When the limits of honor and duty are inevitably reached in the heat of battle, the Navy requires leaders to spur the initiative to transcend mediocrity, lifting their teams into the vaunted realm of legendary greatness. Rolling on the waves of the western Pacific in the summer of 1943, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton, U.S. Navy, epitomized such greatness in command.
Unite the Crew
As a bouquet of diesel exhaust and gunpowder saturated the briny air on the bridge of the USS Wahoo (SS-238), Morton glared through his binoculars with tempered rage at a freshly bullet-riddled sampan. The Wahoo—plagued by the all-too-common misfortune of “dud” torpedoes—was returning from her sixth war patrol with little success to show for her efforts. For a skipper such as Morton, limping home without consigning more of his enemies to Davy Jones’s Locker was distasteful. If the torpedoes could not be trusted, then Morton would satisfy his craving for vengeance with the full complement of his deck guns. In lieu of thunder from below, the Wahoo would rain iron and fire from the sky on the Japanese sampans—who refused to yield to his warning shot—near the La Pérouse Strait.
As Morton gazed on the sampan wreckage wrought by his well-trained crew, he made what he thought would be a passing comment, muttering, “I sure wish I had one of those glass fishing balls . . . it would make a good souvenir for my children.”1 Before anyone knew what was happening, two sailors had leapt into the frigid waters. The crew scrambled to get their shipmates back on deck, and a frantic Morton stormed up to the shivering men once they were safely aboard. He demanded an explanation, but their startling response gave the skipper pause: “We just wanted to get you the souvenir, captain.” Those simple words rattled Morton with the ferocity of a depth charge; as one of his crewmembers observed, the skipper was uncharacteristically overcome with emotion. Mush managed to softly reply through a breaking voice, “Boys, thank you, but please don’t ever do that again.”2
Though misguided in execution, this demonstration of resolute loyalty illuminates the depths of respect and adoration the crew held for their legendary captain. Every service member willingly volunteers to give their life for their country, but how many would risk the same, simply to make their commanding officer smile? Mush could have asked anything of his men, and they would have charged headfirst through a bulkhead to get it done. Perhaps Admiral Charles Lockwood put it most eloquently when he reflected, “When a natural leader and born daredevil such as Mush Morton is given command of a submarine, the only result can be a fighting ship of the highest order, with officers and men who would follow their skipper to the Gates of Hell. . . . And they did.”3
Trade Passivity For Aggressiveness
During the early months of World War II, the U.S. submarine force was not operating at the level required for a nation at war. Antiquated tactics embraced by conservative commanders could not achieve what the war effort required: an all-out assault on Japanese merchant shipping.
On the Wahoo’s first patrol, her commanding officer, Marvin G. Kennedy, struggled to find, fix, and finish his targets. His flawed methodology was emblematic of the force-wide dilemma. Kennedy puts it best in the first paragraph of his patrol report:
During this period, we sunk one medium-sized freighter and got one or two hits on a small tanker. . . . The remainder of the patrol was a fiasco.4
His description of one failed attack is particularly telling:
Target was able to escape over the hill. . . . There were no screens, escorts, or airplanes. The weather was perfect. [They were] just begging for someone to knock off this tender, but it was not our day.5
This passive language would become a pattern demonstrating that Kennedy did not fully recognize his personal culpability.
The Wahoo fared no better on her second patrol, and Kennedy simultaneously lost the respect of his subordinates and the trust of his superiors. On returning to Brisbane, several members of the wardroom requested transfer, and Admiral James Fife, commander of Submarine Squadron 20, decided to remove his problematic commanding officer rather than deal with those transfer requests.6 Like many submarine skippers in 1942, Kennedy seemed either unable or unwilling to push his ship and crew to their limits. To turn the tide of the war and bring to bear maximum lethality against Japanese merchant shipping, a submarine commanding officer who was both aggressive and progressive was required.
Above all, Mush Morton won over the sailors of the Wahoo with his boisterous personality and magnetic charisma. Leveraging those traits, he broke down the barriers between captain and crew to ensure every man understood his value on the team. Morton did not have to tell his crew that he had an open-door policy; rather, he lived it. By working with the leading yeoman, Mush learned about every crewmember shortly after taking command.7 He laughed at their stories, invested time in their training and mentorship, and even participated in a few wrestling matches in the torpedo room.8 Then, through dozens of interactions, he fostered a deep level of trust and admiration with a dual effect. Not only did each officer and enlisted man feel completely comfortable bringing the skipper their best ideas, but also, they would never hesitate to go above and beyond to exceed expectations—for him. When the terrifying realities of war begin to cloud one’s sense of duty, it has always been the motivation to fight for one’s shipmates that drives sailors. More than for ideas, we fight for people.
On the list of innovations from the Wahoo, Morton’s decision to give his executive officer (XO), Lieutenant Commander Dick O’ Kane, the periscope during approach and attack was among the most novel.9 In doing so, the Wahoo reaped numerous benefits. For one, with the XO focused on the detailed minutia of the attack, the captain was free to consider the broad view and make risk decisions. In addition, Morton understood that this model, when applied holistically to all phases of submarine operations, presented an opportunity for his subordinates to gain invaluable training and experience. He engaged in some short-term risk to invest in the long-term development of his people. Finally, this action spoke volumes to his officers and crew about the level of trust he placed in them. By delegating responsibility, he raised the bar on his expectations and fostered an environment where talent was developed across the boat. The officers and crew were given the opportunity to succeed and flourish, and they gave every effort to impress their skipper.
Combine Credibility and Tenacity
Perhaps most important, Morton was completely transparent with the crew on their primary objective: to bring their highly lethal warship into close combat with the enemy. Before departing on his first patrol in command, Mush did not mince words:
Wahoo is expendable. Our job is to sink enemy shipping. We are going out there to search for Japs. Every smoke trace on the horizon, every contact on watch will be investigated. If it turns out to be the enemy, we will hunt him down and we will kill him.10
Through this unambiguous messaging, the captain brilliantly united the crew behind one common goal. Given the opportunity to walk away freely from that charge, not a single man took the offer.
Within the first eight days of his first combat patrol on board, Mush proved that he was the change the Wahoo and the submarine force desperately needed. Their first mission was to “investigate Wewak [Papua New Guinea] harbor.”11 Morton would raise that bet. As they approached the harbor, the Wahoo spotted the bridge of a destroyer and closed range.12 Submarines did not usually go one-on-one with destroyers, but as Mush would quip, “We’ll take them by complete surprise.”
The approach and “down-the-throat” torpedo shot tactic that transpired was unprecedented. As the ship steamed head-on toward the Wahoo, Mush and his team proceeded, undaunted, until the final torpedo broke the destroyer’s back.13 This attack was a watershed moment for the Wahoo’s crew, and it would set the tone for the remainder of that famous patrol and all that followed.
The culture Mush cultivated supported his aggressive actions and rhetoric. From the posters in the crew’s mess to the battle flag in the bridge, the Wahoo promoted a warfighting-first mentality. Morton and the Wahoo were in the business of sinking ships, and the captain aligned every decision and priority to serve that purpose.
Today’s Navy is challenged by the rise in peer competition, a dangerous threat that will increasingly define its role in the coming decades. So, the service must ask itself, is it prioritizing that effort above all others as it prepares and deploys forces around the world? And if so, do sailors find that argument credible?
Under Morton’s leadership, the Wahoo proved that, through persistence, her team could resolve any challenge. On 26 January 1943, the Wahoo completed an attack that would define determination. On the surface, she identified and closed two freighters, then fired two torpedoes at each target. As Mush swung the boat to assess battle damage, he observed the first freighter beginning to sink, the second continuing to maneuver, and a previously unseen troop transport closing. The sub simultaneously fired at the transport and wounded freighter, which was shooting at the submarine’s exposed periscope. With one final torpedo, the Wahoo finished off the transport, but she was unable to close the freighter because of her weakening batteries.
In this moment, Morton was faced with a crucial decision: either cut his losses and slip away from the hostile freighter or surface the Wahoo and pursue. In a flash of brilliance, Mush chose to surface, but decided to open range while charging the batteries. From the extended range and with the periscope fully raised, he was able to track the mast of the freighter covertly. Once the batteries were charged, the Wahoo could use her speed advantage to close. With an aggressive hard rudder and full reverse engines, Mush fired his four final torpedoes to finish the job.14
Morton was able to relentlessly drive the Wahoo toward mission accomplishment because the crew trusted his judgment and bought into his vision. The troublesome freighter required four hits from three separate attacks before being lost beneath the waves, but the team’s resolve never wavered. One of Morton’s most famous remarks, spoken to his XO, puts a fine point on his philosophy: “Tenacity, Dick. Stay with the bastard until he’s on the bottom.”15
From operational units to those struggling in the shipyard, the Navy’s success depends on its sailors’ ability to persist and endure. As leaders, it is our responsibility to effectively communicate what we are trying to put “on the bottom,” and while doing so, prioritizing appropriately, because endurance is not unlimited.
There is no recipe for developing an officer like Dudley Morton. If there were, the Navy would have bottled and started serving it to wardrooms decades ago. We can, however, examine the exploits of this exemplary naval officer and apply those lessons to modern leadership challenges.
The pillars of Morton’s leadership philosophy support a command culture in which every member of the team is motivated and empowered to directly contribute to the collective objectives. With a crew aligned behind their commanding officer in full force, no goal is unachievable. In the case of the Wahoo, that goal was an unprecedented kill rate against a peer competitor in the maritime domain. Nearly eight decades later, our naval forces prepare for a similar threat.
In this era of renewed great power competition, we must be ready to “fight tonight,” and we would all do well to look back to the great naval warriors of the past. Ultimately, Commander Dudley Morton developed a precious and rare bond between captain and crew. Morton’s sailors were not motivated by fear of reprisal, but instead, united in drive and purpose to achieve his vision. Following in the Wahoo’s wake, naval leaders must breed trust, aggressiveness, and tenacity to yield fighting ships of the highest order. If they do, our ships and crews will personify the fighting spirit of the Navy and embody the relentless drive to put our enemies on the bottom.
1. Don Keith, Undersea Warrior: The World War II Story of “Mush” Morton and the USS Wahoo (New York: NAL Caliber, 2012), 281.
2. Keith, Undersea Warrior, 282.
3. Forest J. Sterling, Wake of the Wahoo (Philadelphia: Chilton, 1960), 11.
4. J. T. McDaniel, ed., USS Wahoo (SS-238) War Patrol Reports, 19.
5. McDaniel, USS Wahoo (SS-238) War Patrol Reports, 10.
6. McDaniel, 44.
7. Keith, Undersea Warrior, 276
8. Keith, 138.
9. Sterling, Wake of the Wahoo, 13.
10. Sterling, 203.
11. McDaniel, USS Wahoo (SS-238) War Patrol Reports, 47.
12. McDaniel, 48.
13. Keith, Undersea Warrior, 172
14. McDaniel, USS Wahoo (SS-238) War Patrol Reports, 48–52.
15. Keith, Undersea Warrior, 200.