During the 1652 Battle of Dungeness, English and Dutch naval forces met off the coast of England. The Dutch ships not only won the battle but gained control of the English Channel. Legend has it that the Dutch admiral in command of his fleet returned home flying a broom on his mast, boasting that he’d swept the seas clean of his enemies.
Whether the story is true is debatable, but what is definitely true is that American sailors began returning to home ports during World War II with brooms fixed to their submarines. They had made a clean sweep of their own. The first-known U.S. sub to adopt the tradition was the USS Wahoo in 1942.
The Wahoo was a Gato-class submarine with a new commander, out for its third patrol in January 1943. It had just inflicted heavy damage on the Japanese destroyer Harusame near Papua New Guinea and was headed for Palau.
Somewhere off the coast of the island, the submarine sighted smokestacks from two freighters. The Wahoo moved into position and fired four torpedoes, with the first two hitting the first freighter and one hitting the second.
With the two freighters burning and listing, the Wahoo’s commander, Dudley Walker "Mush" Morton, saw two more Japanese ships. This time, the targets were an oil tanker and a troop transport -- and the transport was on a collision course with the Wahoo.
Instead of taking evasive action, the Wahoo fired two torpedoes directly at the oncoming transport. One hit but didn’t stop the troopship’s course. The Wahoo quickly moved out of its way to avoid the strike. When Morton raised the periscope to observe the situation on the surface, he learned one of the freighters was not on its way to the bottom; the tanker was moving with some difficulty and the troopship had stopped altogether.
The Wahoo finished off the troop transport with a well-placed torpedo amidships. It let the remaining freighter and oil tanker escape over the horizon and surfaced to charge its batteries. The Wahoo and the soldiers in lifeboats exchanged fire before learning the survivors were mainly Indian prisoners of war.
Once its batteries were charged, the Wahoo took off after the escaping Japanese ships. With only four torpedoes left, it fired two at each of the remaining ships. Three hit home, and both ships went down.
After a brief encounter to break up an enemy convoy, the Wahoo returned to Pearl Harbor. Affixed to its periscope was a broom, indicating the clean sweep of enemy ships along its patrol route. Fixing a broom to the ship upon returning home in World War II came to mean the ship sank every enemy ship it engaged.
Over time, the naval meaning of the broom evolved in the U.S. Navy. It still symbolized a clean sweep of targets, but it no longer was reserved for submarine combat or even naval warfare. Ships that successfully complete their initial sea trials are known to fly brooms.
More recent combat brooms came from the USS Cheyenne, USS Montpelier and USS Pittsburgh, which were all Los Angeles-class submarines that fired Tomahawk missiles in the opening days of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Their commanders decided that all their Tomahawks landing on target constituted a clean sweep as well.
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