The Fletcher-class destroyer, the legendary USS O’Bannon (DD-450). This military vessel has seen a lot of action from 1942 to 1970, from fighting the Japanese in the Pacific and taking part in operations with the 7th Fleet during the Korean and Vietnam War. The “Lucky O” as she was affectionately called by her crew amassed a nearly unmatched 17 battle stars and a Presidential Unit Citation.

The Fletcher-class may have been the best destroyer produced by any navy in WWII, she combined high speed, fast turns, good endurance underway, five rapid-fire 5″ guns, torpedoes, and ample anti-aircraft guns with outstanding automatic fire-control systems. In one particular encounter with a Japanese submarine, this Greyhound of the Fleet, the O’Bannon was reduced to fighting an action close aboard with potatoes.

Heavily Armed… With Potatoes

Yes, it sounds implausible but WWII was chock full of implausibles that were true nevertheless.  A Fletch-class destroyer armed to the teeth with every gun that could be welded to her deck(making them a bit topheavy actually), but they didn’t end up using their guns or torpedoes to fight this Japanese submarine, at least not at first.

The story begins in 1942 when the O’Bannon was en route to Guadalcanal in the Solomon Islands. This was a particularly nasty battle of attrition as both the U.S. and Japanese refused to concede control of an island nobody had ever even heard of before. Japan wanted to establish an airfield on the island to interdict U.S. supply lines to Australia, while the U.S. was determined not to have its supply lines cut. The Marines landed on the island and drove the Japanese garrison and construction troops into the jungle on August 7th, 1942. What followed was a grueling slugfest between the U.S. and Japanese navies to take and hold the island.

While operating in the Solomons campaign the O’Bannon proved herself not only a sturdy ship but a lucky one, she fought in numerous engagements without loss to her crew.

Sinking The Submarine With Potatoes

The USS O’Bannon had been on patrol looking for Japanese supply ships headed to Guadalcanal in the predawn darkness of April 4th, 1943. She was scrambling to make it back under the protective air cover of Henderson field before daylight and the customary air raids by Japanese planes when she made radar contact with what they thought might be a submarine.

U.S. subs were also in the area and the O’Bannon turned onto an intercept course to identify the contact before opening fire.

A Japanese RO-31, which would have looked like the RO-34. (日本語: 日本海軍 English: Imperial Japanese Navy, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

For some reason the Japanese submarine failed to react to the approaching destroyer boiling along at nearly 40kts, which further perplexed the crew of the destroyer if she tried to dive, then she was an enemy, if she flashed the recognition signal she was friendly, but the dark low shape in the water did neither, she just kept sailing along on her course. Due to strict rules of radio silence, the O’Bannon could not send her a signal so she just continued to bore in closer and closer.  If she was an enemy vessel, then they would ram her.

Why didn’t the Japanese submarine fire or attempt to submerge, you might ask? Well, one of the stories apart of the lore of this battle alleges that the crew of the Japanese submarine was actually sleeping and had surfaced during the night to recharge her batteries. The submarine in question did not have a green crew, it had made 11 war patrols so far and probably would not have let itself be caught sleeping.

While the destroyer was setting up to ram the potential Japanese submarine, somebody on the bridge mentioned to the captain that if she was Japanese, she might be laying mines and they rammed her, there was a good chance the resulting explosion would blow both ships to Mars in one blinding flash. This was apparently persuasive to the skipper of the O’Bannon who ordered a hard turn away from the submarine almost at the last minute, putting her on a parallel course to the mysterious submarine. The good news was that they could now be sure the target was Japanese, the bad news was they were so close the O’Bannon’s rapid-fire guns would fire over the submarine and miss.

Finally, the Japanese crew reacted to the presence of a U.S. destroyer close aboard and tumbled onto the deck to man their 76mm high-velocity deck gun which could punch holes in the thin skin of the destroyer.  Now the hunter had become the prey as the destroyer couldn’t depress their guns low enough to engage, while the sub could hole them below the waterline easily. Now it was the O’Bannon’s turn to ring up flank speed and turn away to get her guns in the fight.

The incredulous crew of the destroyer, seeing the Japanese unlimber their deck gun, had nothing to fight with and were so close they could see the eyes of their enemy as they began to swing the gun around and retrieve ammunition from the ready locker on deck to load the cannon. With no weapon ready to shoot in reply the sailors fought back with the one thing that was handy, several buckets of raw potatoes that were on deck to be peeled for breakfast that morning. The buckets were overturned and the sailors began a bombardment of the Japanese gun crew with 60mm Russet-Burbank spuds.

Almost equally incredible, this sent the gun crew into a total panic.  The Japanese sailors thought the potatoes were hand grenades being thrown at them. The U.S. swabbies threw those potatoes like there was no tomorrow, and the sound they made as they bounced and rang off the outer hull put the crew to flight as they abandoned the gun, making for the hatches to go below.

USS O'Bannon and her plaque commemorating the Potato incident (Wikipedia). Source:'Bannon;PotatoPlaque.gif
USS O’Bannon and her plaque commemorating the Potato incident (US Navy/Wikipedia).

The submarine attempted to make an emergency dive for the depths as the O’Bannon sped away with her own guns now swinging onto the target.  She managed to get a 5″ gun round off that punched right through the subs conning tower as it slipped beneath the waves.

O’Bannon circled back and now joined by the destroyer USS Strong passed just 100 yards from the point where the sub dove, laying a pattern of depth charges right on top of her.  The Destroyer lost sonar contact with the submarine until 0319 hours when she regained contact and made another depth charge attack, reporting that the sub surfaced briefly at the stern and then sank leaving an oil slick on the water.

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Somehow, the RO-34 survived the encounter and slipped away in the dark. The O’Bannon and the Strong then resumed steaming for the safety of Henderson field’s aircover and breakfast without potatoes on the “Lucky O” whose luck had held once again.

Two days later on April 9th, the destroyer USS Strong made her own radar contact with a submarine on the surface at night near San Cristobal island.  She closed to gun range and then hit her with searchlights and opened up with everything she had, her five cannons, quad 40mm and 20mm anti-aircraft guns.  They observed at least three hits with the 5″ guns and the RO-34 once again dived for safety.  The tenacious destroyer then worked her over with two depth charge runs and observed floating debris on the surface afterward, signally that the submarine had broken up and made her last dive for the bottom.

Credit for the sinking of the RO-34 originally went to the O’Bannon but later historical records recovered from the Japanese showed she was still checking in by radio after her encounter with the destroyer. Those records show that the RO-34 failed to answer a radio message sent on April 16th ordering her return to Rabaul(perhaps to make repairs after the attack by the O’Bannon) which she never replied to.

That didn’t mean that the story didn’t make the papers about the destroyer that sank a sub with potatoes and the patriotic potato growers of Maine who sent a commemorative plaque to the officers and men of the “Luck O.”

It read: “For their ingenuity in using our now proud potato to ‘sink’ a Jap submarine in the spring of 1943.”