Archived Story

The Hellcats go into action

Published 10:36am Friday, December 31, 2010

At the end of May 1945 the nine U.S. Navy submarines assigned to Operation Barney left Guam Island on their mission to the Sea of Japan. These submarines were called the Hellcats. The sub commanders had been given their orders by a naval officer named William Bernard Sieglaff. He was born in Albert Lea, related to the Knatvold family, and spent the first 14 or 15 years of his life in this city. And it was his nickname that had been used as the designation for this top-secret mission.

Ed Shannon, Between the Cornrows

The new book “Hellcats” by Peter Sasgen doesn’t make the connection between Barney Sieglaff and Albert Lea. However, I have found firm proof that this former resident was in charge of the Hellcats.

As I explained in the last column, the Hellcats were divided into three wolf packs of three submarines each. The designations for the wolf packs were Hepcats, Bobcats and Polecats.

The first challenge for these submarines was to get past the surface and underwater mines placed in the Tsushima Strait by the Japanese. This strait was the southern entry to the Sea of Japan, which hadn’t really been a part of World War II action up to this time.

Thanks to a newly developed secret electronic radar detector, the submarines could carefully avoid the deadly mines.

To provide a real surprise for the Japanese, Sieglaff gave order that the subs should not go into the Sea of Japan firing away at anything on the surface. This sea, incidentally, was about 250 miles wide and 900 miles in length. The wolf packs were to go to different areas of this sea located between Japan, Korea (then a part of Japan) and Siberia. Then on June 9, 1945, they could start action.

For the next 15 days the Hellcats sank 28 Japanese ships with torpedoes and more than a dozen smaller watercraft when the submarines surfaced and used gunfire.

To conclude this mission, the Hellcats proceeded north to the somewhat narrow La Perouse Strait between the islands of Hokkaido and Karafuto (now known as Sakhalin) for a rendezvous.

Sadly, only eight Hellcats assembled for the dangerous trip back into the Pacific Ocean and return to Guam IsIand. One of the Polecats, the USS Bonefish, and its crew of 85 sailors was missing.

It took about a year to find out that the Japanese used depth charges on June 18, 1945, to sink this submarine. However, the Bonefish in its part of the Operation Barney mission was credited with the sinking of two Japanese ships before it was lost.

Now I’d like to digress slightly with a commentary about the word Hellcats. Since this word in its plural form was used by the U.S. Navy during World War II, as the title for two books and even a film, I hoped its use for my columns wouldn’t offend any readers. So far, no adverse comments have been brought to my attention.

I should add right here that the newest book with the Hellcats title is now available for checking out at the Albert Lea Public Library. Also, this book by Peter Sasgen may also be available for purchase at Albert Lea’s Book World in the Northbridge Mall. Anyway, I spotted this book in the history section.

In this newest book is a nice photo of Barney Sieglaff. As I mentioned earlier, I tried to get a photo for the museum from the U.S. Naval Academy about 15 years ago and this just didn’t work out at all.

In the next column I’ll conclude this topic with more information about Barney Sieglaff’s life after World War II, plus details about an earlier Hellcats book and the movie with this word in the title that featured two very famous actors.

Tonight is New Year’s Eve and Saturday is when we start using a new calendar. Thus, 2010 is part of past life and 2011 is the advent of a somewhat unpredictable future. So here’s wishing everyone a Happy New Year!

Ed Shannon’s column has been appearing in the Tribune every Friday since December 1984.

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