Today, the Bowfin submarine is a museum ship and memorial park, one of the Pearl Harbor Historic Sites. Launched one year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, she spent the next two and a half years living up to her nickname, the Pearl Harbor Avenger. Her ninth—and final—World War II patrol was as part of Operation Barney, a bold mission to attack enemy shipping by breaking through deadly minefields protecting the Sea of Japan.
While the USS Bowfin (SS-287) was very active throughout the duration of her service, her ninth patrol was her riskiest. On May 29, 1945, the USS Bowfin set out with two other submarines—the third three-submarine group to embark over three successive nights—on a secret mission through the dangerous Tsushima Strait between Korea and Japan, right into “Hirohito’s bathtub” – the Sea of Japan.
The idea for the plan to encroach on the Sea of Japan came from Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, commander of the US Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force. Lockwood had become passionate for revenge against Japan after the sinking of the USS Wahoo (SS-238) in October of 1943. There were no survivors, and in his diary, Lockwood wrote that the sinking was “[T]he worst blow we’ve had.” He went on to write, “God punish the Japanese!”
Lockwood’s desire for vengeance wasn’t immediately possible, but not long after, submarines of the US Pacific Fleet started to receive an upgrade that vastly improved the potential mission’s chances for success: FM sonar. Intended to detect underwater obstacles, the implementation of FM sonar was the only way a fleet of submarines would survive the mine-infested straits leading into the Sea of Japan. Believing that Wahoo had struck a Japanese mine, Lockwood was at first reluctant to send any additional submarines into the Sea of Japan, but the FM sonar instilled in him enough confidence to start orchestrating another attempt.
In April 1945, the Lockwood assigned Commander William “Barney” Sieglaff the task of training the submarines and planning the proposed mission to disrupt enemy shipping in the Sea of Japan. Dubbed Operation Barney, Lockwood and Sieglaff had the resources needed to pull off the secret mission, but there was still a great danger that put every crewman on the submarines at risk. The Tsushima Strait, which separated Korea and Japan, was riddled with mines. Even with the FM sonar, there was no guarantee any of the nine submarines would make it back.
The Submarines of Operation Barney
The submarines of Operation Barney were divided into three units collectively known as Hydeman’s Hellcats. The lead group, Hepcats, included the USS Sea Dog (SS-401), USS Crevalle (SS-291), and USS Spadefish (SS-411). The second group, Polecats, were the USS Tunny (SS-282), USS Skate (SS-305), and USS Bonefish (SS-223). The third group, Bobcats, comprised the USS Flying Fish (SS-229), USS Tinosa (SS-283), and Bowfin.
Despite the dangers, Bowfin and the other eight submarines set sail from Guam starting on May 27, well aware of the potentially deadly task that lay ahead of them.
The approach to the Tsushima Strait was a stressful one. The FM sonar was still a relatively new technology that could fail at any time, and the submarines were heading into a stretch of water riddled with mines. The new sonar rang out whenever a mine was 300’ from the ship which, in the strait, was almost constantly. Whenever in close proximity to an explosive, the FM sonar emitted a loud ringing sound that became known as Hell’s Bells. It persisted every mile of the passage through the strait, echoing throughout the Bowfin and her sister submarines as nearby mines threatened to send each of them to join the Wahoo in her watery grave.
Along the way, cables from mines occasionally scraped against the ships, creating a very tense situation within. Dangers surrounded Bowfin on her final patrol, but she finally emerged into the Sea of Japan unscathed and ready to pull off the main objective of Lockwood’s plan: attacking Japanese shipping. Assigned to the eastern coast of Korea, Bowfin patrolled until June 11, when she spotted a cargo ship sailing solo. With the mission focused on hindering Japan’s shipments of supplies, Bowfin fired on the vessel. Four torpedoes were launched from the Pearl Harbor Avenger, one of which hit the cargo ship, the Shinyo Maru. Within minutes, the Japanese vessel sank to the bottom of the Sea of Japan. After another two days of patrolling, Bowfin’s crew spotted, torpedoed, and sank the Akiura Maru freighter.
Run for Home
To avoid having to return through the Tsushima Strait, after their mission was completed the submarines traveled at high speeds through the La Perouse Strait, which was heavily patrolled by Japan. For the USS Bowfin and seven of the other submarines, Operation Barney, Lockwood’s revenge mission, was a success. The Bonefish, however, never reemerged from the Sea of Japan, having been attacked and sunk on June 19.
Bowfin was credited with sinking 6,400 tons during Operation Barney and returned to Pearl Harbor on July 4, 1945, marking the successful conclusion to the mission. For their accomplishments during Operation Barney, the submarines that took part were dubbed the Mighty Mine Dodgers. Lockwood presented a certificate to the crewmen, congratulating them on surviving the “most dangerous of war waters.”