"The Gun Action"

     One of the most controversial incidents to occur during the U.S. submarine war against Japan took place on January 26, 1943.  At approximately 1130 hours, in the middle of a "14 hour running gun and torpedo battle", LCdr. Dudley W. "Mush" Morton surfaced his command, USS WAHOO (SS-238), and watched the crippled freighter, PACIFIC MARU, and a tanker new to the fracas, go over the horizon.  He then ordered a battery charge, a course change and returned to the scene of his latest sinking, the transport BUYO MARU.

What he found floating amidst the debris was, he later wrote, "approximately twenty boats ranging from scows to motorized launches".  On those boats and in the seas around them were the life jacketed personnel carried by the transport.  His men already at battle stations surface, Morton ordered a 4" shell fired into the largest boat.  WAHOO received in response a long burst of machine gun fire from the Japanese.  Morton answered this challenge with all of his weapons; the 4" gun, two 20mm cannon, .30 and .50 cal. machine guns, and small arms. Each boat was destroyed in turn.  The remaining survivors were left to the sea, the battery charge was completed and Morton resumed his hunt of the convoy's last two ships.  Later, the action was duly noted in the report of WAHOO's Third War Patrol which received a glowing endorsement from the Pacific submarine command.

Decades later, two authors published separate accounts of these events. Each characterized them as "cold blooded" and "murder".  Subsequently, the question arose: had Morton survived the war, would he have been prosecuted for committing a war crime?  With the publication of research contained in the remarkable book "Unrestricted Warfare" by James F. DeRose in 2000, and the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001, a more accurate assessment can be made of the controversial events.

One of the main issues surrounding the charge of war crimes has been body count. Upon returning to Pearl Harbor on February 14, 1943, Morton claimed killing "most of the troops" from BUYO MARU, estimated at between "1,500 to 6,000." And from the perspective of WAHOO's smoke clouded, emotionally charged bridge, it was a fair claim to make. No attempt was made to count heads in the water and Japanese transport ships were entirely capable of carrying large numbers of men. 

However, in DeRose's book, Japanese reports and first hand testimony reveals the true number of passengers lost and their nature. For BUYO MARU was not exclusively a troop transport but also a POW ship, loaded with 491 Indian prisoners of war. Along with a company of Japanese ordnance troops and crew, BUYO carried 1,126 men. And though the men of WAHOO assumed those left behind when they set off in pursuit of the rest of the convoy would be lost to the sea, Japanese rescue ships did arrive on the scene and take most of the survivors aboard. Head counts made en route to Palau indicated a total loss of 87 Japanese and 195 Indian prisoners (the disparity in numbers reflects a less-than-concerted Japanese effort to rescue the Indians).

While the number of victims can be sharply reduced from original estimates, the incident remains troublesome. Assumptions have been made about Morton's character based on an imperfect understanding of the context and application of late 20th century political correctness. Morton has been labeled at times a "butcher" and a "racist." However, the cultural impact of the 9-11 terrorist attacks affords the opportunity for a more sympathetic view.

Through first person interviews and research, the attitude of WAHOO's crew towards the Japanese in 1943 can be described in simple terms: they hated them. Having seen first hand the destruction of Pearl Harbor, the unprovoked and surprise nature of the attack, and the fervent patriotism instilled in Navy personnel, this reaction to their nation's enemy is reasonable and understandable. Many present day American's have experienced similar reactions to the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks. And while the country has dealt equitably with it's Muslim citizens under the leadership of the Bush Administration, a great desire for military revenge against the perpetrators still exists. This, in part, motivated Morton.

Additionally, one must remember ultimate victory was still in doubt. While battles had been won at Coral Sea and Midway, the road ahead was dark and Japanese forces were still strong in both personnel and materiel. Plus, the contribution of the submarine force had been disappointing. Dogged by a checkered career, there existed in Morton a great desire to prove both himself in WAHOO, and by extension the force, with bold action and maximum damage to the enemy. This desire was freely expressed in the cards displayed in WAHOO's watch bill holders reminding the crew to "Shoot the Sunzab******!"

Both fiercely aggressive and competitive by nature, the intersection of Morton and the boats of BUYO MARU was a collision of personality and power. In the middle of fourteen hours of combat and faced for the first time with personal contact with the enemy, emotions ran exceedingly hot. Morton clearly viewed the men in the water as combatant soldiers only recently on their way to fight Americans in the jungles of New Guinea - a valid assumption based on the information available to him. General hostility became personified in those "troops". And the crack and whiz of rounds fired at WAHOO as they approached reinforced his assumptions. Morton's order to fire the first single round into the boats was both a challenge and a dare. The response of machine gun fire was like the opening kickoff to a football game. One Morton was determined not to lose.

Ironically, one of WAHOO's lookouts, Forest Sterling, came close to discovering the true nature of some of their victims. From his platform, Sterling observed a man in the sea waving a white piece of cloth, signaling surrender. The sight caused momentary confusion among the lookouts. They had heard the Japanese refused to surrender. In hindsight, this was clearly an Indian POW. Later, a swimmer approached WAHOO with the intent to board. When a crewman asked if Morton wished for him to be taken prisoner, Morton reportedly responded, "I don't want the sonofab****! Do you?" The response of the crew was a lethal hail of bullets aimed at the swimmer.

As emotional an engagement as the action was, once the boats were destroyed Morton's focus returned to the mission priority of sinking enemy shipping. Only a single pass was made and the time spent on the gun action, though not definitively recorded, is most accurately rendered at 30 - 45 minutes. 

Much conjecture has resulted from the lack of explicit reportage of the gun action both during the war and over the ensuing years. The incident remained generally unknown until the publication in the 1970's Clay Blair's "Silent Victory". While Morton never hid the facts of the action, and even orally embellished them at times, the gun action was censored from the many contemporary newspaper accounts written about WAHOO's Third War Patrol. And most postwar accounts of Morton's exploits, written by former submariners and naval personnel, edited out the action as well. During the war, graphic depictions of violence were discouraged for morale reasons. After the war, the Navy carefully cultivated its legacy of victory. Neither of these facts can be blamed on Morton or construed as indicators of guilt. 

The Navy's reaction to Morton's actions were officially glowing. They awarded him the Navy Cross. General Douglas MacArthur rewarded Morton with the Army Distinguished Service Cross for "...his attack on a hostile convoy proceeding to reinforce the enemy forces in New Guinea..." WAHOO received the Presidential Unit Citation for her action against the convoy which included "...destroying...one transport and their personnel." 

Officially there existed no guidelines for a Captain's responsibilities regarding enemy ship survivors or other small combatants. Indeed, their prime directive was to conduct "unrestricted submarine warfare" against the Empire of Japan. Captain Slade Cutter once observed that he asked Admiral Lockwood whether he should attack Japanese trawlers. Lockwood replied with a broad, "Use your best judgment." Cutter refused to engage them finding it personally repugnant. Many other skippers had no qualms about it. Admiral Gene Fluckey wrote in his memoir "Thunder Below" of an incident in which a landing barge floated off a torpedoed ship. As he passed it, they took fire from the Japanese survivors. Enraged, he wrote that he "should have fired upon them." However, he chose to pursue other ships in the immediate area. Again, it all depended on the man in command. 

In light of the fact that he did fire on men in the water, would Morton have been tried for war crimes had he survived the war? In a word, no -- mainly because his country won a war started by an aggressor nation. Traditionally, the defeated are tried for military crimes in such instances, not the victors. Clearly, Morton's actions were brutal, but they were just as clearly within the command parameters set by his superiors. Whether those parameters were sufficiently comprehensive is debatable. It is known that no action, formal or informal, was ever considered or instigated against Morton, before or after his loss, regarding the BUYO MARU action. 

However, there was one repercussion of some significance. Following his loss during WAHOO's Seventh War Patrol, Admiral Lockwood was charged with recommending posthumous awards to Morton and his crew. Lockwood submitted Morton's name to receive the nation's highest award, the Medal of Honor. Ultimately it was denied and downgraded to a Navy Cross. Richard O'Kane and others always suspected the move was made at least partly in response to the gun action and the potential public relations stigma it carried with it.

Was Morton a racist? Clearly he had a vocal disdain for the Japanese people and culture during the war. Upon examination, it appears the motivation was more military than bigotry (in either case it was an attitude which was widely held throughout the country). Morton hated the Japanese as a result of their aggression against his country. If Canada had attacked Pearl Harbor, Morton would have hated Canadians. Clearly, as the war progressed his attitude towards the Japanese seemed to change, if not his aggressiveness. Morton was heard to remark with some chagrin that he and his crew would be known as "widowmakers." Prior to the end of his leave in the states before WAHOO's Sixth War Patrol, Morton's usual breezy attitude had turned decidedly somber. 

Perhaps the best judge would be Roger Paine, Morton's fourth officer and gunnery officer during the BUYO incident. When asked if Morton's actions against the Japanese were racially motivated, he responded in the negative. Indeed, Paine assumed that had he lived, at war's end Morton would have worked willingly with the Japanese if called upon to do so. Paine grew to respect and admire the Japanese during his postwar career. Unfortunately, in Morton's case we will never truly know his thoughts on January 26, 1943.