Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, June 15, 2016: It’s you, you’re the rocket mail
Here we see a port-quarter view of the Balao-class diesel-electric submarine USS Barbero (SS/SSA/SSG-317) at Mare Island on 18 January 1956. Though she served a hair over 20 years in the fleet, not a very long time at all, her appearance and mission morphed numerous times.
A member of the 128-ship Balao class, she was one of the most mature U.S. Navy diesel designs of the World War Two era, constructed with knowledge gained from the earlier Gato-class. U.S. subs, unlike those of many navies of the day, were ‘fleet’ boats, capable of unsupported operations in deep water far from home.
Able to range 11,000 nautical miles on their reliable diesel engines, they could undertake 75-day patrols that could span the immensity of the Pacific. Carrying 24 (often unreliable) Mk14 Torpedoes, these subs often sank anything short of a 5000-ton Maru or warship by surfacing and using their 4-inch/50 caliber and 40mm/20mm AAA’s. The also served as the firetrucks of the fleet, rescuing downed naval aviators from right under the noses of Japanese warships.
We have covered a number of this class before, such as carrier-sinking USS Archerfish the long-serving USS Catfish and the frogman Cadillac USS Perch —but don’t complain, they have lots of great stories.
Laid down 25 March 1943 at General Dynamics Electric Boat, Groton, Connecticut, the hero of our tale, Barbero, was commissioned 13 months later on 29 April 1944, T/Cdr. Irvin Swander Hartman, USN, in command.
Transiting the Panama Canal, Barbero arrived at Pearl and departed on her first war patrol 9 Aug 1944, headed for the Philippine Sea.
The only Japanese warship she spotted, an armed trawler in San Bernardino Strait, escaped harm but Hartman surfaced his boat and plastered the occupied Batag Island lighthouse over two nights 23/24 September, firing 58 rounds of 4-inch and some 40mm from a range of just 4,500 yards, peppering the keeper’s structures and extinguishing the light.
Barbero departed on her second war patrol 26 Oct 1944 from Freemantle, Australia and made for the South China Sea where on 2 November she attacked a transport and two escorts with seven torpedoes in a six-hour long-running battle, in the end sinking the Japanese army cargo ship Kuramasan Maru (1995 GRT, built 1927) in Makassar Strait in position 04°30’S, 118°20’E.
She followed this up a week later by splashing the merchant tanker Shimotsu Maru (2854 GRT, built 1944) in the South China Sea about 250 nautical miles west of Manila in position 14°32’N, 116°53’E.
Barbero closed out her patrol on the holidays with a sinking on Christmas Eve– the submarine chaser Ch-30 (built 1942) in the South China Sea in position 02°45’N, 110°53’E– and on Christmas itself of the transport Junpo Maru (4277 GRT, built 1911) about 30 nautical miles west-south-west of Kuching, Borneo in position 01°10’N, 108°20’E.
While returning to Freemantle, Barbero was attacked on the surface by aircraft and damaged, put out of action for the rest of the war, arriving at Portsmouth Navy Yard in May 1945 for repairs and refit. She won two battle stars for her brief wartime service.
With the end of the conflict, the need for a scratch and dent sub, though with low miles on her, was little, so she was placed in commission in reserve, 25 April 1946 at Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo, California.
There, Barbero was converted to an experimental cargo submarine (redesignated SSA-317) complete with forward and aft cargo booms.
The Navy had used submarines extensively to resupply Corregidor in early 1942 and the idea was that such a conversion could prove useful in the future– especially in resupplying isolated outposts and islands. For this conversion, she landed most of her deck guns and achieved a more streamlined topside.
So converted, she was one of the first submarine force units to operate in the Arctic when in 1950 sistership USS Perch (APSS 313), and Barbero, conducted a joint reconnaissance patrol and simulated amphibious raid in the Bering Sea.
Returning from the Arctic, her conversion proved unsuccessful and she was decommissioned, 30 June 1950 then laid up.
In 1955, Barbero was the second of her class to be picked for conversion to a floating missile slinger (redesignated SSG-317), firing the immense 42-foot long SSM-N-8A Regulus submarine-launched, nuclear-armed turbojet-powered cruise missile.
Capable of carrying a Mark 5 nuclear bomb (120kt yield) or a ton and a half of high explosives, this updated buzz bomb could fly 600 miles and was reasonably accurate for the era.
An enormous hangar was built on her stern that held two of the big missiles and a trolley ramp to accommodate their undercarriage. Likewise, her aft tubes were removed to help trim weight.
Recommissioned 28 October 1955, she embarked on life anew.
Barbero spent the next three years in the Atlantic performing deterrence patrols. Before moving to the Pac in 1959, she was designated an official U.S. Post Office for a brief experiment in Missile Mail.
You read that right.
On 8 June 1959, off the northern Florida coast, Barbero fired a red-painted training Regulus towards an impact zone at Naval Auxiliary Air Station, Mayport, Florida loaded with some 3,000 canceled pieces of mail. Just 22 minutes later, the inert missile landed on a cleared runway 100 miles away and its warhead compartment, containing officially marked Postal Service containers, was removed intact.
Barbero‘s footnote in postal history complete, she chopped the Pacific where she conducted regular deterrent patrols until Regulus was retired in 1964 in favor of the new Polaris SSBNs.
With her reason for being gone and the Rickover Navy full steam ahead for atomic boats, the thrice-commissioned Barbero passed once again into mothballs on 30 June 1964 and was stricken the next day.
She was disposed of by the submarine USS Greenfish (SS-351)—a sistership– off Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on 7 October 1964.
Barbero remains the only ship in the fleet every named for the humble surgeonfish.
Few artifacts remain from her, though a special exhibit at the Smithsonian remembers her Missile Mail experience. It was the only time U.S. Mail has been delivered by missile.
Although she is no longer afloat, eight Balao-class submarines are preserved (for now) as museum ships across the country.
Please visit one of these fine ships and keep the legacy alive:
-USS Batfish (SS-310) at War Memorial Park in Muskogee, Oklahoma.
–USS Becuna (SS-319) at Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
–USS Bowfin (SS-287) at USS Bowfin Submarine Museum & Park in Honolulu, Hawaii.
–USS Clamagore (SS-343) at Patriot’s Point in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. (Which may not be there much longer)
–USS Ling (SS-297) at New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack, New Jersey. (Which is also on borrowed time)
–USS Lionfish (SS-298) at Battleship Cove in Fall River, Massachusetts.
-USS Pampanito (SS-383) at San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park in San Francisco, California, (which played the part of the fictional USS Stingray in the movie Down Periscope).
–USS Razorback (SS-394) at Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum in North Little Rock, Arkansas.
Displacement, Surfaced: 1,526 t., Submerged: 2,424 t.
Length 311′ 10″
Beam 27′ 3″
Draft 15′ 3″
Speed, Surfaced 20.25 kts, Submerged 8.75 kts
Cruising Range, 11,000 miles surfaced at 10kts; Submerged Endurance, 48 hours at 2kts
Operating Depth Limit, 400 ft
Complement 6 Officers 60 Enlisted
Armament, (as built) ten 21″ torpedo tubes, six forward, four aft, 24 torpedoes, one 4″/50 caliber deck gun, one 40mm gun, two .50 cal. machine guns
1 × Regulus missile hangar and launcher
2 × Regulus I missiles
6 × 21-inch (533 mm) torpedo tubes (forward)
Patrol Endurance 75 days
Propulsion: diesels-electric reduction gear with four Fairbanks-Morse main generator engines., 5,400 hp, four Elliot Motor Co., main motors with 2,740 hp, two 126-cell main storage batteries, two propellers.
Fuel Capacity: 94,400 gal.
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