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During WWII, Potato 'Grenades' Helped a U.S. Ship Sink a Japanese Sub

It’s said that one shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, but what about potatoes?
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It’s said that one shouldn’t bring a knife to a gunfight, but what about potatoes? On April 5, 1943, the USS O’Bannon was equipped with 17 anti-aircraft guns, multiple torpedo tubes, depth charges and 5-inch 38 caliber deck guns, but it was uncooked spuds that helped save the ship from a Japanese submarine encounter in the Southwest Pacific.

The O’Bannon, a decorated Fletcher-class destroyer commissioned and launched in 1942, had been running support missions in the South Pacific for over a year. That night, the ship and its crew were returning from a shelling mission near the Solomon Islands, when they happened upon an enemy RO-34 Submarine cruising on the ocean’s surface. To their surprise, the sub was completely unaware of the 2,000-ton destroyer’s presence—even the lookout sailors were “fast asleep” on the deck, according to an article in Destroyer History Foundation by one of the sailors on board, Ernest Herr.

Eager to end a potentially deadly and dangerous situation before it had a chance to start, the O’Bannon’s Captain decided to ram the sub, hoping to cause enough damage to sink the 1,000-ton enemy ship. That’s when things went awry.

“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,” recalls Herr. “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.”

The crew soon realized they were too close to the sub to even fire their shortest-range weapons. Sailors don’t carry sidearms on deck either, so there was little the O’Bannon’s crew could do to defend themselves.

The Japanese sailors, now wide awake, began moving towards the sub’s 3-inch deck guns, which were perfectly in range to inflict some heavy damage on the much bigger American destroyer. The O’Bannon and its crew seemed to be sitting ducks.

USS O'Bannon

The U.S.S. O'Bannon, circa 1951. (Credit: The U.S. Navy)

The Americans needed to divert the Japanese crew’s attention away from their deck guns long enough for the O’Bannon to get back into firing range. The order was given to scour the deck for anything they could throw at the Japanese sub below. It just so happened that the ship was carrying large bins of potatoes on deck, so those quickly became the defending crew’s weapons of choice. They began pelting the submarine, and its now confused crew, as hard and fast as they could.

Because it was still dark, and possibly because they’d just been asleep and now were fueled by pure adrenaline (and, let’s face it… who throws potatoes?), the Japanese sailors mistook the spuds for hand grenades. Panicked, they rushed to pick up the would-be-explosives and hurled them off their deck and back up at the Americans as quickly as they could.

The impromptu food fight provided enough distraction to allow the O’Bannon to distance itself, and then the real fight began. Now far enough away to be able to engage their firepower, the O’Bannon unleashed an onslaught on the RO-34. The submarine took some damage, but managed to submerge in time to avoid more, at least temporarily. The O’Bannon quickly maneuvered itself over the sub, and proceeded to sink it using depth charges, killing all 66 men on board and ending the fight.

The “Maine Potato Episode,” as it was soon known—possibly because the ship was forged in Maine, or because the potatoes may have come from Maine—quickly made news back home. The crew was regarded as heroes for their ingenuity and quick thinking, and even received a plaque from the Association of Maine Potato Growers commemorating their victory.

As for the O’Bannon, it stayed in service throughout WWII and the Korean war, becoming one of the most decorated vessels in U.S. Navy history. It was decommissioned and sold for scrap in 1970, but it will be forever remembered for its part in one of World War II’s most unconventional battles.

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