Tang was the first ship of the United States Navy to be named for the tang, a surgeonfish, especially the several West Indian species. The contract to build her was awarded to Mare Island Naval Shipyard on 15 December 1941, and her keel was laid down 15 January 1943. She was launched on 17 August sponsored by Mrs. Antonio S. Pitre, and commissioned on 15 October 1943 with Lieutenant Commander Richard H. O'Kane, the extraordinarily effective former executive officer of , in command, and delivered to the Navy on 30 November 1943.
Tang completed fitting out at Mare Island and then moved south to San Diego, California, for 18 days of intensive training before sailing for Hawaii. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on 8 January 1944 and conducted two more weeks of exercises in preparation for combat. Tang stood out of Pearl Harbor on 22 January to begin her first war patrol in the Caroline Islands-Mariana Islands area.
During the night of 22 February, Tang made a surface attack on a convoy of three cargo ships and four escorts. She tracked the Japanese ships for half an hour before attaining a firing position 1500 yards off the port bow of a freighter. A spread of four torpedoes hit Fukuyama Maru from bow to stern, and the enemy ship disintegrated. Early the next morning, Tang made another approach on the convoy. The escort of the lead ship, Yamashimo Maru, moved from its covering position on the port bow, and the submarine slipped into it and fired four torpedoes. The first hit the stern of the cargoman, the second struck just aft of the stack; and the third burst just forward of the bridge and produced a terrific secondary explosion. The ship was twisted, lifted from the water, and began belching flames as she sank.
On the morning of 24 February, Tang sighted a tanker, a freighter, and a destroyer. Rain squalls hampered her as she attempted to attain a good firing position, so she tracked the ships until night and then made a surface attack. She fired four torpedoes and scored three hits which sank the freighter. The two remaining ships commenced firing in all directions, and Tang submerged to begin evasive action. She shadowed the enemy until morning and then closed the tanker for a submerged attack. Additional lookouts had been posted on the target's deck and, when the spread of torpedoes from Tang struck her, they were hurled into the air with other debris from the ship. Echizen Maru sank in four minutes as Tang went deep and rigged for the depth charge attack that followed. The next day, the submarine sank Choko Maru, a 1794-ton cargo ship.
Tang contacted a convoy consisting of a freighter, transport, and four escorts on the evening of 26 February. She maneuvered into position to attack the wildly zigzagging transport and fired her last four torpedoes. All passed astern as the transport speeded up. Having expended all of her torpedoes and scored 16 hits out of 24 attempts, the submarine put into Midway Island for refit.
Tang’s second patrol began on 16 March and took her to waters around the Palau Islands, to Davao Gulf, and to the approaches to Truk. She made only five surface contacts and had no opportunity to launch an attack before she was assigned to lifeguard duty near Truk. Tang rescued 22 downed airmen and transported them to Hawaii at the conclusion of the patrol.
Her third war patrol was one of the most devastating carried out against Japanese shipping during the war. Tang got underway from Pearl Harbor on 8 June and hunted enemy shipping in the East China Sea and Yellow Sea areas. On 24 June, southwest of Kagoshima, the submarine contacted a convoy of six large ships guarded by 16 escorts. Tang closed for a surface attack and fired a spread of three torpedoes at one of the ships and quickly launched a similar spread at a second target. Explosions followed, and Tang reported two ships sunk. However, postwar examination of Japanese records revealed by the Japanese government show that two passenger-cargo ships and two freighters were sunk. The ships must have overlapped, and the torpedo spread must have hit and sunk two victims in addition to their intended targets. Those sunk—Tamahoko Maru, Tainan Maru, Nasusan Maru, and Kennichi Maru—added up to 16,292 tons of enemy shipping.
On 30 June, while she patrolled the lane from Kyūshū to Dairen, Tang sighted another cargo ship steaming without an escort. After making an end around run on the surface which produced two torpedo misses, Tang went deep to avoid depth charges, then surfaced and chased the hapless ship until she closed the range to 750 yards. A single torpedo blew Nikkin Maru in half, and the merchantman sank.
The next morning, Tang sighted a tanker and a freighter. While she sank freighter Taiun Maru Number Two, tanker Takatori Maru Number One fled. The submarine trailed until dark, then fired two torpedoes which sent the latter down. Tang celebrated 4 July at dawn by an end-around, submerged attack on an enemy freighter which was near shore. However, with rapidly shoaling water and her keel about to touch bottom, Tang backed off; fired a spread of three with two hits and then surfaced as survivors of the 6886-ton cargo ship Asukazan Maru were being rescued by fishing boats. That afternoon, Tang sighted Yamaoka Maru, another cargo ship of approximately the same size, and sank her with two torpedoes. The submarine surfaced and, with the aid of grapnel hooks and Thompson submachine guns, rescued a survivor who had been clinging to an overturned lifeboat. While prowling the waters off Dairen late the next night, the submarine sighted a cargo ship and, during a submerged attack with her last two torpedoes, sank Dori Maru. The box score for her third patrol was ten enemy merchant ships sunk that totaled 39,160 tons.
Her fourth war patrol was conducted from 31 July to 3 September in Japanese home waters off the coast of Honshū. On 10 August, she fired a spread of three torpedoes at a tanker near the beach of Omaezaki with no hits. The next day, after locating two freighters and two escorts, she launched three torpedoes at the larger freighter and two at the other. The larger freighter disintegrated apparently from a torpedo which exploded in her boilers. As the submarine went deep, her crew heard the fourth and fifth torpedoes hit the second ship. After a jarring depth charge attack which lasted 38 minutes, Tang returned to periscope level. Only the two escorts were in sight, and one of them was picking up survivors.
On 14 August, Tang attacked a patrol yacht with her deck gun and reduced the Japanese ship's deck house to a shambles with eight hits. Eight days later, she sank a patrol boat. On 23 August, the submarine closed a large ship; Japanese in white uniforms could be seen lining its superstructure and the bridge. She fired three torpedoes, and two hits caused the 8135-ton transport Tsukushi Maru to sink. Two days later, Tang sank a tanker and an escort with her last three torpedoes and then returned to Pearl Harbor.
After a refit and overhaul, Tang stood out to sea on 24 September for her fifth war patrol. After topping off with fuel at Midway Island, she sailed for Formosa Strait on 27 September. In order to reach her area, Tang had to pass through narrow waters known to be heavily patrolled by the enemy. A large area stretching northeast from Formosa was known to be mined by the enemy, and O'Kane was given the choice of making the passage north of Formosa alone, or joining a coordinated attack group (, and , under Commander Coye in Silversides) which was to patrol off northeast Formosa, and making the passage with them. Tang chose to make the passage alone and these vessels never heard from Tang, nor did any base, after she left Midway Island.
On the night of 10 October and 11 October, Tang sank the cargo ships Joshu Go and Ōita Maru. The submarine continued on patrol until 23 October when she contacted a large convoy consisting of three tankers, a transport, a freighter, and numerous escorts. Commander O'Kane planned a night surface attack. Tang broke into the middle of the formation, firing torpedoes as she closed the tankers (later identified as freighters). Two torpedoes struck under the stack and engine room of the nearest, a single burst into the stern of the middle one, and two exploded under the stack and engine space of the farthest. The first torpedoes began exploding before the last was fired, and all hit their targets, which were soon either blazing or sinking. As the submarine prepared to fire at the tanker which was crossing her stern, she sighted the transport bearing down on her in an attempt to ram.
Tang had no room to dive so she crossed the transport's bow and with full left rudder saved her stern and got inside the transport's turning circle. The transport was forced to continue her swing to avoid the tanker which had also been coming in to ram. The tanker struck the transport's starboard quarter shortly after the submarine fired four stern torpedoes along their double length at a range of 400 yards. The tanker sank bow first and the transport had a 30-degree up-angle. With escorts approaching on the port bow and beam and a destroyer closing on the port quarter, Tang rang up full speed and headed for open water. When the submarine was 6000 yards from the transport, another explosion was observed aboard that ill-fated ship, and its bow disappeared.
On the morning of 24 October, Tang began patrolling at periscope level. She surfaced at dark and headed for Turnabout Island. On approaching the island, the submarine's surface search radar showed so many blips that it was almost useless. Tang soon identified a large convoy which contained tankers with planes on their decks and transports with crated planes stacked on their bows and sterns. As the submarine tracked the Japanese ships along the coast, the enemy escorts became suspicious, and the escort commander began signaling with a large searchlight. This illuminated the convoy, and Tang chose a large three-deck transport as her first target, a smaller transport as the second, and a large tanker as the third. Their ranges varied from 900 to 1400 yards. After firing two torpedoes at each target, the submarine paralleled the convoy to choose its next victims. She launched stern torpedoes at another transport and tanker aft.
As Tang poured on full speed to escape the gunfire directed at her, a destroyer passed around the stern of the transport and headed for the submarine. The tanker exploded, and a hit was seen on the transport. A few seconds later, the destroyer exploded, either from intercepting Tang’s third torpedo or from shell fire of two escorts closing on the beam. Only the transport remained afloat, and it was dead in the water. The submarine cleared to 10,000 yards, rechecked the last two torpedoes which had been loaded in the bow tubes; and returned to finish off the transport.
The twenty-third torpedo was fired at 900 yards and was observed running hot and straight ('hot' meaning the engine had ignited). The twenty-fourth, last torpedo was fired. It broached and curved to the left in a circular run. Tang fishtailed under emergency power to clear the turning circle of the torpedo, but it struck her abreast the aft torpedo room approximately 20 seconds after it was fired. Tang sank by the stern. Those who escaped the submarine were greeted in the morning with the bow of the transport sticking straight out of the water. Nine survivors, including the commanding officer, were picked up the next morning by a Japanese destroyer escort. They spent the remainder of the war in prisoner of war camps.
The explosion was violent, and people as far forward as the control room received broken limbs. The ship went down by the stern with the after three compartments flooded. Of the nine officers and men on the bridge, three were able to swim through the night until picked up eight hours later. One officer escaped from the flooded conning tower, and was rescued with the others.
The submarine came to rest on the bottom at and the men within crowded forward as the aft compartments flooded. Publications were burned, and all assembled to the forward room to escape. The escape was delayed by a Japanese patrol, which dropped depth charges, and started an electrical fire in the forward battery. Thirteen men escaped from the forward room, and by the time the last made his exit, the heat from the fire was so intense that the paint on the bulkhead was scorching, melting, and running down. Of the 13 men who escaped, only eight reached the surface, and of these only five were able to swim until rescued. A total of 78 men were lost.
When the nine survivors were picked up by a destroyer escort, there were victims of Tang’s previous sinkings on board, and they tortured the men from Tang. O'Kane stated, "When we realized that our clubbing and kickings were being administered by the burned, mutilated survivors of our handiwork, we found we could take it with less prejudice." The nine captives were retained by the Japanese in prison camps until the end of the war, and were treated by them in typical fashion.
In the last attack, Tang had sunk Kogen Maru and Matsumoto Maru. During her brief career, Tang was officially credited with sinking 24 Japanese ships which totaled 93,824 tons. Tang was struck from the Naval Vessel Register on 8 February 1945.