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Hellcats


Hellcats: The Epic Story of World War II's Most Daring Submarine Raid by Peter Sasgen


The foundation for Operation Barney and the American submarine wolf pack Hydeman's Hellcats began in July 1943. At that time, ComSubPac Lockwood and his operations officer, Richard Voge, had decided it was time to hunt for enemy shipping in the previously untested Sea of Japan. In early July 1943, three submarines departed Pearl Harbor bound for La Perouse Strait and thence into the Sea of Japan. American intelligence sources had provided them with information on the locations of Japanese minefields in the La Perouse Strait, and they had been tasked with verifying and charting these fields for future use by other American submarines. If their transit was successful, they would also search for and destroy enemy shipping in "Hirohito's private bathtub." The three submarines were the USS Plunger (SS-179), the USS Permit (SS-178), and the USS Lapon (SS-260).

With the minefields charted and the transit through La Perouse Strait made successfully, the submarines turned their attention to finding enemy shipping worthy of their torpedoes. However, such targets proved scarce, and Lockwood's suspicion that the bulk of the Japanese merchant marine was busy elsewhere in the Pacific seemed to be correct. Yet even though the three submarines had returned without causing significant damage to enemy shipping, it had been proven that American submarines could access and hunt within the Sea of Japan, and return to port safely. Lockwood and Voge began laying the groundwork for a second mission.

The skipper of the Plunger and Mush Morton, captain of the USS Wahoo (SS-238), volunteered for the mission. They sailed from Pearl Harbor on August 8, 1943. Both boats made it through La Perouse Strait successfully, and once at their stations in the Sea of Japan, enemy shipping proved to be plentiful. However, both captains reported a litany of problems with their torpedoes. In addition, the Plunger was running on one propellor shaft. The mission proved to be a miserable failure. Morton insisted on going back with new torpedoes. Lockwood agreed. The Wahoo headed out on September 10, 1943, with a mixed load of Mark 14 and Mark 18 torpedoes, in company with the USS Sawfish (SS-276).

This would prove to be the Wahoo's final patrol. On October 11, 1943, she was destroyed by enemy bombs and depth charges in La Perouse Strait. 1 The USS Sawfish made it out safely and reported lackluster performance from her torpedoes.

The loss of Morton and the Wahoo was a heavy emotional blow for Lockwood. He would seek to avenge this loss for the remainder of the war. He wrote "But, I resolved, there would come another day - a day of visitation - an hour of revenge. In time we would collect for the Wahoo and Commander Dudley Walker Morton and his men, with heavy interest. And in time we did.' 2

Acting on the belief that the Wahoo had struck a Japanese mine, Lockwood suspended incursions into the Sea of Japan for the time being. He would ensure submarines returning in the future to the Sea of Japan had special equipment that could accurately plot the location of minefields. This technical need gave rise to Operation Barney. This project was named for Commander William Bernard "Barney" Sieglaff, the man who Lockwood chose to take over the training, planning, and execution of the next mission into the Sea of Japan. A new FM sonar technology had been developed that had proven to be accurate at locating minefields in early tests. It would be Sieglaff's responsibility to put together a pack of submarines capable of using the new FM sonar technology to make it into the Sea of Japan. After a lot of training and preliminary forays to locate minefields in the Tsushima Strait, the Hydeman's Hellcats wolf pack took shape. It consisted of nine boats divided into groups of three:

1. Hydeman's Hepcats: USS Sea Dog (SS-401), USS Spadefish (SS-411), and USS Crevalle (SS-291).

2. Bob's Bobcats: USS Flying Fish (SS-229), USS Bowfin (SS-287), and USS Tinosa (SS-283).

3. Pierce's Polecats: USS Tunny (SS-282), USS Skate (SS-305), and USS Bonefish (SS-223).

Lockwood decided that the submarines would enter the Sea of Japan submerged via the Tsushima Strait. They would gain propulsion from the swift flowing Kuroshio Current, which began in the East China Sea, swept through the Tsushima Strait and the Sea of Japan, and pushed through La Perouse Strait into the Sea of Okhotsk. When their mission was completed, they would exit via the La Perouse Strait, again taking advantage of the powerful Kuroshio Current.

In June 1945, the nine submarines made it into the Sea of Japan. Working in groups of three, the submarines were scheduled to begin their attacks at sunset on June 9th. Their orders from Lockwood were very specific. They were to sink any type of Japanese shipping they encountered. Lockwood hoped the attacks would negatively impact Japanese morale and confidence in the country's leaders. He had also stated that Operation Barney was in part politically motivated. A declaration of war by Russia against Japan seemed imminent. Lockwood did not want to share the Sea of Japan with the Soviets. But everyone involved knew that Mush Morton was his favorite skipper and that the need avenge his death was more addictive to Lockwood than his three-pack-a-day cigarette habit had become. This need for payback likely overrode all other considerations.

In his book Hellcats: The Epic Story of World War II's Most Daring Submarine Raid, Peter Sasgen argues that the results obtained by the nine submarines proved disappointing. Combined they sank 28 vessels worth 57,508 tons. Japan still had a substantial amount of ships left in the inner zone of empire waters. It would take many more raids like Operation Barney to sink all of these ships. Furthermore, the FM sonar project had consumed a huge amount of money. The investment of time, talent, and treasure did not justify Operation Barney's outcome. Nor did the supposed reasons for the operation warrant risking the lives of the assigned submariners. Red Ramage didn't think so either. He believed that Lockwood's motivation was to demonstrate that Japanese ships had no place to hide. "He wanted to prove that we could even penetrate minefields and to do this before the war was over." Once inside the Sea of Japan, the crew of the USS Crevalle celebrated its second anniversary as a commissioned submarine with a huge cake which bore the inscription, "Was this trip neccessary?" It is likely many other Barney submariners shared this sentiment. Sasgen also maintains there is certainly nothing about Operation Barney that can in any way justify the loss of the USS Bonefish and the 85 souls who went down with her. 3

Sasgen's book is thorough and well written. It also has a very useful bibliography. The only other book that covers Operation Barney in comparable detail is Lockwood's Hellcats of the Sea, first published in 1955. Sasgen's book offer a fresh and objective assessment of the FM sonar project and Operation Barney, and draws on research available after Lockwood's book was published. Sasgen also obtained permission from the family of the Bonefish's captain, Commander Lawrence L. Edge, to use a large cache of documents in their possession from the war years. In particular, a rich trove of personal wartime correspondence between Lawrence Edge and his pregnant wife, Sarah, reflected a man's deep love for his wife and children, and provided a view of the emotions experienced by a submarine skipper. Other records reflected the inner workings of a seemingly irrational wartime Navy bureaucracy. Overall they bring a new and compelling perspective to the story of Operation Barney. Ironically, the Navy announced the loss of the Bonefish on the same day (August 11th) that Sarah gave birth to a son in Atlanta.

Hellcats of the Navy movie poster


In May 1957, Hollywood released the movie "Hellcats of the Navy" based on Lockwood's book Hellcats of the Sea. Lockwood's other book, Down to the Sea in Subs, contains a photograph of him attending the movie's premiere with its two stars, Ronald and Nancy Reagan (then Nancy Davis). Like Operation Barney, there was a lot not to like about the movie. Even the future President in his autobiography said he was disappointed in the film, having expected it to be more like "Destination Tokyo," another Hollywood film issued a decade earlier. Overall the movie did not receive very good reviews. Lockwood is listed in the movie's credits as being one of its writers. 4

Footnotes:

1. This information was not known during the war. Then it had been assumed that the Wahoo had struck a mine.

2. Lockwood, Charles A., and Hans Christian Adamson, Hellcats of the Sea, p. 17.

3. Sasgen, Peter T, Hellcats: The Epic Story of World War II's Most Daring Submarine Raid, p. 237.

4. See "Hellcats of the Navy," at The Internet Movie Database (accessed on July 7, 2011).