03 February 2022

You Sank My Submarine With....Potatoes?

Not a dead cow in sight...
 You've heard the stories: damned near anything can and has been made into a projectile. During the
Middle Ages besieging armies would frequently use their siege engines (catapults, trebuchets, the first crude cannons) to toss stones, bits of masonry, pots of flaming oil, even rotting animal carcasses over the walls and into the streets of the city they were trying to take.

Seems human beings can be pretty inventive when it comes to making the everyday into a weapon. During World War I, when the airplane was still in its infancy, planes were first utilized solely to observe enemy troop movements. Pilots from opposing sides were even known to wave at each other as they passed.

As the body counts mounted, though, and Belgium and Northern France became one vast killing field, that sense of bonhomie quickly faded. Pilots started tossing things at each other: bottles, rocks, even bricks. Within months they were engaging each other in vicious aerial combat utilizing machine guns engineered specifically to fire through the revolving propellers of their aircraft.

Whether or not they threw food–fresh or rotten–at each other (Which is likely-seeing as they threw nearly everything else) in those early days before every plane was outfitted either a Lewis or Maxim machine gun, there is no record of them using potatoes specifically in an attempt to get past the guard of an enemy.

Oh no. 

For that, you need another war–the next World War, and the United States Navy.

USS O'Bannon (DD 450)
Specifically, the crew of the USS O'Bannon

Here's the story:

On the evening of April 5th, 1943. The O'Bannon, a destroyer on anti-submarine patrol in the Pacific, comes upon a Japanese submarine stalking the convoy the O'Bannon is tasked with guarding.

The sub has surfaced, and is running parallel to O'Bannon when the destroyer discovers her. The O'Bannon's captain considers ramming the sub, thinks better of it–too tricky. The ship's guns won't lower enough to actually open fire at the sub–the two vessels are that close to each other. 

But the Japanese have a deck gun capable of firing on the O'Bannon, and her skipper gives the order to man it. The O'Bannon's captain orders the ship on a new heading, wanting to increase the distance so he can bring O'Bannon's five-inch guns into play.

But that will take time, and the Japanese gun crew could well be able to get off several shots before the destroyer is able to respond in kind. To make matters worse, the O'Bannon only has deck guns–no mounted machine guns, or even small arms such as pistols or shotguns as part of her armament.

So in order to buy time for her own guns to be brought into play, the destroyer's deck crew get creative.

They start throwing potatoes at the Japanese gun crew.


As the story goes (and what sort of "sea story" would it be if it didn't go this way), getting pelted with spuds so distracted the Japanese gun crew that the O'Bannon was able to get far enough away to bring her own guns into play. At the first salvo, the Japanese sub crash dived, and the O'Bannon gave chase, eventually sinking her with a barrage of depth charges.

Of course, this story often gets dismissed as a literal "sea story" (click here if you don't get it immediately). None other than the O'Bannon's captain, Edwin Wilkinson claimed it never happened. It didn't go into his initial report, and Wilkinson maintained to the end of his days that the story of the potato barrage grew out of the observation by a member of the bridge crew that when the O'Bannon and the sub were initially sailing parallel to each other, they were in fact so close that "you could throw a potato and hit that sub," or words to that effect.

And while the O'Bannon is credited with sinking the sub in question during this encounter, other sources maintain that the sub escaped, only to be sunk the next night by the O'Bannon, working in tandem with another American warship.

Sea story or fact? Historical fiction or history?

Which is more fun? Let us hear what you think in the comments!

Tasty tuber or deadly weapon? YOU be the judge! See you in the comments!

A special "thank you" to my friend David Corbett for bringing this little gem to my attention. He's one hell of a writer, to boot. Check out his website here. Thanks again, David!

See you in two weeks!


  1. Brian, as you well know, don't let the facts get in the way of a good story, and this is a good story.

  2. God, I love the idea of lobbing potatoes at a gunned ship! That's hilarious!

  3. I hear it was the sour cream that finished the job.

  4. What about the machine gun that spit out baby carrots? Great story, Brian. We need more of 'em!!!


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