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The USS BARB Revolutionizes Submarine Warfare
In World War ll

by Eugene B. Fluckey, Rear Admiral, USN (Ret)
University of illinois Press
Urbana and Chicago, 1992
ISBN 0-252-01925-3


Reviewed by CDR Bruce B. Engelhards, USN

[Ed. Note: CDR Engelhardt is currently serving in N-872, OPNA V’s directorate for Attack Submarines. His previous tour was as CO USS DRUM (SSN 677), during which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal]

Thunder Below! is more than a fascinating account of the submarine war fought in the Pacific during World War II. It is also an engrossing adventure story and a compelling history, full of relevant lessons learned. Admiral F1uckey’s vivid personal recollections of”my BARB”, as he calls her, and his impassioned descriptions of the shared bond between a Captain and his crew make Thunder Below! required reading for those who have had command at sea and for those who aspire to it.

Thunder Below! is the history of USS BARB during the last fifteen months of World War II. The United States submarine service had tightened its grip on the Japanese Empire. The action takes place over the span of BARB’s eighth through twelfth war patrols. In the eleventh patrol, Admiral F1uckey and his crew made a daring surface raid into shallow (less than 10 fathoms) Namkwan Harbor, China. They sank four Japanese ships and damaged three others, escaping unscathed. For this daring action Admiral F1uckey was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. The author’s extensive research for the book took ten years and included interviews with crewmembers and civilian eyewitnesses, factfinding missions to China and Japan, detailed reviews of U.S. and Japanese war records and a BARB torpedoman’s personal war diary. This research served to highlight BARB’s accomplishments: one of the highest tonnage totals sunk by a U.S. submarine (Admiral F1uckey states that “Totals sunk m Japanese Empire waters by the BARB from all factual sourc !S so far uncovered are as follows: 291h ships sunk; 146,808 tons sunk.” – Appendix B), the Presidential Unit Citation, shore bombardments, 74 trawlers and sampans destroyed by gunfire, and one trawler destroyed by ramming.

Thunder Below! is fun to read. Admiral Fluckey used an action packed writing style with large doses of crisp dialogue to describe his five war patrols in command of BARB. The result was a hard-to-put-down tale that became intensely real for me. The following description of depth chargings after an unsuccessful torpedo attack on two frigates is illustrative of the action:

Time 0415. “Sonar reports short scale. Screws to port. First charge hit the water. All ahead flank speed. Maneuvering room, give her every ampere she’ll take. Rudder amidships.” After a series of click-bangs, we felt like we were a pin in a bowling alley. Men were knocked that. ..The BARB was pushed sideways and deeper. All lights went out. The thunder below was enough to jar our fillings loose. The charges were so close we could hear the click of the detonators before the explosion.

As I read Thunder Below! I was struck by the emphasis Admiral Auckey placed on professional competence for himself, his officers and crew. We learn that, as a junior officer and department head on previous ships, the author developed the means to win the coveted “E” for excellence in engineering and torpedoes. We also find that he developed a way to compen-sate his boat’s trim for drastic changes in ocean salinity by measuring the specific gravity of sea water in the officers’ head. He gives most of the credit to his crew, but of course, he trained that crew. He talks of hours upon hours of drills on the way to station; crash dives in less than 70 seconds, fire drills, equipment tests and twelve-plus hour workdays while underway. Personal qualification and crew training were keys to BARB’s successes. Prior to his ninth patrol Admiral Fluckey told his junior chief to be the Chief of the Boat (COB). He told his new COB, “The other chiefs understand that as Chief of the Boat you become the senior chief on board. In submarines we hang our rates on the gangway when we come aboard. It’s what you can do that counts with me.” He also speaks of his favorite pastime as Captain, scouring other CO’s patrol reports. Admiral Auckey reminds us that “Life is not long enough to personally gamer sufficient experience for anything.” He tells us we must harvest the experience of others. “Otherwise their history of errors is to be repeated.” Thunder Below! gives us a lesson relearned: the first tenant of good leadership is to train ourselves and our people in the basics – engineering and weapons – to know the boat. Mastering basic submarining is not a new concept brought in with the advent of nuclear subma-rines, but a legacy from our past.

Every page in Thunder Below! seems to emphasize the teamwork and caring attitude of the BARB crew and her captain. Admiral Fluckey corresponded with his crew’s wives and loved ones. He surfaced in a raging typhoon to rescue fourteen survivors of a torpedo attack on a troop transport laden with allied POWs. On BARB, the use of report chits as a leadership tool was forbidden. The Captain routmely walked his boat, VISiting with the crew, checking on the injured and sick, and improving habitability. He encouraged his cooks to decorate cakes showing the results of successful battle actions. He spoke over the General Announcing System telling the crew of the War status and overall plans. His love for his men was obviously genuine and not contrived. I found Admiral Fluckey’s modest description of how he achieved this relationship to be both inspiring and instructive.

BARB had style. Prior to his first war patrol as Captain, Fluckey met with Admiral Lockwood, COMSUBPAC. Knowing that Admiral Lockwood had reservations about sending such a young captain on patrol, he promised the Admiral five sinkings. He then proceeded to go out and accomplish just that. Admiral Fluckey knew how to show off the exploits of his crew. From creative battle flags, to periscope photographs showing sinking merchants, to well-written patrol reports, to the first motion picture of battle action from a submarine, BARB did it with style. This positive style said “We don’t bave problems, just solutions”.

Most useful to me was the insight Thunder Below! gave me into innovation and change in the face of conventional wisdom. The man that Admiral Fluckey relieved sank no ships. He was a fatalist who after six patrols was afraid to go on patrol a~ain. Like many of the early skippers, trained in the pre-war envtron-ment, he was cautious and ultra-conservative. The conventional wisdom was to remain submerged and make deep approaches from the limits of torpedo range. This severely limited the area of search and ability to pursue targets. In contrast, Admiral Fluckey believed in using speed voraciously and stealth judi-ciously. When telling of a particularly arduous approach he wrote, “I wished we had submarines that could travel at speeds higher than nine knots submerged. What a different ball game it would be if we had submerged speeds competitive with those of surface escorts.” The tactics and methods that Admiral Fluckey helped develop included surfaced high speed approach-es, night attacks, deadly accurate gunnery against small ships, and coordinated wolfpack operations. As the war progressed and the Japanese operated their convoys closer and closer to land, he planned and conducted his famous shallow water harbor attack and escape. In executing it, he took advantage of careful planning, stealth, stupefying surprise and luck. Admiral Fluckey describes this luck as “the faculty of making fortunate and unexpected discoveries by accident. Luck is where you find it, but to find it, you’ve got to look for it.”

Prior to his last patrol, Admiral Fluckey decided that he wanted to mount a rocket launcher forward and use it for shore bombardment. He overcame bureaucratic obstacles and accomplished this goal. He describes it thusly:

“I decided on [sending] a letter rather than a message, because the broad staff distribution of messages might give some doubter a chance to squash the idea for reasons I was be~nning to distrust-.Some officers still resisted the irreststible, everlasting tide of change. I didn’t want to see our request strangled to death with endless staff studies.”

Subsequently, BARB became the first submarine to carry and use rockets for successful bombardment of shore targets. On that same patrol, she sent a commando raid ashore to blow up a moving train with the ship’s scuttling charges. This was the sole landing of U.S. military on Japanese home soil during the war. Talk about a multi-mission platform.

The lesson for modem-day submariners is that the end of the cold war also requires us to pursue innovative new concepts and tactics. The submarine of today still possesses that unique and powerful characteristic – stealth. And with stealth, we now have the submerged speed Admiral Fluckey wished for in 1944. Thunder Below! suggests that today’s submariners can use these traits to aggressively pursue multi-mission objectives – in shaUow water, if required: to go where no one else dares, to launch commando raids, conduct covert shore bombardment, gather intelligence, interdict seaborne commerce/naval forces and surprise and deter the enemy. Those who see a lessened usefulness for submarines in the future are guilty of the same over-conservativeness of thought that stymied the Navy prior to and during the early years of World War II.

I enjoyed this book immensely. It is a study in history, adventure, leadership principles and innovation. Thunder Below! reminded me of our proud Submarine Force heritage and fortified me in the fight for its future.


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