USS Tang, Reporting For Duty!

Under the Balao-class submarine, the keel of USS Tang (SS-306) was first laid down in early 1943 at the Mare Island Navy Yard in Vallejo, California. Following her predecessors’ fish species namesake pattern, Tang was commissioned to serve in the US Navy amid the raging Second World War in October 1943. As soon as completion, she cruised to San Diego for a two-week training before steering for Hawaii to join the fleet in Pearl Habor.

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Tang (SS-306) returning to Pearl Harbor, date unknown. (Image source: Navsource)

After concluding her combat preparation training, Tang departed the allied waters of Pearl Harbor in early 1944 to commence her first war patrol between the aquatic regions of the Caroline Islands and the Mariana Islands. She maintained active patrol for almost a month before encountering her first significant combat, sighting a convoy comprised of two freighters and five smaller ships along with their escorts. Sailors tracked the convoy, plotted its course, and prepared to attack when suddenly, an escort started closing in on Tang. But she was quick to steer and dive deep to evade assault. The submarine hit a couple of vessels from that convoy, including the Japanese transport Gyoten Maru, but the surviving freighters were able to steer clear out of range.

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Tang (SS-306) steering underwater, date unknown. (Image source: Navsource)

Nonetheless, Tang continued its war patrol, took down a couple more enemy ships, transmitted warning intel to nearby fleets, and saved dozens of downed airmen floating at sea until that fateful night of October 24, 1944.

A Tragic Turn Of Event

Marking the 75th anniversary since the Japanese issued its formal surrender that officially brought the Second World War to an end, a Navy veteran has recounted his experience vividly and shared them with Task & Purpose last 2020.

William “Bill” Leibold was one of nine survivors of the USS Tang. After the submarine sank, Leibold and his fellow sailors were taken by a Japanese patrol boat from the frigid ocean water to a military compound notoriously known as the “torture farm.” There, they would spend the next ten months in captivity.

The seeming invincibility of Tang ended her valiant service after nearly a month of intense combat against a Japanese fleet in the Formosa Strait en route to the Philippines.

Despite the known risk, sailors aboard the newly refit USS Tang braved through the heavily mined shallow waters with swarming Japanese patrols to reach her designated fifth war patrol area.

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Google Earth satellite photo where Tang (SS-306) is assumed to have been lost. (Image source: Navsource)

The USS Tang commander, Lieutenant Commander Richard O’Kane, who also survived that fateful night, recalled the tragic events leading to the submarine’s sinking. According to him, the attack they first initiated on that route was at the crack of dawn on October 11, 1944, when they spotted a “large modern diesel freighter.” Tang powered through, sinking two cargo ships along the way, until her third attack on October 23, when she came in contact with a large convoy “comprised of three large tankers in [a] column, a transport on the starboard hand, a freighter on the port hand, flanked by DE’s in both beams and quarters.” As she continued to track the convoy, one of the escorts became suspicious, with its commanding officer signaling with a large searchlight illuminating the convoy. Tang took the opportunity and attacked the convoy.

“Torpedoes were exploding before the firing was completed and all hit as aimed. It was a terrific sight to see three blazing, sinking tankers but there was only time for just a glance, as the freighter was in position crossing our stern,” O’Kane narrated.

In the morning of the 24th, Tang fired her “23rd torpedo from 900 yards, aimed just forward of her mainmast.” Then, the following day around 2:30 in the morning, the 24th and final torpedo was shot towards its crippled target before calling it a night. Instead, the torpedo malfunctioned. In his account, Leibold, the chief boatswain’s mate stationed on the bridge, said: “When we fired, the torpedo surfaced instead of running as it should have. It flew out of the water and then went back down.”

He continued: “All of us on the bridge were concerned, but I don’t think any of us fully realized it was heading back to hit us in the stern.”

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Illustration of the damage to USS Tang from its torpedo. (Image source: Navsource)

The explosion was violent, and men assigned near the area (as far as the control room) were shattered. The submarine then started flooding.

“No one to this day knows what caused it to run erratic. Something just went wrong with the torpedo itself. Possibly it was damaged during loading into the tube. Any number of things could have happened. No one will ever know,” said Leibold. “When it hit our stern, we went down fast. The aft torpedo room flooded. Half the compartments flooded rapidly‚Ķ I went down with the ship. I don’t know how far. I was able to swim back to the surface. I could see the bow of the Tang still out of the water, but I couldn’t swim against the current to get to it. None of the men on the bridge were able to swim back to the bow.”

Leibold and his fellow crewmate stayed afloat until they reached the escape trunk. They were all able to survive thanks to the Momsen lung, a crude emergency breathing device.

“The Tang sank by the stern much as you would drop a pendulum suspended in a horizontal position. There was insufficient time even to carry out the last order to close the hatchs. One consolation for those of us washed off into the water was the explosion of our 23rd torpedo and observation of our last target settling by the stern. Those who escaped in the morning, were greeted by the transport’s bow sticking straight out of the water a thousand yards or so away,” O’Kane ended his report.

Out of the 87 crew, only nine survived, including Leibold and three others from the bridge, and O’Kane, who was later awarded the Medal of Honor. Leibold also “received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal for his heroic conduct for supporting a shipmate in the water for eight hours.”

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An illustration by Lt. Cmdr. Fred Freemen depicts the “Escape from the Tang (SS-306)” on October 25, 1944. (Image source: Navsource)

Throughout her short naval career, the USS Tang sank 33 ships in the Pacific War, earning her the reputation of “the most lethal allied sub in the Pacific.” She also received four battle stars and two Presidential Citations for World War II service.

Basic Specifications:

  • Displacement: 1,526 t. (surfaced) 2,424 t. (submerged)
  • Length: 311′ 10″
  • Beam: 27′ 4″
  • Draft: 15′ 2″
  • Speed: 20.25 knots (surfaced) 8.75kts (submerged)
  • Cruising Range: 11,000 miles (surfaced at 10kts)
  • Patrol Endurance: 75 days
  • Operating Depth Limit: 438 ft
  • Submerged Endurance: 48 hours at 2kts
  • Operating Depth Limit: 438 ft
  • Propulsion: diesel-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks-Morse main generator diesel engines, 5,400hp, Fuel Capacity 94,000 gal., four Elliot Motor Co., main motors with 2,740 hp, two 126-cell primary storage batteries, and two propellers.
  • Armament: ten 21″ torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft., 24 torpedoes, one 4″/50 deck gun, and two 20mm guns.
  • Complement: 6 Officers, 60 Enlisted