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Ed Ramsey, 26th Cav Reg (Philippine Scouts)
US Army in Czechoslovakia '45: An Operational Overview
Strategic Culture of the IJN
Battles of Luneville: September 1944
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
Lodge Act Soldier
The Fate of the Kido Butai
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Turning East: Hitler's only option
Resupply Operations to Malta, 1942
WWII Veteran Interview
Why Arnhem?
Hell Ship - From the Philippines to Japan
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USS Wahoo
Polish Cavalry: A Military Myth Dispelled
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Arnhem Startline
Bushido: Valor of Deceit
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Good Grief Sir, We're in Trier!
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David Johnston Articles
Visual Guide to US Fleet Subs Pt 1
USS Wahoo

Recommended Reading


Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous WWII Submarine


Wake of the Wahoo: The Heroic Story of America's Most Daring WWII Submarine, USS Wahoo
 
Mush Morton and the crew of the Wahoo, War Criminals?
by David L. Johnston

On 26 January 1943 the submarine USS Wahoo (SS-238), under the command of the indomitable Lt. Commander Dudley W. “Mush” Morton, engaged in a running gun and torpedo battle with a Japanese convoy consisting of four ships off the northern coast of New Guinea. It would later prove to be a seminal moment in the history of the famous Morton and his Wahoo, forever cementing their combined reputation as ace ship hunters. At a time when the war news was almost universally bad, and when the submarine force was struggling to hit its stride against the Japanese, Morton and the fighting Wahoo provided a much needed shot in the arm and morale boost to our Navy and country. Unfortunately, it also would prove to be one of the most controversial acts committed by one of our submarines during the war, and would later result in whispered back room (and sometimes open) charges of racism, murder, and official cover-up.

Just before noon on the 26th, Morton engaged the Buyo Maru, one of the four ships in the convoy. She was a freighter chartered by the Japanese government to carry troops and materiel to war zones in and around New Guinea. Just a few miles off shore, Morton’s initial torpedo attack sank the ship, but not before over 1,000 troops made it into the water in 20 wooden lifeboats. Her batteries nearly depleted from many hours of submerged action, Morton surfaced the Wahoo amid the boats and assessed the situation. Realizing that the boats were within easy range of Japanese held territory, and that the majority of the men in the boats would survive and make it back to Japanese control, Morton made the command decision to finish the Wahoo’s mission and destroy the boats.

At 1342 that afternoon, he gave the order to fire on the boats with the Wahoo’s 4”/50 cal. deck gun and .50 caliber machine guns after having received incoming small arms fire as they approached the scene. The gun’s methodically aimed fire quickly turned the boats into flotsam. Morton’s intentions were to destroy the boats and thus their means of reaching friendly territory; in essence finishing the mission of sinking the transport. Reports of what actually happened differ depending how much one saw and where they were located during the action. According to Richard O’Kane, Morton’s executive officer (who was probably below during much of the action and thus had a poor vantage point), “some Japanese troops were undoubtedly hit during this action, but no individual was deliberately shot in the boats or the sea.” O’Kane also stated that Morton even sharply reprimanded a sailor who shot at a soldier with a .45 caliber pistol when it appeared the soldier was going to lob a grenade at the sub. George Grider, the Engineering Officer described the action as “nightmarish minutes”. One other account had at least one soldier deliberately killed with machine gun fire. By 1400, the action was finished and the Wahoo departed the area. A total of 282 men had been killed. Morton openly reported the incident in both message form and in his subsequent patrol report, which was reviewed by the chain of command and eventually received a glowing endorsement from Commander Submarines Pacific, Admiral Charles Lockwood. No attempt was made to hide or diminish anything. Morton actually badly overestimated the number of troops killed, estimating the number to be between 6,000 and 10,000. In a supremely ironic and tragic postscript, it was later revealed that the Buyo Maru also carried 491 British allied Indian P.O.W’s, 195 of which were killed. This was information that Morton obviously did not have at the time. The remainder of the ship’s 1,126 troops, P.O.W’s, and crew were rescued by the Japanese. All told only 87 Japanese were killed.

Given the rather conservative nature of American society in those days this incident shocked some people, including other American submariners. Revulsion over WWI German U-boat tactics had lead to a re-emphasis of post-Victorian era laws of armed conflict which placed a great deal of restraint on submarine and surface raider operations. Rigid training on these conventions during the 20’s and 30’s lead to a very conservative mindset amongst many naval officers. Most believed that this type of action was forbidden under the terms of the Hague Conventions of 1907. However, the conventions were somewhat ambiguous on this point and were rendered altogether moot once the order to commence unrestricted submarine warfare was issued immediately following Pearl Harbor.

The controversial backroom whispers of murder and atrocity served to sully the sterling reputation of four-time Navy Cross recipient Dudley Walker Morton and were probably the main reason he was never awarded the Medal of Honor. To some people, it would have appeared to be unseemly to give the nation’s highest military decoration to someone involved in such a controversial act.

After the war, several historians and authors seized on this incident and played it up. British author Sir Richard Compton-Hall even accused the SubPac chain of command of lacking in the moral courage to question the act and prosecute Morton. Due to the subsequent loss of the Wahoo and Morton’s death aboard her, we can never know exactly what was in Morton’s mind at the time. Given the order to conduct unrestricted submarine warfare and the fact that there was no official SubPac written guidance about how to deal with survivors of a sinking, Morton’s actions were clearly within the operating parameters that had been set by the chain of command.

Now, let’s put to rest the controversy over Morton’s actions once and for all. A war crime it was not.

The controversy seems to hinge on one major point: the “defenseless survivor” status of the troops. There seems to be a natural tendency to view anyone who makes it off of a sinking ship, no matter the circumstances, to be the equivalent of Molly Brown and the survivors of the Titanic. Those “passengers” aboard the Buyo Maru were not businessmen going abroad to negotiate a deal. They were not refugees seeking freedom, nor were they family vacationers on a Caribbean cruise. They were soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army. They voluntarily embarked aboard a vessel chartered by the Japanese government (which also carried war materiel) for the purpose of transport to a war zone in which they would conduct war operations against allied forces. They all fully understood and accepted that they were sailing into harm’s way. Their status as soldiers places them in a distinctly different moral category than merchant seamen, businessmen, refugees, or vacationers.

No military tactician has ever questioned the legitimacy of the ship as a target. Indeed, troop transports are highly prized targets of any submarine captain. There is a strong precedent throughout military history of troop transports from all combatants being attacked and sunk, often with heavy loss of life. Stopping the movement of enemy troops to the war zone before they can engage your forces is sound military strategy. Therefore, the legitimacy of Wahoo’s initial attack on the Buyo Maru is beyond question. Strangely, if that initial attack had been wildly successful and the Buyo Maru had exploded and sank immediately with all hands, no one would have ever questioned Morton’s actions and the death of the soldiers. The attack would have been nothing more than a footnote in the Wahoo’s war record. But, since the soldiers made it off the ship and into the boats before the ship went down, they seem to have been granted some sort of immunity from further attack.

So, what exactly about their situation had changed? If the unit had embarked aboard five smaller transports instead of one large one, does that grant them immunity? No. What if they were aboard ten large metal barges instead of five small transports? Still no. How about 20 wooden “life” boats instead of the barges, boats that were capable of finishing the mission (at least in part) that the Buyo Maru had set out on? I do not accept the argument that their mere presence in small boats grants them safe passage. That is illogical. As to their “defenseless” status, the soldiers were just as incapable of effectively defending themselves against submarine attack (or any other means of attack for that matter) while aboard ship as they were in the boats! Since we have established the Buyo Maru as a legitimate target and therefore established the soldiers it carried as legitimate targets, why should they be granted immunity from further attack simply because they were now embarked in wooden boats instead of a steel ship?

An argument has been made that without their equipment, they were useless as a fighting force. True, but only to a certain extent. Imagine a U.S. Marine in a similar circumstance. If that marine made it to friendly territory, he would have done everything in his power to assist the war effort, even if it was in a non-combat role. One can expect the same from the highly motivated Japanese soldiers. Given the proximity to enemy territory, these men still constituted a strategic threat, one that could not be mitigated, and therefore needed to be eliminated. The Wahoo’s mission of stopping the enemy troops by sinking their ship was incomplete. Not pushing this action to its finale would have been a dereliction of duty. Imagine having to explain to the mother, wife, or sister of one of our soldiers, or even worse, to that soldier’s comrades in arms that you had the opportunity to prevent their loved one or friend from being killed and that you didn’t take advantage of it because the act was distasteful and unseemly. That left Morton with one choice, the same choice that he had when he first sighted the ship: kill them.

Other dark charges of racism have been leveled against Morton. It has been implied that he intensely hated the Japanese. Despite the fact that we were literally caught sleeping at Pearl Harbor, Americans passionately believed that December 7th was a treacherous break with civilized behavior. Virtually above all else, fair-minded Americans despised treachery in all forms. Did Morton hate the Japanese? Most definitely, but not in the context of a hood wearing Klan member. He hated them because they initiated a brutal war of conquest by attacking and killing Americans, for the unmerciful and cruel treatment of the Chinese, the Filipinos, and our P.O.W.’s, and yes, for catching us asleep at the switch and embarrassing the hell out of us on the world stage. He channeled that hatred into supreme aggressiveness and an indomitable fighting spirit, two of the finest qualities that we look for in a warrior. As the Commanding Officer, he was also tasked with the job of motivating the Iowa farm boys, Detroit factory workers, and Pennsylvania shopkeepers amongst his crew to perform the normally repugnant job of killing human beings. Aboard the boat, and on her battle flag was the exhortation, “SHOOT THE SUNZA BITCHES”. Partly dehumanizing the enemy through hatred was one of the motivational methods he chose. A distasteful method to be true, but one that he felt was absolutely essential if the Wahoo was to prevail against a determined enemy.

What, then, separates Dudley Morton and the rest of our professional military men of that time from the thugs of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan? The fact that this is a controversial act, one that begs people to question its morality and legality is what marks that separation. We have a code of conduct, a set of laws and moral ethics that demand that acts like this be questioned, and to justify them within the framework of our society. Our enemies were universally incapable of any such thing and in fact tended to celebrate such incidents as great victories.

Morton and his crewmates did their duty that day and their actions have been exonerated by the test of time. This was not a massacre or an atrocity. Morton is not a murderer. It was a harsh and distasteful but absolutely necessary and justifiable act committed during a savage war. While it is right to question this action, let us now lay this issue to rest for all time and let the true American heroes of the Wahoo rest in the peace that they have so richly earned.

* * *

Copyright © 2010 David L. Johnston.

Written by David Johnston. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact David Johnston at:
daveyj576@msn.com.

About the author:
David L. Johnston is originally from Dexter, Michigan and is a Chief Petty Officer in the United States Navy. He is Qualified in Submarines and Surface Warfare and has made deployments to the Western Pacific and the Persian Gulf. He is a co-founder and author for Pigboats.com, a submarine history website. Chief Johnston is also a volunteer photo analyst and researcher for Navsource.org and has contributed to the U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings.

Published online: 01/31/2010.
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