The books Clear the Bridge! The War Patrols of the USS Tang and Wahoo document Admiral O’Kane’s years on those World War II submarines; he wanted to write a third book about his years on the Argonaut. Sadly, his health precluded that; he died in 1994. The submarines Argonaut (SM-166) and Trout (SS-202) left Pearl Harbor on 28 November 1941 to patrol off Midway Island. The Argonaut, commissioned in 1928, had been designed as a minelayer. She was 381 feet long, displaced 4,080 tons submerged, and mounted four torpedo tubes forward and two minelaying tubes aft. She was slow to dive and proved unwieldy when submerged.
What follows was extracted from his diaries by his widow, Mrs. Ernestine Groves O’Kane:
The operation order designating Argonaut [Lieutenant Commander S. G. Barchet] and Trout [Lieutenant Commander F. W. Fenno] as Midway Defense Group 7.2 directed a submerged war patrol in the vicinity of Midway. With exploders installed in 78 mines, 400 rounds of 6-inch armour piercing and high explosive ammunition in the magazine, all torpedoes carrying warheads with exploders in place, and outer doors open for instant firing, one had best not try telling the crew that this was just practice.
7 December . . . Surfaced a few minutes after sunset and within minutes the CPOs’ [Chief Petty Officers] radio received news broadcast from the west coast: Pearl Harbor had been attacked . . . headed for Midway, while the electricians frantically cleared up the grounds so that the charge could start on our near-flat battery. It then became a compromise, for one of our two main engines had to go on charge, dropping our speed to 5 knots, but only until it had jammed in barely enough juice for a submerged attack. Two hours later the clank-clanking of the General Alarm sent us to battle stations; two light cruisers were shelling Midway. Maneuvered to intercept and dived at an estimated range of 5,000 yards when a zig towards gave an estimated 30-degree angle on the bow.
This was the correct move under the bright moon, hut the undue emphasis on attacks by sound bearings raised its untimely head. Minutes passed before the sound bearing plot could show another or a continuing change of enemy course in the same direction. The enemy ships would now cross our stern, and even for a 90-degree gyro angle shot, it would take our great clumsy mine-laying submarine 4 minutes to complete the necessary turn. Our skipper tried full rudder and full speed, but the turn could not catch up with the fast moving cruisers, which sped on to seaward.
At 2145 we sighted what appeared to be gunfire west of Midway Island. Then at 2154 we received a message from Midway reporting enemy ships south of the reef . . . followed immediately with the information that direct shelling of the island was taking place ... we saw several gun splashes north of Eastern Island. We could make out two ships, good sized destroyers or small cruisers, going northwest about 3 miles away. The leading one changed course to east, giving a 30- or 40-degree angle on the bow.
Bright moonlight necessitated a sound approach, so we dove and changed course to 000. Then changed course to 030 to give time to set up fire control problem. Apparently we were seen before we could get down, for one of the ships changed course and passed down our port side about 2,000 or 3,000 yards, and we could not bring tubes to bear. This ship hunted us for some time, passing close aboard to port, crossing our stern, passing up our starboard side, heading across our bow—but changed course to the right 10 degrees before firing, made a loop to the right. . . again passed down our starboard side and then crossed our stem. At this time we were about 2 1/2 or 3 miles south of the island, so decided to head south in hopes that the enemy would retrace his steps.
When the enemy circled us and made figure eights on our starboard beam we figured his sound gear isn’t as good as ours, fortunately. We continued at 1/3 speed on one motor with all machinery stopped except bow and stern planes. That ship doesn’t know that he had only 10 degrees to go to the torpedo firing bearing on one occasion. The engineering officer has lined up main drain pump for taking water out of auxiliary ballast tanks. It will probably be very touchy as it is a high capacity pump— 4,000 pounds per minute—but it should do the trick as far as getting water out when we go deep. The rest of the night was spent avoiding a small craft.
Surfaced at dawn for an absolutely necessary battery charge. Within an hour, an attempted bombing by a Midway plane brought home the adage that a submarine has no friends, and foretold the difficult operations that lay ahead.
Unlike the surface cruising en route to an operating area, we were spending all daylight hours submerged. The newly installed dehumidifier units were incapable of overcoming the ever increasing humidity, and electrical fires were the result. None got out of hand, but—one after another— major pieces of machinery were becoming inoperative.
8 December—midnight . . . heard three underwater explosions far away. Maybe it was Trout having her innings. Submerged to 125 feet, running on one motor and hand auxiliaries to conserve batteries . . . surfaced at 0700 and charged batteries. At 1200 while on one engine, and zig zagging, we sighted a scout plane. The plane turned away . . . then winged over into dive at about 5,000 feet and we went 100 feet below.
At this point the skipper wrote of the snap and precision of all hands and their real and terrible disappointment of their failure to get the enemy the night before. He also wrote of being called to respond to a message they had received previously, forcing them to again break radio silence. The message “Unrestricted warfare against Japan.”
10 December . . . third man down with high fever. Our ship is really missing the trim pump and the dehumidifier plant. [Will] carry out patrol as if we are in the enemy’s waters, and especially since THE PRESIDENT ANNOUNCED TO THE WORLD LAST NIGHT THAT WE ARE HERE!!!
11 December . . . screw noises and pinging were reported at bearing 150 degrees. Saw nothing despite moon up and horizon sharply defined. . . . Moon was out brilliantly from 2330 until 0500.
12 December . . . screw noises forced us to stay down for a time so when we surfaced to charge batteries, we put all three engines on charge at one time. We can see the reason for a negative tank but hope it vents outboard as well as inboard. The ship smells badly enough as it is. The dehumidifier is back in service due to ingenious bit of repair work on the part of auxiliary Chief Machinists Mate.
13 December . . . Skipper has decided to change day into night as he believes the men are not getting enough sleep at night. It is a big help as the trim of the boat is not spoiled by men going forward to chow. Easier to hold depth now. In round figures our watches run 2 hours on, 4 off while diving, and 4 on and 8 off when standing by to dive at night. We’re ballasting about 21,000 pounds heavy now and go down like a rock. No trouble in catching it by pumping with M.D. [main drain] pump. Tonight we were able to get first star fix in 36 hours, which showed a set of 308 degrees drift of 0.4 knots.
16 December . . . The skipper [repeats] that submarines are not a defensive weapon and he wishes [more] planes were here to protect Midway. Today is my mother’s birthday. We received word of shelling of Johnson Island. The skipper of the William Ward Burrows was there after having been told to proceed direct to Pearl and not stop to remove wounded from Wake. Says he is going back into the harbor after the shooting is over unless he is sighted. In the latter case, he is going to cross some reef as a means of escape. It looks like we’ve got one independent skipper there who does what he sees fit, regardless. [The skipper was Commander Ross A. Dierdoff, U.S. Navy—the vessel, formerly the Grace Lines Santa Rita, had been converted to a troopship, renamed, designated AP-6, and commissioned 15 May 1940],
17 December . . . dived at 1740 and the time was 52 seconds, which is the fastest this boat has ever done. This was to 45 feet, when the A-frames go under. That was with very little way on, however, and I think we we’ll dive much faster when going ahead at standard speed. We should perhaps reach 40 seconds. Compared to our standard dive of 85 seconds we are not doing so badly. About a 40 second dive is necessary if we are going to cruise on the surface in daytime, as aircraft can close in little over that time.
Received message to return to Pearl starting on 21 Jan. We are the only sub out here now. Skipper finds our binoculars very inferior. A real handicap. I’ll have to start rationing my chewing gum.
22 December . . . heard echo ranging again. Came to periscope depth and saw nothing. At 1300 we repeated that maneuver. Many of these screw noises are probably due to inexperienced sound operators who do not know how to tune their receivers properly, thus picking up the extraneous noises on the lower frequencies; and not having sufficient experience to know how to interpret them.
Wake is reporting gunfire, being illuminated by star shell, and a probable attempted landing. To get down in time to avoid a plane, especially in heavy seas, we trimmed her 35,000 pounds heavy and pumped the water to sea with her great main drain pump. Trimming that great boat by blowing water from after tanks to forward tanks and vice versa, draining tanks to her main drain, and then pumping that to lighten her, was a tax on any diving officer, and the skipper—who is responsible. A lesser man would have taken his ship to port, but a bit of the stuff that had made him an “ALL AMERICAN” [football at the Naval Academy] didn’t let such a thought arise.
23 December . . . dived and moved west, telling some cruiser, tin cans, and carrier that are coming through, where we are. When we surfaced to charge batteries, we received message that Wake is about through.
24 December ... A strange Christmas Eve. I certainly hope I don’t have to pull the plug and take the ship down tonight. Some of us expected dispatch orders—all the necessary charts are aboard, and we could be off for the [Japanese] Empire with a 1,300-mile head start to plant our mines, bombard installations, and maybe sink an unwary merchantman or two.
Christmas! . . . The grab bag took place in the Mess Hall, opened one of the presents from Santa—a small, long-shank Stanley screw driver that will certainly be handy. [Off watch] I opened the rest of my presents; a whole set of Stanley screw drivers, a pocket rule and depth gauge, a scribe, pliers and nippers, a ratchet gimlet, and a book. Pretty nice of them.
27 December . . . The transmitter generator broke down. The skipper is hoping the transmitter can’t be made to function until we start back to our base [but] the necessity of having a working transmitter before returning to Pearl has been brought home abruptly. Tambor [SS-198] in spite of full communication had been bombed before reaching her escort at dawn of the day she returned to the Submarine Base. A glance at the dispatches convinced our electricians that they had better find a way to rewind the 2,000-volt end of one of those armatures, cannibalizing the other if necessary. I have read too many of the British reports concerning submarines which failed to return from patrol. The usual remark is: Used radio [enemy probably located them using a direction finder].
31 December . . . On this last day of the last month of this year (1941) it seems that I am always either going on watch, eating, or turning in. Its strange that just four or five hours of just standing by to dive the boat should tire one so much.
1 January New Year’s Day . . . The next month will tell if the crew can outlast the ship on a prolonged cruise like this. A new departure date for Pearl. We have to report when and where we’ll be on the 100-mile circle from Pearl for escort. You should see the electricians turning to on those armatures now. What was supposed to be impossible out here is now going ahead at top speed. Nine more dives before starting east. The armature put out 1,000 volts under load so our transmitter will operate on low power.
4 January . . . Dived when illuminated by searchlight on Midway. When the word was given, “Lookouts below,” only two of the three were seen to go down the hatch by the quartermaster. He kept passing the word and at the same time we dived. Now we know the after lookout was the first below, so fast they couldn’t count him. I dare say that, standing back on the after end of the bridge, the lookout there gives a little more thought to being left topside and was accordingly quicker to react.
8 January . . . Inspected boat-island at dawn. Many gratings gone and boat badly damaged. Captain says he wished we had left boat at the Base.
14 January . . . En route Pearl Harbor.
16 January . . . Surfaced at 1731, completed 522 hours and 12 minutes submerged in this area, 45 consecutive all-day dives. Charged batteries with all engines. At 2230, ahead on all three, 310 RPM about 10 knots.
20 January ... If we don’t get driven down more than twice tomorrow we should rendezvous on schedule. Received dispatches setting our rendezvous time with Litchfield [DD-336] to 0600 Honolulu time, Thursday. 22 January . . . Met Litchfield at 0600. We entered Pearl Harbor and the utter destruction to port and starboard left nary a dry eye. Ernestine and our children were fine, living with our former landlady and her husband out in Ka-hala. We tied up at West Loch to take off mines, which was completed at 5 p.m.
8 February . . . Friends drove us out to the Base about 4:30 and we said our “good byes” again. Also yesterday my orders came in by dispatch to be Exec of the Wahoo, SS-238, now nearing completion at the Navy Yard Mare Island. We are both tickled and it will be something to have a fast, quick diving ship with 2½ times as many torpedo tubes, too.
9 through 20 February . . . En route to San Francisco, diving numerous times to avoid unidentified aircraft or propeller noises.
20 February . . . Picked up our escort, the old 4-stacker King [DD-242] at 0700 on schedule.
22 February . . . 1005 Passed under Golden Gate bridge. Passed the Wahoo on the way in. Find she was LAUNCHED LAST WEEK. She’s a dandy looking sub and I certainly look forward to being in her!