Print Friendly, PDF & Email

BRIDGEPORT, Pa. — On Memorial Day, the Collegiate Water Polo Association (CWPA) remembers former United States Naval Academy water polo athlete Cmdr. Thomas B. Oakley, Jr.

Born on February 27, 1912 in Staten Island, New York, Oakley graduated from the US Naval Academy on June 20, 1934 and was commissioned an Ensign. A four-year member of the men’s water polo team at the Naval Academy, it was noted in the 1934 Lucky Bag that Oakley was “well liked and a man who is readily followed through thick and thin.” Some of his early assignments included the USS West Virginia (BB-48), 1934-1936, and USS Williamson (DD-244/AVP-15), 1937-1938. In 1938 he attended Submarine School at Submarine Base, New London, Connecticut. In May 1939, Oakley married Betty Stark Breeden in Riverside, Calif.. They later sailed to Pearl Harbor, where he was stationed.

In July 1939 he was assigned to the USS Cachalot (SS-170), a submarine that had been commissioned in December 1933.  The USS Cachalot was in a Pearl Harbor drydock undergoing overhaul on 7 December 1941 when the Japanese attacked. According to various accounts, the Cachalot was not damaged during the attack, and one crew member was injured. On January 2, 1942, Oakley became the Executive Officer of the Cachalot. Cachalot conducted its first war patrol from January 12, 1942 to March 18, 1942, departing from Pearl Harbor. Her second patrol was June 9, 1942 to July 26, 1942, departing from Midway and returning to Pearl Harbor.

LT Oakley was assigned as the Executive Officer for the USS Tinosa (SS-283) on January 18, 1943, which was newly commissioned at Mare Island Shipyard. Tinosa arrived in Pearl Harbor on April 16, 1943 and departed for her first war patrol on May 3, 1943. Tinosa returned to Midway on June 19, 1943. Her second war patrol was in July-August 1943, when she returned to Pearl Harbor.

LCDR Oakley became the Commanding Officer of the USS Tarpon (SS-175) on November 19, 1943. Tarpon departed on her tenth war patrol on December 4, 1943. LCDR Oakley was awarded the Legion of Merit for exceptionally meritorious service as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. Tarpon on this patrol. Following the patrol, Tarpon performed an extended refit until April 1944.

On April 23, 1944, Oakley relieved LCDR Arnold F. Schade as commanding officer of submarine USS Growler (SS-215) at Majuro Atoll, Marshall Islands.  Schade assumed command in February 1943 following an incident noted in naval and movie history.

The Growler stealthily approached the armed food supply vessel Hayasaki for a night surface attack. The small fast ship suddenly turned to ram. Unable to avoid the collision, then commanding officer Lieutenant Commander Howard W. Gilmore ordered left full rudder and all ahead flank, and rammed the enemy amidships at 17 knots (31 km/h), bending Growler’s bow 18 feet to the port side. As machine gun fire raked them at point-blank range, Commander Gilmore ordered the bridge cleared. As the commanding officer, Gilmore was the last to leave the bridge, but was grievously wounded before he could get below. Realizing that he was jeopardizing his boat’s escape, he ordered “Take her down!”. The executive officer, Schade, shut the hatch and dived the boat.  By saving his command at the cost of his own life, Gilmore became the first of seven World War II submariners to earn the Medal of Honor. A fictionalized and resequenced version of the ramming attack by Growler on her fourth patrol features prominently in the John Wayne movie Operation Pacific

Upon returning to dock on February 17, 1943, under the command of Schade the boat was refitted and nicknamed the Kangaroo Express, as the refabricated bow had two nickel kangaroos as decorations.

Growler departed for her ninth war patrol on May 14, 1944, under the command of Oakley and returned to Pearl Harbor for a refit on July 17, 1944. On August 11, 1944, Growler departed Pearl Harbor for her tenth war patrol. During a stop at Midway Atoll, submarine USS Growler formed a wolfpack with submarines USS Sealion and USS Pampanito with Oakley in command. The pack was named “Ben’s Busters.” The pack sank seven ships on this patrol. On September 26, 1944, Growler arrived in Freemantle for a refit.

Growler departed Freemantle on October 20, 1944 on her eleventh and final war patrol. The Growler was a member of a wolfpack consisting of USS Hake (SS-256) and USS Hardhead (SS-365). The pack detected an enemy convoy in the South China Sea on the morning of November 8, 1944. Growler closed in for the kill while Hake and Hardhead flanked the convoy. CDR Oakley ordered the wolf pack to attack, but that was the last communication ever heard from Growler. A short time later, Hake noted in her war diary that she heard two explosions of “undetermined character,” and almost simultaneously, the convoy zig-zagged away from Growler’s position. Hardhead heard what sounded like a torpedo explosion followed by three depth charges on the opposite side of the convoy. Hake and Hardhead continued to attack the convoy, sinking the 5,300-ton tanker Manei Maru. Hake endured 16 hours of enemy attacks with some 150 depth charges exploding around her during the battle. After the engagement was complete, Hake and Hardhead attempted to contact Growler continuously for three days, without success. The likely culprits of Growler’s demise were later identified as Japanese destroyer Shigure and escort vessel Chiburi, or another Japanese vessel in the convoy. The possibility also exists, however unlikely, that one of Growler’s own torpedoes made a premature or circular run.

Oakley was awarded the Navy Cross for his performance during the Growlers last patrol. The citation reads: “The President of the United States of America takes pride in presenting the Navy Cross (Posthumously) to Commander Thomas Benjamin Oakley, Jr. (NSN: 0-73499), United States Navy, for extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession as Commanding Officer of the U.S.S. GROWLER (SS-215), on the TENTH War Patrol of that submarine during the period 11 August 1944 to 26 September 1944, in enemy controlled waters of the Southwest Pacific. Striking fiercely at a large Japanese convoy in a daring night surface action, Commander Oakley delivered a fast bow attack, sinking a tanker and damaging a freighter, then, swinging hard right under terrific shellfire, shot four stern torpedoes point blank at an aggressive destroyer, exploding the target in billows of smoke. Threatened with depth-charging and under furious surface attack, he remained surfaced while skillfully evading the persistent counterfire and submerged just before dawn to make his escape undamaged. Warned of the approach of a second heavily-escorted convoy, he attacked from dead ahead of the starboard column, firing three down-the-throat shots at a destroyer bearing down on a collision course, executed a sharp maneuver hard left, fired his stern tubes at two overlapping merchantmen to score heavy damage on both, and swung hard left again in time to see the blazing man-of-war sink a short 200 yards off his port side. Undaunted, he cleared the area under heavy fire while still surfaced and, a few hours after daylight, sighted a third destroyer searching the scene of earlier action. Immediately submerging, he rigged for depth-charging, conducted a brilliant close-range periscope attack and plunged deep to register through the GROWLER’s hull the shattering concussions of his death-dealing torpedoes as they struck the target and exploded. His superb ship handling and indomitable fighting spirit in achieving this outstanding record reflect the highest credit upon commander Oakley, his gallant ship’s company and the United States Naval Service.”

On February 1, 1945, Navy Department Communique No. 572 stated, “Growler is overdue from patrol and presumed lost, cause unknown” and the next-of-kin of her officers and crew were notified. All hands, 86 crewmembers including CDR Oakley, were lost. Over the course of World War II, Growler sank 15 enemy vessels for a total of 74,900 tons and damaged seven other vessels for 34,100 tons on her 11 war patrols.

There is a memorial for the crew of the Growler at the Manila American Cemetery and Memorial in the Philippines, which is in Fort Bonifacio, Taguig City, Metro Manila, within the boundaries of the former Fort William McKinley.

CDR Oakley received the Navy Cross, Legion of Merit, Bronze Star Medal, Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, Good Conduct Medal, Expeditionary Medal, American Campaign Medal, Navy and Marine Corps Presidential Unit Citation, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and WWII Victory Medal.

The Growler was immortalized (along with the era’s USS Tang, Bowfin, Seawolf, and Spadefish) as the boat’s war patrols can be re-enacted in the 1985 MicroProse computer game Silent Service and the game’s various releases including Konami’s 1989 version for the Nintendo Entertainment System.

Collegiate Water Polo Association