The USS Barb (SS-220), a Gato-class submarine commissioned in 1942, played a pivotal role in World War II, particularly in the Pacific Theater, where it executed numerous successful patrols and attacks under the command of the legendary Eugene “Lucky” Fluckey.

With innovations like the employment of rocket weaponry for shore bombardment, and conducting one of the war’s most daring raids—the only ground combat operation on the Japanese home islands, the USS Barb established a legacy of ingenuity and bravery.

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Building USS Barb

The USS Barb belonged to the renowned Gato-class of submarines, designed with superior features and specifications to dominate the underwater realm. Measuring an impressive 311 feet and 8 inches in length, the submarine bore a sleek and streamlined structure that facilitated its agile movements beneath the waves. This design allowed it to glide silently and swiftly, making it a formidable predator of the deep seas.

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Engineers paid careful attention to the submarine’s speed capacities, equipping it with mechanisms that allowed it to reach speeds of up to 20.25 knots while surfaced and 8.75 knots when submerged. Such speed was crucial for both chasing down enemy vessels and evading hostile attacks. Its stealth and speed were further complemented by its ability to dive to depths of 300 feet, allowing it to navigate beneath the radar of enemy patrols effectively.

USS Barb near Mare Island Naval Yard in May, 1945.

To ensure sustained operations during extended war patrols, the USS Barb was fitted with state-of-the-art torpedo technology, making it a deadly adversary to enemy ships. The submarine’s initial armament consisted of six forward and four aft 21-inch torpedo tubes, allowing for a robust offensive capability. The Barb could unleash a salvo of torpedoes towards enemy convoys with precision and relentlessness, striking fear into the hearts of adversary sailors.

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During its service, particularly under the visionary leadership of Commander Eugene B. Fluckey, the USS Barb underwent further modifications to enhance its warfare capabilities. One of the most significant upgrades was the installation of rocket launchers, marking it as one of the first submarines equipped with such advanced weaponry. This innovation allowed the Barb to engage in shore bombardment missions, extending its reach and impact beyond the deep seas and onto enemy territories. This augmentation transformed it from a silent underwater predator to a versatile warrior capable of striking with devastating effect both at sea and on land.

Operational History

As the global conflict intensified, the USS Barb (SS-220) embarked on its initial combat deployment in 1943, setting sail towards the turbulent waters of the Pacific Theater where Allied and Axis naval forces fiercely contested for dominance. The onset of the Barb’s war patrols was marked by a steep learning curve, as it navigated the operational and tactical challenges presented by the sophisticated enemy and the unpredictable nature of underwater warfare.

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In its early stages of deployment, the USS Barb struggled to secure significant victories against the Japanese naval fleet. The submarine, while technologically advanced, had to find its footing in the complex theatre of war where enemy vessels were often heavily guarded and the seas closely monitored by Japanese anti-submarine warfare units. The initial patrols of the Barb were characterized by cautious maneuvering and learning, as its crew sought to understand and exploit the weaknesses of enemy defenses while minimizing risks.

USS Barb after an overhaul at Mare Island shipyard in 1944.

Under the command of Lieutenant Commander John R. Waterman during its fifth patrol, the USS Barb started to manifest its potential as a lethal asset against enemy shipping. The submarine’s first significant triumph came with the sinking of the Japanese cargo ship Unkai Maru No.1. This victory was not just a testament to the Barb’s firepower but also to its crew’s growing adeptness at executing covert underwater operations effectively.

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The sinking of Unkai Maru No.1 marked a pivotal moment for the USS Barb, symbolizing its transition from a novice warship to a seasoned hunter of the deep. Waterman’s leadership during this period was crucial in instilling a sense of confidence and boldness within the crew, as they learned to navigate, target, and attack with increasing precision and aggression. This successful operation paved the way for the submarine to engage more proactively in the Pacific, where it would eventually wreak havoc on enemy shipping lines and contribute significantly to disrupting Japanese maritime activities.

USS Barb Destroys A Train

The USS Barb’s operational narrative took a dynamic turn with the appointment of Commander Eugene B. Fluckey in 1944. This visionary leader, often referred to as ‘Lucky Fluckey’ for his daring and successful initiatives, transformed the submarine into an emblem of naval ingenuity and power during World War II.

Fluckey was no conventional naval commander; he embodied a fusion of calculated risk-taking and brilliant tactical acumen. From the moment he assumed command, he instilled in his crew a spirit of innovation and aggression, urging them to think beyond traditional doctrines of submarine warfare. His leadership ethos was about harnessing the USS Barb’s technical capabilities to their fullest while pushing the boundaries of what a submarine could achieve in the theater of war.

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Under Fluckey’s stewardship, the USS Barb began employing unorthodox tactics that caught enemy vessels off guard. The commander recognized that in the dynamic battlefield of the Pacific, where Allied and Axis forces were locked in a grim struggle for maritime supremacy, surprise and adaptability were key. He encouraged his crew to be creative in their approach, devising new ways to stalk, engage, and destroy enemy targets while minimizing their own exposure to risk.

One of Fluckey’s masterstrokes was the innovative use of rocket weaponry. The USS Barb was retrofitted with rocket launchers, making it one of the first submarines in history to possess such capabilities. This enhancement allowed the Barb to not only target enemy ships but also engage in shore bombardments. With rockets mounted, the submarine could launch assaults on Japanese coastal installations and vessels anchored in harbors, thereby expanding its operational impact significantly.

Moreover, Commander Fluckey conceived and executed one of the most audacious missions in the annals of submarine warfare during the Barb’s 12th patrol. He led a daring raid in which eight members of the Barb’s crew disembarked on the Japanese mainland to sabotage a coastal train by planting an explosive. This unprecedented act of sabotage demonstrated the crew’s courage and the commander’s willingness to undertake high-risk operations to strike at the enemy.

Crew members of the USS Barb pose with the battle flag at Pearl Harbor. At the bottom of the flag, you can see the train symbol.

Under Fluckey’s command, the USS Barb became synonymous with tactical innovation. It was not just the submarine’s technological prowess but also the unconventional and fearless use of its capabilities that made it a legend. Through a series of successful patrols, the USS Barb sank numerous Japanese vessels, contributing to the weakening of Japan’s naval strength and its ability to sustain the war effort.

How many ships did the USS Barb sink?

Officially, the USS Barb sank 17 enemy ships while it served the US Navy between 1942 and 1954.  During that time, this submarine was one of the most successful during WWII. This earned it multiple awards including four Presidential Unit Citations. Despite its excellent performance, the US sold it to Italy in 1954. There, the submarine served for 18 years before they sold it for scraps.

Decommissioning

As World War II drew to a close, the need for an extensive fleet of active war submarines significantly diminished. Amidst the backdrop of changing global dynamics and the dawn of a relatively peaceful era, the USS Barb, like many of her counterparts, transitioned from a fierce warrior of the seas to a silent observer of the evolving geopolitical landscape.

In 1947, the USS Barb was officially decommissioned, marking the end of her active duty in the U.S. Navy. This decommissioning was part of a broader shift in naval strategy and resource allocation, as the military adapted to the post-war context. The once-bustling corridors and combat stations within the submarine grew silent, as the vessel retired from the high-stakes game of war.

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However, the tale of the USS Barb did not entirely conclude with her decommissioning. In the 1950s, amidst the tensions of the Cold War, there was a brief period where the submarine was reactivated. During this phase, the Barb underwent modifications to meet the strategic requirements of a new age, yet she did not see combat as extensively as in her prime years during World War II.

Ultimately, the decision was made to permanently retire the USS Barb from active service. In 1954, she was struck from the Naval Vessel Register, officially severing her status as a commissioned vessel of the U.S. Navy. This action was a solemn acknowledgment of the end of the Barb’s service life, as she relinquished her role to newer, more advanced submarines designed for the Cold War era.

But the legacy of the USS Barb was too significant to be entirely lost to history. Recognizing her contribution to naval warfare and the historic significance of her exploits, particularly under Commander Eugene ‘Lucky’ Fluckey, efforts were made to preserve aspects of the submarine for posterity. While the main body of the submarine was sold for scrap in 1954, her conning tower and part of her sail were carefully extracted and preserved.

Today, these preserved pieces serve as silent testimonies to the submarine’s glorious past, housed at the Submarine Force Library and Museum in Groton, Connecticut. Visitors to the museum can witness firsthand the tangible remnants of the USS Barb, exploring the physical structures that once bore witness to some of the most daring and innovative submarine operations of World War II.