By Devon Hubbard Sorlie, Communication and Outreach Division, Naval History and Heritage Command
For the continuing series on Navy Legends, we’ve asked you – the Sailor, veteran and reader – to offer up your favorite legends, with a reason or two as to what makes your figure a Navy legend. Is it action or attributes? Or something else?
We’ve already featured John Paul Jones, John Barry and former Vietnam prisoner of war Vice Adm. James Bond Stockdale. As we remember the 74th anniversary of the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America’s entry into World War II this month, we give a well-deserved nod to Rear Adm. Eugene Fluckey, legendary World War II submarine skipper and one of the top vote-getters during our crowd-sourcing poll earlier this summer.
To paraphrase a popular jam motto, with a name like Fluckey, you have to be good, and the Washington, D.C. native didn’t disappoint. He graduated high school at age 15, attended prep schools for two years until entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1931. Following his graduation in 1935, Fluckey served on the battleship Nevada (BB 36) and destroyer McCormick (DD 223) before attending submarine school.
When Japan hit Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Lt. Fluckey was serving on the submarine Bonita (SS 165), completing five war patrols. He then attended the Naval Academy’s Postgraduate School and Prospective Commanding Officer’s School, becoming skipper of the Gato-class Barb (SS 220), in January 1944. The diesel-powered sub had already served six war patrols in the European Theater and its first while assigned to the Pacific submarine fleet.
Fluckey’s leadership as commanding officer of Barb gained him legendary status during the submarine’s final five war patrols between January 1944 and August 1945. However, it was the boat’s 11th war patrol that earned Lt. Cmdr. Fluckey the Medal of Honor, and his crew the Presidential Unit Citation.
Fluckey had tracked a concentration of more than 30 enemy ships to Mamkwan Harbor off the coast of China in January 1945. The skipper pondered his strategy that included screens of Japanese combatants; shallow water filled with mines, rocks and fishing junks, and deduced a probable Japanese response to an attack.
Blessed with a night of low visibility on Jan. 25, the sub’s captain decided to test his moniker “Lucky Fluckey” and ordered “Battle Stations – Torpedoes!” The sub weaved through the armed escort ships in mere 30-feet of water. Once the sub was within 3,000 yards of its targets, Barb fired its remaining four forward torpedoes. The sub then quickly brought its stern tubes to bear and let loose four more into the enemy ships. All eight torpedoes struck the six main targets, including a large ammunition ship that exploded, sending even more shrapnel into the enemy ships.
Penetrating deep into a harbor filled with enemy combatants to fire eight torpedoes was a breeze compared to what faced the skipper next: getting the Barb to safety. Running at a blistering speed of 23.5 knots with artillery shells bursting around them from enemy combatants, the Barb raced through the unchartered waters rift with rocks and mines.
Just as “Lucky Fluckey” predicted, the enemy ships mistook the fishing junks for the escaping submarine, and then hesitated upon reaching the rocky waters. Barb dived into deep water just as a Japanese airplane was spotted overhead.
Fluckey was to be rotated off Barb after his fourth war patrol, but he bargained a deal with Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, commanding officer of Submarine Force Pacific Fleet, that if that patrol was successful, he could remain on the sub for its 12th and final war patrol. Fluckey certainly held up his end of the bargain, so Lockwood permitted Fluckey’s fifth war patrol.
What the daring skipper and his crew did during that “graduation” patrol proved yet again Fluckey’s skill at maneuvering his boat and leading his crew. To read more about that 12th patrol, please click Flag Friday: Why a Train is on USS Barb’s Battleflag.
Besides the Medal of Honor, “Lucky Fluckey” earned four Navy Crosses, the Distinguished Service Medal and the Legion of Merit, as well as an additional nickname of “Galloping Ghost of the China Coast.” Post- war, he served as an aide to Chief of Naval Operations Fleet Adm. Chester Nimitz, and headed several commands, including a two-year stint as director of naval intelligence between 1966-68.
Fluckey retired as a rear admiral in 1972 with more than 40 years in the Navy. He wrote a book about his time on USS Barb called “Thunder Below!” the proceeds of which were used to help former crewmembers and their wives attend reunions. After his first wife of 42 years, Marjorie, died in 1979, Fluckey married Margaret, whom he met while they were running an orphanage in Portugal. They were married 27 years until his death, at age 93, in 2007. He is buried at the U.S. Naval Academy Cemetery.
“Serve your country well. Put more into life than you expect to get out of it,” Fluckey wrote to a new class of submariners in 1999. “Drive yourself and lead others. Make others feel good about themselves, they will outperform your expectations, and you will never lack for friends.”