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The Maine Potato Episode

The history of the Pacific war can never be written without telling the story of the U.S.S. O’Bannon. Time after time the O’Bannon and her gallant little sisters were called upon to turn back the enemy. They never disappointed me.

- Admiral William F. Halsey

In 1942 the USS O’Bannon, an American destroyer, was dispatched to the South Pacific to face off against Japan’s naval forces. By the end of the Second World War, the O’Bannon earned more service and battle stars, a total of 17, than any other American destroyer. Additionally, it also participated in one of the oddest and most perplexing incidents during the War.

The USS O’Bannon 450, an American destroyer used during WWII in the South Pacific. Photo Credit: USS O’Bannon

The event, later known as “The Maine Potato Episode,” occurred on April 5, 1943 when the destroyer came across a large Japanese submarine, the RO-35, which was cruising on the surface and oblivious to the approaching ship (someone was obviously neglecting their lookout duty). The O’Bannon decided to ram the sub to sink it. At the last minute, however, they decided against it because some feared the sub was a minelayer, a ship/sub used to lay out sea mines, and if it was rammed it would blow up the destroyer as well.

Because of this quick withdrawal, the O’Bannon found itself moving directly parallel to the RO-35. On closer inspection, Ernest Herr, a sailor onboard the destroyer, stated that the Japanese sailors were sleeping on the deck. The sleeping crew quickly woke up and found themselves directly across from their enemy.  The O’Bannon was at a disadvantage because it was too close to the sub to lower its guns and the sub had 3-inch deck guns at the ready.

Photo Credit: USS O’Bannon

Faced with the sub’s guns, the O’Bannon crew began to use whatever they had at their disposal to fight the Japanese. Reaching inside nearby storage bins, the crew began to pelt the Japanese sailors with the barrels’ content. Inside the containers were potatoes and soon an epic potato battle began. Either the Japanese were not used to potatoes or were expecting the worst since they believed the potatoes were actually hand grenades. The sub’s sailors were too preoccupied with throwing these potato “grenades” overboard, or right back at the O’Bannon, that they were not manning their deck guns.

The O’Bannon took the opportunity to gain distance as their enemies were busy handling their potato issue. Once the O’Bannon was far enough away, they properly lower their guns and began firing at the sub, who, by now, started their decent. Before the RO-35 was fully submerge, the O’Bannon damaged the sub’s conning tower. After it disappeared from the surface, the destroyer maneuvered over the sub and delivered a depth charge attack. After the war, information was released that the Japanese RO-35 submarine did, in fact, sink as a result of O’Bannon‘s actions.

Upon hearing about the potato incident, the Association of Potato Growers of Maine sent a plaque commemorating the event. It was mounted near the crew’s mess hall, since, as Herr noted, “it was the crew’s battle.”

Prisoner of war picking potatoes at Camp Houlton in Maine around 1945. Photo Credit: Maine Memory Network

Further Reading
USS O’Bannon at the Destroyer History Foundation’s website.
Ernest A. Herr, “The Maine Potato Episode.”
USS O’Bannon‘s website.

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7 Comments to “The Maine Potato Episode”

  1. This topic is a great example of why your web site is so amazing. I never learned about this in any of my history text books. Thank you for taking us beyond the text book and sharing with us amazing history.

  2. […] of my favorite post so far has been The Maine Potato Episode. My dad was watching TV one night and the show was discussing it, he called me up and told me about […]

  3. Love this story, but I think they sent a plaque, not a plague…

    • Thanks Judy for the comment! It is one of my favorite posts on the site! I could make the excuse that the “g” and the “q” are close by each other and that is why I spelled it wrong…but they really aren’t so I guess I can’t… ;-)

  4. I was onbaord the third USS O’Bannon DD-987, and I remember that plaque hanging on the quarterdeck of our grey lady. I love this story and have told it often, proud of the heritage of the ship’s name that I served under. However, my O’Bannon was decommissioned and sunk off the coast of Virginia as an artificial reef. I hope that this plaque was removed from the ship before it was delivered to Davy Jones for reassignment, so that if there is another ship that is deemed fit to be named the fouth USS O’Bannon it can be proudly displayed on her as well.

    • Thank you for your service Buck! I first heard of this story through my father, who is not much of a history buff but it was mentioned on a television show he was watching. He then told me about it and, while some of the things were not correct, the gist of it was right. This story did not seem to be as circulated online as I thought it would be. I, too, hope they took the plaque down before sinking the third USS O’Bannon. Thank you for commenting with your story!

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