American World War Two submarines don’t have the same glamour or menace as their more famous U boat counterparts, but none the less they performed sterling service and were responsible for sinking nearly a third of the Japanese Fleet. In the process they suffered a twenty three percent casualty rate, which whilst not anywhere near the U boats eighty percent rate, is still a huge loss and amply demonstrates the Americans bravery and skill. You would think that they would point that out a bit more, but on the Pampanito’s information sheet they seem more interested in telling you about the Disney designed logo, the ice cream machine, and the fact that the boat was used in the film Down Periscope. All very interesting stuff, but it’s not what this submarine is about. It’s a weapon, and judging by its record, a pretty effective one.
The USS Pampanito (SS-383) was built in the Portsmouth Navy Shipyard, New Hampshire, in March 1943 and was commissioned into the fleet in November of the same year. She is a Balao class (some sort of small fish) diesel electric submarine, 311 feet 6 inches long with a beam of 27 feet 3 inches. She was powered by four Fairbanks Morse diesel engines, and four high speed Elliot Electrical motors with reduction gear. On the surface the Pampanito could run at just over twenty knots, and submerged she could manage nearly nine knots. Overall the submarine had a range of eleven thousand miles on the surface and could dive to an operational depth of four hundred feet, although on one occasion she had to dive to over six hundred feet to avoid Japanese depth charges.
For armament the submarine had ten torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft, and carried twenty four torpedoes in all. On deck she carried four machine guns and a four inch deck gun. To operate all this, the Pampanito carried a crew of seventy men and ten officers.
During her combat career the Pampanito sank six enemy ships, damaged four and probably just as importantly saved the lives of 73 British and Australian P.O.W’s who had been left floating in the sea when their ship was torpedoed. You can read all the War Reports including the rescue by following this link.
So what of the Pampanito today? Permanently berthed at Pier 45 near Fishermans Wharf in San Francisco the U.S.S. Pampanito has become a very popular museum.
I saw it in the 1990’s, and I have to say it’s a remarkable job of restoration and preservation. The Americans don’t stint on this sort of thing. The boat is regularly maintained and dry docked, and the restorers scour the country for missing bits of equipment and spare parts. Inside everything has been polished and painted to within an inch of its life, and the tour is interspersed with voiced memories of the actual wartime crew. It is all very evocative.
When I saw the boat, the commentary on the audio guide was by the celebrated writer, Edward.L.Beech who wrote a classic submarine book, Run Silent- Run Deep, and his knowledge certainly imparted a sense of what it must have been like to serve in one of these steel tubes, fighting their battles in the half dark of the vast ocean. Whilst not as mesmerising as some of the preserved U boats, the U.S.S.Pampanito is well worth a visit, and its presence serves as a lasting memorial to all those Submariners, who perished in that terrible war.