A Dramatic Rescue in the South China Sea
By RADM Robert W. McNitt, USN-Ret
Often the most momentous events start in the wee hours when every one but the watch standers are asleep. So it was aboard the United States Submarine Barb, at 0300 on 16 September 1944 when our radioman decoded an urgent message ordering us to proceed immediately at our best speed to the scene of a major tragedy 450 miles away.
Thirteen-hundred and fifty Allied prisoners of war, crowded into the hold of a torpedoed Japanese freighter, the Rakuyo Maru, were suddenly in the water struggling to stay afloat after abandoning their sinking ship. These men, survivors of the hellish brutality of working on the Burma railroad, were being transported from Singapore to Japan as prison laborers, and had been in the water for four days when they were discovered, and a rescue attempted.
This was a sudden change in mission for the USS Barb. She had left Pearl Harbor six weeks earlier with two other submarines, Queenfish and Tunny, as a wolf-pack commanded by Captain Edward Swinburne, USN, assigned to sink Japanese shipping in the South China sea. Barb was at the peak of her fighting efficiency. Only two years old, she still had many of her hand-picked commissioning crew on board, and was on her 9th war patrol. Her aggressive and skillful captain, red-headed Lieutenant Commander Eugene Fluckey, was already called by the crew on the mess deck â€œLucky Fluckeyâ€ after only five months in command.
The past three weeks had been a blur of attack and escape. Barb had torpedoed and sunk a freighter and damaged a tanker so badly that she was eventually run ashore to avoid sinking and did not survive the war. Unsuccessfully attacking two destroyers, Barb was lucky to escape after a severe depth charging. She sank a trawler by gunfire. Sighting what appeared to be a small freighter with two escorts, Barb took a chance on making a submerged periscope attack with nearly depleted batteries, sank it with a well aimed torpedo amidships, and then discovered it was a heavily armed anti-submarine decoy ship with five sub-chaser escorts hiding nearby. Diving to her absolutely maximum safe depth, Barb was able to creep out from under a barrage of over two hundred depth charges, surface about five miles away, and escape on two engines while desperately charging batteries with the other two.
Forced to dive by enemy aircraft, Barb watched helplessly while Tunny, nearby on the surface, was bombed as she attempted to escape by diving. Tunny barely survived this attack, and had to return to port with serious hull and torpedo tube damage. It was obvious by now that Japanese bombers were using a new tactic. Equipped with radar, they could attack by day or night, and Barbâ€™s preferred method of searching for targets while running on the surface was becoming very dangerous.
Anticipating this likelihood on the way to our patrol area, we had practiced the risky procedure of diving fast by driving the ship under at high speed with full dive set on the bow diving planes. On one of these drills, the bow planes jammed on full dive. â€œBlow main ballast, all stop, all back emergency!â€ ordered the diving officer as the boat headed for the bottom with a 30 degree down angle. The petty officer at the main ballast manifold slipped on the steep deck, and fell to the end of the control room before he could empty the ballast tanks with high-pressure air. Russell Elliman, our quick thinking baker, saw this happen, jumped out of the galley into the control room, grabbed the valve handles, spun open the ballast tank blow valves, and saved the ship.