The U.S.S. Pampanito — SS-383 — is a popular attraction at the San Francisco Fisherman’s Wharf area. Listed as a National Historical Landmark, the Pampanito museum and memorial is operated by the San Francisco Maritime National Park Association and is open to the public.
Similar to all submarines built during WWII, the Pampanito is named after a fish — a species of the Pampano genus. The keel of this Balao-class submarine was laid March 15, 1943 at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Kittery, Maine. Launched July 12, 1943, in a double christening ceremony along with the USS Picuda — SS-382 — she was one of the most advanced fighting systems of her day. Commissioned on Nov. 6, 1943, she arrived at Pearl Harbor via the Panama Canal on Feb. 14, 1944.
The Pampanito embarked on her first war patrol on March 15, 1944, seeing more than her share of action. On her first war patrol, the boat and crew were subjected to a severe depth charge attack. The violent concussions were deafening to the men inside — badly damaging the Pampanito’s hull, breaking pipe flanges and light bulbs, and even ripping cork lining off the inner walls.
The Pampanito had another close call on her second patrol in June 1944, when two Japanese torpedoes only narrowly missed her. However, by far one of the most remarkable incidents occurred on her third war patrol when the crew rescued 73 survivors of the P.O.W. transport ship Rakuyo Maru en route to Formosa.
The survivors were mostly British and Australian and were covered in oil and filth. In an incomprehensible feat of space management, the 73 men were brought on board, cleaned and fed, and joined the 79 enlisted men and 10 officers of the Pampanito.
In all, the Pampanito completed six war patrols, sank six enemy ships, and damaged another four. In total, U.S. submariners accounted for less than 2 percent of Navy personnel during the war, but for more than 55 percent of enemy shipping losses.
Submarine duty was — and still is — comprised of an all-volunteer force. Although candidates were highly motivated, the training was grueling and highly technical. As a result of the stringent selection criteria, washout rates typically ran upwards of 50 percent.
Morale on board a “boat” — submarines are traditionally referred to as boats — was high and the relationship between officers and enlisted men was typically better than in any other branch of the Navy. It had to be. Living conditions could generously be described as hot, humid and cramped, with nothing in the way of privacy. The food, however, was excellent — the best in all the armed services. Pay was also higher than in any another branch of the military, due to the extremely hazardous nature of the missions.
The United States lost 52 submarines during WWII, many of them going down without a trace. The 3,505 submariners lost during the war are said to be “On Eternal Patrol.”
Technology onboard US submarines was generally superior to that of the enemy, with one notable exception, namely the Mark 14 torpedo. Inexplicably, it was never live-fire tested by the Navy prior to being put into service. The Mark 14 was fast, with a top speed of 46 knots, but it was also scandalously unreliable, with a 66 percent failure rate.
Towards the end of the war, the Pampanito was outfitted with the much more reliable Mark 18 electric torpedoes which, although having a top speed of only 29 knots, left no bubble trail and were 95 percent reliable. Aside from the dismal record of the Mark 14 — which improved by the end of the war — the engineering on Balao-class subs was unmatched.
The 10-cylinder Fairbanks-Morse engines were perfect for submarine propulsion. The powerful and efficient opposing piston design reduced engine width and also eliminated the need for cylinder heads, valves and camshafts — thus greatly reducing the number of moving parts. Radar was state-of-the-art and could detect an enemy ship up to 5 miles away.
One piece of equipment, however, was essential during an attack — the Torpedo Data Computer — TDC. The TDC automatically calculated the firing solution for the torpedoes and constantly updated the solution based on the ships course and speed. Captains loved it and sang its praises. Even when other equipment in the conning tower was shorting out due to heavy condensation, the TDC kept right on working.
By far the most guarded device on board the Pampanito was the ECM Mark II cipher and coding machine. Classified “above top secret,” it was so important to the war effort that at least one skipper — Capt. J.P. Cromwell of the USS Sculpin — chose to scuttle his boat and go down with it rather than risk being captured and revealing details about the device under interrogation. For this act of heroism, he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Daily life for the men on board the submerged tube consisted of 12-hour shifts. The galley was always open, and coffee was served 24 hours a day. Fresh water was distilled from sea water by means of two vapor-compression distillers. However, because the distillers consumed extra fuel, and since conserving fuel while on patrol was always a mission priority, potable water was a precious commodity and came at a huge premium.
The diesel engines and batteries were always “priority one.” The galley came next, followed by showers for the cooks, baker and pharmacist. Bathing for the rest of the crew came in a very distant last. While on patrol, the men rarely washed more than once every 10 days. The fetid atmosphere on board the boat ran somewhere between stifling and sweltering, a rank mixture of stale sweat, diesel fumes and cigarette smoke.
Submarines thus earned the nickname “pig boats,” because it was said you could smell one from a mile away. Temperatures throughout the boat routinely ran above 100 degrees Fahrenheit, and — not surprisingly — one of the hottest rooms was the engine room.
However, an even hotter part of the boat was the conning tower. When called to battle stations, as many as 10 men would cram into this small room — where the combined effect of heat from the engines and electronic equipment would drive temperatures above 120 degrees.
Air conditioning was upgraded on U.S. submarines after the start of the war, which improved so-called “habitability” somewhat, but in truth the main purpose of air conditioning was simply to keep condensation from shorting out electronic equipment, and to keep temperatures for the crew below a “manageable” 130 degrees.
The Pampanito earned six battle stars for her service in WWII. She was decommissioned at Mare Island on Dec. 15, 1945, and was reclassified as a Naval Reserve Training ship on Nov. 6, 1962, before finally being stricken from the Navy Register on Dec. 20, 1971. She appeared as the fictional USS Stingray —SS-161 — in the movie “Down Periscope.”
For more information about this historic submarine, visit www.maritime.org/pamphome.htm