“Bringing the USS Pampanito to Life”

by Robert W. Bone

With many away exploring the wide world last month, a small group of BATW members took the opportunity to explore a narrow World War II submarine for the organization’s May meeting.

The sub was the USS Pampanito, which was recently spruced up and returned to its museum home at Pier 45, near Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco.

Members first met in the wharf’s nearby Triangle Room to hear an outline of the vessel’s wartime career from its volunteer historian Rich Pekelney, who dramatized the sub’s story (a tour followed).

He said the crew of the Pampanito, like all submarine personnel, was composed strictly of volunteers.

“This was the most dangerous thing you could do in the U.S. military during the war,” said Pekelney. Consequently, the crew was treated royally. For example, submarines were equipped not only with deadly torpedoes but also with an ice cream machine for the enjoyment of its men.

On several occasions, the sub survived an attack by enemy depth charges during its deployment in the Pacific Ocean and sunk several enemy ships. It also had some unusual adventures, including one when it destroyed a Japanese vessel with an unexpected cargo. After surfacing to see if there were some survivors, crew members suddenly heard a voice in English with a British accent: “You sunk our ship, so are you going to shoot us now?”

It turned out to be about 2,000 British prisoners of war who had been captured in Singapore. The sub then radioed for help so the prisoners could also be rescued by other vessels.

Today, the Pampanito is a popular tourist target in San Francisco. Among its new crews are boatloads of Boy Scouts, who occasionally make small invasions, sleeping overnight on the bunk beds still suspended over the vessel’s deactivated torpedoes.

Thanks to Board Member MJ Pramik, who coordinated this terrific event.