by Ernest A. Herr
Update: The History Channel made a movie called "The Fletcher Destroyers" and included a dramatized scene showing this potato battle.
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.
Update to the Maine Potato Incident
February 24, 1999
An article printed in the February, 1999 USS O'BANNON SHIPMATES ASSOCIATION newsletter provided a personal account of the Maine Potato Incident as witnessed by Louis Cianca of the original crew of the O'Bannon. In it, he adds some interesting comments. I was unaware of the orders being bantered about on the bridge since, though close enough to the Japanese submarine myself to engage in the potato fight, I was inside the main radio room and unable to hear what was going on.
If both crews had been armed and firing at each other, it could well have happened that those of us unlucky enough to be in the radio room, could have easily been hit by the gunfire since the metal protection around the shack was only a thin panel of aluminum. Fortunately, no potatoes were able to penetrate our bulkheads to endanger us inside.
Here is Lou Cianca's version as he saw it. His version is how it was related to those of us who were not able to see it for ourselves. Following Lou's version is the official version that I believed he was referring to in his report.
The Maine Potato Battle
By Lou Cianca
In reference to the potatoes which were thrown at the Jap submarine, the navy version is incorrect! That night I, Louis Cianca was on watch on the 20 MM gun mid ship, port side. The potato lockers or bins were near me, they were next to the laundry room which was next to the galley. No one went below for the potatoes. When we were told to prepare to fire that a submarine was spotted we were along side of it. I could not depress my gun, I kept hitting the conning tower.
Yes! I could see the Japs running around, Yes! Since we were not at general quarters there were men just looking at the sub and they started to take potatoes from the bins or lockers and started to throw them at the sub. At this time we had the squadron commodore aboard and he kept yelling at Capt. Mac to ram the sub, but Capt. Mac was yelling we cannot, for we do not have the cutting bow, but the commodore kept YELLING RAM THEM, good thing he did not, God only knows what would have happened to us if he did. For spotting the sub, 1st Class Sonar man CHARLES CONN was promoted to Ensign and left the mighty OBannon for officers school. I can see him now a big guy, yes, I remember the first cruise like it was yesterday.
The following story is apparently is the official version of the Maine Potato Incident that Lou was referring to. It was printed in the April 1993 O'Bannon newsletter. There was no indication in the story as to where it originated but it sounds like a report by the destroyer division commander.
Another Update to the Maine Potato Incident
April 10, 1999
U.S.S. O'Bannon Kills RO-34
(Probably written by the Division Commander)
On April Fool's Day, 1943, Admiral Halsey received information which was nobody's practical Joke. Scouting over the Upper Solomons, Allied aircraft had a glimpse of enemy activity which suggested a big aerial offensive in the making. A lot of supplies were being rushed into enemy bases in the islands. What the Allied flyers had glimpsed was the building up for Yamamoto's Operation I. Although unable to gauge the exact size of this Jap offensive, the Americans made prompt efforts to counter it.
Six times Admiral Ainsworth's force raced north of Kula Gulf, trying to intercept the Japanese, but each time the Jap convoys gave the American ships the slip. Reason: Jap snooper planes and submarines on picket patrol -- a warning system which flashed the alarm to the nervous convoys, giving them adequate time to retire or take cover.
It was a good system while it lasted but it cost the Imperial Navy another submarine. Early in the morning of April 5, Ainsworth's task force was up the "Slot," hunting contact with a reported convoy. The contact, tipped off, had made itself scarce. But destroyers Strong and O'Bannon of the task force screen make radar contact at 0218 with one of the picket subs.
Initial range was 7,000 yards. O'Bannon reported the suspicious "pip," and her captain, Lieutenant Commander D. J. MacDonald, was ordered to conduct an immediate investigation. It took MacDonald about ten minutes to get his ship within sighting range and identify the submarine's silhouette as "made in Japan."
That was all the destroyer men needed. O'Bannon passed ahead of the sub at a distance of about 90 yards. Before the Jap deep-sea sailors knew what hit them, a hot 5-inch salvo was punched down the submarine's throat. MacDonald ordered a K-gun attack. Three portside projectors let fly. The charges straddled the submarine. As the smoke frazzled out of the K-guns, MacDonald conned the ship away and then closed the range to 150 yards, and the destroyer men raked the sub with 1.1-inch and 20 mm. fire.
About 0319 O'Bannon's sonar men obtained sound contact with the submerged target, and MacDonald conned the ship for a depth-charge run. An 8-charge pattern was dropped. It was noted that "all charges functioned properly." This was technical way of saying that eight timed detonations were heard by the destroyer men, not to mention the submariners in the target submersible. Also, there was one particular very heavy explosion quite different in effect from a normal depth-charge explosion. Evidently something bigger than a light bulb had popped within the submarine.
Twice more MacDonald ran his destroyer over the spot, but O'Bannon's sonar was unable to re-establish contact with the sub. For the submarine had gone deep. Very deep. Flying over that locale the following day, American aviators sighted a large, undulant oil slick drifting on the surface of the "Slot." It was the last earthly remnant of the RO-34.
The spud throwers hold a reunion in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania the week-end of July 14, 1984.
Thursday, October 03, 2002 6:40 AM
An e-mail from a viewer in Belgium, Patrick Van Herck, sent this picture that his daughter Suzanne had drawn after she read the Maine Potato story. Thank you Suzanne for a clever drawing.
Look what my daughter has made for you. I only helped her with the translation.