In May 1944, Lt. Comdr. Eugene Fluckey, seeking his own submarine command, promised the Pacific Fleet sub commander at Midway Island that he would sink five Japanese ships on his first patrol. It was a bold gamble; the ship Fluckey had been eyeing, the USS Barb, had sunk only a single ship in six patrols under its previous commander. But with Fluckey placed in temporary command, the Barb got five freighters and two trawlers with the Barb’s guns its next time out—and Fluckey got the Barb.
Indeed, his report on the patrol was so full of new ideas, so gung ho, positive, and entertaining, that the commander, Adm. Charles Lockwood, gave it to President Roosevelt, who happened to be at Pearl Harbor on the Barb’s return. FDR enjoyed it so much he asked that all of Fluckey’s future patrol reports be sent along to him—and then demanded a bit more.
“He wanted the Barb to reenact her return to Pearl with battle flags flying as he filmed some home movies,” wrote Fluckey in his action-packed memoir, Thunder Below!
The first pass wasn’t fast enough for FDR. They tried again at two-thirds speed: still too slow for the president, who wanted the Barb’s battle flag and five pennants streaming. So Fluckey brought it in a third time at high speed, skidding sideways to a stop—“All back emergency! Left full rudder!”—not ten yards from an ammunition ship he had been warned about. It was a total hot-dog maneuver, causing Lockwood to blanch, but the president loved every churning, foaming, spectacular second of it. Fluckey leaped out like a daredevil stunt driver at the state fair, strode over, and shook the hand of a hugely grinning FDR.
It was classic Fluckey, mixing a perverse sense of fun with a healthy tolerance for danger, a calculating mind, and a drive to get the best possible outcome. Throw in his gift for inventing tactics to match every situation he faced, and an icy killing instinct, and you had one of the deadliest submariners of World War II.
In five war patrols between May 1944 and August 1945, the 1,500-ton Barb sank twenty-nine ships and destroyed numerous factories using shore bombardment and rockets launched from the foredeck, a tactic invented by Fluckey. The sub’s crew even—improbably—blew up a train on a stealth mission by sending saboteurs to shore in a rubber raft.
Fluckey not only made his mark on the record books, he rewrote the American submarine warfare manual. While traditional tactics counseled subs to lie submerged in wait, Fluckey believed—taking a page from Germany’s most successful U-boat skipper, Otto Kretschmer—that a sub should be used like a motor torpedo boat that pursues the enemy on the surface. On his first patrol, which went fifty-two days, Fluckey only submerged the Barb for one day. He would prove his point, time and again.
His exploits earned Fluckey an astonishing four Navy Crosses and a Medal of Honor. The Barb’s final battle flag shows twenty-three Silver Stars, twenty-three Bronze Stars, two more Navy Crosses, a Presidential Unit Citation for four of his patrols, a Navy Unit Commendation for the fifth, four navy and Marine Corps medals, and eighty-two Letter-of-Commendation Ribbons.
As important, in those five daring patrols there was no loss of life or significant injury to any of his crewmembers. Fluckey often said he was most proud of that, bringing his men home without a scratch, and they in turn dubbed him “Lucky Fluckey” for his ability to do so.
But luck, he always insisted, had very little to do with it: he prepared obsessively for his missions and applied logic and experience to the calculation of risk. “I’ve always believed luck is where you find it, but by God, you’ve got to go out there and find it.”
The son of a government lawyer, Fluckey was raised in Washington, D.C., and was set to attend Princeton at age sixteen when, inspired by a war hero neighbor, he changed his plans and enrolled in the U.S. Naval Academy instead. Fluckey, a former Boy Scout, was all-American down to his lanky frame, red hair, and freckles, and his persistence and ingenuity were apparent at every turn. He proposed the concept of an electric torpedo (which, rather than steam, became the norm) in a class at the Naval Academy, but the teacher threw his illustration in the wastebasket. At twenty, he figured out how to cure himself of nearsightedness by working his eye muscles, an unheard-of medical feat that enabled him to stay in Annapolis.
Fluckey signed up for submarines partly to get out of the sun, but also for the hazardous-duty pay. A lieutenant’s pay in 1937 didn’t go far, and he had a wife and baby to support. Even after he made commander, his family still lived in half a Quonset hut, which measured 15 x 30 feet and cost $30 per month.
When war broke out in 1941 Lieutenant Fluckey was an engineering and diving officer on the V-class submarine USS Bonita, after having served on the battleship Nevada, the destroyer McCormick, and another sub, the S-42.
The Bonita was a 2,000-ton relic that could only dive at two degrees and took five minutes and forty-five seconds to do so, according to its own manual. With the inventiveness that would become his signature, Fluckey examined the boat and figured out how to make it dive at twenty degrees and get down in less than a minute.
The Bonita saw no action, however, and it was aboard the Barb that he would make his lasting mark. In May 1944, on that first patrol as co-commander, Fluckey, then thirty, took his boat into the treacherous Sea of Okhotsk, off the Russian coast. The Barb left Midway with two wolf-pack mates, the Herring and the Golet. On May 30, 1944—Memorial Day evening—they found a convoy of four freighters with one destroyer escort; the Herring sank the destroyer with one torpedo, scattering the convoy. The next day the Barb picked off two freighters (one carrying troops) at 1:20 p.m. and 5:45 p.m. Six torpedoes fired, six hits—Fluckey’s first shots as captain. The detonator firing pins on the torpedoes had been failing, so before the patrol Fluckey and his men had fixed them all with stronger springs. He had put his motto to work: not problems, solutions.
The Herring sank another freighter, and then stole into the harbor of Matsuwa Island, where it sank two more freighters at anchor. Shore batteries retaliated, and the Herring went down with eighty-three men lost. The Golet, which had never fired a torpedo, was never heard from and was later presumed sunk, based on Japanese records. Eighty-two men were lost. The Herring appeared to have been too daring—the Golet possibly not daring enough.
For a sub captain operating in the Sea of Okhotsk, it was a question of finding a happy medium. For the next five weeks, the Barb would be alone, and Fluckey would zero in on that state of balance.
For starters, after the first kills, Fluckey trolled the flotsam of the sunken freighter Koto Maru looking for a prisoner: the sea charts supplied by the navy were fifty years old, and he needed more information. The carnage gave him pause. “This was the first time I’d ever returned to the scene of a sinking and it was a rather unholy sight,” he later recalled. Nonetheless, he only needed one sailor to interrogate, so he picked up one survivor clinging to a wooden hatch cover in the freezing water. The other unlucky survivors were left to drown or die of exposure. Armed with a one-page phonetic dictionary of Japanese words, his fabulous smile, and a .45-caliber pistol, Fluckey charmed his way into the brain of Kitojima Sanji, who would become “Kito” to the crew. Fluckey treated him kindly, made him understand that saving the Barb was saving himself, and the crew virtually adopted him as their mascot. Meanwhile, Fluckey obtained from him the location of Japanese minefields and air bases.
The Barb moved on to sink two more ships with six hits. Fluckey needed just one more to satisfy Admiral Lockwood.
Two days later Fluckey came upon a convoy and the 5,633-ton Takashima Maru, an icebreaker/freighter/troop transport. Fluckey camouflaged the Barb by wrapping white bed sheets around its conning tower, then tracked the ship for five tense hours. Finally, he circled halfway around the convoy and fired two stern torpedoes at the Takashima, blowing off the fantail and sending the ship to its grave. Escorts came after the Barb and fired 38 depth charges, but Fluckey fooled them by filling a five-gallon milk can with oil and releasing it to create an oil slick, suggesting that one of the depth charges had hit home.
On his second patrol, in the South China Sea, Fluckey followed up on the accolades he had earned, proving he was not a one-trick pony. He came upon a nine-ship convoy running in three columns. In a daring and unorthodox move, Fluckey fired three torpedoes from directly ahead of the convoy, nearly getting rammed by the leading minesweeper. The risk paid off: the single salvo sank a freighter and a tanker.
The Barb was vigorously pursued, and dodged at least ninety-six bombs or depth charges from the convoy’s escorts and airplanes. Undaunted, the Barb fired three torpedoes at the minesweeper twelve hours later, at dusk. “I can’t miss this,” said Fluckey, as he ordered the scopes raised with fifteen seconds to impact. He didn’t.
“His guns are manned fore and aft!” he narrated to the men in the conning tower with him. “There are about fifteen lookouts, dressed in white, on a catwalk above the bridge. An officer is looking….”
“My God! Right under the bridge; bodies are flying through the air.”
“Waterspout at the well deck!”
“Under the forecastle. The gun crew’s been blown overboard. The ship’s breaking into a V!”
Another one hundred or so bombs or depth charges were dropped at the Barb as it dove at twenty-five degrees to a depth of 340 feet—the boat’s maximum-rated test depth was 312. Later the Barb dropped to 375, its thin skin nearly buckling. The danger passed, the Barb resurfaced, and the hunt began anew.
Fluckey was promoted to full commander before his third patrol, the Barb’s tenth, into the East China Sea. On November 10, 1944, after stalking a light cruiser, he sank it with three torpedoes, killing 326 men. More than three hundred explosions chased after the submerged Barb, “as annoying as a Tin Pan band in a small room,” said Fluckey.
Two days later, the Barb fired eight torpedoes at two freighters in a convoy and sank them both. Said Admiral Lockwood, “This attack against a large convoy of 11 ships and four escorts demonstrates in a most brilliant manner how night radar and periscope attacks should be made. A determined and beautiful battle.”
For all his lethal intent at sea, it seems Commander Fluckey did have a softer side. Resting on Midway Island between patrols, he opened a letter from his wife, Marjorie, that began,
I feel like a perfect fool. How could you do this to me? I have never been so embarrassed in my life.
Forty-four subs, including half of Fluckey’s submarine school classmates, had been lost in the Pacific so far. Fluckey hadn’t wanted Marjorie to worry, so he had written a stack of letters from Midway—a pack of lies about repairs in port and training missions. He had postdated them, and an accomplice mailed them at the correct time. Marjorie hadn’t even known he was fighting. She only found out when other navy wives told her that her husband was winning Navy Crosses and that the Barb had sunk an aircraft carrier (the Unyo, in September 1944). “Honey, you’ve been had,” her girlfriends said.
Still, patrol records and his own commentary suggest Fluckey was as determined a killer as any in the sub fleet.
Back in the East China Sea on January 1, 1945, on what would become his storied fourth patrol, the Barb came across a smoking naval weather ship that two other subs had shot up before a plane chased them away. The crew had put out fires and hid as a boarding party from the Barb looted it, looking mostly for charts. Because the ship was armed with machine guns, and was presumed to have radioed for help on seeing the Barb, Fluckey took no prisoners. Thirteen shots from the four-inch gun turned the weather ship with its hiding crew into a blazing inferno.
“We took Kodachrome movies of the event,” said Fluckey.
No regrets, no mercy. The war, he wrote home to his wife, had changed him: “What a pleasure it is to eliminate Japs. Funny thing, I seem to be the most bloodthirsty of the bunch, and I could never steel my heart enough to kill a rabbit.”
January 8, 1945, was another record-breaking day, as the Barb sank six ships. First the ship raced a convoy of eight freighters and transports and eight escorts all afternoon, running at flank speed in order to get into firing position. Then it fired six torpedoes in a fan pattern. The patrol report from that day reads:
Up scope. Stern of the transport is sticking up at a 30 [degree] angle with two escorts alongside taking off survivors. The bow is in the bottom mud. The brand-new engines-aft freighter exploded. There is nothing left but an enormous smoke cloud and flat flotsam; no lifeboats, nothing alive, nothing. The large freighter leading the port column is on fire amidships just above the waterline.
The Barb’s wolf-pack sisters, Queenfish and Picuda, attacked from the front, which allowed the Barb to come from the starboard flank and get into the middle of the convoy, where it fired three torpedoes and watched another ship nosedive. Fluckey retreated until things cooled down; when he came back an hour later, he sank a tanker at 1,500 yards.
But January 8 was just a warm-up for January 23, the night Fluckey earned the nickname “the Galloping Ghost of the China Coast,” as well as the Medal of Honor.
He put all his ideas together that night: good intelligence, knowledge of his enemies’ mindset, the element of surprise, a dash of courage, and skillful use of his weaponry and ship. At the time, targets had vanished, and he was frustrated by reports that all traffic had holed up. He didn’t believe it. He suspected the ships were somehow getting past the wolf pack. He studied every chart and war report he could. “I was brought to a shuddering halt,” he wrote in Thunder Below! “I realized that the mile-wide channel between Hai-tan Island and the mainland is 10 miles long and only six feet deep. Could they possibly have dredged it? If such a dredging had been done, it would have enabled convoys to escape submarine surveillance.”
Fluckey finally tracked a convoy until it anchored in the dredged Namkwan Harbor. He invited the Picuda to join the Barb in sneaking into the harbor and blowing up ships. “Drop dead!” the Picuda’s skipper was said to have replied.
It’s easy to imagine Fluckey rubbing his hands together in glee at that response: all the more for the Barb.
At 3:20 a.m., the Barb’s radar picked up thirty ships in the harbor. “Fantastic! All ahead standard.” At 3:52 a.m., Fluckey saw the ships through binoculars from three thousand yards. The ships were in three lines, “a complete overlap from end to end. Even an erratic torpedo couldn’t miss. No one had ever had such a perfect target.”
The Barb crept into the harbor, only five fathoms deep. Four torpedoes were fired at 4:03 a.m., and four more at 4:05.
“Two hits main target! She’s settling to the bottom. Hit in the second line behind the main target!
“Hit large freighter, third line! She’s on fire!
“Hit first line! What a geyser! Another hit in the first line!
A large freighter. Good Lord! She’s belching out a huge cloud of smoke.
“Hit second line! My God, the whole side of the ship blew out toward us! She sank!
“Take cover! Far ship in third line hit and exploded! Munitions! Projectiles 6 to 12 inches are flying all over! Searchlights are sweeping! Let’s get out of here!”
Running from patrol boats, Fluckey ordered the engines’ governors tied down and put 150 percent overload on the power plants, cranking his sub to a world record 23.5 knots. “Captain, the bearings are getting hot,” said the engine room.
“Let them melt,” replied Lucky Fluckey.
Still, a pursuing frigate closed the distance to 2,700 yards. But the Barb pulled into a fleet of fishing junks that Fluckey had been counting on for cover. He maneuvered wildly between them; the frigate stopped chasing and opened fire on the junks, as its radar couldn’t tell the difference between a sub and a junk.
The Barb slowed to flank speed to cool down the bearings, then ran unscathed into the night.
“Now hear this. Well done to each and every one! Eight hits, no errors. Be proud of a night none of us will ever forget.”
At the time, it was believed that the Barb sank ninety thousand tons of Japanese shipping, more than any single submarine attack in the war. Japanese records of ships sunk or damaged in the harbor remain incomplete, but postwar Allied analysis could confirm only that amid the general damage it had inflicted, the Barb had permanently stricken the 5,224-ton freighter Taikyo Maru from the enemy’s maritime inventory.
More important, the Japanese believed the attack had been from the air and moved their air defenses to Namkwan, where they were wasted.
Fluckey leveraged that success into a fifth war patrol. Submarine captains were usually allowed only four—statistics showed that on the fifth patrol the captain was likely to become either overconfident or overcautious. But Fluckey convinced the admirals that he would be neither. He had unfinished business in the Sea of Okhotsk, as well as a few parting shots in mind.
Commander Fluckey wanted to mount a rocket launcher on the Barb and fire the rockets at factories. He also wanted to blow up a train. Furthermore, Fluckey bet another officer a quart of whiskey that on its twelfth patrol the Barb would sink fifteen vessels—trawlers, luggers, schooners, and sampans included. Not your usual goals for a submarine captain, but Fluckey had proven to be anything but usual.
With fewer Japanese convoys in the area to supply targets, the Barb’s main mission when it departed on June 8, 1945, was to “raise a rumpus,” recalled Admiral Lockwood. Three wolf packs were sent to hunt ships that planes and destroyers now guarded some distance away.
At 1:50 a.m. on June 22, the day after Okinawa fell, history was made when Fluckey gave the command, “Man battle stations rockets!” Twelve rockets whooshed out of the pipe-rack launcher, and thirty seconds later they hit their target 5,250 yards away as chunks of buildings flew into the night. The Barb took off at flank speed to raise more of a rumpus farther north.
At dawn on July 2, the Barb approached the port of Kaihyo To, inside Patience Bay at Shikuka. Peering through the mist with binoculars, the crew counted twenty-three barracks, warehouses, factories, shops, and mills. At eight hundred yards the Barb commenced firing. Fluckey called the assault “Little Iwo Jima.”
The barrage of bullets continued for thirty-three minutes. The 40mm antiaircraft cannon destroyed a pillbox, an observation post, three sampans, and an oil dump. The five-inch gun destroyed a radar and radio station, blasted buildings, and set fires that raged under an immense black cloud. “The island is out of commission,” he said. “No communications, no radar, no power, no buildings, no boats exist.”
Radio Tokyo said Kaihyo To had been bombarded by six warships and a submarine. Fluckey was pleased because it described his objective: maximum harassment with minimum force.
That afternoon they fired a smaller Mark 27 torpedo at a freighter that was nearly overhead, and the torpedo found its way to the ship’s propeller. It was the first time a freighter had ever been sunk by a Mark 27, let alone from the allegedly suicidal range of seventy-five yards. Four down, eleven to go for Fluckey to win his whiskey.
On July 5 they sank another small freighter, and on July 11 they got their seventh vessel, a large diesel sampan, with the five-inch gun. On July 18, using the last of the unreliable Mark 28 torpedoes, the Barb got a frigate, Kaikoban No. 112.
Now it was time for some derring-do that would bring the Barb as much fame as any of its previous kills. On July 20 Fluckey pulled to within one thousand yards of shore in Patience Bay and watched trains all day. He waited for an overcast night, which came on July 23. At midnight, eight saboteurs in two rubber rafts paddled six hundred yards to shore (every single crewman had volunteered) and buried fifty-five pounds of explosives under the track. It was detonated two hours later by a switch triggered by the weight of the train.
“Boom! Wham! What a thrill!” recalled Fluckey in Thunder Below! “The boilers of the engine blew. Engine wreckage flying, flying, flying up some 200 feet, racing ahead of a mushroom of smoke, now white, now black. Sixteen cars piling up, into and over the wall of wreckage in front, rolling off the track in a writhing, twisting maelstrom of Gordian knots.”
Commander Fluckey now had to sink seven vessels in just three days in order to win the whiskey. The torpedoes were gone, but there were some five-inch shells left—and forty-eight rockets.
“Our priority now is Shiritori, where we’ll reconnoiter for a triple rocket massage,” he told his officers. “We’ll rocket Shiritori just after dark, then proceed at flank speed down the coast and rocket Kashiho before dawn. From there we skid across the bay to bombard Chiri. After that I’d like one more crack at luring a single minefield frigate into deep water.”
“Rockets away!” Thirty-six rockets flew toward two factories and Shiritori’s city hall, striking gasoline drums. Fires lit up the night sky. Fluckey invited all hands on deck to enjoy the fireworks before they raced off to their final stop that night.
Two hours later the last dozen rockets blew up more buildings at Kashiho.
Later in the morning they got another sampan, taking a prisoner to obtain information about defenses at their next target, Chiri. On the way into Chiri they got another sampan. They unloaded on Chiri with forty-three five-inch shells; on the way out they got another sampan with the last of the five-inch shells. All that remained were three star shells, which weren’t explosive, but no matter. They fired two into a sampan at the waterline, holing the hull, sinking it, and bringing the tally to six sampans for the day. Fourteen vessels down, one to go.
The Barb received a message from Admiral Lockwood:
fluckey you come home x acknowledge x.
There was no ammunition left except for the 40mm gun and 20mm Oerlikon machine gun. They used the last of the 40mm shells to blow up a lumber mill at Shibetoro, again hitting a fuel tank and causing an inferno. The wind blew the fire onto seventeen sampans, which didn’t count for the bet because they were collateral damage.
Four miles later they came across a trawler. Looking around for something to throw at the trawler, they came up with a crate of rifle grenades. After eighteen lobs, the trawler caught fire but wouldn’t sink. So, finally, Fluckey rammed it with the Barb. “It seemed like driving a car into a burning garage,” he said.
The trawler went down. Some might argue that sinking sampans and trawlers is hardly a challenge, or even a very good use of a well-armed American submarine. But to Fluckey, a bet was a bet, and the trawler was his fifteenth and final kill.
So ended Eugene Fluckey’s combat career.
He would go on to become an aide to Adm. Chester W. Nimitz after the war, and later, as a rear admiral, was named director of naval intelligence. He finally retired from the service in 1972.
But he always fondly recalled the ship and crew that brought him such acclaim early in his navy service, and his parting from the Barb reminds us that even the Galloping Ghost had human dimensions: “I didn’t have the courage to have a formal relieving aboard ship with the crew at quarters,” he wrote his wife at the time. “I would have blubbered.”