The Sailor Who 'Torpedoed' a Train

By Carl LaVO

The obvious choice for the mission was the COB himself, a wiry 26-year-old Virginian who had earned his moniker quivering like a pointer dog as he “swished” back and forth directing the firepower of the Barb in surface gun action and rocket launches that were to revolutionize submarine warfare. Swish also had the rare distinction of being on board the same submarine through 12 arduous war patrols—five in pursuit of German shipping in the Atlantic off Europe and seven against Japan in the Pacific. Most crewmen rotated to other subs after four or five patrols. Not Swish. Described by a fellow submariner as “a real salty Sailor, almost a character out of a paperback novel,” he possessed unflappable will to engage the enemy.

Would the plan to destroy a train work? Saunders was confident in his abilities from a long career in surface ships and submarines. But he was mindful of what could go wrong—as it had during the Barb’s first war patrol, almost three years earlier.

Operation Torch

In support of the November 1942 Allied invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch, the Barb was deployed in October to deliver scouts in rubber boats off the coast of Algiers. The commandos and the subs in Torch were outfitted with infrared beacons to mark the way to beachheads at Fedhala, Mehedia, Safi, and Algiers.

As a gunner’s mate in the Barb , Saunders was eager to be part of the action. Growing up in the backwater of Singing Glen in western Virginia in the 1930s, he yearned to be in the military as war overtook Europe. At 17, he tried to enlist in the French Foreign Legion but was too young. So he enlisted in the Navy and served in the USS Raleigh (CL-7), Sampson (DD-394), and McCook (DD-252), gaining experience at sea from Iceland to South America to the south of France. Lured by the additional danger and mystery of submarine duty, Saunders qualified in the coastal-defense sub R-4 (SS-81) and was on board the new fleet boat Barb at her commissioning in 1942. World War II was in full bore, and Operation Torch promised to put the Gato -class submarine and her gunner’s mate right in the middle of it.

Unfortunately, things didn’t go as intended.

Navigational problems and language differences beset the invasion force and led to confusion. The Barb launched her five scouts to proceed to a bell buoy off the Safi dock. Because of inaccurate charts, the scouts had to paddle much farther than anticipated and got caught in a crossfire between arriving Allied destroyers and shore batteries. The ships quickly secured the anchorage, however, and rescued the scouts unharmed.

For the next several months the Barb operated out of Scotland, conducting war patrols against blockade runners in the Bay of Biscay, where she sank a presumed German tanker. During the boat’s fifth patrol in the North Atlantic, Saunders came to the attention of the executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Everett H. Steinmetz, after he told the then-chief of the boat to break in a new manifold operator (the enlisted man who controlled the dive). A day later, as the sub raced ahead on four main engines, lookouts spotted an enemy periscope and sounded the diving alarm. Normally, high-speed dives left less room for error and required practice. Steinmetz and the COB, realizing the new man was on the manifold, blanched. “The Chief of the Boat and I hit the control room from opposite directions,” Steinmetz recalled. “The trainee had executed his portion of the dive flawlessly. I qualified him then and there! I mention this because every man that made a patrol in Barb had the trainee as a shipmate. He was Swish Saunders.”

Dynamic Duo

After five unremarkable war patrols off Europe, the Barb moved to the Pacific, where her first two patrols brought few successes. That abruptly changed when Eugene Fluckey, 33, the boat’s prospective commanding officer, became skipper and picked Saunders to be his chief of the boat. At first the gunnery chief demurred: “Not me, Captain, no way. All the men are my friends. As chief of the boat I’d have to tell them off and discipline them. How could I do that?”

“Swish, I don’t want a bastard, I want a leader,” the skipper later recalled saying. “We don’t drive men on board the Barb. We lead them. From my experience with bastards, they achieve about equal results. But there’s one big difference. When you lead men, they ship over and want to stay with you.”

Saunders worried about making a mistake as COB. “So you goof,” said Fluckey. “Don’t hide it or cover up. Do your best to correct your mistakes and don’t be afraid to ask for help from anyone from top to bottom. You’ll find people are complimented when you ask for help. In submarines we hang our rates on the gangway when we come aboard. It’s what you can do that counts with me.”

The deal was struck.

“Swish never viewed himself as anything but an enlisted man, even though he was COB,” according to Neal Sever, the boat’s signalman. “I never saw him pull rank on any of us, nor did I ever hear any of us bitch about Swish. He was pleasant and treated us as his equal.”

But that wasn’t to say he was a pushover. According to Barb Torpedo and Gunnery Officer Lieutenant Max Duncan: “Swish was all business on his watches and positions such as chief of the watch on the hyudraulic manifold or gun/rocket launcher captain. He dealt with people with a velvet glove. It was the glove when needed but always calm and deliberate.”

Swish retained his camaraderie with the men, kidded around with them, and “drank his share of grog” with them on liberty, as Sever put it. But first and foremost on Saunders’ mind was fighting the enemy and manning the guns. When it came to that, the Barb ’s skipper and the chief of the boat made a dynamic duo. “The combination of Commander Eugene B. Fluckey and ‘Swish’ Saunders was like electricity,” said one shipmate. “They were both of the same mold. ‘Attack and Destroy’ was their motto.” That lethal combination quickly made the Barb one of the most successful submarines sent against Japan.

Action in the Pacific

In the boat’s first four patrols under Fluckey, she sank the escort carrier Unyo , the frigate Gorkuko , and numerous other vessels. The Barb also rescued Australian and British prisoners of war shipwrecked for days and near death in the South China Sea. Saunders and others took turns diving into typhoon-roiled waters to pull 14 survivors aboard.

On the boat’s 11th war patrol off the east coast of China in January 1945, Fluckey discovered secluded Namkwan Harbor, where 30 or more Japanese ships were at anchor. The skipper decided to gamble by taking the sub into the shallow harbor after midnight for a surprise surface attack. Amid confusion over where the attack was coming from, the sub would dash for open seas through uncharted waters to safety 20 miles offshore. As Fluckey put it in an address to his crew, “OK, it is now time to take one of our well-known calculated risks.”

Saunders later described the scene, recalling it from his control-room vantage as the Barb inched past three roving destroyers: “We creep in. You can’t hear a thing but the fathometer pinging, and she says six fathoms. We could almost get out and walk. Everybody’s heart is doing flip-flops. The pickles are all set.”

Two minutes later, Fluckey gave the order to fire four torpedoes from the boat’s bow tubes, then brought the sub around to fire the “fish” in the four stern tubes. Eight torpedoes raced ahead. The harbor erupted in exploding ships and fireballs and return gunfire directed at phantom aircraft. No one could believe a sub had attacked; the harbor was too shallow. The Barb , meanwhile, raced for safety at 23 knots while using radar to plot a zig-zag course through a fleet of Chinese junks, all the while pursued by a destroyer lobbing shells at the retreating submarine. The ship gave up after a 30-minute chase. Noted Fluckey in his patrol log: “The Galloping Ghost of the China Coast crossed the 20-fathom curve with a sigh. Never realized how much water that was before. However, life begins at forty (fathoms). Kept going.”

For the boat’s daring, the crew earned a Presidential Unit Citation and Fluckey the nation’s highest award, the Medal of Honor.

For her 12th and last war patrol, the Barb was deployed from Pearl Harbor to the north coast of Japan. Fluckey’s orders were “to raise a rumpus” by attacking shipping wherever it was found. But attacking enemy vessels wasn’t the only thing the skipper contemplated. He was intent on proving that a submarine could be used to fire what he called “ballistic missiles.” Before casting off, he requisitioned 72 five-inch spin-stabilized rockets, each tipped with ten pounds of explosives. A simple rocket launcher was bolted to the forward gun mount and could be raised to a 45-degree angle to simultaneously fire a dozen four-foot-long MK10 rockets, each of which had a range of nearly three miles.

The skipper got his chance to make history on the night of 22 June 1945, as the sub slid unnoticed into the harbor of Shari, a city of 20,000 on the coast of Hokkaido. At Fluckey’s signal, Swish and the gunnery crew unstrapped the rocket launcher, raised it to the desired angle, and ran an electrical line to a firing switch in the conning tower. On the bridge above, the skipper flipped his polarized goggles to their darkest setting and barked the order, “Rockets away!” An explosion of blue-white flame lit the deck. A dozen rockets lifted off and disappeared into the night sky. A minute later, several buildings in a factory district burst into flames. It was the first such rocket attack in submarine history.

The Barb made good her escape and raced for the western side of the Okhotsk Sea off Karafuto, where both the skipper and the COB relished a fresh opportunity to wreak havoc—by blowing up a train.

Attack of the ‘Land Torpedo’

The captain convened a meeting in the wardroom. Eight men were chosen to undertake the mission and divided into two teams, one each for the sub’s two inflatable rubber boats. Lieutenant Bill Walker, the Barb ’s engineering officer and group leader, would lead one boat, Swish Saunders the other. All were selected for their communications and Boy Scout skills. In case they couldn’t make it back to the submarine, Fluckey wanted them to have a fighting chance to live off the land. He had them practice bird whistles as a means of signaling each other in the dark.

Saunders and Bill Hatfield, the boat’s third-class electrician’s mate, fashioned a 55-pound bomb out of a scuttling charge that they wired to three dry-cell batteries and placed in an empty pickle can. Saunders christened the device a “land torpedo.” Since it was agreed the team could not wait around to set off the bomb, Hatfield, who had worked on a railroad, devised a micro-switch detonator bolted to a wooden wedge to be snugged up tight under the rails. He knew the massive weight of a locomotive would exert enough downward pressure to trigger the switch.

On the moonless night of 23 July, Fluckey gave the go-ahead. With the sub surfaced 950 yards from the beach, the teams set out. The commandos—Walker, Saunders, Hatfield (the only married man), signalman Sever, motor machinist Jim Richard, ship’s cook Larry Newland, auxiliary man John Markuson, and torpedoman Edward Klinglesmith—were well equipped. They carried red-lens flashlights, watches, knives, D-rations, inflatable life jackets, cigarette lighters, a signal gun, binoculars, electrical wire, the demolition charge, carbines, tommy guns, and hand grenades. The skipper emphasized the sub would wait no more than three hours—just 15 minutes before the first glimmer of dawn, when the boat would be exposed.

“Boys,” the skipper said, “if you get stuck, head for Siberia 130 miles north. Follow the mountain ranges. Good luck.”

Dangerous Work in the Dark

The teams used compass bearings in the ink-black night to reach the beach. Leaving two men to guard the boats, the six others sprinted between two homes, stumbled through two drainage ditches, thickets, and across a highway to reach the railroad. Three split off along the tracks on guard duty. Three others—Walker, Saunders, and Hatfield—bent to the task of hollowing out stone from under the rails for the explosive.

Before too long they heard someone running toward them. Hatfield picked up his weapon.

“Take it easy!” whispered Swish. “At this time of night there’s no one running up this track except a scared American.”

It was one of their sentries, reporting a guard shack down the line with someone sleeping inside. Moments later, a locomotive came rumbling out of the dark. The men hit the ground, lying motionless alongside the track as the train passed, its engineer hanging out of the cab, looking down.

With renewed urgency, Hatfield connected the charge to the switch detonator. All six then dashed for the boats and paddled furiously toward the Barb . They were halfway to the sub when they heard the sound of a northbound train. On the sub’s bridge, Fluckey grabbed a megaphone. “Paddle like the devil!” he yelled. “We’re leaving!”

Seconds later, the bomb went off, throwing wreckage 200 feet into the air. Cars piled into one another and lurched off the tracks in a screeching mass of twisted, rolling metal.

Silhouetted in the fireworks, the jubilant saboteurs reached the Barb and went below as the sub disappeared into the depths.

Over the next few nights, the Barb moved up the coast and launched her remaining 30 rockets at the factory town of Shiritori, destroying Japan’s largest paper factory. Enamored of the sub’s utility attacking beach targets, Swish used the boat’s 5-inch deck gun to obliterate a leather-tanning factory that made pilot uniforms, and later directed the boat’s gunnery to set a shipyard afire. Additional action all around the rim of the Okhotsk destroyed many small craft and medium-sized ships to conclude one of the most audacious submarine patrols of World War II.

On 2 August 1945 the Barb returned to Midway Atoll, where the Navy awarded Fluckey a fourth Navy Cross. The skipper noted his submarine had endured an estimated 400 shells, bombs, and depth charges and some very narrow escapes in her last five patrols. But the boat had come through it all without a single casualty.

In a final accounting, the Navy credited Fluckey with sinking 17 ships totaling 94,409 tons—number 1 in tonnage sunk among all American sub captains in the war.

An Undying Spirit of Adventure

The Navy honored Swish Saunders as one of the service’s most decorated enlisted men. His awards included two Silver Stars, one Bronze Star, a Presidential Unit Citation, a Navy Unit commendation, a Letter of Commendation with Ribbon in recognition of his heroic actions in combat during the World War II, the Submarine Combat pin, the Victory Medal, the American Theater Medal, and the Philppine Liberation Medal.

After the war, Saunders remained in the forefront of submarine missile development. He became chief of the boat in the Cusk (SS-348), which experimented with German Loon rockets. As COB in the Carbonero (SS-337), he helped develop the Regulus launch system. By the early 1960s, he was COB in the Theodore Roosevelt (SSBN-600), where he helped perfect Polaris missile launches. It was the ultimate realization of a dream that Swish and Gene Fluckey shared as pioneers in that last patrol of the Barb.

Saunders’ spirit of adventure lived on after his retirement in 1962. He began a professional auto-racing career in California and Mexico, and earned his pilot’s license. When landing at the wrong airport, he famously quipped, “A malfunction of the depth gauge caused a miscalculation of the depth and sank one aircraft.”

His wartime exploits and those of the Barb live on. A few years ago, the head of the Navy SEALs was asked why there were always eight men in a SEAL team rather than six or ten or a dozen. The admiral replied that the Barb had used an eight-man team for the first assault landing on the Japanese home islands. “It worked,” he said, “so eight is the number!”

Looking back on his naval career prior to his death in August 2003, Saunders described his many adventures as the product of his youth. His own welfare was secondary to helping win the war against Germany and Japan and making the Silent Service indomitable in defense of the United States. As he put it regarding the dangers he faced in the war, “I was a lot younger in those days.”

 



Sources:

Captain Max Duncan, USN (Ret.), interview with the author.

San Francisco Chapter, U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II, “Simon Sez,” Polaris , April 1969, p 15.

Paul G. Saunders biographical sketch, Sharkhunters International, www.sharkhunters.com/EPSaunders.htm .

Paul G. Saunders obituary, United States Submarine Veterans Inc., 8 August 2003, www.nautilusbase.us/Patrol.html .

Captain Everett H. Steinmetz, USN (Ret.), “USS Barb (SS-220) and Subron 50,” Polaris, June 1998, www.subvetpaul.com/SAGA_6_98.htm .

 

Carl LaVO is the author of three previous books including The Galloping Ghost: The Extraordinary Life of Submarine Legend Eugene Fluckey. He lives in Bucks County, PA.

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