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Tales from the Silent Service. The Saga of Seaman Rubin MacNeil Raiford and the USS Tang

September 28, 2016

Rubin Macneil Railford may have been the youngest U.S. serviceman to have paid the ultimate sacrifice during WWII.

There’s not much known about the young submarine sailor other than that he was born May 13, 1929, and was an African American resident of Georgetown, SC who lived with his father Lucius Raiford, and his mother who was either Margaret or Victoria Raiford. He had two sisters, Dorothy and Elizabeth, and two brothers, Arthur and Horace. Seaman Raiford enlisted in the Navy on Oct. 13, 1942, at the youthful age of thirteen, a common practice at that time, and he became a ship’s cook on a submarine.


Raiford was first assigned to the submarine USS Spadefish SS-411 on which he participated in four war patrols prior to being transferred to the USS Tang SS-306, according to known information about him. The U.S. military was still segregated at that time in the 1940s and so for young Seaman Raiford to have served aboard a USN submarine, he must have been good sailor and an exceptional cook since the submarine service is noted for its high quality of food; it is considered to be a morale booster to the crews who serve long hours submerged under extreme conditions.


The Tang was one of the most successful submarines during WWII, having sunk the highest number of enemy ships and the most tonnage of any other U.S. submarine. 


USS Tang SS-306 was a  Baleo Class submarine and the first ship of the United States Navy to bear the name Tang or Paracanthurus hepatus a species of Indo-Pacific surgeonfish that is primarily a bait fish.   

The contract to build USS Tang was awarded to Mare Island Naval Shipyard on 15 December 1941, and her keel was laid down on 15 January 1943. She was launched on 17 August sponsored by Mrs. Antonio S. Pitre, and commissioned on 15 October 1943 with Lieutenant Commander Richard O’Kane, former executive officer of Wahoo, in command; she was delivered to the Navy on 30 November 1943. The submarine had a length of 311 ft., a 27 ft. beam and a draft of 16 ft. Her propulsion consisted of four Fairbanks-Morse nine cylinder opposed piston diesel engines that could drive her through the water at speeds over 20 kts. surfaced and 9 kts. submerged. And, her armament consisted of ten 21” torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft. As well as one 5”, 25 caliber deck gun.


Tang was lost during her last battle engagement, the result of a circular run of one of her own torpedoes that came back and hit her; she sunk, going to the bottom in 180 feet of water resulting in the loss of 78 crewmen. However, a total of thirty survived with thirteen of them utilizing Momsen Lungs to escape through the forward escape trunk. 


It was the lone known escape from a sunken submarine using the Momsen Lung, a rudimentary underwater rebreather that was utilized prior to and during World War II by American submariners as emergency escape gear that was invented by Charles B.  “Swede” Momsen. All Submariners underwent training for its use in an 80 foot deep Escape Training Tank at New London, Ct, or Pearl Harbor. The device recycled the  breathing air through the use of a counter-lung containing soda lime to scrub out carbon dioxide, and it was initially filled with oxygen and connected to a mouthpiece via twin hoses containing one-way valves: one for breathing in and the other for breathing out. 


The Momsen lung was replaced by the more updated version called the Steinke hood beginning in 1962.

The USS Tang sailed from Pearl Harbor on 22 January 1944 to begin her first war patrol, destined for the Caroline Islands-Mariana Islands area, and the morning of 17 February she sighted a convoy of two freighters, five smaller ships, and their escort and so tracked the convoy, and then prepared to attack. However, she was discovered by another escort ship that was closing quickly so, Tang dived deep in order to evade, but endured five depth charge attacks prior to finally losing the enemy ship.  Then, undamaged she returned to periscope depth and resumed her assault, closing to 1,500 yards and fired a spread of four torpedoes. Three hit the 6800-ton freighter Gyoten Maru sinking it by the stern. 


Then on the night of 22 February, Tang initiated a surface attack on a convoy of three cargo ships and two escorts, her crew tracked the Japanese ships through rain squalls that had interfered with the efficiency of their radar. However, Tang was able to attain a favorable firing position while on the surface, 1,500 yard off the port bow of a freighter where she launched a spread of four torpedoes hitting the 3600 ton Fukuyama Marum from bow to stern causing the enemy ship to virtually disintegrate. Subsequently on the next morning, Tang made a second approach on the convoy picking off a cargo ship when its escort ship, the 6,800 ton Yamashimo Maru, moved from its covering position. Tang then launched four torpedoes, the first hit the stern of the cargo vessel while the second struck just aft of the stack, and the third just forward of the bridge producing a tremendous secondary explosion. The ship was twisted and lifted from the water, and began belching flames as she sank.


Tang’s second patrol took her to waters around the Palau Islands where she made only five surface contacts and hadn’t an opportunity to launch an attack. Then, she was assigned to lifeguard duty where she rescued twenty-two downed airmen and transported them to Hawaii at the conclusion of the patrol.

Her third war patrol was one of the most devastating, carried out against Japanese shipping during the entire war. After getting underway again from Pearl Harbor on 8 June she hunted enemy shipping in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea areas. Next, 24 June, southwest of Kagoshima, the submarine contacted a convoy of six large ships guarded by sixteen escorts so she closed for a surface attack and fired a spread of three torpedoes at one of the ships and then quickly launched another spread at a second target. Explosions followed, and Tang reported two ships sunk. However, postwar records revealed by the Japanese government show that two passenger-cargo ships and two freighters were sunk. Unknown to Tang the ships were overlapped and so the torpedo spread hit and sunk two additional vessels in addition to their intended targets that included the Tamahoko Maru, Tainan Maru, Nasusan Maru, and Kennichi Maru that totaled to 16,292 tons of enemy shipping.


 In addition, she sank another cargo ship she sighted steaming without an escort, the Nikkin Maru, blowing it in half and taking with it some 3,200 Japanese soldiers. And, later on that same patrol she sank the freighter Taiun Maru, and tanker Takatori Maru while another one fled, but Tang trailed it until after dark, then launched two torpedoes which sent the it down. Tang celebrated 4 July at dawn with an end-around, submerged attack on an enemy freighter firing a spread of three fish with two hits, and then she surfaced as survivors of the 6,886-ton cargo ship Asukazan Maru were being rescued by fishing boats. And that afternoon, Tang sighted Yamaoka Maru, another cargo ship of approximately the same size, and sank her with two torpedoes. 


While prowling the waters off Dairen late the next night, the submarine sighted a cargo ship and, during a submerged attack with her last two torpedoes, sank Dori Maru. Tang had been credited with eight ships for 56,000 tons at the time, and for her third patrol she sank ten ships for a total of 39,160 tons.

Her fourth war patrol was conducted from 31 July – 3 September in Japanese home waters off the coast of Honshū  where Tang a sank a tanker near the beach of Omaezaki with two torpedo hits, and a larger freighter Roko Maru disintegrated apparently from a torpedo which exploded in her boilers. She also destroyed a patrol yacht with her deck gun, and sent the 8,135-ton transport Tsukushi Maru to the bottom. Two days later, Tang attacked a tanker and an escort sinking her eighth tanker Nanko Maru, then turning to home at Pearl to undergo a refit. 


Post refit, Tang got underway on 24 September for what would be her fifth and final war patrol. After topping off with fuel at Midway Island she sailed for Formosa Strait and In order to reach her patrol area Tang would have to pass through narrow waters known to be heavily patrolled by the enemy with a large expanse stretching northeast from Formosa that was known to be mined by the Japanese. This compelled Captain O’Kane  into a decision of making the passage north of the island alone, or joining a coordinated attack group comprised of USS Silversides, USS Trigger, and USS Salmon. O’ Kane chose to make the passage alone and the other vessels never heard from Tang again, nor did any base, after she left Midway. 


Therefore, the story of Tang’s fate comes from the report made by her surviving commanding officer which states; that on the night of 10–11 October, Tang sank the cargo ships Joshu Go and Ōita Maru. Then the submarine continued on patrol until 23 October when she contacted a large convoy consisting of three tankers, a transport, a freighter, and numerous escorts. Commander O’Kane planned a night surface attack and broke into the middle of the formation firing torpedoes as she closed, two torpedoes struck under the stack and engine room of the nearest ship, and a single burst into the stern of another, while two more exploded under the stack and engine space of a third. The first torpedoes began exploding before the last ones was even fired and all hit their targets which were soon either ablaze or sinking.


As the submarine prepared to fire at a tanker which was crossing her stern, she sighted a transport bearing down on her in an attempt to ram. Tang hadn’t any room to dive, so she crossed the transport’s bow and with full left rudder saved her stern from being rammed, then the tanker and tanker collided and the submarine fired four stern torpedoes hitting both targets. The tanker sank bow first and the transport went down by the stern.  Ensuing, with escorts approaching on the port bow and beam and a destroyer closing on the port quarter, Tang rang up full speed and headed for open water leaving in her wake an inferno of twisted wreckage, secondary explosions, smoke and fire. 


On the morning of 24 October, Tang began patrolling at periscope depth then she surfaced at dark and headed for Turnabout Island. And soon, Tang identified a large convoy which consisted tankers with planes on their decks along with transports having crated planes stacked on their bows and sterns. As the submarine tracked the Japanese ships along the coast, the escort command ship commenced signaling by searchlight that inadvertently illuminated the convoy for Tang. Then sub attacked, sinking a large three-deck transport, a smaller transport, and a large tanker.  Tang’s score for the night would later be confirmed as the freighters Kogen Maru, 6600 tons and Matsumoto Maru 7000 tons. 


Then tragically, at 02:30 on the morning of 25 October, Tang launched its 24th and final fish, a Mark 18 electric torpedo that malfunctioned, broached and turned to the left in a circular run to come back at Tang. Captain O’Kane ordered evasive action under all ahead emergency power to clear the turning circle of the torpedo but the fish struck her abreast the aft torpedo room approximately twenty seconds after it was fired. The violent explosion caused men as far forward as the control room to suffer broken limbs, then the submarine went down by the stern with the aft three compartments flooded. Of the nine officers and men on the bridge, including O’Kane, three jumped overboard and were able to swim through the night until picked up eight hours later. One officer escaped from the flooded conning tower, and was rescued with the others. 


The submarine bottomed at 180 feet and thirty survivors crowded into the forward torpedo room as the aft compartments flooded, intending to use the forward escape trunk. But, the escape was delayed because a Japanese patrol boat had dropped depth charges on the sunken submarine that sparked an electrical fire in the forward battery, and the crewman also took the time to destroy classified equipment and to burn documents. Then, beginning at 6:00 a.m. on 25 October, using the Momsen Lungs for the first time ever, thirteen of the men escaped from the forward torpedo room. And, by the time the last had exited, the heat from the battery fire was so intense that the paint on the bulkheads was scorching, melting, and running down into the bilges. Of the thirteen men who escaped from the forward torpedo room, only five were rescued. One sailor who was near the group of five but injured during the ascent was not rescued.  Another survivor escaped the conning tower and used his pants as a flotation device. A total of seventy-eight men were lost. 


The nine survivors, including O’Kane, were picked up the next morning by Japanese frigate CD-34 that also had survivors of Tang’s previous sinkings on board, and so the Japanese physically beat the men from Tang. O’Kane stated, “When we realized that our clubbing and kickings were being administered by the burned, mutilated survivors of our handiwork, we found we could take it with less prejudice.” Later, the nine captives were placed in a prison camp at Ōfuna until the end of the war, where they were constantly interrogated by Japanese intelligence. 


As for the final fate of Rubin Macneil Railford.  According to one survivors account, when Tang was hit and began to sink the initial explosion from the torpedo had jammed an internal hatch and Raiford attempted to unjam it to gain entry between compartments, however a secondary explosion caused extensive facial injury to him. “He was the last in the group to attempt to escape the sinking submarine, but they didn’t make it.”


The American Legion and VFW posts of Georgetown have plans in place to officially recognize Raiford in coming Memorial Day ceremonies. And, it is hoped that one of his relatives may come forward with more information and photos concerning the young seaman. 


Tang and her valiant crew were awarded four battle stars and two Presidential Unit Citations for her World War II service, and Her commanding officer, Richard O’Kane received the Medal of Honor for Tang’s final action. 


During the war, Tang was credited with sinking 33 enemy ships during her five patrols, totaling 227,800 tons, and damaging two more for 4,100 tons; a feat unequaled among American submarines. All confirmed by postwar comparison with Japanese records by the Joint Army–Navy Assessment Committee (JANAC) of ships and tonnage. Tang also retains the record for best single patrol by number of ships sunk, her third, with ten for 39,100 tons.


In addition to the Medal of Honor, O’Kane received three Navy Crosses, three Silver Stars, the Legion of Merit with “V” device for valor, the Purple Heart, American Defense Service Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with nine battle stars, World War II Victory Medal and the National Defense Service Medal. He was also retroactively entitled to the Prisoner of War Medal and the Combat Action Ribbon He wrote books about his service on Tang and Wahoo, entitled Clear the Bridge!, The War Patrols of the USS Tang and Wahoo, and The Patrols of America’s Most Famous World War II Submarine.


Although little is known about the short life of Rubin Macneil Railford, its apparent that he was a courageous young man who served his shipmates and his country well as a member of the Silent Service.

Resources and additional reading; wikepedia.org, American Submariner Magazine Vol. 2016, issue 3, southstrandnews.com 9/26/15.

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