Operation Barney and the 9 HellcatsPublished 7:05am Friday, December 24, 2010
Column: Between the Corn Rows
During World War II, a naval officer with close family connections to Albert Lea became a submarine captain and later the person who planned one of this war’s most daring top-secret raids. His name was William Bernard Sieglaff. And it was his nickname which was used for Operation Barney.
By early 1945, the Japanese were being defeated all across the Pacific on the islands and on the surface and below the ocean. However, there was one area where the U.S. Navy couldn’t effectively operate. This was the Sea of Japan, located between Japan, Korea and Siberia.
Access to what naval officers then called Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s private ocean was restricted to two places. One was Tsushima Strait between the Japanese island of Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula. The other access or exit point was La Perouse Strait between the islands of Hokkaido and Karafoto (now Sakhalin.)
Entry to this part of the Japanese Empire was also dangerously restricted by an increasing number of mines intended to keep American surface warships, and especially submarines, out of the Sea of Japan. As a result, the Japanese could easily move supplies and troops from Korea and conquered parts of China to the home islands and prolong the war.
Vice Adm. Charles A. Lockwood, commander of the U.S. Navy submarines the Asiatic-Pacific Theater of military operations, had lost two submarines during 1943 in an effort to operate in the Sea of Japan. He obviously didn’t want to risk any more lives.
In early 1945, the admiral became aware of a new sonar device that detected mines. He had several submarines modified with this new equipment, then tested for accuracy. He also assigned a member of his staff, Barney Sieglaff, to be in charge of planning and organization of a full scale raid into the emperor’s private pond.
An article in the July 30, 1949, issue of the Saturday Evening Post by Admiral Lockwood said, “Comdr. W.B. (Barney) Sieglaff of Albert Lea, Minnesota, a member of my staff, planned the operation, which bore his name: Operation Barney. His nine submarines were christened the Hellcats.”
The Hellcats were divided into three wolf packs of three submarines each. Their designations were Hepcats, Polecats and Bobcats. About 800 sailors were involved with this raid.
As I indicated in the last column, my interest in Operation Barney came as a result of an inquiry from Mark Jones. Thanks to him, still another facet of military service by a former Albert Lea resident was revealed. Mark also loaned me his copy of the brand new book, “Hellcats” by Peter Sasgen.
As I read this book, there was a nagging question. Did Barney actually go on one of the Hellcat submarines into the Sea of Japan? The answer is no.
Sieglaff was the main officer to give the briefing and operating orders to the nine submarine commanders at a base on Guam Island at the end of May 1945. From this point on he could only hope the entire mission labeled Operation Barney was successful.
We’ll have more information about Operation Barney in the next column. Meanwhile, here’s a seasonal commentary.
What we’re featuring in this column, last week’s column and the column next Friday took place 65 years ago. And as I mentioned in last Sunday’s Lifestyles section, the Christmas season in 1945 was a special time. In May of that year the European part of World War II ended with the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany. The Pacific phase of this brutal war ended with the unconditional surrender of Imperial Japan in August. Thus, the people of the Albert Lea area and the rest of the nation could enjoy the first peacetime Christmas in four years.
Now, let’s deal with the immediate future. Tomorrow is Christmas. So for all the fine folks in this community, here’s my salutation for a very merry Christmas!
Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.