Submarines are the silent protectors of the oceans. They are shrouded in mystery with much of their technology listed as classified material. Powerful cities moving through the waves, submarines are trillions of tons of high tech power and stealth capabilities. While submarines carry massive power, that power is isolated to the waters. Submarines monitor shore and port activities. They monitor surface ships and other submariners. When it comes to a land attack, one does not think about a boat. This is the story about the time that a submarine took out a train.
June 1945 saw the USS Barb in her 12th and final war patrol. The Barb was a Gato-class, diesel powered submarine that had helped her commanding officer Lt. Cmdr. Eugene B. Fluckey earn a medal of honor in their 11th war patrol. During the war, the Barb sunk Japanese supply transports off the northern coast of Japan. She was also the first submarine to launch ballistic missiles onto Japanese soil. The crew of the Barb had, over time, noticed trains bringing supplies to enemy ships on the Japanese island of Karafuto. They had already had successful missions stopping supplies from getting to the fleets by transport ships. Fluckey and his crew wanted to find a way to keep the supplies from getting to the transport ships. Attempting to take out a train by submarine had never been done before and proved to be not only difficult but also dangerous. If the shore crew would try to put explosives under the tracks, they would be at serious risk of getting caught. It was Engineman 3rd class Billy Hatfield that offered up a solution that proved to work. The crew would tie a micro-switch on the track that would trigger a set of explosions once the train went over the device. Once weather provided enough cloud cover, the Barb came within 950 years of the shoreline. Just after midnight on July 23, 1945, the shore crew slipped into their small boats and headed to shore. According to a passage in his book, Thunder Below, Fluckey is quoted as telling the crew, “if you get stuck, head for Siberia, 130 miles north, following the mountain ranges. Good luck.” This shore crew of Navy sailors led by Hatfield was the first American combatants to set foot on Japanese soil during the war.
While this mission was safer than the original alterative, it still had its dangers. The crew landed near the backyard of a Japanese home but thankfully were able to go by unnoticed. Once at the tracks, three men set up guard posts. However, they then realized that a water tower nearby was actually a Japanese lookout post. Yet again, thankfully the crew went by unnoticed. They worked quickly and silently, just like a submarine, to dig holes for the 55-pound explosives and detonator switch. Just as they were about to finish, an express train came hurling by, forcing the men to run into the brush nearby and wait for it to pass. Once they had finalized the detonator switch, they headed back to the Barb, which was now within 600 yards of the shore. The entire mission was one of close calls and sheer luck. It was this way all the way to end. The men were halfway to safety when another train came down the track headed in their direction. At 1:47 AM, the train hit the micro-switch. Barely missing pieces of the explosion, all of the men were back on the Barb by 1:52 AM. Once they were clear of the shore, Fluckey ordered all non-essential hands on deck to share in the achievement. The Barb’s final patrol ended on Aug 2, 1945 at Midway. It was only a few short days later that the Japanese surrendered with the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, ending World War II.
The USS Barb’s battle flag that hangs in the museum reflects its many accomplishments. It took part in twelve war patrols – five in Europe and seven in the Pacific. Members of the crew earned numerous accolades, including Six Navy crosses, 23 silver stars, 23 bronze stars and a Medal of Honor, a presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit Commendation, and eight battle stars; 34 merchant ships damaged or sunk, five Japanese’s warships damaged or sunk, rocket and gun symbols to denote shore bombardments, and lastly, a train to commemorate the Barb’s final war patrol. The merchant ships sunk or damaged are denoted by white flags with either solid or hollow red suns in the center. One case is represented by a German Nazi flag symbolizing a tanker sunk in the Atlantic. Rising sun flags represent the five Japanese warships sunk or damaged. The largest rising sun depiction in the top center represents Unyo, a 22,500-ton escort carrier. The smaller merchant flags with the numeral “7” represents seven smaller carriers that were less than 500 tons each. The gun and rocket symbols represents shore bombardments including the train at the middle bottom. Despite the remarkable feat of “sinking a train”, it is said that if you asked Fluckey which award he was most proud of, it was the Purple Heart award which is not on the flag. Despite sinking the third most tonnage during WWII, not a single sailor lost his life or was wounded on USS Barb.