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Eugene Fluckey, iconic admiral credited with daring sub raids

WASHINGTON -- Rear Admiral Eugene Fluckey, one of the greatest naval heroes of World War II who was awarded the Medal of Honor and four Navy Crosses for his daring submarine attacks on Japanese shipping, died Thursday at Anne Arundel Medical Center in Maryland. He was 93 and had Alzheimer's disease.

Admiral Fluckey, a native of Washington, was a pioneer of submarine warfare and among the most highly decorated veterans from any branch of the military.

In 1944 and 1945, as commander of the USS Barb, he became a Navy legend for his nighttime raids that sank dozens of enemy ships along the east coast of China. His bold forays were complicated by continual barrages from Japanese airplanes and boats and by shallow waters that often forced him to bring his submarine to the surface.

On Jan. 25, 1945, Admiral Fluckey embarked on what Navy officials, seldom given to hyperbole, called "virtually a suicide mission -- a naval epic." In "an exceptional feat of brilliant deduction and bold tracking," in the words of his Medal of Honor citation, Admiral Fluckey found more than 30 Japanese vessels in a concealed harbor protected by mines and rocky shoals.

Evading a cordon of armed escort boats, the Barb slipped into the harbor on a moonless, cloudy night and scored eight direct torpedo hits on six large ships. One of them was an ammunition vessel, which exploded and caused "inestimable damage by the resultant flying shells," according to the Medal of Honor citation.

As Admiral Fluckey watched from the bridge, the Washington Post reported in 1945, "Japanese ships were erupting in the night like a nest of volcanoes."

The Barb fled at high speed "through uncharted rocky waters thick with fishing junks," pursued by two Japanese gunboats. Because of the shallow water, the submarine had to stay on the surface, dodging obstacles and steady fire for a full hour before reaching the safe depths of the open sea.

"The significance of that mission," said retired Navy Captain Max Duncan, who was the chief gunnery and torpedo officer of the Barb, "was that we completely disrupted the entire shipping system the Japanese had developed at that point in the war."

On other occasions, Admiral Fluckey maneuvered his submarine so close to shore that he could bombard coastal installations with torpedoes and guns. On its final patrol in 1945, the Barb became the first US submarine equipped with ballistic missiles.

On one mission, Admiral Fluckey selected eight commandos from his crew to paddle ashore in rubber boats and place a 55-pound bomb under railroad ties on the northern Japanese island then called Karafuto. As the men were rowing back to the Barb in darkness, the pressure-sensitive charge blew up a 16-car troop train. It was the only time in World War II that US forces set foot on the soil of the Japanese home islands.

Admiral Fluckey and his 80-man crew were credited with sinking 29 ships, including an aircraft carrier, destroyer, and cruiser. He destroyed more gross tonnage than any other submarine commander. For his wartime exploits, he became known as "Lucky Fluckey" and the "Galloping Ghost of the China Coast."

"He was extraordinary," retired Rear Admiral Robert McNitt, executive officer of the Barb, said in a telephone interview. "He immediately gained the full confidence of his officers and crew. He made a point of walking through the submarine several times a day. He knew everybody on board and knew a lot about them."

Admiral Fluckey sometimes violated Navy regulations by stashing cases of beer in the officers' shower. Whenever the Barb sank a ship, everyone on board was entitled to a cold beer.

In addition to the Medal of Honor and Navy Crosses (second only to the Medal of Honor), Admiral Fluckey received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Legion of Merit, and a host of lesser decorations. His greatest achievement, he often said, was that no one under his command ever received another well-known medal: the Purple Heart.

"He was absolutely confident and absolutely fearless, but fearless with good judgment," McNitt said. "He brought his ship and his people home."

Eugene Bennett Fluckey was born Oct. 5, 1913. He graduated from the US Naval Academy in 1935. He was nearsighted and knew he would have to leave the academy if he failed an eye exam. After studying optics, he designed a pair of glasses for himself and, with exercises, restored his vision to 20-20.

He joined the submarine corps in 1938 and served in the Pacific before taking command of the Barb. After the war, he became the personal aide to Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, the chief of naval operations.

Later in his career, Admiral Fluckey served as director of naval intelligence and commanded amphibious units and the Navy's Pacific submarine force. He headed the electrical engineering department at the Naval Academy and led a fund-raising campaign for the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.

In 1992, he wrote a dramatic account of his experiences as a submarine commander, "Thunder Below!" It won the Samuel Eliot Morison prize for naval history.

His wife, Marjorie, died in 1979 after 42 years of marriage.

Admiral Fluckey leaves his wife, Margaret, of Annapolis, Md.; a daughter from his first marriage, Barbara Bove of Annapolis and Summerfield, Fla.; four grandchildren; and four great-grandchildren.

In recent years, Admiral Fluckey and his wife helped run an orphanage in Portugal. He also would treat the aging veterans of the Barb to cruises in Alaska and on the Mississippi River.

"He was imaginative, very decisive, and very quick, with a great sense of fun," said McNitt.