U.S.S. Pampanito (SS-383)
Pampanito was a Balao-class submarine that served in the latter half of WWII in the Pacific. She later served as a training submarine at Mare Island, CA.
Pampanito was laid down at the Portsmouth Navy Yard in Maine on 15 March 1943. She entered service on 6 November.
She was assigned to the Pacific fleet in January 1944, arriving at Pearl Harbor 14 February 1944. The submarine left for her first patrol on 15 March. Operating in the vicinity of Guam, she engaged a convoy on 7 April and was chased down by an escorting destroyer. The chase lasted for four days as Pampanito was depth charged and damaged. She got her break on the night of the 10th, when she closed with the convoy and loosed four torpedoes at it. She confirmed two hits on an enemy destroyer before one of the other escorts chased her off. She arrived back in Pearl Harbor on 8 May for repairs and refit.
During this refit, one of the ballast tanks used to control her depth was converted to a variable tank, able to carry fuel on her way out on patrol, then return to it’s purpose as a ballast tank when she reached the combat zone. She set out on her second patrol on 8 June 1944. This time, she was headed for the coast of Japan itself. In the early morning of 23 June, a lookout spotted 2 torpedo wakes headed for the sub. The shots were fired from a submerged Japanese sub and they passed just off Pampanito’s bow. She submerged and attempted to find her attacker, but the enemy sub vanished. On 7 July, the sub made an attack on an enemy convoy with her stern torpedo tubes. These tubes were loaded with Mark 18 torpedoes, which left no wake because of their electric power. Pampanitorecorded one hit, but was driven away by convoy escorts before she could confirm a sinking. She was able to observe the convoy later, and noticed that one of the ships was dead in the water, probably from another of her torpedoes. The sub had another close call with an enemy torpedo on the 19th, and she was ordered home shortly thereafter.
Pampanito’s second refit included the fitting of charging devices in her forward torpedo room, allowing her to fire the wake-less Mark 18 torpedoes from all ten of her tubes. She left Midway on her third patrol on 17 August 1944, this time in company of Growler and Sealion. Her “wolf pack” attacked a convoy on the 30thin company with a second sub group. Pampanito, however, was excluded from the attack thanks to a lack of communication between herself and the lead boat,Growler. The sub’s luck worsened in following days, when she developed a very noisy leak in her forward trim tank. Unable to locate the leak from within, Lt. Fulton and Machinist Stockslader volunteered to be sealed in the tank during a dive. Once the boat reached 200 feet below the surface, the source of the leak was found in a very awkward place to repair. Her crew feared that Pampanitowould be forced out of the action early for a complex repair, but another volunteer with diving experience, Gunner’s Mate Hauptman, was able to repair the leak while the boat was surfaced. On 11 September, command ordered Pampanito’s wolf pack to intercept a convoy bound for Japan. Unbeknownst to the Navy, the convoy included transports carrying Australian and British prisoners of war. The subs moved in to attack on the 12th. Growler took the lead and charged in. The Japanese destroyer Shikinami moved to intercept her and the two vessels ended up sailing straight toward each other. Instead of evading, Growler stayed on course and fired a spread of torpedoes at the slim hull of the destroyer. Miraculously, she scored a hit, a feat that no submarine had ever accomplished before, and one that has not since been repeated.
Pampanito and Sealion continued tracking the convoy and just after dawn on the 12th, Sealion fired two spreads of torpedoes at the convoy. Three of her torpedoes struck the former passenger liner Rakuyo Maru. This ship was carrying 1300 allied POWs. Fortunately for them, the old liner took twelve hours to sink, allowing the surviving POWs to construct makeshift rafts and search the ship for food. As they clung to rafts and wreckage, they were unable to avoid explosions caused by the depth charging of Sealion and the sinking of the Japanese frigate Hirado by Growler. Many survivors were killed or injured by these attacks.
As the first group of POWs fought for their lives, Pampanito unknowingly attacked 900 of their comrades. She set up an attack the transport Kachidoki Maru, hitting her with three torpedoes. The men aboard this vessel didn’t have the luck that their counterparts aboard Rakuyo Maru experienced. The ship sank quickly after being hit. Pampanito returned to the scene on 15 September and was shocked to find survivors speaking English. She took aboard 73 POWs and called in other subs and search-and-rescue forces to pick up the rest. The menPampanito picked up were dangerously ill from four days spent in oil-soaked waters, and the boat, like all subs of her period, carried no doctor. Only Pharmacist’s Mate Maurice Demers had any medical experience. He worked around the clock for nearly forty-eight hours to care for the sick and wounded. His only loss was a British POW. Despite the best efforts of Pampanito and her sisters, over 1,000 POWs were killed in this tragic mistake. Upon her return to Pearl Harbor, Pampanito was commended for her rescue, and Pharmacist’s Mate Demers was awarded the Navy and Marine Corps medal for his tireless efforts to save the wounded prisoners.
The sub departed Pearl Harbor on 28 October 1944 in command of her own wolf pack. She claimed a cargo vessel sunk on 18 November, but was forced to leave her patrol early after a serious leak developed in her fuel system. Arriving at Fremantle, Australia on 30 December, Pampanito was greeted by many of the POWs she had saved during her last patrol. The grateful men made sure the sub and her crew were well taken care of while in port.
Pampanito’s repairs were completed in January 1945 and on the 23rd, she left Fremantle in company of Guavina for her fifth patrol. She sank one cargo ship on 6 February and another the next night. Her two successes left her with only one torpedo, and her fifth patrol was cut short as she was ordered into recently recaptured Subic Bay in the Philippines. The sub resupplied quickly and set out on her final war patrol on 25 February 1945. The patrol lasted until April andPampanito saw no direct action. She spent the last days of the war at Hunter’s Point Shipyard in San Francisco undergoing refit, and was on her way back to the combat zone when Japan surrendered on 15 August.
Decommissioned on 15 December 1945, Pampanito was brought back into service in 1968 as a training sub at Mare Island Naval Shipyard. She was decommissioned again in 1970.
Pampanito was transferred to San Francisco’s Maritime Park Association in 1976 and made into a museum ship. She serves in this capacity to this day, docked at Pier 45 in San Francisco, CA.
The boat made a trip into the bay for the 1996 movie Down Periscope. She portrayed the semi-fictional Stingray in the film, and the movie features many interior and exterior shots of Pampanito.
Risk of Asbestos Exposure
While Pampanito was built during the height of asbestos use in naval construction, she is a diesel-electric submarine. These subs didn’t require the use of asbestos insulation in their engineering spaces as steam-powered ships did. However, other shipboard materials may have contained asbestos.
When an asbestos-based product is damaged, it can produce tiny fibers. Inhalation of these fibers is a proven cause of mesothelioma, a malignant cancer of the lungs. There is no cure for mesothelioma, but treatments such as chemotherapy can be employed to fight the disease. If you or someone you know served on Pampanito or worked on her in a shipyard and has contracted mesothelioma, please fill out the form at the bottom of this page to receive free information concerning your rights to compensation.
A Note About Museum Ships
U.S.-based museum ships undergo rigorous safety and health inspections by numerous state and federal agencies before receiving approval for donation. The restoration process is closely monitored and conducted with safety and removal/containment of hazardous materials being of most concern. Where possible, asbestos is removed from a ship, and in areas where this is not possible, asbestos insulation is carefully sealed in several layers of a strong, durable, plaster-based coating. If you are planning a visit to Pampanito or any other museum ship in the U.S., please do not be discouraged by this article. If this information is not enough to reassure you about visiting her, please contact her museum association directly. Her restoration or ship maintenance department can answer any specific questions you have.