Richard Hetherington O’Kane MOH

b. 02/02/1911 Dover, New Hampshire. d. 16/02/1994 Petaluma, California.

DATE OF MOH ACTION: 23-24/10/1944 in vicinity of Formosa Straits, Philippines.

Richard H O’Kane MOH

O’Kane was born February 2, 1911, in Dover, New Hampshire, as the youngest of four children. After graduating high school from Phillips Academy in Andover, Massachusetts, O’Kane attended the U.S. Naval Academy. He graduated and earned his commission in 1934.

O’Kane spent the next few years on surface ships before becoming a submariner and serving a four-year stint on the USS Argonaut. Shortly after the U.S. entered World War II, the USS Wahoo was launched, and O’Kane was chosen as its executive officer. He served on five patrols with the Wahoo before taking command of the newly commissioned USS Tang, which began its first patrol in January 1944.

Over the next several months, the Tang sank several enemy ships and earned a Presidential Unit Citation. It also rescued 22 downed U.S. aviators, whom the Tang then shuttled more than 3,000 miles back to Pearl Harbor — a feat O’Kane made possible by cutting both crew and aviator ration in half for the trip. The Tang was retrofitted and overhauled in the summer of 1944, but it was back in action by September when it sank two Japanese cargo ships. By this time, O’Kane was already considered one of the most successful U.S. submariners of the war; however, it was his ship’s fifth and final patrol that cemented his place in history.

On October 23, 1944, the Tang was operating near the Taiwan Strait in the South China Sea when it spotted an enemy convoy headed to Leyte Gulf in the Philippines. That area was where Allied troops were preparing to win back the island from Japanese invaders who took it over early in the war. Then-Cmdr. O’Kane ordered the Tang to move in for a night surface attack, which put them right in the middle of the convoy. The sub fired several torpedoes and hit three of the enemy ships, which were all damaged or sunk.

As the Tang readied itself to fire on one of the tankers, O’Kane noticed the transport coming toward them at ramming speed. The sub didn’t have room to dive, so O’Kane ordered it to whip around. That caused the transport to swing around to avoid hitting one of its own tankers, which was also trying to ram the Tang. The two enemy ships collided. Soon after, the Tang fired four shots at the tanker and sank it. The Tang then raced toward the open ocean to escape the rest of the convoy’s wrath. O’Kane ordered the sub to fire its remaining torpedoes on two of the ships, a move that sank one and helped the Tang get away.

The next morning, the Tang was at periscope level on its way to Turnabout Island when radar identified another heavily escorted enemy convoy. The ships were piled high with crated planes and other supplies to help reinforce the Japanese campaign at Leyte Gulf. Seeing this, O’Kane prepared his men for another battle.

Once the Tang made itself known to the convoy, it was relentlessly fired upon. Despite that, the Tang got within 1,000 yards of the convoy and fired several torpedoes. Two transports and a tanker were each hit twice, causing violent explosions. The Tang then fired two more torpedoes, which blew up another enemy tanker and damaged a transport ship. An enemy destroyer heading toward the Tang also blew up, either from friendly fire or due to one of the sub’s torpedoes, according to naval historians.

When the Tang used its last two torpedoes on the damaged transport, the first hit its target; however, the second inexplicably backfired. Navy reports show it surfaced, curved to the left and somehow made a circle that brought it right back to the Tang. The sub tried to avoid the rogue torpedo, but it couldn’t. The projectile smashed into the Tang’s torpedo room, sinking the sub from which it came.

Only nine of 87 crew members, including O’Kane, survived. A few had been on the ship’s bridge with O’Kane when the torpedo hit. The others were stuck inside the sinking vessel but were able to get out using an underwater escape device called the Momsen Lung. After treading water for hours, the sub’s survivors were picked up by a Japanese destroyer – survivors of the ships they’d sunk, no less. They spent the next 10 months as prisoners of war in the Tokyo area until the war was over. Newspapers reported that O’Kane weighed 88 pounds and suffered from beriberi and scurvy when he was finally freed.

Even though the Tang sank, its last patrol earned the sub another Presidential Unit Citation and O’Kane the Medal of Honor. O’Kane received the nation’s highest medal for valor from President Harry S. Truman on March 27, 1946, during a White House ceremony. “O’Kane was probably one of the finest skippers I served under,” William Leibold, a boatswain’s mate aboard the Tang, said in a 1999 article in the Honolulu Advertiser newspaper. “O’Kane was a good leader. He was stern, but fair. And I think everyone on board had complete faith in his ability.”

After the war, O’Kane continued on in the Navy. By the early 1950s, he was promoted to captain and put in command of the submarine school in New London, Connecticut. He was serving in the Bureau of Ships when he retired as a rear admiral in 1957. After the military,

he worked for the Great Lakes Carbon Corp in New York before moving to Sebastopol, California, to become a rancher. O’Kane also wrote two books about his war experiences. O’Kane, who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease later in life, died at the age of 83 on February 16, 1994, at a nursing home in Petaluma, California. He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

O’Kane’s legacy lives on. The USS O’Kane, a Navy destroyer, was commissioned in Pearl Harbor in 1999 and continues to serve based out of San Diego. The former rear admiral’s Medal of Honor is kept at the USS Bowfin Submarine Museum and Park in Honolulu.



For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as commanding officer of the U.S.S. Tang operating against two enemy Japanese convoys on 23 and 24 October 1944, during her fifth and last war patrol. Boldly maneuvering on the surface into the midst of a heavily escorted convoy, Comdr. O’Kane stood in the fusillade of bullets and shells from all directions to launch smashing hits on three tankers, coolly swung his ship to fire at a freighter and, in a split-second decision, shot out of the path of an onrushing transport, missing it by inches. Boxed in by blazing tankers, a freighter, transport, and several destroyers, he blasted two of the targets with his remaining torpedoes and, with pyrotechnics bursting on all sides, cleared the area. Twenty-four hours later, he again made contact with a heavily escorted convoy steaming to support the Leyte campaign with reinforcements and supplies and with crated planes piled high on each unit. In defiance of the enemy’s relentless fire, he closed the concentration of ships and in quick succession sent two torpedoes each into the first and second transports and an adjacent tanker, finding his mark with each torpedo in a series of violent explosions at less than 1,000-yard range. With ships bearing down from all sides, he charged the enemy at high speed, exploding the tanker in a burst of flame, smashing the transport dead in the water, and blasting the destroyer with a mighty roar which rocked the Tang from stem to stern. Expending his last two torpedoes into the remnants of a once powerful convoy before his own ship went down, Comdr. O’Kane, aided by his gallant command, achieved an illustrious record of heroism in combat, enhancing the finest traditions of the U.S. Naval Service.