Dudley Morton: The WWII Submarine Ace Who Sank 19 Japanese Ships

In the Pacific Theater, Lieutenant Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton had one position toward Imperial Japan: destroy them. (After all, his motto was “shoot the sons of b****es”). The submarine commander served in the US Navy during World War II. He commanded the USS Wahoo (SS-238), which was one of the most-celebrated submarines of the war. It sank at least 19 Japanese ships – more than any other at the time.

Dudley Mush Morton in his Navy uniform / A photograph of the Buyo Maru sinking taken through a scope
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Morton was regarded as one of the toughest and most efficient American men on the high seas during the war. He became one of the war’s greatest stars, but, in 1943, both Morton and the Wahoo disappeared. He has legally declared deceased some three years later.

This is his story…

Hell’s Bells

The silence of the USS Skate submarine was broken when a nerve-racking noise was suddenly heard. To those aboard, it didn’t sound like either the Klaxon diving alarm or the collision siren. The crew called it “Hell’s Bells.” It was the sound they heard every time the submarine’s experimental sonar picked up a deadly mine in the water.

The USS Wahoo in the water with soldiers walking around the top of it
Source: Wikimedia Commons

It sent chills through every crewman’s spine. The Skate and eight other American submarines were treading the heavily mined waters of Tsushima Strait, heading for the Sea of Japan. And their mission was one rooted in vengeance. Two years prior, in October 1943, when the USS Wahoo was patrolling the Sea of Japan, enemy forces attacked and sank it. On it was Dudley W. “Mush” Morton.

A Mission Rooted in Vengeance

The loss of Morton and the submarine devastated Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, who was the commander of the US Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force. He wrote in his journal: “This is the worst blow we’ve had. I’m heartbroken. God punish the Japanese!” In Lockwood’s eyes, Morton was the ideal undersea warrior.

Dudley Mush Morton in uniform
Source: Wikimedia Commons

“He had a veritable lust for combat, and he was the deadliest kind of fighter — the cold kind.” Lockwood was determined to see “an hour of revenge.” And so, two years later, that day arrived. The American wolf pack – a band of nine submarines, nicknamed the Hellcats – was on a mission to penetrate submerged minefields in the Sea of Japan. The goal was to surprise the enemy and devastate their shipping.

The Legend of the Wahoo

It began in January 1943, when Morton became the commander of the submarine for its third patrol of the war. The aggressive skipper sailed into New Guinea’s Wewak Harbor, going after a Japanese destroyer. His first five bow torpedoes missed their target, and then the enemy spotted him. Then, they turned and charged straight at the Wahoo.

Dudley Morton and his executive officer Lieutenant Richard H O’Kane standing on the Wahoo’s open bridge docked at Pearl Harbor
Source: US Naval History and Heritage Command

Morton waited until the destroyer was 800 yards away to fire the final lethal torpedo. As he wrote in his patrol report, he “broke his back. The explosion was terrific.” The Wahoo went on to sink another four ships before returning to Pearl Harbor. On the submarine’s next two patrols, it sank nine large merchant ships and damaged two. The Wahoo was on a roll. But it didn’t last…

A Case of Defective Torpedoes

The Wahoo’s next two patrols in the Sea of Japan were failures. During the first, the submarine fired nine torpedoes but didn’t sink or even damage a single target. Morton furiously reported that his torpedoes were defective. After returning to Pearl Harbor, new torpedoes were placed on the Wahoo.

The USS Wahoo docked at Pearl Harbor with soldiers standing on the open deck
Source: Pinterest

On September 9, 1943, it headed back for the Sea of Japan through the northern gateway, La Pérouse Strait. During the first week of October, the Wahoo sank four ships. It was after that that something went wrong. On the morning of October 11, Japanese anti-submarine forces, aware of the presence of a submarine, spotted an oil slick. They assumed it was a damaged submarine attempting to escape into open waters.

Taking Down an Icon

The Japanese then sent six aircraft and five ships, and, over the next eight hours, the Wahoo received 69 depth charges and 40 aerial bombs. The loss of the Wahoo, its crew, and superstar commander was a grave loss to the US Navy. In nine months, Morton had sunk 19 enemy vessels. It was a record that made him an icon among American submariners.

Dudley Mush Morton in his Navy uniform
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Dudley was born on July 17, 1907, in Owensboro, Kentucky, but he moved to Miami as a teenager. He attended the US Naval Academy, where he played football and became a varsity wrestler by the time he graduated in 1930. Morton was clearly a physical man, as anyone who shook his dominating hand or noticed his large square jaw could tell.

The Naval “Mushmouth”

Because of the size of his mouth and his pronounced drawl, he received the nickname “Mushmouth” (later shortened to Mush). Morton served on various warships and submarines before World War II, including the U.S.S. R-5 (SS-82). He was then promoted to Lieutenant Commander in 1942.

Dudley Mush Morton standing on the open deck of the USS Wahoo
Source: Pinterest

Meanwhile, the Wahoo’s first war patrol wasn’t making much of an impression. Lieutenant Commander Marvin “Pinky” Kennedy had a poor record with the submarine. It seemed as though he was just too timid for service. He also alienated his men. His executive officer, Lieutenant Richard O’Kane, privately complained to Navy headquarters. It was eventually decided to assign a Prospective Commanding Officer (PCO) to support Kennedy. That PCO was Dudley Morton.

Winning Over the Hearts of the Crew

Morton was charismatic and could tell a good story, and connected to those under him in a way that Kennedy couldn’t. His sense of relaxed authority meant that even though he carried no ego, everyone still obeyed him. Even though he was “just” the PCO, Morton won over the hearts of the Wahoo crew.

Crew members, including Dudley Morton, standing on the open bridge of the USS Wahoo circa 1943
Source: Wikimedia Commons

And so, in December of 1942, after another lackluster performance on their second patrol of the war, the men were happy to hear that Morton was replacing Kennedy. Morton wasn’t very cordial about it, though, as he bitterly criticized Kennedy’s performance. Then, as the Wahoo was about to depart on its third war patrol on January 16, 1943, Morton made their purpose clear…

One Purpose: Sink Enemy Ships

“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.” Morton knew that it wasn’t a mission for the faint of heart.

Dudley Mush Morton describing the USS Wahoo war patrol pointing at maps hung up on the walls around him and one in his hands
Source: Twitter

He gave his men the option to leave without any repercussions. No one took him up on the offer. He distributed posters with his motto, “Shoot the sons of b****es,” to his crew. He also posted a quote from General Leslie McNair: “We must shoot to kill, for our enemies have pointed the way to swifter and surer killing.”

An Unorthodox Method

Despite the brutality of their mission, the Wahoo departed Australia with a happier tone than it had under the command of Kennedy. Morton was tough, but he was lighthearted. Although he was going into chaos and war, he loved it. The Wahoo’s third patrol was in the Caroline Islands and, en route, they would explore the Japanese-owned harbor of Wewak on the coast of New Guinea.

Dudley Morton in the conning tower of the USS Wahoo during an attack on January 26th, 1943
Source: Pinterest

You could say that Morton’s idea of exploration was unorthodox. Most submarines typically come to a harbor, raise their periscopes, take notes, and keep going. This was not Morton’s method. When he arrived on January 24, 1943, Morton took the submerged Wahoo right into the Wewak harbor.

Taken by Surprise

Some officers thought it was a foolish move, thinking it could trap the submarine in a shallow net. But it was a wider harbor than most, and they found a Japanese destroyer at anchor. Despite the fact that destroyers were built to abolish submarines, Morton ordered an attack anyway. His words were, “We’ll take him by complete surprise.” And that’s exactly what they did.

The control room in the USS Wahoo on the day after the sinking of the Buyo Maru
Source: Pinterest

As they were ready to fire, the destroyer was alerted to the Wahoo’s presence and steamed directly toward them. After some chaotic maneuvering, the Wahoo fired three of its torpedoes. All of them missed the target. They sent another one but missed it again. The destroyer was closing in on them quickly.

The Down-the-Throat Shot

Morton then ordered a “down-the-throat shot.” It was a tactic that had never been tried, which attempted to blast the destroyer’s bow directly. The idea was that if the torpedo was fired head-on, it would eliminate the worry of a target’s speed. However, it only allowed for a roughly 20-foot window at which to aim.

Dudley Mush Morton sitting at a desk with family photographs to his right
Source: Pinterest

Morton fired the torpedo and, yes, missed his target again. Now, with the destroyer at 800 yards, the Wahoo shook as it sent a sixth, hopeful, torpedo. It plunged to 90 feet, preparing for a depth charge attack. Explosions rumbled through the water, and the light bulbs aboard the Wahoo exploded. After that, no blasts followed. There was only silence.

What Became a Matter of Controversy

Morton sent the Wahoo up to periscope depth to find the destroyer broken in two. It had apparently turned into the path of the sixth torpedo. The result was that two freighters, a tanker, and large troop transport, the Buyo Maru, were all taken down. Morton’s report on the successful attack: “The explosion blew her midships section higher than a kite. Troops commenced jumping over the side like ants, off a hot plate.”

The Buyo Maro in the water
The Buyo Maro. Source: Pinterest

What happened next proved to be a matter of controversy. Morton ordered his men to man the deck guns. His logic was that any Japanese soldier that made it ashore would put another American life at risk. But, shooting at capsized soldiers was a war crime.

A Possible War Crime?

That said, Morton and O’Kane claimed they had only shot at the lifeboats. Later, they added in their patrol report that the Japanese had been shooting at them. However, Morton’s own official patrol report stated that the Wahoo “surfaced to charge batteries and destroy the estimated twenty troop boats now in the water.”

A photograph of the Buyo Maru sinking taken through a scope
Source: Wikimedia Commons

There was no mention of self-defense or any other justification for their actions. According to witnesses on the Wahoo, Morton threatened to court-martial anyone who wouldn’t load the guns. In another reported exchange, when a Japanese sailor surfaced, a crewman asked Morton if they should take him, prisoner. The captain then said, “I don’t want the son of a b****! Do you?” The soldier was then reportedly shot.

Only 87 Were Japanese

This reported episode illustrates Morton’s sheer hatred for the enemy, but it also represents an even larger sentiment of hatred by Americans in general toward the Japanese after Pearl Harbor. Of the 1,126 men aboard the Buyo Maru transport that day, 282 were killed by the Wahoo. Of those, only 87 were Japanese. The rest were actually Indian prisoners of war. But Morton couldn’t have known that.

George Misch pointing to a kill flag and illustrations next to him in the forward torpedo room of the USS Wahoo
Source: Reddit

There is still debate over the fact that Morton shot at the lifeboats, and whether or not it was justified. If the United States had lost the war, Morton might have even been tried as a war criminal. Yet, he was neither disciplined nor investigated. And he wasn’t apologetic, either.

Wahoo Runnin’, Destroyer Gunnin’

Morton was actually commended by his superior, Admiral Charles Lockwood. Some believe that these incidents prevented Morton from ever receiving the Medal of Honor. Either way, after the sinking of the Buyo Maru, Morton had no more torpedoes. But it didn’t stop his determination to take the enemy out. On their way back to Pearl Harbor, the Wahoo saw a small convoy. They chased them, hoping to sink them with their deck gun.

Admiral Charles Lockwood
Source: Pinterest

This proved to be a fatal decision. An undetected destroyer suddenly showed up and came to the convoy’s rescue. The Wahoo fled, and that’s when Morton sent the following message to headquarters: “Another running gun battle today…wahoo runnin’, destroyer gunnin’.”

His Last Patrol

As soon as the Wahoo returned to Pearl Harbor, the submarine was seen with a broom lashed to the masthead, which indicated a clean sweep. Morton was praised, and his feats helped revitalize the declining morale of the US submarine force at that time. Morton continued on with the Wahoo for its fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh war patrols.

Dudle Mortan and another Navy officer on the open bridge of the USS Wahoo
Source: Twitter

His last patrol was his last ever. On October 11, a Japanese destroyer took out the Wahoo. But Morton was only declared deceased on January 7, 1946. In total, he sank 19 ships, totaling 50,000 tons, which made him the third most successful submarine commander in the US Fleet. Morton was posthumously awarded four Navy Crosses and the Army Distinguished Service Cross.

The Wahoo: Found

Only in 2006 was the wreckage of the Wahoo discovered under 200 feet of water. And the way it was found is a story in and of itself, which starts in the wilderness of Pennsylvania. It starts with someone named Bobby Logue, who was a boy in the 1930s. He would hunt in the woods that his family had owned for half a century.

The sunken USS Wahoo
Source: Twitter

When Bobby finished high school in 1938, by the end of the Great Depression, he joined the Navy and was assigned to a submarine crew after Pearl Harbor. That crew was the USS Wahoo. Morton’s own son, Doug, explained how his father got the crew together and said to them, “We are not going to sit around. We are going to go out and kill ’em. And in so doing, we might, you might, be killed.’”

Destination Tokyo

During the war, the US Navy breached its usual wartime secrecy, allowing newspaper stories about the Wahoo’s activities. In fact, a movie was made called Destination Tokyo, with Cary Grant cast as the captain of the fictional submarine that came into the Tokyo harbor. Morton served as the film’s technical adviser.

Delmer Daves, Cary Grant, Harriet Morton, and Dudley Mush Morton posing together
Morton and his wife on the set of Destination Tokyo with Delmer Daves and Cary Grant. Source: Pinterest

Those who saw the film believed Grant’s character was modeled after Morton. On the Wahoo’s seventh mission, Bobby Logue, who was due for reassignment, was asked to stay on for this next patrol. Logue’s younger brother, George, came home one day and saw his mother ironing and crying. “I said, ‘What’s wrong?’ And she showed me the newspaper. It said the USS Wahoo was overdue and presumed lost.”

Overdue and Presumed Lost

At that point, all the Navy knew was that the Wahoo had never returned to base. But to all the parents, wives, and kids of those onboard, no phrase was more terrifying. George was four years old when his mother got the news. His immediate response was, “Why don’t they find him?

Dudley Mush Morton and Harriet Nelson Marton on their wedding day surrounded by friends
Dudley and Harriet Morton on their wedding day. Source: Flickr

“I wasn’t going to settle for that,” said George. “When I heard ‘overdue and presumed lost,’ I said, ‘Like hell. I’m going to find out what happened to the Wahoo.’ I was just a kid.” He embarked on a journey that lasted decades. George pored through naval records, contacted Japanese researchers, and traveled to Japan – all in search of the lost submarine and with hopes of erecting a peace monument there.

Finding the Wreckage

George eventually discovered war records that showed that on October 11, 1943, at 9:20 a.m., an American submarine was fired upon in the La Perouse Strait. In August of 2006, a Russian expedition came to the strait, and there, 200 feet down, they found the wreck of a submarine. The US Navy confirmed that it was most likely the USS Wahoo.

Dudley Mush Morton’s father pointing to a newspaper article with a photograph of Dudley in uniform next to him on a table
Source: Flickr

“I’m not sure I’ll ever get over his loss,” said Morton’s son, Doug. “Maybe through finding the Wahoo, we’ll solve that, but I’m not sure that it will. It’s just nice that there’s a place now,” he said. “I’m glad it was found.” When George Logue was asked how he thought his brother should be remembered, he said he should be remembered as “a real, true American hero. A guy who went through four years of submarine warfare and then volunteered to go on another trip. I’ll never forget about Bobby. You know, I still think about him a lot.”

There’s another submarine that was once lost and now found, and it’s called the USS Grunion. Here’s the story…