The Barb had one of the most successful submarine patrols of the Pacific. Did she get help from operational intelligence?
On the early morning of 23 January 1945, the USS Barb (SS-220), under the command of Commander Eugene B. Fluckey, entered Namkwan Harbor, China. According to Fluckey's account, she sank three Japanese ships, probably sank another, and damaged three others. For this action, Fluckey received the Medal of Honor, although he has often said his greatest achievement was that none of his crew ever got a Purple Heart. The war patrols of the Barb are detailed in retired Rear Admiral Fluckey's award-winning book Thunder Below!
Although Fluckey states that the Barb never received operational intelligence support from the US. Naval Group China (NavGrp China)/Sino-American Cooperative Organization (SACO), several accounts insist that these groups provided the tactical intelligence that enabled the Barb to attack the convoy. In particular, A Different Kind of War by Vice Admiral Milton E. Miles, U.S. Navy, makes this claim.
The actions of the Barb will be taught and studied by naval historians for years to come from the standpoint of tactics and leadership, combining daring with knowledge of the enemy to overwhelm a superior force. The mission was described by COM INCH (Commander-in-Chief, US. Fleet) as "the greatest patrol ever" in a congratulatory message on 24 February 1945. If NavGrp China/SACO played a part in this historical event, their role should be documented and the obvious contradictions resolved.
The Briggs/Stevens View
In The Day VADM Yamagata Joined His Honorable Ancestors, Ralph T. Briggs and Paul F. Stevens describe several NavGrp China operations, including the following:
COMNAVGRP, China transmitted intelligence reports daily to: COMINCH, CINCPAC [Commander-in- Chief, Pacific] COMSOWESPAC [Commander, Southwest Pacific], the 20th Bomber Command, and local commands in China. In addition, Fleet Liaison Officers, attached to SACO Headquarters, relayed China Coast Watcher reports direct to U.S. Fleet units patrolling the China Coast. A case in point occurred on 23-24 January 1945, when SGT Wm. M. Stewart, USMC, stationed at Pin-hai [sic] reported a Japanese convoy of eleven ships-four destroyers, five troop ships, and two tankers anchored in Amoy Bay. CAPT "Wally" Ebert, a SACO Fleet Liaison Officer, transmitted this information to the off-shore fleet. The USS Barb (SS-220) commanded by CAPT Eugene B. Fluckey, couldn't resist this juicy target. He took the Barb into Amoy Bay about 0400 and, before the convoy could up anchor and move out, had sunk three destroyers, four transports, and damaged one other ship.
Documentary evidence shows several errors in this account:
- The reporting done by Sergeant Stewart took place on 20-21 January 1945, not 23-24 January 1945.
- The Barb's attack on the early morning of 23 January 1945 took place not in Amoy Bay (24°-20'N, 118°-05'E), but in Namkwan Harbor (27°-04'N, 1200-27'E).
- Despite the fact that the Barb received NavGrp China reports about the convoy, the Barb was unable to use this information to make contact.
- Ebert's rank at this time was commander.
- Stewart was a Technical Sergeant, U.S. Marine Corps Reserve.
- Ping-hai reported 12 ships, not 11.
- The Barb sank three Japanese ships, probably sank another, and damaged three others.
The Miles View
Vice Admiral Miles was the commander of NavGrp China and SACO. Unfortunately, the part of his book that relates to the Barb's mission (pages 425-426) is in error on several points. Although the coast watcher was in Ping-hai, and the site of the battle was Namkwan Harbor, Miles states: "Those ships had been sunk within easy range of Ping-hai but while it was still too dark for him [Stewart] to take pictures." The radioman mentioned by Miles (Radioman Second Class Charles R. Cosgrove) had been removed from that station after only a few days' duty because of physical problems prior to the battle:
The most glaring error m the Miles account concerns the information reportedly passed to the Barb. According to Miles, the Japanese convoy anchored near Ping-hai on 2.3 January 1945 was planning to leave the following morning at 0600 for Keclung at about eight knots (based on information obtained by Stewart's "pirate friends"). Miles wrote that:
With this information available, Commander Wally Ebert quickly computed the handiest deep spot in the ocean that the convoy would pass, and we sent word to our nearest cruising submarine—the Barb—giving the precise spot at which the ships could be intercepted and the hour they would reach it in the morning. It was an exciting potential date, and the meeting place was given as accurately as if we had been able to say "Forty-second, and Broadway."
What had happened was that Captain Eugene B. Fluckey of the Barb had been unable to resist all those tempting targets bunched together at anchor. So, despite the shallow water and the lack of space in which to maneuver, the Barb sneaked in about 4 a.m. and, before the convoy could move, sank three destroyers, damaged one, and sank four other ships.
The battle, however, did not occur as related by Miles or Briggs and Stevens. The Barb track chart, the Barb and the accompanying wolf pack submarine USS Picuda (SS-382) patrol reports, coast watcher reports, and limited communications intelligence reports verify that the date and location of the battle arc wrong. In fact, unless new historical information is discovered, there is no evidence that any such message was sent by Ebert.
At approximately midnight on 20 January 1945, the Barb was about 40 miles east of Lam Yit, having just turned on her northeast search leg paralleling the China coast. The report of a convoy anchored at Lam Yit was transmitted by Ping-hai at about 16030n 20 January 1945, 16 hours after the Barb had left this area.
The Barb continued searching on this course for the northbound convoy, until sighting a southbound convoy at 1421 on 22 January, which eventually led it into Namkwan Harbor (where the two convoys converged). The convoyreported by Ping-hai at 1603 on 20 January did not head directly to Keelung, but hugged the coast, transiting through the Hai-tan Channel to Namkwan. There was no "Forty-second and Broadway."
The Coast Watcher View
Coast watcher Technical Sergeant William M. Stewart played a key role in the Barb's story and is truly one of the naval intelligence war heroes of the Pacific. The situation of coast watchers In China at that time was harsh. On 7 March 1945, 11 Navy and Marine officers of NavGrp, China met at the "Number One House" to discuss the coast watcher network. The detailed minutes of this meeting provide a unique insight to the situation and placement of resources at that time. The discussion centered on the problem of maintaining five stations, including lack of qualified personnel, training Chinese in radio, recognition, and weather, and lack of batteries and radios.
Only five coast watcher sites were discussed as being active during this meeting: Ping-hai (P-6-F) (25°-11'N, 119°-16'E); Nan Tai Wu (Amoy); Tungshan Island (Tung-shan Tao)(P-3-C)(23°-40’N, 117°-24’E); Pyramid Point (Ta-tso)(P-4D)(24°-53'N, 118°-58'E); and Hui-Tau (Wei-t'ou) Point (P-2-B)(24°-31'N, 118°-34'E). The situation was made more serious by the capture of coast watcher Radioman Second Class Alfred Warner Parsons on 21 December 1944 near Amoy. A monthly summary for the period 15·31 January 1945 reported: "Ping-hai is operated by Technical Sergeant William M. Stewart, LJSMCR, and Ralph A. Martin, GM3C."
An extract from the Daily Log Coast Watcher Station P6F (Ping-hai)provides a summary of activity for the period 5 January 1945-15 April 1945. This is the key document in any discussion of intelligence support provided to the Barb.
On 20 January 1945, the coast watcher log entry states:
"Sighted Jap convoy…Convoy stopped between Yam Lit and Wukiu Sue." This message was then reported at 0800. The Barb patrol report for the same day read: "1638(H) Sighted mine. Lat. 25-57 Long. 121-18.8. China reported more ships anchored in LAM YIT. Also another convoy from around there, apparently going through our area. Commenced searching again."
As noted, the Barb was heading northeast at this time, having turned to that course shortly before midnight (according to the track chart). She never made contact with the convoy reported at Lam Yit. It can be assumed that the report received by the Barb at 1638 of ships at Lam Yit was based on the sighting reported by Ping-hai. The Barb had begun her northeasterly track about 16 hours before receiving this report.
After reporting that the convoy in Lam Yit had stayed the night, the coast watcher log for 21 January 1945 states that a destroyer and one other ship stayed behind when the convoy headed out to sea. These two ships soon joined the others heading northeast. From 22-25 January, no combatants were reported by the Ping-hai station.
In researching his book, Fluckey attempted to locate Sergeant Stewart, but the Marine had died in 1991. Robert M. Sinks Sr., a meteorologist who served with Stewart, received the messages sent by Ping-hai for relay concerning the ships at Lam Yit. Sinks states: "I remember encoding it to send to headquarters to be sent to the fleet. SACO through its network of contacts with Chinese pirates gained a great deal of information. Every effort was made to substantiate the reports we received."
Coast watcher communications immediately after the Barb's attack confirm that they felt they had contributed to the battle. An extract from the Navy Group China War Diary (15-31 January 1945) stated:
During this 16 day period we have reported the movement of 61 Japanese ships…Of this total group we have the extreme single pleasure of being advised that, out of one convoy…reported by Ping-hai on the 20th, a submarine later definitely sank 3 of the Destroyers and inflicted damage to 4 other ships in the convoy. Ping-hai received a 'hearty well done' from COMNAVGRCHINA [Commander, Naval Group China].
A personal letter from Lieutenant Carl Divelbiss, in charge of the coast watcher network in the section, to Lieutenant Si Morris in Kienyang states: "I guess you heard about the Pinghai station paying off in a big way."
Even before the Barb arrived back in Pearl Harbor, NavGrp China and the coast watcher network had latched onto this battle with shared pride, and obviously considered the Ping-hai report to be responsible for the Barb's success. It represented one of the highlights of their efforts to date and became institutionalized in that culture, especially later in Miles's book.
The Barb View
In his book, Fluckey elaborated on various NavGrp China reports of convoys which resulted in "No Contact," specifically on 4, 6, 17, and 20 January 1945.This viewpoint is further emphasized in the report of the fifth war patrol of the USS Picuda (SS-382):
In most cases of reports originating apparently from coast watchers, information was received too late to allow effective development of contacts…Chunking's schedules were faithfully copied. No COMSUBPAC [Commander, Submarine Forces Pacific] serials were missed.
Fluckey attempted to develop the 20 January 1945 Lam Yit contact reports without success. He realized that the ship must be remaining close to the coast. After studying his charts, he surmised that this could only happen if a channel had been dredged through the Hai-tan Straits. Fluckey requested information about these straits from Commander, Naval Group China and China Air Group. Sometime between 1900 and 2400 on 21 January, the Barb received the reply: "Coast watchers report such a channel has been dredged and major warships, even battleships, use it." It should be noted that no U.S. coast watchers were located in the vicinity of the Hai-tan Straits.
A correlation of the Barb's track chart, patrol report, and the Ping-hai log shows that Ping-hai's first report was received more than 16 hours after the Barb had turned to the northeast on a surface patrol. She continued moving northeast after receiving this report, expecting to intercept the convoy after it left Lam Yit.
Based on the information about the channel, Fluckey assumed that the convoy would not steam at night, but anchor at Foochow and head toward Wechow the following day. His patrol took him north, and at 27°-14'N, 120°-42'E at 1421 on 22 January 1945, the Barb spotted smoke from three to six ships moving in a column along the coast on course 225°, speed 10 knots. 19 (This location does not show on the track chart but is listed in Section (F) Ship Contacts of the Patrol Report.) This was not the convoy reported by Ping-hai, but one coming from the north. When the Barb entered Namkwan Harbor early on 23 January 1945, two convoys were anchored there. Takao-Moji 38 (TAMO-38) was northbound and had been reported by Ping-hai three days before. The other was the southbound Moji-Takao 32 (MOTA-32). The rest is history.
Following the attack, the Barb sent a short message to the commander of NavGrp China and China Air:
YOUR LATEST INFO RESULTED EIGHT HITS IN POT OF GOLD X FOUND YOUR CONVOY PLUS OTHERS AND POSSIBLE LARGE WARSHIPS ANCHORED AT NAMKWAN HARBOR LAST NIGHT X THREE SHIPS KNOWN SUNK X TERRIFIC EXPLOSION…
The phrase "YOUR LATEST INFO" might be interpreted to acknowledge the direct tactical support of the Ping-hai messages of 20-21 January 1945. In fact, Fluckey is clear that it refers to the response to the Barb's query concerning the dredging of the Hai-tan Straits.
The Communications Intelligence View Communications intelligence (ComInt) support to the Barb attack must also be considered a failure, unless further key documents are located. The Pacific Radio Intelligence Summary, Navy Department, Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Washington, consists of daily summaries of "the combat radio intelligence received and correlated by OP-20G3.”
A report dated 25 January (2021 [JN-147-L]) provides information on the convoy TAMO-38: "A despatch of 20 January reported CONVOY TAMO-38 consisting of 6 vessels and 4 escorts was in position 24-45N, 119-06E at 0930 that date." This is a reference to the Ping-hai report, indicating that TAMO-38 was held in ComInt. Although the report was issued after the Barb attack, the context suggests TAMO-38 was previously noted (Reporting was in Tokyo time, ZULU plus 9.)
A report of 23 January (1324 [JN-147-L]) links the destroyer Shiokaze with "CONVOY MOTA-32…at…(0200-640) on the 23rd. Scheduled to arrive Keclung at…(1500-1730)." The report included "GI COMMENT: On January 18 MOTA-32 CONVOY (Moji to Taketo) was in position 34-05N., 122-25E. proceeding southward at 8 knots, It has been previously suggested that DD-SHIOKAZE may be escorting this convoy."
Thus it would appear that both convoys were held in ComInt prior to the attack. Fluckey stated that he received no communications intelligence reports concerning the convoys attacked, although he had ULTRA clearances."
Despite their strong dedication to duty, coast watcher personnel of NavGrp China and SACO did not contribute specific, direct tactical intelligence to the Barb attack in Namkwan Harbor on the morning of 23 January 1945. ComInt did not contribute either.
Nothing in this conclusion is meant to minimize the devotion or bravery of NavGrp China coast watchers or SACO. Likewise, it is not meant to reflect on the overall excellent work of Miles, Briggs, and Stevens.
NOTE: Many key documents have not been located. Therefore, this article is not completed research but the basis for additional research. This research was conducted without adequate charts or geographic or Chinese place name reference aids. Place name forms have been retained as reported in source material.
Captain (Cryptology) Levine spent most his career in the reserves and active duty and as a civilian at the Office of Naval Intelligence as an intelligence analyst.