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Former Submarine Captain Shares Stories of WWII Heroism

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hegel and Capt. Joe Skinner

Editor’s note: The following is a Veterans Day speech written by Captain Joe Skinner of Oxford for the American Legion Post 55. As a 31-year U.S. Navy veteran, Captain Skinner served as commanding officer of the USS Louisville, a fast-attack nuclear-powered submarine, among other assignments, and later served in the Pentagon. Unfortunately, a scheduling conflict prevented Captain Skinner from delivering the speech, but he has kindly agreed to share the text with HottyToddy.com’s readership.

I was asked to speak today by the American Legion, and it is truly a humbling experience to speak on such an important day. How can I possibly memorialize the legion of heroes that have gone before us? I will try, but I must apologize up front, because I know it is difficult to properly thank all the veterans.

Today, I am going to tell you a little about who I am, how veterans contributed to my life, and conclude with some submarine stories. The American Legion said I could pick my topic, so you are going to hear some submarine stories.

I grew up surrounded by veterans: My father was a Marine who fought on five islands in the Pacific. My mother was a WAVE. Seven of my nine uncles served in WWII or Korea. My oldest brother, two cousins, and two of my four brothers-in-law all served during the Vietnam War. Every night growing up, my neighbor played taps.

These men were all hard-working family men that loved America. It seemed natural to me to join the military when I was old enough. My wife also came from a military family: her father served during the Korean War in Europe, and three of her uncles and grandfather served in the military. We can trace relatives who fought for this country in the Revolutionary, Mexican, Civil, Spanish-American, WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam wars.

I spent 31 years in uniform, four at Annapolis, 20 associated with submarines, and seven working international military policy issues. I served on six nuclear attack submarines and spent a total of six years under water. I traveled extensively, visiting 37 countries, leading discussions with Russia, China, Vietnam, India, Japan, Korea, and others.

After this, I was asked to take a job in the Pentagon, where I developed an asymmetric strategy for Taiwan to defend itself from China.

The crew of the USS Louisville (SSN-724) pose for a picture with their submarine.

Now I want to shift to discuss submarines. Today, submarine missions include reconnaissance, land attack missions, anti-submarine and surface missions, mining, SEAL delivery, and ballistic missile patrols. Most of the information concerning these missions is classified, so I am going to discuss what submarines accomplished in WWII.

At that time, the submarine force consisted of only 2 percent of the Navy, but it sank 54% of all Japanese merchant ships. They also sank eight carriers, one battleship, 13 cruisers, 38 destroyers and 23 submarines.

Read Steve Vassallo’s far-ranging 2014 interview with Captain Skinner on world affairs here.

During the war, U.S. submarines had the highest casualty rate for a single branch of the service—18% of all those who served on submarines died.

Two specific stories I would like to share with you, and I have a connection to both:

First, Captain George Street is a Medal of Honor winner. I met him in 1989 during a submarine birthday ball. I shot silly string at a friend of mine, who ducked, and the string hit an older gentleman in the table next to me. I went and apologized and noticed he was wearing a Congressional Medal of Honor.

This artist’s rendering, by Lt. Commander Fred Freeman, depicts the a scene from the famous battle of the USS Tirante off the Quelpart Island in the South China Sea. Commander George Street earned the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the battle.

The following excerpt comes from Captain Street’s award recommendation for the Medal of Honor:

“With extreme aggressiveness, brilliant planning and daring, the commanding officer took his submarine deep into the enemies’ inner defenses in a meticulous search for enemy shipping. With sagacity and consummate skill, he penetrated strong escort screens in the shallow water and launched four devastating torpedo attacks, which resulted in the sinking of four ships, including a transport ship loaded with troops. After the attack upon the transport, the Tirante was subjected to a severe depth-charging, which bounced her off the bottom. Fighting for her life, with explosions rocking her from side to side, this gallant submarine came back with a vengeance and launched a brilliantly executed torpedo attack to sink a patrol vessel. In the confusion following the sinking, the Tirante skillfully made her escape.

“Although the Tirante had already sunk a very creditable amount of enemy shipping, the commanding officer refused to leave this dangerous area until the maximum amount of damage had been inflicted upon the enemy. By sound deduction and brilliant reasoning, it was determined that the enemy ships were using a confined harbor on the north shore of Quelpart for an anchorage. In order to reach this anchorage, he would have to take his submarine through many miles of shallow water in which his ship would not be able to dive. The harbor was inevitably mined, numerous reefs and shoals were known to exist, and the whole area was closely guarded by shore-based radar, numerous patrol vessels and extensive air coverage. Fully realizing the mountainous dangers involved, the commanding officer made his decision to attack.

“Disregarding the possibility of minefields and five shore-based radars in the immediate vicinity, Tirante closed the shoreline and progressed into the harbor through numerous anti-submarine vessels. The gun crews were at the stations, as Tirante would have to fight her way out on the surface if attacked. Once in the inner harbor, the current was checked, and a rapid set-up was made on a 10,000-ton tanker. Two torpedoes were skillfully fired at this target, and a great mushroom of white blinding flame shot 2000 feet into the air, and a thunderous roar nearly flattened the crew of Tirante. In the light of the burning tanker, two frigates spotted the Tirante and started in for the kill. Quickly bringing his submarine to bear on the leading frigate, the commanding officer tenaciously fired two torpedoes at the vessel that was endeavoring to block his escape and then swung his ship and fired his last torpedo at the other frigate.

“With all torpedoes expended, the commanding officer headed his ship out of the confined harbor at full speed just as the torpedoes hit the first frigate and blew it sky-high. Seconds later, the sister ship was hit and it, too, disintegrated. With emergency full speed, the commanding officer slipped right out of the enemy’s hands. In addition to this action, a 100-ton ship was sunk with gunfire, three prisoners were captured from a schooner, and two aviators were picked up from a downed Japanese aircraft.”

Richard “Dick” O’Kane accepts the Medal of Honor from President Truman.

The second submarine Medal of Honor winner I want to discuss is Dick O’Kane. I had the opportunity to meet him when he sold his book in Groton, Connecticut while I was a student at submarine basic school.

On October 23, 1944, Commander O’Kane conducted a surface attack on a convoy and torpedoed seven ships. Twenty-four hours later, he encountered a second convoy that included oilers with aircraft on their decks and troop transports headed to Leyte. This convoy was heavily escorted, and before he reached attack position. the escorts opened up with 5-inch and 40mm fire. O’Kane remained on the surface, and at 1000 yards fired six torpedoes at two transports and two tankers—all torpedoes smashed home.

At once the night became livid with the glare of burning ships, spitting guns, tracers, and exploding shells. All ships were highlighted by the burning ships as the Tang maneuvered for an attack on another large transport. The transport and tanker were astern of the submarine, and off the beam, a destroyer was charging in at 30 knots. Two destroyer escorts rushed at the Tang from the other side, and the three burning ships were directly off the bow. The Tang fired three fast shots to clear the way—the first struck the tanker, which immediately spewed a geyser of flame. The second hit the transport, stopping her dead in the water. The third struck the destroyer.

The explosion of the destroyer shook the Tang from stem to stern. Sprinting out through the gap, she dashed away from the Japanese destroyer escorts. The Tang remained at a safe distance while her last two torpedoes were loaded.

O’Kane selected the damaged troop transport as his final target. The Tang darted through a gap between the escorts and fired the last two torpedoes. The first ran straight to the target, while the second failed and circled back and struck the Tang. The nine crew members on the bridge were thrown into the sea, and the submarine sank to 180 feet. Thirteen men attempted to escape the submarine—eight survived the swim to the surface. The surviving crew were immediately captured and sent to a prisoner-of-war camp in Taiwan.

I selected these two stories for several reasons. First, I had the opportunity to meet both of these men; however, I failed to take advantage of this opportunity and really talk to them. Don’t make my mistake—talk to the veterans in your community; they all have stories worth hearing. However, you will likely have to encourage them to talk—these humble men seldom brag.

The second reason for selecting these stories was to tell a little about the submarines of WWII. Like all services, their culture is built on incredible sacrifice. The submarine force has been called the silent service, and many of their stories do not get told.

Lastly, I selected the second story to remind you not to blindly trust government organizations. In WWII, two U.S. submarines were sunk by their own torpedoes. The U.S. Bureau of Ordinance refused to allow our submarine to fire torpedoes prior to the war because their operation was so secret. This failure to test the torpedoes prevented flaws from being detected and corrected in the torpedoes. Several submarines were lost because of the Bureau of Ordinance’s arcane procedures.

In this photo, Captain Joe Skinner’s father affixes the command pin on Captain Skinner as he assumed command of the USS Louisville.

My final point of this speech is to ask you: Do you have a ritual you share with your children on Veterans Day or Memorial Day to instill pride in your country? My simple ritual occurred on Memorial Day when we lived in Hawaii. My three daughters would put a lei in Pearl Harbor in remembrance of Claude Alderman, my grandmother’s brother, who died in Flanders Fields during WWI.

To end on a lighter note I have one more story about a veteran:

Ethan Allen returned to England after the Revolutionary war, and the British made fun of him. One day they put a picture of George Washington in an outhouse where Allen would be sure to see it. He used the outhouse but said nothing about the picture. Then the British asked him about it, and Allen said it was a very appropriate place for an Englishman to hang the picture because “nothing will make an Englishman s— so quick as the sight of General Washington.”