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Undersea Warrior

Undersea Warrior: The World War II Story of Mush Morton and the USS Wahoo, by Don Keith

A while back I watched a video of an interview with Don Keith about his new book Undersea Warrior: The World War II Story of Mush Morton and the USS Wahoo. It was clear from the way he spoke about Mush Morton with a such confident off-the-cuff delivery that he had done his homework. The history of the Wahoo has been told many times. The background of Dudley Morton, the driving force behind this legendary submarine, has not received the same coverage. Michael Sturma's book Surface and Destroy, published in 2011, included two chapters with some biographical details on Morton. Keith notes he was able to read and review the book in manuscript form while doing his research for Undersea Warrior. In it he provides an incisive look into Dudley Morton's life and the things that made him arguably the most famous World War II submarine commander.

The book gives you a clear impression of Mush Morton. He was a bottom-line leader. You did not have to parse his statements through a bullshit degausser. You always knew where he was coming from and where he intended to go. That was mostly into harm's way. And his crew always followed him with confidence and trust in his ability to captain the Wahoo. He was not aloof. To find him wrestling playfully with a Wahoo crewman was commonplace. His motto was "Kill the Sonza Bitches." He never showed up for a gun battle with a knife. He understood what unrestricted submarine warfare meant. He was credited for destroying a complete convoy on his first outing as the Wahoo's captain and turned every gun aboard her against hundreds of Japanese troops left treading water in the Bismarck Sea. That action likely cost him a Medal of Honor, though the brass would never say so. Today there are mixed opinions as to how many people the Wahoo killed in what has come to be known as the Buyo Maru incident. It was also later learned that there were Indian prisoners of war aboard the doomed ship. His death with Wahoo and her crew would drive the need for revenge that made Lockwood send his Hellcats to the Sea of Japan. The Bonefish was lost there, in the Toyama Bay, and many felt the results did not justify the loss at that late date in the war. Even Lockwood would later write that his emotions over the loss of Morton and the Wahoo probably clouded his judgment in the Hellcats operation. It is as if the vice admiral had lost a son.

Keith's writing style in parts of Undersea Warrior reminds me of the non-fiction novel genre Truman Capote popularized in the 1960s. In some places he utilizes dialog between characters to describe actual events that occurred during Wahoo's patrols. There's no way to know how accurate the words within quotes are, but the events and the personalities of most of the characters are well known. Morton's patrol reports are very entertaining. He had a colorful way of describing the physics of how enemy ships blew up and the consequent antics of their crews as they abandoned their ships. My point is there is enough context in Wahoo's reports for a gifted writer to envision what was said. It makes for an addictive narrative. I was hooked from the beginning. It is a true page-turner.

Keith also writes about Morton's pre-war career and his ties to the Far East. The time Morton spent in China sailing on the Yellow Sea would later help him reckon Wahoo's position there. He met and married his wife at Tsingtao. Morton was also a favorite of some well-known Hollywood stars and it is likely he was consulted on the making of the film Destination Tokyo. The author's chapter on the Wahoo's final patrol is very poignant. This is a sad tale of the Wahoo's last moments as told by some of the Japanese warriors who delivered the final blows.

Don Keith has produced a great book. I highly recommend it.