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`AVENGER' SUB'S MANY KILLS INCLUDED A BUS

A tourist with a wide-angle lens and a modicum of irony has little trouble framing infamy and retribution in the same photograph.

With the submarine USS Bowfin in the foreground, the floating memorial to the sunken USS Arizona falls naturally into the background.For all the tragedy at rest on Pearl's harbor floor along the stretch once known as Battleship Row, the Bowfin stands as a reminder that a lone day of infamy was followed by 1,364 of retaliation.

Launched a year to the day after the Arizona went down, the Bowfin was given big shoes to fill when that coincidence of war chronology incited observers to nickname her the "Pearl Harbor Avenger."

Before the war had ended, the Bowfin's battle flag would be adorned with more than 40 rising-sun flags for ships she had sunk. The flag would also display a silhouette that would remind beholders of her singular, curious distinction as perhaps the only vessel in the history of submarine warfare ever to have sunk a bus.

Prowling the Ryuku and Daito island chain south of Kyushu in August 1944, the Bowfin tracked a convoy of Japanese ships into Minami Daito Harbor and fired six torpedoes at a pair of merchant ships moored at a freshly constructed pier. As circumstance would have it, the torpedoes hit their mark at the precise instant a bus pulled onto the pier to pick up a group of Japanese sailors headed out for liberty call.

The ship's log did not modify the tersely familiar spotted-sub-sank-same entry to accommodate the rubber-tired prey.

The bus went down on the Bowfin's sixth war patrol. The sub was joined on its seventh trip out by Robert Beynon of Ohio, a Navy veteran who remembers that by January 1945, when he reported aboard the vessel, submarine warfare in the Pacific was colored by paradoxes both heartening and frightening.

On one hand, the Navy had waged the sea war with such great success that - as the last year of the fighting played out - submarines were finding slimmer pickings in the areas they patrolled. To counteract this, their commanders were being ordered into areas previously believed to be either impregnable or too dangerous. All this was happening while the Japanese had vastly improved their stalking techniques at anti-submarine warfare, and while U.S. submarines - though recording some improvement in performance of their glitch-plagued torpedoes - were still firing duds or dodging their own "fish."

From March to May 1945, the Navy lost four submarines in Japanese waters, thanks in part to the vigorous work of the enemy's hunter-killer sub teams.

"We picked up two destroyers and made a run on them," Beynon recalled of the Bowfin's seventh patrol, but one of the torpedoes fired at the enemy ships exploded prematurely. One hit its mark, but the skipper of the unharmed destroyer set out for the Bowfin and dropped 26 depth charges on her.

On the Bowfin's ninth and final war patrol, she was sent into the Sea of Japan, an area the enemy had vowed would never know U.S. ships for a thousand years.

Accompanied by eight other subs, she traveled in a wolf pack.

Scouring the Japanese sea, the Bowfin and her companions sank 27 Japanese ships. But they lost the submarine Bonefish with all hands.

Not long after the wolf pack left the Sea of Japan by its northern straits, it received word that the war had ended.

Decades would pass before the decommissioned Bowfin, the Pearl Harbor Avenger, would become a public memorial to the submariners of World War II.

Of 288 U.S. submarines that saw action in the conflict, 52 never returned. One submariner in four who saw combat during the war went down with his ship.

When a final reckoning of the books was made after the war, the Bowfin ranked 15th among 288 U.S. subs in total tonnage of enemy ships sunk.

But it is not so much the Japanese emblems denoting the Bowfin's ship "kills" that intrigues those who look upon the battle flag of the sub tied up across the harbor from the resting place of the Arizona.

They always ask, "Why is there a bus on the flag?"