Commander William Earl Fanin, Class of 1945, Capstone Essay Contest
When the Wahoo returned to Pearl Harbor in early 1943, Captain "Mush" Morton and Executive Officer Dick O'Kane were praised for the damage they have caused the enemy. In the midst of an attack on a convoy, however, they had faced a terrible moral quandary: are helpless men in the water legitimate targets? Warriors today still must face this kind of question—and there are no easy answers.
On 26 January 1943, during an intense action, the USS Wahoo (SS-238), under the command of Lieutenant Commander Dudley "Mush" Morton, attacked the survivors of the Japanese transport Buyo Maru. Pausing to recharge batteries, Morton idled in the vicinity of what he estimated to be almost 10,000 Japanese troops who had just abandoned their sinking ship. He ordered his crew to shoot at the survivors.
Morion's actions have been discussed, often in passing, in both histories and fiction dealing with submarine warfare during World War II. Few of the sources make clear Morton's dilemma. His moral quandary is one many officers have faced and will face in the future, and there is no question it has not been solved satisfactorily. Morion's actions, and his motives, on that January day in the South Pacific deserve greater discussion.
Dudley W. Morton was an extraordinary man. Nicknamed "Mush" after a fellow Kentuckian in the Moon Mullins comic strip, Morton had been a football star at the U.S. Naval Academy, graduating in the class of 1930. After being relieved from command of the troubled Dolphin (SS-169) in 1942, he had been on his way out of the sub force when fate and Captain John H. "Babe" Brown intervened. Impressed by "the way Morton shakes hands," Brown handed Morton command of the Wahoo, whose previous commander lacked sufficient temerity for combat.
Morton soon proved to be the spark that energized the entire submarine force. Declaring from the moment he look command that the "Wahoo was expendable," Morton daringly look her into harbor investigations that turned into duels with destroyers. He boldly attacked convoys in daylight and at night, on the surface and submerged. His courage was incredible, as was his imagination and ingenuity. Morton bonded on all levels with his crew, ditching formality and protocol to wash his khakis in the crew's mess while discussing the boat's missions with his men. He lifted morale with his indomitable spirit. He even created a commando force from the ranks of his crew.
Morton's creative energies and fighting prowess worked wonders. When he was killed in October 1943, after ten months in combat, he had sunk a confirmed total of 19 ships, making him the second-highest U.S. sub ace of the war. He had been awarded four Navy Crosses. His training churned out the leading ace, Dick O'Kane, and other highly aggressive and successful submarine commanders and officers.
There was, however, a dark side to Morion's greatness. Without a doubt, he had an "Overwhelming biological hatred of the enemy. In every compartment in the Wahoo he had . . . post[ed] 81/2 x 11 placards, printed in glaring red, that said: SHOOT THE SUNZA BITCHES." Perhaps as racist as many Americans of his generation, Morton probably did not think the Japanese were the social equals of white Americans. On 26 January 1943, because he had to recharge the Wahoo's batteries on the surface to continue attacking units of the Buyo Maru's convoy, Morton likely believed that attacking the troops in the water was effective time management.
Afterward, Morton characteristically denied nothing. In his first message to Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific, Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, he placed as much importance on destroying the Japanese lifeboats as he did on sinking the convoy. He stated, almost boastfully, "We destroyed all the boats and most of the troops."
Although Morton's actions may be considered an atrocity to the modern reader, he and many other officers believed he had taken the correct action. The Japanese still posed a threat to U.S. forces nearby. If rescued, they could have been sent to fight U.S. troops on New Guinea. Morton's executive officer, future Rear Admiral Dick O'Kane, recalled that Morton told him, "Dick . . . the army bombards strategic areas, and the air corps uses area-bombing so the ground forces can advance. Both bring civilian casualties. Now without other casualties, I will prevent these soldiers from getting ashore, for every one who does can mean an American life." O'Kane also recalled that Morton specifically ordered that only the lifeboats be destroyed.
Whatever Morton's reasons, many have commented on his actions. Historian Edwin Hoyt wrote, "If the U.S. had lost the war, undoubtedly this atrocity would have sent [Morton] to a war crimes trial. . . . His government had made him a killer, and he was determined to be as effective a killer as possible." Clay Blair, who wrote the authoritative history on the submarine war, alleged, "Morton was determined to kill every single [survivor]." A chief on board the Wahoo concurred in this assessment, recalling that Morton commanded, '"Anyone who doesn't get up here and load the deck guns, I'll court-martial.'"
Until his death in 1994, O'Kane spoke up against this history, responding, "Some Japanese troops were undoubtedly hit during this action, but no individual was deliberately shot in the boats or in the sea." In 1990, after striving for 45 years to vindicate his captain, O'Kane angrily denounced "Clay Blair's sensational writing [that] emphasized the hearsay and omitted the truth." O'Kane also denied the presence of other eyewitnesses. He believed Morton "was, of course, correct and had no option. To do otherwise, with islands and the coast of New Guinea within reach to the southwest, would be aiding and abetting the enemy, a court-martial offense."
Morton's superiors and friends spoke up in his defense as well. Admiral Lockwood, who was Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific, for most of the war and an ardent admirer of Morton's, blamed the incident on "an attitude on the part of our enemy which our submarines were to encounter often in months and years to come. [The Japanese] fought so long as they had a weapon and, even when found helpless in the water, refused to be rescued." Captain Jasper Holmes, a codebreaker at Pearl Harbor and one of Morton's friends, claimed the Japanese fired first Holmes also admitted, "There is no doubt that this remarkable man became intoxicated with battle, and when in that state of exhilaration he was capable of rash action difficult to justify under more sober circumstances."
Morton's actions are especially unfortunate because in fact he did not attack Japanese troops but friendly prisoners of war. The Buyo Maru survivors were British-allied Indians from the 2nd Battalion, 16th Punjab Regiment, captured at the fall of Singapore. There were some Japanese troops in the water, mostly garrison troops from the 26th Field Ordnance Depot.22
Fortunately, the aim of the submariners was as poor as their identification skills. Morton and his crew claimed there were 10,000 soldiers in the water; Hoyt claimed that "hundreds, perhaps thousands" were killed. In actuality, the number was much lower. A total of 1,126 men had been embarked on the Buyo Maru and some undoubtedly were killed when the transport sank. Between the torpedo attack, Morton's gunfire, fighting between the two sets of soldiers in the water, and the cruel sea, 195 Indian troops and 87 Japanese soldiers were lost.
The situation seems morally unsolvable. The shooting of defenseless men is murder. On the other hand, the possibility that these men could have reached land to fight U.S. troops could have made them permissible targets.
Many of the survivors were rescued—which would appear to vindicate Morton's judgment, especially had the survivors been combat troops on their way to New Guinea. Others argue, however, that Morton had achieved his mission merely by sinking the transport. Later in the war, the Pollack (SS-180) sank a troopship carrying 1,200 Japanese troops to Tarawa. Many of them were rescued, but the loss of their gear and equipment made them useless as a fighting force. The Pollack was credited with saving nearly 1,000 U.S. Marines in the bloody invasion, without having to shoot any troops in the water.
Morton's dilemma has been portrayed in popular fiction in other contexts. In the film Saving Private Ryan (1998), Tom Hanks's character, Captain Miller, is faced with either freeing or executing a German prisoner he cannot guard to ensure mission achievement. He chooses to free the prisoner, who later takes part in a German attack on Miller's position. In The Guns of Navarone (1961), Captain Mallory (Gregory Peck) and Sergeant Miller (David Niven) argue over whether to allow a mole who has infiltrated their special warfare team to live. It is clear the traitor's survival will ruin the mission, and she is executed. The two films show both sides of the dilemma, and, more important, show the effects of both decisions. In the former, Captain Miller and most of his team die as a result of their generosity, while in the latter, Mallory and Miller recognize their honor forever has been smeared.
Mush Morton should not be branded as a murderer and a criminal for his actions in the Wahoo in January 1943. He made a decision under the pressure of battle and command, and chose to risk dishonor to save the lives of his fellow servicemen. Naval officers, particularly midshipmen in the Naval Academy's ethics course, should study Morton's actions and assess his motives to discover for themselves what actions they would take and why. To paraphrase the famous saying, it is only by studying their heritage and history that members of the naval service can be spared from repeating the costly mistakes of their predecessors.