James Holmes

Thunder Below!

“The engine’s boilers blew, wreckage flew two hundred feet in the air in a flash of flame and smoke…”

One of the pleasures of serving on the Naval War College faculty is the opportunity for random encounters with great figures from the past—such as Eugene B.Fluckey. A couple of weeks back, some colleagues and I descended on our president’s quarters for a reception. Adorning the wall is a painting of the World War II submarine USS Barb, autographed by Commander Fluckey, its skipper. Fluckey recounts his time on board Barb, which sank the most Japanese tonnage of any Pacific Fleet boat, in Thunder Below!  Written with zest and an eye for detail, Thunder Below! ranks alongside such seminal wartime memoirs as Eugene Sledge’s With the Old Breed.

As Theodore Roscoe puts it in florid prose, “a new constellation was on the war’s horizon” in August 1944, when Fluckey assumed command of Barb, “a stellar phenomenon of the first magnitude, composed of a star submarine named Barb, an ace crew of submariners, and a skipper named Fluckey.” Under his direction the boat operated in wolfpacks against naval and merchant shipping, prowling theaters off the Japanese coast bearing such nicknames as “Convoy College.” Fluckey was awarded the Medal of Honor and four Navy Crosses, the latter the U.S. Navy’s highest decoration for valor, to acknowledge his exploits.

Barb’s most novel cruise found it harrying the coasts of Hokkaido in the war’s waning months. A rocket launcher had been mounted on the sub’s deck during a yard period. Barb’s crew pummeled the port of Shari with 5-inch rockets, dueled Japanese gunners at Kaihyo, demolished canneries in the town of Chiri, and set the shipyard at Shibertoro ablaze with gunfire. One night in July 1945, eight sailors landed near Otasamu and sabotaged a train. “The engine’s boilers blew, wreckage flew two hundred feet in the air in a flash of flame and smoke, cars piled up and rolled off the track in a writhing, twisting mass of wreckage. Cheers!” recalled the skipper.

Two things stand out from Thunder Below! and Roscoe’s history of the undersea war. One, there’s an amphibian character to naval service that sometimes escapes non-specialists. The U.S. Marines’ Small Wars Manual assumed that ship crews would serve ashore during the opening phases of the “banana wars” of the early 20th century. During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, there were times when nearly as many navy personnel were serving on land as “individual augmentees” as afloat in ships. Landing in Japan to blow up a train exuded audacity but wasn’t as radical as it might seem.

And two, submarines are something like fighter planes. A boat operates beyond direct supervision from top commanders and thus quickly takes on the personality of its skipper. The World War II naval establishment took advantage of this. Pacific Fleet captains were given two wartime patrols to produce results. Those who produced—the Fluckeys, or the Mush Mortons—thrived. Those who lacked enterprise were summarily dismissed from command. Sometimes it takes harsh personnel policy to instill daring and panache in big institutions. That’s not a bad takeaway from the life of Eugene Fluckey.