The pairing these two pieces of ephemera, a slightly salacious men’s magazine and a U.S. Postal Service First Day Cover (FDC), may be confusing – they’re as opposite as the two tips of a compass needle. But in our case, they’re pointing in the same direction: a story of World War II heroics.
This issue of Real Men is from August 1961. Pulp magazines of this type were noted for lurid cover art of manly men and helpless women. Their content blended fictional stories of lusty gallantry with true adventure tales. Doing this gave themselves a contrived credibility, mixing a tasty cocktail of fact and fiction eagerly gulped by their readers.
FDCs are issued by the postal service to commemorate a special occasion or as a remembrance of a historic event. This one from April 2, 1942, was issued to commemorate the launching of the USS Barb. She was one of a wartime fleet of 74 submarines built by the Electric Boat Company. The connection between the two, and the introduction to our story, can be read at the bottom right-hand corner of the magazine’s cover – The Sub That Sank a Railroad.
The Barb’s first six patrols produced lackluster results, with only one enemy vessel sunk. This changed when a new skipper—Commander Eugene Fluckey—took the helm in May 1944. He was smart, innovative, aggressive and ballsy. And, most importantly, he gained the devotion and trust of his men. With a new skipper and an aggressive hunt and destroy attitude the Barb’s war record soon became the envy of the Pacific fleet.
The first patrol under Cdr. Fluckey (the Barb’s eight) lasted from May through July 1944. The impact of having a new captain was immediate. On this first patrol alone five enemy ships were destroyed. By her 12th, and final patrol (June through August 1945), the Barb and her crew amassed one of the war’s most notable service records, sinking over 100,000 tons of enemy vessels.
July 18,1945: Leaning on the wardroom table, elbows locked and palms flat against the navigational chart, Fluckey’s imagination was racing. The chart showed a railroad line running up the Japanese coast near the city of Kashiho. This stretch of rail connected two junctions and each junction then split off into three separate lines. To the Japanese this section of track was the link that supplied the region with the necessities of war. To Fluckey, it was an Achilles Heel. Destroying it would be a huge loss to the Japanese. Talking it over with his officers, they all agreed it was a worthy target. Then Fluckey took it one more step: Would it be possible to destroy the train as well as the track?
Unfortunately, the trains unpredictable schedule eliminated the possibility of a timed explosion. Looking for a solution the officers canvassed the crew for suggestions. One crewman, electrician Bill Hatfield, had the fix. While working for a railroad before joining the Navy, Hatfield knew the weight of a train causes the rail to sag. If they could make a switch that the flexing rail would close, they could hook it up between a detonator and the explosives. When the switch was depressed, completing the circuit – BOOM! The train would destroy itself.
With news of the mission, the entire crew began jousting to volunteer. In choosing the volunteers, Fluckey had specific criteria in mind: no married men (except Hatfield) and at least half of the team had to have been Boy Scouts. To the Commander this was vital. If something went wrong, the teams only hope of escaping capture was to head north to Russian territorial islands – a distance of 180 miles. As a former Boy Scout, he knew the Scouts training in wilderness survival and first aid would increase their chances of making it to safety. With the team of eight men chosen, planning for this unlikely target began.
The Captain and Hatfield began working on the switch’s design, but not knowing how much the rail would sag—Japanese trains were lighter and smaller than US trains—it became a best guess situation with life or death significance. If the switch was positioned too far from the rail it wouldn’t make contact: if it were positioned too close, it would set off the explosives as Hatfield made the final connection. After hours of intense calculations, a final design was agreed upon. It was now time to work out the other details of the mission.
Fortunately, there was unexpected help in its planning. A few weeks earlier the Barb’s crew rescued a drowning Japanese sailor (a survivor of the torpedo attack on his ship). In front of his POW, Fluckey rolled out the chart and pointed to the target area. Using an English-Japanese dictionary and hand gestures, the Commander learned that the beaches were patrolled by armed guards with attack-dogs. This scrap of information made it necessary to add two more things to the landing party’s supply list; raw meat and heavy duty welders gloves, just in case “hand-to-paw” combat became necessary. The expanding list also included a pick and shovel for burying the microwave oven-sized explosive package. Picks and shovels aren’t regular issue on a sub, but for the crewmen in the engine room, that wasn’t a problem. Ripping up steel plates from the ship’s interior, they torched out the needed shapes and welded them to pipes creating the needed tools.
July 23, 1945, Midnight: The plan was for the Barb to surface at midnight and slowly glide to about a half mile off shore: The men, in two inflatable rafts, would paddle the rest of the way. Once ashore, two men were to stay protecting the rafts and, if necessary, eliminate any Japanese patrols. Hatfield and the five others would make their way three hundred yards inland to the railroad. Still concerned about the switch’s design and reliability, Fluckey gave the team one last direct order: ALL personnel, except Hatfield, was to leave the area and take cover before the final connection was made. With the exception of a few mishaps, all went according to plan—until Hatfields team mutinied!
With the explosives packed beneath the rails, Hatfield carefully positioned the switch. Ready to make the final connection he waited for the men to clear the area. That didn’t happen—ignoring their direct orders to leave, Hatfield’s five shipmates knelt, huddled, and squatted, shoulder to shoulder with him. They were going to see this through as a team.
1:47am: Red-orange fireballs blasted away the darkness and the sounds of ripping metal reverberated across the waves—the sights and sounds of a successful mission. These eight American sailors: William Hatfield , Edward Klinglesmith, John Markuson, Lawrence Newland, James Richard, Paul Saunders, Francis Sever, and William Walker, conducted the ONLY ground combat mission on the Japanese homeland during World War II.
After the war, Commander Fluckey was asked what he was most proud of, he answered: “No one who ever served under my command was awarded the Purple Heart for being wounded or killed, and all of us brought our Barb back safe and sound.” He retired from the Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral and died in 2007 at the age of 93. The exploits he shared with his crew and the USS Barb are recounted in his memoir, “Thunder Below”.
As for the Barb, she was given to the Italian Navy in 1953 and rechristened Enrique Tazzoli. She served the Italians for twenty years before being sold for $100,000 as scrap metal.