Mush Morton and the Wahoo, Murderers?
David L. Johnston
How 60 Years of Perspective and a Change in Our Values Can Alter Our Understanding of a Historical Event
On 26 January 1943 the 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 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 approximately 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, 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 in. deck gun and .50 caliber machine guns. The guns' methodically aimed fire
quickly turned the boats into flotsam. According to Richard O'Kane, Morton's
executive officer, "some Japanese troops were undoubtedly hit during this action,
but no individual was deliberately shot in the boats or the sea." Indeed, Morton
even sharply reprimanded a sailor who shot at a soldier with a .45 when it appeared
the soldier was going to lob a grenade at the sub. By 1400, the action was finished
and the Wahoo departed the area. Approximately 282 troops had been killed.
Morton openly reported the incident in both message form and in his subsequent
patrol report. No attempt was made to hide or diminish anything. Morton actually
badly overestimated the number of troops killed, putting the number at almost 10,000.
After the war, several historians seized on this incident and played it up.
Edwin Hoyt and the well-respected Clay Blair, Jr. both made sensational charges
of war crimes and murder. On the surface, and without a good understanding of what
happened, these charges made sense to many people and it served to sully the sterling
reputation of four time Navy Cross awardee Mush Morton. Due to the subsequent loss of
the Wahoo and Morton's death aboard her, there are few surviving first hand witnesses
to the incident. One notable exception is Richard O'Kane, himself a Medal of Honor
winner and a vigorous defender of Morton's. His first hand account of the incident,
spelled out in great detail in his book Wahoo: The Patrols of America's Most Famous
WWII Submarine, completely exonerates Morton and the Wahoo's crew.
Now, let's put to rest the controversy over Morton's actions once and for all. A massacre 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
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 harms' way. If it had
been a civilian ship engaged in bringing food to Japanese civilians, and it had just been
just the ship's crew in the boats, the situation would have been vastly different.
The individual soldier was just as defenseless and powerless to prevent the
Wahoo's attack while in his bunk aboard ship as he was in the boats. Even as a
unit, they could not stop the Wahoo. Yet, if the Buyo Maru had exploded and sank
immediately and all hands had gone down with the ship, 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. The legitimacy of
the ship and its cargo as a target has never been questioned. Indeed, troop transports
are highly prized targets of any submarine captain. 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.
Tell me, what 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.
There is no indication from any source, including any of the men that were later
rescued, that anyone in the boats made any attempt to surrender, or gave any sign
that they no longer wished to resist. Indeed, there are reports that they shot at
the Wahoo; with some saying they fired first. Had they made an attempt to surrender,
then Morton may have been legitimately called a murderer, but this did not occur.
The tragic fact (as later revealed after the war) that many of the men in the
boats were not Japanese troops is irrelevant to the question of the morality of
the attack. Most of the men were British allied Indian troops that had been captured
at Singapore. Morton had absolutely no idea, and could not have realistically known
that, they were mostly allied POW's. The Japanese in the water were from the 26th Field Ordnance Depot.
The 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. These
men still constituted a threat, one that could not be mitigated, and therefore
needed to be eliminated. Anything less would have been a dereliction of duty. That
left Morton with one choice, the same choice that he had when he first sighted the ship: kill them.
Other dark charges have been leveled against Morton. Aboard the boat, and on her
battle flag was the phrase, "SHOOT THE SUNZA BITCHES". It has been implied that he
passionately hated the Japanese. He most likely did, but not in the context that
people today understand. If Morton's "racism" was a dark side to his greatness,
then so it was on the entire nation. Racism was systemic, socially accepted, and
sanctioned at very nearly every level of government and society during this period.
It led us to drastically underestimate and misunderstand the intentions and abilities
of the Japanese and thus was one of the contributing factors that led us to war in
the first place. Despite the fact that we were literally caught sleeping at Pearl
Harbor, Americans passionately believed that it was an unprovoked, treacherous
sneak attack. 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 lynch mobster. He hated them because of the unwanted war that they
had forced on our nation, for taking him and other Americans away from their families
and loved ones, for the harsh and cruel treatment of our POW'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 best qualities that we look for in a warrior. He was also tasked with the
job of motivating the Iowa farm boys, Detroit factory workers, and Pennsylvania shopkeepers
among his crew to perform the normally repugnant job of killing human beings. Partly
dehumanizing the enemy through hatred was one of the methods he chose. A distasteful
method at best, but one that he felt was absolutely essential if the Wahoo was to prevail against the enemy.
I would charge that few alive today, even myself, can ever truly comprehend and
understand the rank savagery that existed during this war. Ordinary men were pushed
to extraordinary acts, the nature of which is difficult to understand within the
context of our 21st Century morality. It is easy to judge Morton and his crew with
the hindsight available to us from the perspective of 60 years of history.
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? It is our
ability to beseech ourselves to justify our actions in combat within the framework
of our society, and to question that act's morality. Our enemies sometimes did the
former, but were universally incapable of the latter. 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 distasteful
but necessary act committed during a savage war. Lay this issue to rest and let a true American hero rest in peace.