violent explosions at less than a thousand-yard range. With ships bearing down from all sides, he charged the enemy at high speed exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern. Expending his last two torpedoes into the remnants of a once powerful convoy before his own ship went down, Commander O’Kane, aided by his gallant command, achieved an illustrious record of heroism in combat.”
An aggressive submariner, Commander O’Kane had been decorated several times earlier. After leaving Andover, he spent a year at the University of New Hampshire and graduated from the United States Naval Academy in 1934. On duty as Executive Officer of the submarine Wahoo when the war broke out, Commander O’Kane was decorated with the Silver Star Medal three times during war patrols of the Wahoo in which over 90,000 tons of enemy shipping were destroyed.
Assuming command of the USS Tang in October 1943, he successively took out his ship on air-sea rescue duty in the Caroline and Marianas Islands area, and on war patrols in enemy-controlled waters. Twice the Tang won Presidential citations for rescue and combat work. On each of three war patrols, her skipper earned the Navy Cross for extraordinary heroism.