The Buzz

How One Very Special U.S. Submarine Ravaged Japan During World War II

At midnight on July 23, the Barb slipped up to within a kilometer of the shore, and a landing party commanded by Lt. William Walke, paddled quietly to the beach. While three men took up guard positions—they encountered a sleeping Japanese guard in a watchtower, whom they left unharmed—the other five buried the demolition charge and managed not blow themselves up jury-rigging the detonation circuit. They were furiously rowing back to the Barb when a second train passed.

Fluckey described what happened next in his autobiography Thunder Below!: “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.”

All sixteen train cars derailed, killing 150 passengers. The Barb’s crew added a train to the tally of enemy ships sunk on their battle flag. Its landing party had just performed what would be the only U.S. ground operation on the Japanese home islands during World War II. The Barb continued its rampage along the Sakhalin coastline through July 26 before returning safely back to its base in Midway Island on August 2.

The Barb’s raids on the Japanese coast—and even those performed by Allied battleships—were premised on the Japanese military’s inability, by 1945, to effectively defend the home-island coastlines, which included a lack of coastal-defense guns. Many of the casualties of the Barb’s attacks were likely civilians in largely undefended towns. On the other hand, targeting civilian merchant ships was a standard practice undertaken by all sides in World War II.

While the rockets the Barb employed appear to have been effective, it’s not clear that they were superior to having another deck gun. But within a decade of the Barb’s last mission, new rocket-based technologies in the form of guided cruise and ballistic missiles drastically reduced the relevance of big guns on warships or coastal defenses. The new weapons could be launched by a submerged submarine a long distance from the shore, safe from immediate retaliation.

Thus the Barb’s last rocket-laden patrol presaged the future of undersea warfare. Submarines, such as the enormous Ohio-class ballistic missile submarine, which has a variant carrying 154 land-attack cruise missiles, can pose a threat even to a nation with a well-defended coastline. The Barb’s month-long seaside rampage will remain a unique incident for some time to come.

Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.

Image: USS Barb, 1945. Wikimedia Commons/U.S. Navy