When a torpedo fatally struck an American submarine, a new battle began.
OCTOBER 6, 1944: THE PACIFIC
The weather was deteriorating rapidly, waves doubling in size every hour. As angry green breakers pounded the USS Tang, the submarine’s captain, Richard H. O’Kane, ordered the lookouts to come below deck. Even with all hatches closed, crewmen could hear the full might of the storm. The Tang tipped on its side and slid down waves, its propellers whining when they broke the surface. Men clung to anything they could find—bunks, ladders, torpedo tube doors—to keep from being thrown around.
One man among the 87 aboard could take comfort in having survived worse: 21-year-old Chief Boatswain’s Mate Bill Leibold. While serving on his first navy ship, the strapping dark-haired Leibold had been on deck in weather so severe that the vessel began to break up. He had survived that catastrophe only to find himself caught now in a Class 4 typhoon.
“We couldn’t dive for safety reasons, and so we had to ride it out,” Leibold recalled. With the submarine rolling, attempting a dive would make balancing the ballast tanks difficult and increase the chance of capsizing. “We had to button everything up—close the conning tower hatch. All you could see was foam and green water through the scopes. It seemed it went on forever. When we rolled, we wondered whether we would come back up because the rolls were so extreme.” After several nerve-wracking hours, the Tang escaped the typhoon and continued on its mission, headed toward the Formosa Strait.
In the 10 months since the Tang set out on its first patrol, Leibold, a hard-driving Californian, had been involved in some of the more dramatic incidents of undersea combat in the Pacific—from the rescue of 22 downed aviators on the sub’s second outing, to the third patrol that claimed a record-setting 10 merchant ships. In its first four patrols, the Tang had sunk an unprecedented 17 ships totaling 73,000 tons.
Before O’Kane set out on the Tang’s fifth patrol, likely his last, he had been given a choice: join a wolf pack or operate alone in the Formosa Strait—the last hot spot in the Pacific undersea war, where the great bulk of Japanese shipping passed to and from the South China Sea.
“Unfortunately for the Americans,” explained O’Kane, 33, an aggressive Annapolis graduate from Dover, New Hampshire, “the enemy held the coasts on both sides of the strait, making it as perilous for the hunters as the hunted.”
Yet there was no question that the Tang would head for the Formosa Strait, Leibold recalled. During the last 10 months the Tang’s crew had sunk more enemy ships than any other American submarine crew. But they were hungry for more.
LESS THAN TWO HOURS after reaching its patrol area, early on October 11, the Tang found its first enemy convoy. As the submarine closed on a heavily loaded cargo ship, O’Kane climbed the ladder from the conning tower to the bridge and stood beside Leibold, whom he regarded as his “extra pair of eyes.” Together they tracked the enemy through their binoculars.
“Constant bearing—mark!” the captain ordered. “Fire!”
There were familiar shudders as the first of the Tang’s 24 Mark 18 electric torpedoes headed toward the target. Two made direct hits. Hours later, the submariners spotted another freighter, which they tracked until dark and then dispatched with a single torpedo.
Two weeks of hunting followed. Then, just after midnight on October 23, the Tang located a large convoy—rich pickings, given the number of blips on the radar. By 1:30 a.m. the Tang was poised. O’Kane peered through the periscope. He had three tankers right where he wanted them. He climbed from the conning tower to the bridge and stood beside Leibold. The submarine jolted as a torpedo headed toward the first target. It did not miss. More torpedoes followed. Explosions lit the sky as shock waves rocked the Tang.
O’Kane was so focused on the next target, a freighter passing in range of the stern torpedo tubes, that he didn’t notice the Japanese ship bearing down on the Tang until it was almost too late. There was no time to dive or fire torpedoes; instead, O’Kane ordered a hard left turn. The Tang cut across the bow of the approaching cargo ship, the 1,920-ton Wakatake Maru, avoiding the vessel by mere yards. Japanese sailors on the main deck grabbed rifles and pistols, and opened fire on the Tang’s bridge. Men scrambled for safety down the hatch. As O’Kane prepared to follow them, he saw the freighter was now on a collision course for the Wakatake Maru.
“Give me a range and mark,” a fellow officer asked.
“You don’t need one,” O’Kane said. “Just fire! You can’t put a torpedo out without hitting this bastard.”
Torpedoes shot from the stern tubes, aimed at the Wakatake Maru. They struck at the same time the freighter did, and both ships disappeared in a giant ball of fire, smoke, and showering debris. Then the Tang slipped away into the night, its crew buzzing with excitement. They had pulled off a spectacular attack.
LATE THE NEXT DAY, OCTOBER 24, the Tang stalked what appeared to be another convoy—possibly its last for this patrol, given that 11 torpedoes remained. O’Kane pursued two cargo ships and a tanker, hit all three, and in the near-daylight blaze from the burning tanker, saw one of the transports dead in the water. He decided to finish it off. The two remaining torpedoes were readied.
The boat gave a small jolt. On the bridge, Bill Leibold stood beside O’Kane, peering through binoculars. He saw the phosphorescent wake as the first torpedo headed for the crippled transport 900 yards away. It was running “hot, straight, and normal,” in submariner parlance. One torpedo was left. Once it was gone, the Tang could head back to home port.
O’Kane called for a time check. It was 2:30 a.m. on October 25, 1944.
“Fire!” O’Kane ordered.
With a shudder, torpedo number 24 left the Tang. Moments later Leibold saw a massive explosion as the number 23 torpedo hit, sending flames and debris into the sky and quickly sinking the 6,956-ton Ebara Maru. He scanned the waters. The number 24 torpedo suddenly broached and leapt clear, trailing phosphorescence, before continuing its run. A few seconds later, it made a sharp left turn and then, unbelievably, turned again.
“There goes that one!” Leibold shouted. “Erratic!”
Something had gone terribly wrong: perhaps the torpedo’s rudder had jammed, or the gyroscope in its steering engine had malfunctioned. The deadly projectile was now heading like a boomerang back at the Tang.
“Emergency speed!” O’Kane cried. “All ahead emergency! Right full rudder!” In the engine room, Chief Electrician’s Mate James Culp did his best to comply. The men on the bridge stood, transfixed. The Tang was moving at about 6 knots—20 less than the torpedo heading its way.
A few seconds later, there was a massive explosion. Leibold saw a cloud of what looked like black smoke—water, in fact, thrown up by the blast. He and other men on the bridge felt the boat being wrenched, as if it were being split in half.
A few feet from Leibold, Dick O’Kane watched, aghast, as the tops of the after ballast tanks blew into the air. Water washed across the wooden main decking, toward the aft cigarette deck where the Tang’s 40mm gun was positioned, only a few feet from the bridge.
“Do we have propulsion?”O’Kane asked into his bridge phone.
Water started to rise toward the bridge, and soon covered the aft third of the submarine.
“Close the hatch!” O’Kane cried. But there was no time. The Tang began to sink, tons of water pouring into the conning tower.
Leibold glanced around and saw one man clinging frozen to a guardrail as the Tang slipped below. For a moment, Leibold, too, felt paralyzed. Unlike others on the bridge, he had not been thrown clear by the torpedo’s explosion. Water engulfed the submarine.
“I went down with the boat,” Leibold said. “I wasn’t hanging onto anything. I was just standing there and all of a sudden I was submerged. I remember very clearly there was a distinct bump that made me start to swim back to the surface. It may have been when the stern hit the bottom. Or it could have been some kind of explosion.”
Regaining his senses, Leibold kicked hard for the surface. The night was pitch-black. He heard men crying out and could feel himself being pulled away by the current. The voices grew fainter.
“Let’s stay together,” Leibold called out. There was no reply.
Leibold treaded water, trying to conserve energy. He shed his heavy binoculars, wool jacket, and shoes. He decided to keep his pants: they might save his life. He stripped off the trousers, knotted the legs, and attempted to inflate them into a makeshift life preserver. But they wouldn’t hold air.
In frustration, Leibold discarded the pants. He was left wearing non-regulation blue-and-white-striped undershorts and a thin dungaree shirt. He heard explosions. The Japanese were dropping depth charges nearby. Leibold felt their shock waves, but couldn’t see the attackers. Eventually the Japanese moved on, and once more there was dead silence.
BILL LEIBOLD FELT ALONE IN THE OCEAN. He had no idea that 180 feet below, around 40 of his 86 shipmates were still alive. Over the next several hours, the men battled to survive as fires raged, oxygen ran out, and smoke and carbon monoxide filled the fatally wounded Tang.
As many as two dozen men summoned the courage to attempt escape. They gathered in the forward torpedo room, where, four at a time, they entered a small escape trunk connected by a hatch to the torpedo room. They tested their Momsen lungs (very basic underwater rebreathers), sealed themselves into the trunk, packed almost nose-to-nose, and allowed seawater to fill the enclosure until it was chest level and the pressure in the trunk equaled that of the sea. Then the men opened the door to the outside and released a buoy with an escape line attached. About a dozen men got that far.
Facing pressure strong enough to make noses and ears bleed, they then needed to summon the iron will to climb the escape line, pausing in the cold black water for a few seconds at knots tied every 10 feet to rise no more than 50 feet per minute. From the Tang’s depth of 180 feet, that meant an ascent of about three to four minutes. That slow climb—counterintuitive in such desperate circumstances—was crucial because it allowed the body to adjust to decreasing pressure as a man rose, avoiding decompression sickness commonly known as the bends. Several men of the Tang rushed for the surface; the air in their chests expanded so rapidly that their lungs burst.
One man, Hayes Trukke, became the first American to pioneer what has become the standard escape procedure from submarines no deeper than 300-odd feet: “blow and go.” When Trukke lost his Momsen lung, he remembered a theory that a man might be able to keep his lungs from exploding by exhaling slowly as he rose to the surface. Trukke did so, and managed to live.
Four other men made it to the surface in good condition. Had the Tang sunk in deeper water, none would have survived. These five men remain the only Americans to escape from a sunken submarine without assistance from the surface.
AS HIS CREWMATES WERE MAKING HISTORY, Bill Leibold was alternating between swimming the breaststroke and floating on his back. The hours passed slowly; Leibold lost track of time. He thought of his wife Grace, 19, a funny, high-spirited blonde who was living with her parents in his absence. He and Grace had spent only four months together as husband and wife, and Leibold wondered if he would see her again. The water was cold and the sky still dark. In the distance, the bow of one of the ships sunk by the Tang jutted out of the water. Then Leibold heard splashing and spluttering. It was Floyd Caverly, 21, a witty radio operator from Minnesota.
“Come on over here,” Caverly said.
“Over where?” Leibold replied.“I don’t know where you’re at.”
As Caverly kept talking, Leibold moved toward his voice. Leibold could see Caverly was struggling to keep his head above the water, gasping for air as each wave swamped him.
“You’re not going to leave me out in this dark ocean all alone,” Leibold told Caverly, trying to encourage him.
Leibold watched the other man.“Cav, when you feel your head come up and then start down, you’re through the wave,” Leibold instructed him.“Your head is then out of the water—that’s when you take a breath of air.”
“Hey, that works pretty damn good,” Caverly said. “Are you doing it?”
“No. But now that I’ve explained it to you, and it works, I think I’ll do it too.”
Leibold and Caverly stuck together. Every now and then, Caverly swallowed water and spat it out. They began to shiver. Hypothermia was setting in. The water temperature was probably no more that 50 degrees. In similar conditions, men had been known to die in as little as three to four hours.
The two decided that at daylight they would try to get to the exposed bow. There was bound to be something to latch onto, and they could ride the current to land. Just before the Tang sank, Caverly told Leibold, he had gotten a range reading: the nearest land had been an island off the coast of China, some 20,000 yards away.
Dawn was nigh. Light streaked the sky. Leibold thought he saw land. When he looked again, he realized it was only a cloud.
A FEW MILES AWAY, JAPANESE SAILORS aboard a patrol craft, the P-34, lowered a lifeboat. Two sailors carrying rifles boarded it and began rowing toward one of the sunken ships. It was about 9:30 a.m. They soon spotted Leibold and Caverly, who had been treading water for almost eight hours. The two Americans called out but the Japanese could not understand a word they said.
“Doitsu ka?” a Japanese sailor asked, as they hauled Caverly and Leibold aboard. Caverly slapped one of the men on the back as a way of thanking him. The sailor was not amused and growled in reply.
The other Japanese sailor kept repeating “Doitsu ka?” Caverly knew some Japanese.“They think we’re Krauts,” he told Leibold. Apparently the Japanese thought they had picked up two German sailors who had been on one of the Japanese ships, not realizing the rescued men were American submariners responsible for last night’s destruction.
Caverly turned to the coxswain. “Heil Hitler!” he said.
The Japanese began to row back toward the P-34. Ahead, something was bobbing in the water. As they neared, they could see a man lying on a wooden door. The boat drew closer. It was Dick O’Kane.
Leibold and Caverly leaned over and began to haul O’Kane aboard the lifeboat.
“Good morning, Captain,” Leibold said.“Do you want a ride?”
Hearing the word“captain,”one of the sailors realized they had picked up Americans. He motioned O’Kane to the stern, the place assigned to officers. Then the boat came upon five more men, clinging to a buoy—the sole survivors from the crew that had gone down with the Tang. After picking them up, the lifeboat returned to the P-34. The Japanese bound the survivors, pinning their arms to their chests and tying their wrists together, seating them on the port side of the main deck. Just a few yards away were badly injured Japanese who had obviously just been rescued.
Bill Leibold looked at the Japanese survivors. “To put it mildly, we were all apprehensive,” he said. “There were a lot of [them] who had apparently been burned and otherwise banged up, and they didn’t look on us too kindly.”
The Japanese soon realized their prisoners were submariners and—more ominously—the very men who had savaged their convoy in previous days. The next morning, the Japanese questioned the Tang survivors. Bill Leibold was taken below decks. When he refused to provide any information beyond name, rank, and service number, his captors beat him. Others, too, were soon nursing bruises.
On the fifth day aboard the P-34, the Americans were sitting on deck when islands came into view. They were the Pescadores, off the western coast of Formosa—now Taiwan. The P-34 continued to the southeast, and into the port of Takao.
As they entered the harbor, the Japanese blindfolded the Tang survivors, separating officers from enlisted men. They took the officers to a destroyer and the enlisted men to a cruiser—placed in a hold full of sacks of granulated cane sugar. Now and then Japanese sailors would enter, punch a hole in a sack, and fill little bags with sugar. The survivors realized the American blockade of Japan must have made sugar as rare as gold.
BOTH SHIPS SAILED TO JAPAN, where a few days later all nine Tang survivors were reunited and marched past Japanese trainees lunging back and forth with bayonets. The Tang survivors lined up at a set of gates. Although they didn’t know it, they had arrived at perhaps the most brutal of all mainland Japanese POW camps: a naval intelligence interrogation center known as Ofuna, on the southern outskirts of Yokohama. Prisoners called it the Torture Farm.
Days of brutal interrogation followed. The guards’ favorite weapon was a cherry-wood club shaped like a baseball bat. If a Tang survivor was not cooperative, Leibold recalled,“a mark was made on your cell door. You could expect a ‘visit’ by one of two guards with [clubs] during the night…. Mistreatment was a daily affair.”All of the survivors—given a reduced food ration of about 300 calories a day as special prisoners of Japan—were beaten and tortured, but none revealed any crucial information.
After several months of starvation, Leibold and the rest were moved to Camp Omori, near Tokyo. There they learned, on August 15, 1945, of Japan’s surrender. Thankfully, the guards were too stunned to punish their prisoners. That night, according to O’Kane, “the Japanese slaughtered an old horse at Omori and carted it with them as they went over the hill. But our resourceful cooks scrubbed out the intestines, [and] chopped them up.” Celebrating that night, the survivors feasted on corn and horsegut stew. Victory tasted sweet.
Within days, American troops arrived at Omori and began to evacuate the worst-off prisoners. Only one Tang survivor was in critical condition: Dick O’Kane. He was issued a stateroom on the USS Benevolence in Tokyo Bay, where he drifted in and out of consciousness. The doctors gave him 50-50 odds.
When Bill Leibold found O’Kane, there was an empty bunk nearby. He decided to stay with O’Kane, but navy personnel said Leibold had to leave: he was to be evacuated home by air.
“What about the skipper here?” Leibold asked.
“We can’t move him yet.”
Leibold did not want to leave O’Kane. But he also wanted to go home. He tried to talk to O’Kane, but the captain was too weak and sedated to answer. Leibold left reluctantly, thinking he might never see him again.
When Leibold arrived in the United States several days later, he called his wife, Grace. She wanted to see him as soon as possible but he discouraged her. He was in bad shape and wanted to regain his strength before they met.
In time, Leibold flew to Los Angeles and hailed a taxi to his in-laws’ house. No one was home, so he sat on the stoop to wait. A car pulled up: his car—with Grace at the wheel. His parents and his in-laws arrived in another car.“It was great to see her drive up in my car,” he recalled. “What had kept guys like me going was the hope of that happening. She got out and there were lots of hugs and kisses. My parents were there too—all the family.”
BILL LEIBOLD DECIDED TO STAY IN THE submarine service after the war’s end. (O’Kane, who made a slow and agonizing recovery, also returned to duty, in early 1946.) In 1947, Leibold reluctantly flew back to Japan to testify in war crimes trials in Tokyo. Years later, he returned again to help Japan set up a new navy. He even had a hand in the commissioning of Japan’s first postwar submarine.
Leibold enjoyed a distinguished and varied career. He became an expert on diving, specializing in submarine rescue, and, while on assignment to Washington in 1960, played a part in forming the first Navy Seals teams. He eventually captained the USS Volodar, retiring in the 1970s at the rank of commander.
Bill Leibold is now 90. When he looks back on his many years in the navy, he says he is most proud of his 12 months on the Tang and his role in what the Pacific War’s legendary commander of the submarine fleet, Vice Admiral Charles Lockwood, called the“greatest submarine cruise of all time”: the Tang’s fifth patrol. It was an awesome achievement, but not without immense cost: 78 of his fellow Americans from the Tang remain on “eternal patrol”—proof of Captain Dick O’Kane’s words that “in war there can be an inverse moral: the greater the performance, the harsher the consequence.”
Originally published in the April 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.