John Socotch was a 20-year-old torpedoman when he went aboard the USS Barbero (SS-317) submarine in Freemantle, Australia Aug. 9, 1944. The new Balao Class sub sailed to war into the South China Sea, between Japan and China Sea, on her first combat patrol Oct. 4.
Born in Moon Run, Pa., a hard scrabble coal town a few miles outside Pittsburgh, he had never been to sea or seen a submarine until he joined the Navy.
“I signed up for the Submarine Service because my buddies were joining and I didn’t like shooting someone up close with a rife,” said the 87-year-old resident of Lettuce Lake RV Resort, south near Arcadia, Fla. “I went to boot camp and torpedo school at Great Lakes Naval Receiving Center outside Chicago. After that I took submarine training in New London, Conn.
“Then I boarded a troop ship for Fremantle where I got aboard the Barbero at the big sub base there. On our first combat cruise the first 12 torpedoes we fired at Japanese ships only two hit their target and we didn’t sink anything. That wasn’t a very good record,” he said.
“We had a sub tender at Biak, an Island near Borneo, where we put in to get our torpedoes checked out. They found the angle on our torpedoes was one degree off,” Socotch explained. “We got that problem straightened out and our shooting was 100-percent better.”
The Barbero went to sea with 24 torpedoes. She was to expend all of them before returning to base, if possible.
“When we went to sea after getting our torpedoes fixed I was on the periscope tier with my binoculars searching for Japanese ships as we cruised the surface of the South China Sea. At 07:30 Lt. Cmdr. Irvin Hartman, our skipper, called up to the conning tower and said we’d make contact with a Japanese ship within five minutes.
“This was my first combat cruise and I spotted the mast of the Japanese ship first,” Socotch recalled with satisfaction 65 years later. “‘Object on the horizon straight ahead,’ I yelled.”
It was the Kuramasan Maru, a 1,995 ton Japanese Army cargo vessel.
“Our skipper told the officer of the deck to keep following the enemy freighter on the surface but stay back so we weren’t spotted. We kept the same course and speed all day until it was pitch black night.
“The Japanese didn’t have very good radar and they didn’t use it very much anyway. Around midnight our skipper had the tracking team close on the freighter and we went to battle stations. My battle station was loading the torpedoes. We had six torpedo tubes forward and four tubs aft.
“Commander Hartman fired four of the forward torpedoes at the freighter while we remained on the surface. Three of them hit their target.
“It’s a very long minute-and-a-half from the timer the torpedoes were fired until they hit their target,” he recalled. “If you hasn’t heard anything by that time you missed.
“After the freighter blew up a Japanese destroyer escort appeared on our radar scope. He was looking for us, but he couldn’t find us even though we were on the surface. He started depth charging where he thought we might be submerged.
“We escaped in the night without incident. That was our first sinking.
“We still had 20 torpedoes to go. It was December 23, 1944 about noon when an old salt on watch spotted smoke.
“‘Smoke on the horizon’ he yelled and gave the bearing,” Socotch said. “The exec looked at the smoke and called our skipper to come up and take a look at it, too. “
They had found the 2,854 ton merchant tanker Shimotsu Maru some 250 nautical miles west of Manila.
“Again we started following the Jap ship on the surface that was very far away. All day we stayed back until our skipper decided to attack at 12:23 next morning. He fired four torpedoes again and this time all four struck their target and the freighter went down. Another destroyer escort chased us, but we got away once more.
“Surprisingly enough, on the following day, Dec. 24, 1944, we picked up a Japanese transport ship on the horizon. On Christmas morning, while it was still dark, the Barbero sank its third ship during its first combat patrol.
She was the Junpo Maru, a 4,277 ton troop transport located 30 nautical miles west-south-west of Kuching, Borneo.
“The ship blew up real quick and disappeared off our radar in 20 seconds,” he said. “We shot six torpedoes at it. The two outside torpedoes were shot as safety valves because the ship was zigzagging.”
Cmdr. Hartman turned his sub homeward after his third ship sinking and headed for its base in Fremantle.
“The skipper was hoping to get back to base in time to make the New Year’s Eve parties. It didn’t happened because the Barbero was attacked and heavily damaged by a Japanese dive-bomber in the Lombok Strait off Borneo,” Socotch said.
“It caught us on the surface and the skipper was trying to dive when the bomb from the Japanese bomber hit. There was some water between us and the bomb as the skipper took the sub down. That’s what saved us,” he said.
“We spent the next 20 hours below trying to to escape Japanese planes flying over looking for us. The air in our submarine was getting very thin when the captain decided to go up to periscope depth and see what was happening on the surface.
“The Jap planes were gone, so we surfaced and went on about our business. The dive-bomber had knocked out our starboard screw with its bomb. We made the final 1,400 miles back to Australia without incident on one screw.”
Damage Control checked out the bomb damage and decided to send the boat all the way back to Portsmouth, N.H. for a complete repair job. Socotch and the crew of the USS Barbero returned to the war zone as the final curtain on World War II was descending.
“We were one day out of Pearl Harbor when our skipper announced: ‘THE WAR IS OVER!’
Three weeks later the crew returned with the Barbero to a mothball fleet and decommissioning in California. She ended her service with the fleet on June 30, 1964 when she was sold for scrap metal.
He got a job working for a firm that built automatic screw machines. It was his job to install them all around the country.
“I made a decent living, got married to Bernice, and we have five children: Linda, Cindy, Rodger, John and Richard. The couple moved down here from Michigan and for the past 13 years have lived in Lettuce Lake RV Park east of Port Charlotte, Florida.
Name: John Joseph Socotch
D.O.B: 20 Feb 1925
Hometown: Moon Run, Pa.
Currently: Arcadia, Fla.
Entered Service: 19 July 1943
Discharged: 12 April 1946
Rank: Torpedoman’s Mate 3/c SV V6 USNR
Unit: USS Barbero
Commendations: World War II Victory medal, American Campaign Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign medal, Good Conduct medal
Battles/Campaigns: South China Sea
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Florida on Mon. April 2, 2012 and is republished with permission.
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