USS Pampanito
San Francisco Maritime Museum


If you're headed down to San Francisco's well-known Fisherman's Wharf area, take some time to check out the USS Pampanito, a WWII era submarine located at Pier 45 (within walking distance is Fort Point), a maritime museum since 1982.

If you're like me, you've probably seen Das Boot, U-571, Hunt for Red October and other assorted submarine motion pictures.  While these movies may offer a tiny glimpse of life aboard a submarine- nothing quite brings it to life more than actually walking through a real sub.

The most amazing thing is just how small everything is within these subs.  Your realize while standing inside the sub- that the inner walls are only mere feet apart.  The inside of the submarine is sectioned off into small compartments, all separated by tiny water tight doors.  To think 80 men lived for months on end within these cramped quarters takes a bit of visualization.

The tour through the USS Pampanito descends into the rear of the sub, and it's actually just a short walk through the compartments.  Into the rear torpedo room, the 2 engine rooms that reek of diesel fumes, the eating quarters, the tiny galley, the sleeping quarters, and the forward torpedo room.  Not much else to it.  If you make it over to this part of San Francisco, make the USS Pampanito a part of your trip plans.  Real men fought and died in these subs so take a moment to remember them.  And all of them, were volunteers.

Engine room

A Little History about Subs

Prior to WWII, subs were seen as merely scout vessels.  Few people realized the true value of the submarine in combat.  At the time, subs merely used sonar to listen to other ships.  Targeting other ships was also done largely with primitive sonar only while submerged.  Accuracy suffered greatly since problems with American torpedo designs plagued the early years of the war.  

At the time, periscope attacks were thought to be too risky, later they would become common place at tactics developed.  Early Gato Class subs were thought extraordinary with their 10,000 mile range, crew of 80, clean water and own bunks for its submariners.  Soon the Belayo Class sub exceeded that of the Gato with a heavier hull, thicker skin, and 400 ft. dive depth.  A full 100-foot deeper than its predecessor.  

The Belao Class had 4 diesel engines with 5400 horsepower each.  The engines were used to propel the sub while on the surface.  The noise given off by the engines was so loud within this chamber, crew members learned to communicate with hand signals.  

Crews also trained to shut down then engines within seconds.  They were also used to charge the massive banks of batteries that lie underneath the main floor of the sub.  The charging process would last 8 hours for a full charge and in turn could be used up to 1 hour at full speed.  Or the life could be extended to 48 hours at low speed.  It was typical of sub captains to surface at night to recharge the batteries to avoid detection under cover of darkness.  

The practice of diving the submarine was practiced repeatedly.  It could be the sub's only defense when up against the enemy.  The dive procedures were practiced so many times, it could be done in a mere 30 seconds.  The sub is filled with large hand wheels, dials, gauges, wires, and pipes headed in every direction.  Each crew member was expected to learn the purpose and handling of all the controls throughout the sub regardless of their individual specialty.

Tactics and success grew slowly as the war progress, and each problem was met with ingenuity and innovation.  One major issue to be solved was the poor quality of torpedoes early in the war.  Eventually the renowned inaccuracy of the torpedoes was lessoned with the addition of a data calculator to fire the torpedoes.  

Mess quarters

Accuracy was further increased with the new practice previously unrealized- sighting enemy vessels through the periscope while running just below the surface.  Many of the submarine tactics we now see as commonplace actually had to be developed through trial and error.

Much of the success of American submarines during WWII was due to the on the job innovations of the sub captains.  Mush Morton, for instance, was considered the best of the 1st breed of sub captains.  He would soon be exalted as the hero of the sub corps in January of 1943.  His tactics were new, and even dangerous.  His strategy, previously unrealized, was to seek out the enemy.  He also was the first to give the job of periscope sighting to his executive officer.  A job formerly reserved solely for the captain.  His tactics were daring, and well illustrated when he took his sub 9 miles into Wewok Harbor to destroy a Japanese freighter.  

The Galley

After firing 3 torpedoes and missing, the freighter turned and bore down on the sub to ram it. Mush Morton fired his last 4 torpedoes right down it's throat.  The first 3 missed.  His very last torpedo struck the vessel and sank it.  Mush Morton once even pursued 4 ships and sunk them all.  In August 1943, he entered the Sea of Japan, the home waters of Japan.  On October 11, 1943, he is believed sunk and presumed dead.

Subs like the USS Tang with Dick O'Kane as its captain sunk 24 enemy ships in 5 war patrols in 1944.    The Tang was lost in the Formosa Straight.  The sub tragically sank with 40 men trapped in the sub.  The vessels were equipped to allow the submariners to escape with a breathing apparatus but not from the great depth the sub came to rest at.  Of the 22 men who attempted to reach the surface, only 16 survived.  They were captured and sent to Japanese prison camps, of those, only 9 survived.

One of the single biggest victories of WWII took place when the USS ArcherFish set out to sink a Japanese freighter in 1944 that'd been converted to an aircraft carrier.  The aircraft carrier set out to sea and was sunk on its very first day at sea by the USS ArcherFish.  After the war, the numbers spoke for themselves.  The USS Kabala, for example, sunk 46,000 tons of shipping on 6 war patrols, one of the most successful of the war.  In the end, 55% of all enemy ships sunk during WWII were due to subs.

One of the largest subs of the time was the USS Argonaut at 387 ft. and was fitted with a 6-inch gun.  It was used by Director John Ford in one of his movie's and also toured by child star Shirley Temple.  During the war, it was also utilized to land U.S. Marine for special missions.  It was later sunk by the Japanese with a loss of 106 men.

Subs weren't used only for sinking enemy vessels.  During sea battles and air wars, they were strategically placed to rescue downed flyers, and to deliver troops.  The USS Tang rescued 22 downed flyers, the most in the war involving up to 13 US aircraft carriers.

The USS Pampanito Today

The sub is open daily at San Francisco's Fisherman's Wharf.  Over 200,000 visitors come to to see the sub each year.  Although the sub was dry docked for nearly 50 years, during the filming of Down Periscope, the sub was piloted out into the bay and under the Golden Gate Bridge in 1995.  Concerted efforts have been made to restore the sub to its original condition during the Second World War.  This is how you will find the USS Pampanito today.

Visiting hours are 9:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. every day including holidays; 9:00 a.m. to 8:00 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. Admission includes a 25-minute audio tour and is $7 for adults, $4 for children (6-12) and seniors, and free for children under six years old. Public information is available by calling (415) 775-1943.

Facts about the SS-383 USS Pampanito

Balao Class Submarine: 
Displacement: 1526 tons surfaced, 2424 tons submerged 
Length: 311' 9"
Beam: 27'3" 
Draft: 16'10" 
Pressure Hull 7/8" High Tensile Steel
Displacement 1525 Tons Surfaced
2415 Tons submerged
Complement: 10 Officers, 70 Enlisted
Diesel Engines surfaced, Electric Motors submerged

Torpedo Tubes:10 - 6 Forward and 4 Aft
Torpedo Load: 24 - 16 Forward and 8 Aft
Deck Guns: 5" 25 Caliber Wet Mount
40mm Anti-Aircraft
20mm Anti-Aircraft

Maximum speed 23 knots surfaced
11 Knots Submerged
Range: Surfaced- 11,000 miles at 10 Knots
Range: Submerged- 9500 miles at 5 Knotes
Patrol Endurance: 75 days
Operating Depth: 600 feet

Built at Portsmouth Navy Yard
Keel laid down: March 15, 1943
Launched: July 12, 1943
Commissioned SS-383, November 6, 1943
War Record: 6 Patrols - Pacific Ocean
6 Ships sunk, 4 Damaged
73 Allied POW's rescued
Decommissioned: December 15, 1945
Reclassified AGSS-383, December 1962
Stricken IXSS-383, December 20, 1976
Transferred SFMMA: May 20, 1976

More Info

USS Pampanito Homepage

San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park

Subnet's Pampanito Page's Pampanito

The National Maritime Museum Association
P.O. Box 470310
San Francisco, CA 94147-0310
Phone: (415) 441-5819

Other Sub Museums

USS Nautilus Submarine Force Library and Museum
Thames River, Groton, Connecticut

USS Mato 8
Germany sub Seehund
Midget Italian Sub Miale
Research Vessel Explorer

Always Faithful
Semper Fi