On this day in 1944, the submarine USS Barb begins a patrol of the Chinese coast. It was just one of several such patrols that the legendary submarine would make during World War II. But this patrol stood out from the others: Barb’s commander would launch an attack that the U.S. Navy later called “virtually a suicide mission—a naval epic.”
Amazingly, Commander Eugene Fluckey and his crew survived the daring raid, and the man sometimes known as “Lucky Fluckey” would receive a Medal of Honor for his bravery.
It all began when Fluckey made a discovery in mid-January: More than 30 Japanese ships were hiding in a concealed harbor. The enemy crews surely thought they were safe. The water was shallow, and it was peppered with mines and rock obstructions.
Who could get them there?
They hadn’t bargained for Fluckey. He not only found them, but he decided to attempt the impossible. He’d stealthily work his way into the midst of those boats, launch torpedoes, then turn and make a run for it.
At any moment, Barb could be caught. If anything went wrong, Fluckey and his crew would be trapped in a watery grave. “[O]ur attack must be a complete surprise,” he wrote in his patrol log, “and the force of our attack must be sufficient to completely throw the enemy off balance.”
“Without charts, and without intelligence on Japanese minefields,” the American Veterans Center has elaborated, “Fluckey and [Executive Officer] McNitt led the Barb into the lower reaches of Mamkwan Harbor . . . . Fully aware that an escape would require a full hour’s run at full speed through uncharted and likely mined waters, Fluckey ordered his men to their battle stations.”
Fluckey had gotten close—within 3,000 yards of his last target. He fired several forward torpedoes, then turned and fired more from his stern. Eight torpedoes hit six targets. Making matters worse for the Japanese, one of the targets was an ammunition ship. When that vessel exploded, it launched even more shrapnel toward others in the vicinity.
The Washington Post would soon report that Fluckey watched from the bridge of his submarine as “Japanese ships were erupting in the night like a nest of volcanoes.”
Fluckey had done a lot of damage in a relatively short period of time. But now he had to get away. He planned to make his run through an area in which many fishing junks were anchored. It would help him to avoid mines, and the junks would serve as impediments to the Japanese vessels that would soon be in hot pursuit. And it would help hide the sub, which would need to stay close to the surface because of the shallow water.
At first, the Japanese had no idea that a submarine had inflicted the damage. Their searchlights were aimed at the sky, looking for a plane! No one really believed that a submarine could have gotten into that harbor unnoticed.
Fluckey took advantage of the confusion, racing Barb forward through the shallow water. The engines were put into overdrive, without any regard for whether they might overheat. Just as a Japanese airplane arrived on the scene, Barb reached deeper waters and made a quick dive. Fluckey was able to get away—if only barely.
That wasn’t the end of Fluckey’s exploits, of course. He later managed to take out a Japanese train. . . . Wait. A submarine taking out a train?! Yes! But that is a story for another day.
Primary Sources & Further Reading