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How Potatoes Saved the Ship

When the chips are down, a man will fight with whatever he has to hand. More than once, what he had was a potato.

Everyone knows about the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. Not every ship was armed, and not every man on an armed ship had weapon ready.

Hansen was an engineer on the transport ship USS Argonne. He was sleeping on deck next to a store of potatoes, when the attack came,. Not to be left out of the fight, he started throwing potatoes at the Japanese planes as they swooped in low.

“I was trying to whack somebody,” he said.


Jim Underwood was on the hospital ship USS Solace, moored near the battleship USS Arizona, a prime target. Jim was drinking a cup of coffee:

“We could see the Japanese planes all the time. One of the battleships fired its 16-inch rifle at a plane. It was a little ridiculous, and didn’t come within a mile of it. We also had one guy who was supposed to be in the brig, but they had him up on deck peeling potatoes, and he was throwing potatoes at the planes – they were that close.”

It wasn’t just the sailors throwing potatoes that day. Marine Pfc. James Evans was in his barracks waiting for transport to his guard post. Then he heard a “thump, thump, thump,” and the sergeant yelled, “Get your rifles! We’re being attacked!”  

Several dozen rifles were suddenly firing out the windows, but not everyone had a gun, and those who didn’t were throwing potatoes at the planes. “We were fighting back with everything we had,” Evans said.

The potatoes at Pearl Harbor didn’t shoot down any planes or save any ships, but it sure made some feel better. However, Pearl Harbor was not the last time that the Japanese faced the fury of an American flying potato.

The Navy destroyer USS O’Bannon was cruising one night in 1943, when it spotted a submarine. The Captain gave the order to ram the sub, but as they drew near,  one of the officers suggested that it might be a mine-laying sub. If it was, the explosion could sink the O’Bannon.

The destroyer swiftly avoided a collision, but the maneuver left the two vessels next to each other. The Japanese sailors reacted by swinging their cannon to attack, but the destroyer was too close to lower its own guns.

American sailors on deck promptly started throwing potatoes from nearby crates, surprising the Japanese. In the dark the submarine sailors thought the potatoes were grenades, and ran to pick them up, tossing them back at the destroyer. This left the sub’s cannon unmanned, and gave the O’Bannon time to maneuver and aim its own cannons to blast the sub’s conning tower.

Those spuds had saved a ship.