When the USS Wahoo sailed into Pear Harbor on Feb. 7, 1943, she had an odd ornament on her periscope: a common broom. But that broom was one of the most impressive symbols a crew could aspire to earn because it symbolized that the boat had destroyed an entire enemy convoy, sweeping it from the seas.


Historians aren't certain where the tradition originated, but the story cited most often was that a Dutch admiral in the 1650s began the practice after sweeping the British from the seas at the Battle of Dungeness.

(Video: YouTube/Smithsonian Channel)

For the crew of the Wahoo, their great victory came in the middle of five tense days of fighting. It all began on Jan. 24 when the sub was mapping a forward Japanese base on a small island near Papua New Guinea. During the reconnaissance mission, the sailors spotted a destroyer in the water.

Flush with torpedoes and no other threats in sight, the Wahoo decided to engage. It fired a spread of three torpedoes but had underestimated the destroyer's speed. The Wahoo fired another torpedo with the speed taken into account, but the destroyer turned out of the weapon's path.

And then it bore down on the Wahoo, seeking to destroy the American sub. The crew played a high-stakes game of chicken by holding the sub in position. When the destroyer reached 1,200 yards, the crew fired the fifth torpedo, which the destroyer again avoided.

The Imperial Japanese Navy destroyer Hayate undergoes sea trials in 1925. Destroyers are relatively small and weak ships, but are well-suited to destroying submarines and protecting friendly ships. (Photo: Public Domain)

At 800 yards they fired their sixth and last forward torpedo, barely enough range for the torpedo to arm. The risk of failure was so great that Lt. Cmdr. Dudley Morton ordered a crash dive immediately after firing, putting as much water in the way of enemy depth charges as possible.

But the last torpedo swam true and hit the Japanese ship in the middle, breaking its keel and causing its boilers to burst.

The next day, Jan. 25, was relatively uneventful, but Jan. 26 would be the Wahoo's date with destiny. Just over an hour after sunrise, the third officer spotted smoke over the horizon and Morton ordered an intercept course.

They found a four-ship convoy consisting of a tanker, a troop transport, and two freighters. All four were valuable targets, but sinking the troop transport could save thousands of lives and sinking tankers would slow the Japanese war machine by starving ships of fuel.

The USS Wahoo claimed eight sinkings and a "clean sweep" after the ship's third patrol. (Photo: U.S. Navy)

The American crew escaped and continued their patrol, attempting to attack another convoy with just their deck guns on Jan. 27 and mapping a Japanese explosives facility on Jan. 28 before returning to Pearl Harbor with the triumphant broom flying high on Feb. 7.

Other ships have used brooms to symbolize great success, such as in 2003 when the USS Cheyenne flew one to celebrate that every Tomahawk it launched in Operation Iraqi Freedom landing on target with zero duds or failures.