USS Walker DD 517
Maine Potato Episode
By Ernest A. Herr
On April 5th, 1943, the U.S. Navy's Destroyer Squadron 21 was returning from a night of shelling Japanese shore installations deep in the New Georgia area of the Solomon Islands. Our destroyer, the USS O'Bannon, as part of this force, picked up a radar contact that turned out to be a large Japanese submarine cruising on the surface and apparently unaware of our presence. The Japanese lookouts undoubtedly were fast asleep.
We approached rapidly and were preparing to ram the sub. Our captain and other officers on the bridge were trying to identify the type of sub and decided, at the last minute, that it could be a mine layer. Not wanting to blow up ourselves along with the sub, the decision was made that ramming was not a wise move. At the last moment, the rudder was swung hard to avoid a collision and we found ourselves in a rather embarrassing situation as we sailed along side of the Japanese submarine.
On board the sub, Japanese sailors, wearing dark shorts and dinky blue hats, were sleeping out on deck. In what could be considered a rude awaking, they sat up to see an American destroyer sailing along side. Our ship however, was far too close to permit our guns lowered enough to fire and since no one on deck carried a gun, not a shot was heard. Ditto on the Japanese sub, no one there had a gun either. In this situation, no one seemed sure of the proper course of action and it probably would not have been covered in the manual anyway. Therefore everyone just stared more or less spellbound.
The submarine was equipped with a 3-inch deck gun and the sub's captain finally decided that now was probably a good time to make use of it. As the Japanese sailors ran toward their gun, our deck parties reached into storage bins that were located nearby, picked out some potatoes and threw them at the sailors on the deck of the sub. A potato battle ensued. Apparently the Japanese sailors thought the potatoes were hand grenades. This kept them very busy as they try to get rid of them by throwing them back at the O'Bannon or over the side of the sub. Thus occupied, they were too busy to man their deck gun which gave us sufficient time to put a little distance between our ship and the sub.
Finally we were far enough away to bring our guns to bear and firing commenced. One of our shells managed to hit the sub's conning tower but the sub managed to submerge anyway. At that time our ship was able to pass directly over the sub for a depth charge attack. Later information showed that the sub did sink. When the Association of Potato Growers of Maine heard of this strange episode, they sent a plaque to commemorate the event. The plaque was mounted in an appropriate place near the crews mess hall for the crew to see. Well, it was the crew's battle.
The story was picked up by the papers back in the States and, shortly thereafter, a full blown account of the event was covered by a story in the READERS DIGEST. Conversations with a crew member that served years later revealed that, while the plaque was still located in the crew's mess hall, no one seemed to pay much attention to it nor knew much about it. I guess the crew was interested in making history but not particularly interested studying it.
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