Five sailors with black shoe polish on their faces peer over the shoulder of Engineman 3rd Class Hatfield as he connects the wires to the crude pressure switch detonator wedged between the two wooden beams. There was no chance to test the crude device before using it. It was a jury-rigged affair and it would either work or blow them all to Hell as soon as the wires picked up the current from the three dry cell batteries they were attached to. Hatfield’s hands worked under the dim red glow of a red lensed flashlight.
It was shortly after 0100hrs on July 23rd, 1945. These sailors from the USS Barb submarine had landed on Japan in the first commando raid of WWII on the Japanese Home Islands. Their mission was to torpedo a train.
The USS Barb was laid down in June of 1941 and launched in April of 1942. She was assigned to SUBRON50 and sent to the Atlantic Ocean to support allied landings in North Africa. She then made five war patrols without sinking a single target. This could not be blamed on the Barb’s crew as much as on the absence of German and Italian shipping in Barb’s Mediterranean patrol areas. The Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Ernest J. King, decided that SUBRON50 was serving no useful purpose in the target-sparse Atlantic theater and deployed the submarine squadron to the Pacific where the war was heating up.
In September 1943, departing from Pearl Harbor on her sixth patrol, the Barb got hits on two ships without sinking them. Her seventh patrol did nothing to improve her war record. Then in May of 1944, the Barb got a new skipper, Eugene B. Fluckey, and embarked on her eighth war patrol. Under the aggressive style of Commander Fluckey, the Barb torpedoed and sank numerous ships, sampans, patrol craft, and trawlers. On that single patrol, she was credited with sinking 15,472 tons of enemy shipping. Fluckey went on to his ninth, 10th, and 11th patrols continuing to sink ships including the 20,000 escort carrier Unyo.
The new skipper had made all the difference. When the ships of the Japanese navy would not present themselves to fight, Fluckey would take the fight to them. On the night of January 23rd, 1944, Fluckey boldly sailed the Barb right into Namkwan Harbor, surfaced, and engaged some 30 ships lying at anchor there. The Barb loosed eight torpedoes from her bow and stern tubes. Eight giant explosions lighted the night sky. Three Japanese ships were sunk and three burned furiously. Fluckey then brought the sub about and steamed at 21 knots on the surface for an hour and out of a shallow and mined harbor for which the U.S. did not have charts.
Fluckey was awarded the Medal of Honor for this feat and Barb received the Presidential Unit Citation.
‘Now There Is a Target I’d Like to Blow Up’
Fluckey embarked on his 12th war patrol aboard the Barb in December 1944. By now the fortunes of war had turned against Japan. Most of her fleet had been sunk by the planes, ships, and subs of the U.S. Navy; most of the Japanese merchant fleet had also been sunk. This forced submarine commanders to sail perilously closer to the Japanese Home islands to find targets that were hugging the coast and sailing only at night. This, in turn, brought them within range of shore batteries, aircraft, and fast sub-hunting corvettes. Most of the U.S. submarines and crews lost in WWII were near the Japanese home islands.
On 19 July 1945, due to the lack of targets, the Barb was slowly patrolling in Patience Bay near Otasamu on the east coast of Karafuto (now Sakhalin island). Fluckey was able to see a rail line, which ran along the coast, and trains moving on it frequently. The Allied invasion of Japan was in the works and Fluckey knew these trains were running war materials and supplies to the southern part of the island to be shipped to the main Japanese home islands. Fluckey watched the trains run for three days through his periscope, carefully noting their schedules and their number of cars. Fluckey was rankled that they could not do anything about the trains or tracks. The targets were not appearing as smoke plumes on the horizon for him to track and sink, but there were thousands of tons of shipping moving by rail that he couldn’t do anything about.
“Now there is a target I’d like to blow up,” Fluckey muttered as he watched yet another train run down the tracks trailing black coal smoke. It was his Chief of the Boat, Paul “Swish” Sanders who said that maybe there’s a way the Barb could “sink” a train. COB Sanders was a Gunner’s mate and a plank holder. He had been with the Barb since her commissioning; every man who had sailed on her since 1942 had sailed with Sanders. He had never transferred to another boat; the Barb was his home.
Soon charts were spread on a plot table and plans began to form. And they sounded crazy. What if they unbolted one of the 55lb scuttling charges from the submarine’s hull, and connected it to a detonator and three dry cell batteries that would fit inside an empty can of pickles? But how to set it off? They obviously couldn’t do it manually, as the explosion and resulting train crash would wake up the entire prefecture, and they still had to paddle out to the Barb to escape. It was then that a young Electrician’s Mate named Hatfield offered a solution. He had worked on railroads back in the States, and he could improvise a pressure switch attached to a wedge-shaped piece of wood to be slipped between the rail and the wooden tie. When a train would pass over it, the locomotive’s weight would compress the rail against the tie, thus setting off the crude pressure switch detonator. They would use two rubber boats each containing four men.
Commander Fluckey approved the idea and they set about selecting the men for the mission.
The men would all have to be single (except Hatfield). They needed to be in good physical shape to row the two rubber boats over 1,000 yards there and back again.
It was decided that engineering Officer Lt. Walker and COB Sanders would be in charge of the boats. The remaining men were selected for their Boy Scout skills including first-aid, foraging, and navigation. The men practiced bird calls as a form of communication in the dark. Everything was ready, or as ready as possible.
The night of July 23rd would be moonless; the perfect cover for the mission. Fluckey slipped the Barb within 1,000 yards of the beach and the eight men, their faces darkened with boot polish, slipped into the rubber boats. They were armed with Thompson sub-machine guns, carbines, knives, and grenades. They carried personal floatation devices, red lens flashlights, D-rations, cigarette lighters, binoculars, wire, cutters, and a flare gun. Their watches were carefully synchronized. Fluckey informed them that the Barb could not await them for more than three hours. The men had to be back at least 15 minutes before dawn broke or the sub would be visible from the beach.
Fluckey looked at each of the men in turn. “Boys,” he said, “if you get stuck, head for Siberia 130 miles north. Follow the mountain ranges. Good luck.”
The eight men began to paddle through the surf towards the beach.
‘PADDLE LIKE THE DEVIL!… WE’RE LEAVING!!!’
Sharp attention to their compass bearings got the raiding party to the beach. Two men were left to guard the boats. Three more were detached and posted as lookouts. Lt. Walker quietly climbed a water tower to get a better view of the area only to find that it was being used as a guard tower by the Japanese. He was able to silently slip back down the water tower ladder without waking the sleeping Japanese sentry. As he moved to rejoin the men, Sanders with his “Land Torpedo” and Hatfield with his pressure switch were carefully excavating out gravel under the track to place the 55lb charge and situate the pressure switch.
Suddenly an approaching train caused them all to flatten themselves against the ground. The train blew by them. Barb’s men were plainly able to see the engineer’s face as the express locomotive passed. Hatfield and Sanders worked quietly but very fast to set the charges and Lt. Walker recalled the three lookouts. Though they were all ordered to get well clear of Hatfield once he armed the crude device, in case it went off prematurely, all five peered over his shoulder as he set the pressure switch between the track and rail and armed it.
The men then ex-filled to the waiting rafts to find them still inflated and guarded by the team’s other two men. Manning the boats they began to paddle back out to the Barb which Fluckey had moved even closer to the shore. When they were about halfway back to the sub they heard a distant train whistle. A train was ahead of schedule: it would trip the bomb and the resulting explosion and fire would illuminate the sub and the rubber boats to anyone on that long beach.
They would all be sitting ducks. Fluckey didn’t dare go any closer to the beach to try and meet them. And he couldn’t wait for them if the train blew up when the men were still 10 minutes of hard paddling away. He would have to submerge and abandon them.
Grabbing a voice-powered megaphone Fluckey yelled with all his might, “PADDLE LIKE THE DEVIL! WE’RE LEAVING!!!!”
The eight men paddled furiously, hearing the train’s whistle getting closer and closer. Then suddenly came an ear-shattering explosion. The flash of light illuminated locomotive parts and an exploding steam boiler flying some 200 feet in the air. The 15 train cars had piled upon each other. The night was shattered by the sound of crashing, twisted metal, and splintering wood.
The eight men had reached the sub in time. As the Barb retired at high speed to submerge and the raiding party went below, they were each able to catch a glimpse of the carnage they had caused ashore.
The USS Barb and her crew went on to conduct an astonishing 12 war patrols. This was a veritable feat because there was no more dangerous job in WWII, which is why sub crews were comprised only of volunteers. Fully 25 percent of sub crews were lost in action. Fluckey’s record as Barb’s skipper was among the very best in the Navy. His ship is credited with nearly 100,000 tons of enemy shipping sunk.
In just three and a half years of service. The Barb was awarded four Presidential Unit Citations, a Navy Unit Commendation, and eight Battle Stars.
The crew of the USS Barb was highly decorated as well. Looking at her Battle Flag in the picture above you can see the medals awarded to the crew: six Navy Crosses, 23 Silver Stars, 23 Bronze Stars, and a Medal of Honor. Look a little closer, notice anything missing? No Sailor aboard the Barb earned a Purple Heart while assigned to her. She never suffered a single casualty in three and a half years and 12 war patrols.
They say the Navy has Traditions, the Army has Customs, and the Air Force has Habits.
This old joke reflects the relative ages of the service branches. Navy Traditions tend to carry on for hundreds of years. Just last month, Navy Secretary Kenneth Braithwaite announced that the next Virginia-class attack boat, hull SSN-804, will be christened USS Barb in honor of Fluckey’s sub. The original USS Barb was hull SS-220. That’s over 80 years and 584 submarine hulls later.
There is also a legend, perhaps fact and fiction mixed together, whereby the Navy Admiral in Charge of the Navy SEALs was once asked why the basic SEAL Squad is comprised of eight men. Why not 10, 12, or 14?
Why eight men?
It is said that the Admiral did not pause for a moment before answering: “Because of that raid on Japan by the USS Barb. Eight men just works.”
This article was originally published on November 9, 2020.