Steamship Saturday – U.S.S. Pampanito, SS 383

Steamship Saturday


U.S.S. Pampanito under tow in 1996, heading from the Pacific into San Francisco Bay under the Golden Gate Bridge. Pampanito was the “star” in the film “Down Periscope” with Kelsey Grammer, Lauren Holley, Rob Schneider, Rip Torn and Bruce Dern.

U.S.S. Pampanito, SS 383

Our subject for this Steamship Saturday isn’t a steamship at all, but is a diesel-electric submarine, the U.S.S. Pampanito, which shares Pier 45 in San Francisco with our subject two Saturdays ago, the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien. Pampanito is one of the many historic ships around San Francisco Bay that are open for tours. Operated by the Maritime Park Association (formerly known as the National Maritime Association), Pampanito hosts some 250,000 visitors a year and is one of the most popular historic vessels in the country. In addition to day time visitors, over 15,000 children a year participate in Pampanito’s educational day and overnight programs. Pampanito is a National Historic Landmark.


At Pier 45 in San Francisco, you can see two historic World War II-era ships, the submarine  and the Liberty Ship Jeremiah O’Brien.

Pampanito is a Balao-class submarine that was constructed in World War II. She served six war patrols in the Pacific and sank six Japanese ships and damaged four others. She served as a U.S. Naval Reserve training ship from 1960 to 1971. Pampanito played a key role in rescuing 73 British and ANZAC POWs from the Luzon Straight on her Third War Patrol. The men in the water were the result of Pampanito’s participation in a Wolf Pack attack on a Japanese convoy, more about which further below.

U.S.S. Pampanito was built at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, New Hampshire as part of an expanded wartime production effort. She and U.S.S. Picuda were the first two of ten subs to be built in tandem at Portsmouth’s then-new building basin.

Pampanito’s keel was laid down on 15 March 1943, and she was launched the following July 12 in a double ceremony with Picuda, honoring the first two subs to be floated out of the new construction basin. Following launching, work continued fitting her out, and on 6 November 1943, Pampanito was commissioned to officially became part of the US Fleet.

After 1970 when Pampanito was retired as a training vessel for the U.S. Naval Reserve, she became part of a program where WWII-era subs were stripped of parts for use in other submarines and many of her fittings were removed.

In 1971, Pampanito was stricken from Navy records, and in 1976 Pampanito was turned over to the Maritime Park Association to be opened to the public as a memorial and museum ship. However, the attempt to berth the submarine at Fisherman’s Wharf was blocked by the San Francisco Port Commission led by Harry Bridges, the notorious leftist leader of the Longshoremans Union. As a result, Pampanito was moved from Mare Island to a private shipyard in Stockton where she remained for almost six years in storage as the debate continued. Eventually the feeling of the Commission changed and a berth at the Wharf was secured.


Forward torpedo room, port side, U.S.S. Pampanito

Opened to the public in 1982, she has become one of the most popular historic vessels in the country hosting as many as 250,000 visitors a year. Since her opening the Maritime Park Association has worked to interpret the vessel to her visitors and to preserve and restore her to her wartime condition and appearance. Most of the equipment taken during the fleet stripping period has been replaced as have the missing deck guns, bunks and other equipment. Pampanito has been drydocked four times by the Association and she is on a regular haul out schedule of between five and seven years. Many of Pampanito’s systems have been brought back to life and made operational as part of her extensive preservation program.

Pampanito:Aft torpedo room

Aft Torpedo Room

Seldom remembered today is Pampanito’s role in the rescue of 73 British and ANZAC POWs in September, 1944 during her third war patrol. A fine account of this is found at World War II Wikia:

Pampanito departed Midway again under the command of Lt. Commander Paul E. Summers and headed for her assigned patrol area in the Luzon Strait north of the Philippine Islands. This area was code named “Convoy College” because of the large number of Imperial Japanese convoys that converged there as they traveled north to Japan.

Unlike her first two patrols when she operated alone, this time Pampanito traveled as part of a wolfpack which included USS Growler, and USS Sealion II. Wolfpacks became more common in the Pacific War as Imperial Japanese convoys became better organized and protected. Skippers used their radios sparingly, preferring to rendezvous regularly at pre-selected times using signal lights or megaphones instead. The structure of this pack, nicknamed “Ben’s Busters” after tactical leader Commander T.B. “Ben” Oakley, included Oakley in Growler, Commander Eli T. Reich, second senior officer, in Sealion, and Summers in Pampanito.

En route to the patrol area the three boats exchanged recognition signals and tested communications via VHF radio. On August 19, Summers noted in his patrol report that he was having difficulty reaching Growler when the range exceeded 8,000 yards. He expressed doubts that successful communications could be maintained during a coordinated attack.

When “Ben’s Busters” attacked an Imperial Japanese convoy in Bashi Channel off the southern tip of Formosa on August 30, they operated with another wolf-pack, “Ed’s Eradicators”. This group was comprised of tactical commander Captain Edwin Swineburne in USS Barb, skippered by Commander Eugene Fluckey, and Commander Charles Loughlin in USS Queenfish. While the two packs attacked the convoy, sinking seven ships and damaging others, Pampanito lookouts reported distant explosions and a burning ship over the moonlit horizon, followed by distant depth charges. No contact report was received from the two attacking wolfpacks, and Summers searched in vain for the remnants of the scattered convoy. Summers blamed communications problems for Pampanito‘s lack of participation in the attack.

During the next few days Pampanito developed a serious and perplexing mechanical problem. A loud air squeal had been heard up forward during a dive, and the diving officer reported 2000 pounds of water in the forward trim tank. No explanation could immediately be found because the noise was coming from inside the tank. On the night of September 4, Lt. Howard Fulton and Motor Machinist E.W. Stockslader, hoping to locate the source of the problem, volunteered to be sealed into the leaky tank while the boat dove. A signal system was set up, and Pampanito went down to 60 feet, yet the men in the tank found nothing. Summers took her deeper, to 200 feet, before the leak was finally found. The seal around the operating rod to torpedo tube #5 leaked as it passed through the forward bulkhead of the tank. The boat remained submerged during daylight hours for the next two days while blueprints were studied. Pampanito surfaced at night to allow the leak to be repaired. First Class Gunner’s Mate Tony Hauptman, an amateur diver, volunteered to perform the repair. He used shallow water diving apparatus to get below the waterline under the superstructure. During repeated dives, Hauptman fixed the noisy leak using a specially made wrench. Pampanito was then again able to maneuver silently while submerged, allowing the war patrol to resume without having to turn back to Midway for repair.

Pete Summers celebrated his thirty-first birthday at sea on September 6, 1944, the same day an ill-fated enemy convoy left Singapore bound through “Convoy College” to Japan. The convoy carried war production materials such as rubber and oil. It also carried over two thousand British and Australian prisoners of war being transported from Southeast Asia following the completion of the Burma-Thailand railroad. This infamous “Railway of Death,” as it became known (and the subject of the movie “Bridge Over the River Kwai“), was used by the Imperial Japanese to move troops and supplies 250 miles through the mountainous jungles of Thailand and Burma connecting with other lines running through Southeast Asia and out to the South China Sea. The railway had been built at a huge cost of human life. An estimated 12,000 British, Australian, and many times that number of Asian prisoners died from jungle diseases, lack of medical care, starvation, abuse and overwork. The fittest of the railway survivors, known as the “Japan Party,” were being relocated to work as forced labor in the copper mines of Japan. The POWs were openly worried about the likelihood of being torpedoed en route by American submarines and made what slim preparations they could for that strong possibility. Some formed teams and planned escape routes off the ship; others stock piled meager rations or tested the effects of drinking small amounts of sea water. The Imperial Japanese could have requested safe passage for the transfer of prisoners, but no such request was received.

FRUPAC, the Fleet Radio Unit Pacific, intercepted and decoded an Imperial Japanese message detailing the course and estimated noon positions of the convoy along the route to Japan. On the night of September 9, the “Busters” were ordered to rendezvous on September 11, and to intercept the convoy. Later that night, the “Eradicators” were ordered to act as backstop and to move in on the convoy, as well. Growler, first to arrive at the meeting point on the night of the 11th, found light overcast and calm seas with rain on the horizon. Sealion surfaced nearby around 2000 hours, having just returned from Midway where her torpedoes, fired during the August 30th attack were replaced. Pampanito moved in an hour and a half later. The boats exchanged recognition signals with the SJ radar and moved within 100 yards of Growler to receive vocal instructions for the attack. The wolfpack moved to the expected position of the approaching convoy.

At 0130 on the morning of September 12, Pampanito‘s ace radar technician, George Moffett, picked up several pips on the screen at a range of over fifteen miles. A few minutes later, a contact report was received from Growler, but the message was garbled and could not be decoded. Summers went flank speed to maneuver ahead of the convoy and into attack position. Growler approached from the west and fired on the ships, causing the convoy’s escorts to fan out in all directions. Growler’s attack was a first and last in U.S. submarine history. Oakley had been picked up on radar by the Imperial Japanese destroyer Shikinami as he moved in to attack. The destroyer charged the sub. Instead of diving his boat and taking evasive measures Oakley faced the oncoming escort bow to bow, firing three torpedoes at the vessel from a range of just over 1000 yards. The first torpedo hit, causing a violent explosion. The destroyer, listing badly, charged ahead, coming so close to Growler that Oakley felt the heat from the burning ship. Shikinami finally went under, sinking only 200 yards from Growler. This controversial bow to bow surface attack on a charging destroyer has never been successfully repeated and is considered to be unnecessarily dangerous. However, Growler escaped and went on to damage two other ships before moving out of range to reload her torpedo tubes.

A bright quarter moon had risen and at 0230, Summers moved to the dark side of the scattered convoy. Sealion pulled back to repair a jammed automatic gyro setter, a device which is used to set the angle of the torpedo run. Growler lost the track of the convoy temporarily, and “Ed`s Eradicators,” Queenfish and Barb, were 80 miles to the north, since they had not received the contact reports alerting them to the battle taking place to the south. Pampanito and Sealion tracked the convoy for the remainder of the night, both boats moving into attack range just before dawn. As Summers prepared to fire from a perfect position, Pampanito was jolted by a series of violent explosions which occurred as Sealion, to the west, fired two salvos of three torpedoes each at the convoy. The first salvo scored three hits on a large, heavily laden tanker which erupted into flames so bright they illuminated the second target, the transport Rakuyo Maru.

Rakuyo Maru was a 477-foot Japanese-built passenger-cargo vessel carrying a load of raw rubber and, unknown to the crews of the submarines, also carried over 1300 Allied prisoners of war. Two of Sealion‘s torpedoes hit the POW ship, one amidships and one in the bow. It took 12 hours for Rakuyo Maru to sink, which allowed the surviving POWs some time to make rafts and search the doomed ship for food and water. The Imperial Japanese guards had left the ship immediately after the attack using most of the lifeboats.

Sealion went deep to avoid the depth charging that followed the attack. The other two subs tracked the convoy as it zig-zagged radically to avoid being attacked. Growler caught up with and sank another Imperial Japanese escort, the frigate Hirado . The POWs, who were now in the water clinging to wreckage, had mixed feelings as the small escort instantly sank. Some cheered another score against their captors; others saw all chances of rescue sink with that ship. Tragically, many survivors of the initial attack were killed or badly wounded by shock waves caused by the explosions of Hirado‘s sinking, and the following depth charge attack on Sealion. Pampanito again picked up the convoy on high periscope at noon the next day, and tracked it westward. Just after dark, Summers moved in for a surface attack, but had to pull the sub back when he learned that the torpedo in tube #4 had moved forward in the tube and had had a”hot run”  Although the warhead of a torpedo was designed to be unarmed until it had run through the water for a few hundred feet, the crew knew that torpedoes could be temperamental.

Pampanito was pulled back to disengage a jammed gyro setter caused by the hot run. Summers then quickly moved in again to set up the attack with the dud torpedo still in tube #4. A few minutes later the boat was once again in position, and fired five torpedoes forward; three at a large transport and two at another ship. She then swung hard right and at 2243 fired four stern tubes, scouring a total of seven hits out of nine torpedoes. One ship could not be observed because of smoke and haze in that direction. A short interval after the seven hits, the escorts started dropping depth charges at random.

Pampanito had sunk a 524-foot transport, Kachidoki Maru, a captured American vessel built in New Jersey in 1921. First owned by the United States Ship Line, and later the Dollar Line, she had originally been named Wolverine State . After having been sold to American President Lines, she was renamed President Harrison . When captured off the China coast by the Imperial Japanese, she was given the name Kachidoki Maru. Like the Rakuyo Maru, the ship had been carrying raw materials to Japan. Also aboard were 900 Allied POWs.

Following the attack, Pampanito pulled away to eject the hot run torpedo and reload all tubes. An hour later, in another attack, Summers missed with three shots fired at a destroyer escort. He also observed two small ships, one of which had stopped, apparently to pick up survivors of the earlier attack. He decided they were too small to waste time and a torpedo on, and he moved on to rejoin the pack on the following night. No immediate attempt was made to track down the remaining stragglers from the convoy.

The wolfpack rendezvoused the night of September 13th. Growler moved south while Sealion and Pampanito spent the next day in vain looking for the rest of the convoy, then headed east toward the area of the September 12th attack on Rakuyo Maru. After diving to avoid a plane late in the afternoon of the 15th Pampanito surfaced to find much debris and floating wreckage. A bridge lookout sighted some men on a raft, so Pampanito closed to investigate. The men were covered with oil and filth, and were taken off the raft by a rescue party. These men were fifteen British and Australian Prisoner of War survivors from a ship sunk the night of 11-12 September 1944, while they were en route from Singapore to Formosa.

These men were survivors of Rakuyo Maru, sunk earlier by Sealion. After four days of drifting on makeshift rafts they were in extremely bad shape. Most were covered with oil from the sunken tanker, and had long since used up what little food and water they had with them. Slowly, the story of what had occurred was unveiled by the survivors brought aboard Pampanito. Summers radioed Sealion, and Reich also moved in to pick up survivors. As the men were received on board, they were stripped to remove most of the heavy coating of oil and muck. Passed below as quickly as possible, each man was given a piece of cloth moistened with water to suck on. All of them were exhausted after four days on the raft and three years imprisonment. Many had lashed themselves to their makeshift rafts, which were slick with grease. All showed signs of pellagra, beri-beri, immersion, salt water sores, ringworm, malaria etc. All were very thin and showed the results of undernourishment. During the remaining hours of daylight, Pampanito‘s crew recovered more survivors, bringing the total number saved to seventy three, before setting course for Saipan.

Under the direction of torpedo officer Lt. Ted Swain, volunteer teams were formed to get the almost helpless men aboard. Some of Pampanito‘s crew dove into the water with lines to attach to the rafts so they could be brought in close enough for others, on deck and on the saddle tanks, to carefully lift the men aboard. Among those crew members who swam out to rescue the former POWs, leaving the relative safety of the sub and risking being left behind if the boat had to dive, were Bob Bennett, Andrew Currier, Bill Yagemann, Gordon Hooper, Jim Behney, and Tony Hauptman. It was a tense and emotional period as the shocked crew worked to save as many of the oil soaked survivors as possible. During the rescue many of the crew came topside to help. If an Imperial Japanese plane attacked at that time they would have been left on deck as Pampanito dove to avoid attack.

Personal cameras were not allowed on submarines. However, it was fortunate that a couple of contraband cameras were produced by the crew. Electrician’s Mate First Class Paul Pappas, Jr. was able to document the historic rescue with an amazing series of photographs and a 16mm film using the ship’s movie camera.

During the five-day trip to Saipan, the nearest Allied port, the survivors were berthed in the crew’s quarters amidships and on the empty torpedo skids and bunks in the after torpedo room where they were cared for by the crew. Some of the survivors were critically ill and in need of medical attention. Submarines carried no doctor on board, so the monumental task of treating these men became the responsibility of the only man on board with training in medicine, Pharmacist’s Mate First Class Maurice L. Demers. With the help of crew members who fed the men and donated clothing, Demers worked around the clock. Of the survivors, Britisher John Campbell, was the most seriously ill. Demers worked continually in an attempt to save the delirious Campbell, but he died the next day, September 16. He was buried at sea following a somber ceremony; Paul Pappas read a heart-felt prayer. At one point, as Demers tried to get a few hours sleep, several of the survivors took a turn for the worse, and he had to be awakened. Demers continued his grueling work until he came dangerously close to total exhaustion. However, his efforts were rewarded; Campbell was the only casualty.

In a letter written after the war Demers said “…as I examined and treated each one I could feel a deep sense of gratitude, their faces were expressionless and only a few could move their lips to whisper a faint ‘thanks’. It was quite gratifying to see the happy expressions on their faces when they left the ship.”

Before leaving for Saipan, Summers sent off a message to Pearl Harbor relaying what had happened, and requested that more subs be called in to continue the rescue. The only other boats in the area were Queenfish and Barb; they were ordered in as soon as possible. Both boats were 450 miles west in pursuit of a convoy, but when they received the new orders they dropped the track and headed full speed to the rescue area.

During the night of September 16th they encountered a convoy of large tankers and, among the escorts, a small aircraft carrier. The subs attacked the convoy and Barb quickly sank the carrier Unyo and an 11,000-ton tanker, after which they continued on to the rescue area.

Queenfish and Barb arrived at 0530 on the 17th to begin their search for rafts among the floating debris. Just after 1300 they located several rafts and began to pick up the few men still alive. They only had a few hours to search before a typhoon moved in, sealing the fate of those survivors not picked up in time. Before the storm hit, Queenfish found 18 men, and Barb found 14. The boats headed on to Saipan after a final search following the storm revealed no further survivors.

Pampanito rescue2

POW rescue by Pampanito

POW rescue by Pampanito

Of the 1,318 POWs on the Rakuyo Maru sunk by Sealion, 159 had been rescued by the four submarines: 73 on Pampanito, 54 on Sealion, and the 32 found by Queenfish and Barb. It was later learned that the Imperial Japanese had rescued 136 for a total of 295 survivors. Of the 900 POWs on the Kachidoki Maru sunk by Pampanito, 656 were rescued by the Imperial Japanese and taken to prison camps in Japan. Over 500 of these men were released by American troops in August, 1945 at the close of the war. On September 18th, as Pampanito traveled to Saipan, she was met by USS Case (DD 370) and took aboard a pharmacist’s mate, medical supplies, and a doctor. Yet, Maurice Demers, who had saved so many lives, continued to care for the former POWs. On the morning of the 20th, Pampanito was met by USS Dunlap (DD-84) which escorted Pampanito into Tanapag Harbor, Saipan, where she docked alongside the submarine tender USS Fulton (AS-11). Fresh fruit and ice cream were brought aboard for the survivors as preparations were made for off-loading them to the Fulton. The transfer was complete by 1100 that morning as Pampanito‘s crew bid farewell to the grateful and much improved former POWs.

Pampanito took on fuel and provisions and left for Hawaii at 1600 that afternoon. Pampanito arrived for refit at Submarine Base, Pearl Harbor on the 28th of September at 1000 hours. Summers and his crew were given high praises for their rescue mission, which COMSUBPAC Vice Admiral Charles A. Lockwood, Jr., called “unique in submarine history”, and for a successful war patrol which had earned the combat insignia. The combined total tonnage sunk of the two wolfpacks was the highest to date in the war. Pampanito was credited with sinking three ships. Summers was awarded the Navy Cross, as were skippers Loughlin, Fluckey, Reich,and Swineburn. Fluckey went on to become the most highly decorated submariner of the war. The Navy and Marine Corps Medal was awarded to those who swam out during the rescue, as well as to pharmacist’s mate Demers. The three men involved in the repair at sea of the leaky trim tank received Letters of Commendation.”

Pampanito rescue

Dramatic movie of the rescue taken by Pampanito crewman Paul Pappas, Jr.

When visiting San Francisco, Tour the Pampanito



Add yours →

  1. jack darnell 26/03/2016 — 06:21

    Amazing story. Somehow I missed that. Even with two brothers, 4 uncles and several cousins in the USN during WWII.
    Thanks. We have so many heroes in our history!


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