LITTLE KNOWN AMERICAN HISTORY!
THE LUCKY CRIBBAGE BOARD!
The Navy has many traditions, the Submarine Force in particular.
These traditions are passed from one generation to the next and held in great honor.
Whether it be the ceremony for crossing the North Pole and becoming a Bluenose or hearing the whistle blow at a retirement ceremony, the Submarine Force is proud of its heritage and the traditions of those that came before them.
But one tradition is rarely talked about outside of the submarine community. It is an honored tradition that has deep ties to the Navy and to one of the Submarine Force’s greatest commanders.
In April of 1943, the USS Wahoo SS-283 was headed out on its fourth war patrol. However, unlike her previous missions, USS Wahoo would be tested by being sent to the shallow waters of the farthest reaches of the Yellow Sea.
This would be the first time a submarine would patrol the area.
Tensions ran high as the crew headed the area. To make them feel more at ease, Commander Dudley “Mush” Morton and his Executive officer Lieutenant Commander Richard “Dick” O’Kane broke out a cribbage board and began to play.
As submarine lore goes, Commander Morton dealt the Lcdr. O’Kane a perfect 29, the highest possible hand one can get in the game.
It had been said that the crew calculated the odds to be one in 216,000.
The crew felt like the hand was a lucky omen.
That night, the USS Wahoo sank two Japanese freighters. Three days later, in another game, Cdr. Morton dealt a 28-point hand. The following day, they sunk two freighters and a third the next day.
Lcdr. O’Kane left the USS Wahoo and took the “Lucky” cribbage board with him. He took command of the USS Tang SS-306, which went on to break the record for most ships sunk in a patrol.
Lcdr. O’Kane would be captured by the Japanese and held until the end of the war.
Sixty years later, the lucky cribbage board would find a home once again on the second submarine named USS Tang SS-563.
Ernestine O’Kane, wife of Richard “Dick” O’Kane sponsored the second USS Tang.
The story of Cdr. Morton’s 29 hand solidified its place in submarine lore and tradition.
The tradition of playing cribbage on board submarines has lived on despite video games and movies as pastime alternatives. It even has been labeled the unofficial game of submariners.
When the second USS Tang was struck from the Naval Register in 1987, the lucky cribbage board was passed on to the USS Kamehameha SSN 642, the oldest commissioned submarine in the force at the time.
Since this trade, the lucky cribbage board has been sent to the oldest commissioned submarine in the Pacific Fleet after the decommissioning of its predecessor.
When the USS Kamehameha was decommissioned in 2002 after 37 years of service, the board was passed onto the USS Parche SSN-683, the most highly decorated vessel in US History.
The USS Parche was decommissioned in 2005 and the board did not reach its next home until 2007, the USS Los Angeles SSN-688.
Upon accepting the board, Commanding Officer, Cdr. Erik Burian said….
“It’s an honor to deploy with O’Kane’s cribbage board. Embarking with a piece of submarine history is a constant reminder of the legacy that we will continue. My crew and I enjoy passing time playing cribbage while not on duty and we are proud that we can carry on the tradition.”
When the USS Los Angeles was decommissioned in 2011, the board was sent to the USS Bremerton SSN-698 where it was kept atop a case of coffee mugs in the wardroom.
The crew used the board often said Cdr. Wes Bringham….“We play on it. We figure he would have wanted us to.”
In April 2018, USS Bremerton left its home port in Pearl Harbor and headed for her namesake city, the final destination before her retirement.
The cribbage board has not yet found a new home that I am aware of it but it will and the tradition will continue.
The cribbage board isn’t simply handed over, but in true Navy fashion, its transfer is honored with a ceremony just as any change of command has seen.
Cribbage is more than just a game to submariners. It is tied to their heritage and the essence of who they are. And with the O’Kane’s cribbage board being kept alive, it serves as a reminder of the greatest of the submariners who came before, the ones that currently serve, and the future.