Today, Saturday, my daughter, one of her childhood friends, my granddaughter and me went to the tourist complex/ entertainment center in the heart of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco’s North Beach district…It was a warm and sunny day, maybe mid 60’s and we were bound and determined to visit the naval vessel, the S.S. Pampanito, a vintage WWII submarine which had seen actual combat in WWII…
We had tried to visit this ship on Monday, but we were moved by the hand of fate when a power outage shut down the whole Wharf area, and we ended up going to Lombard street, the crookedest street in the world, Coit Tower, a local landmark, and City Lights bookstore, all of which I have already related in Monday’s blog “The Beatniks and North Beach,” which proved to be quite enjoyable in it’s own right….
This also ties in with the blog I wrote about “The Butterfly Effect” which expounds on how everything is related to everything else…At any rate, this time there was no blackout and we were able to take the full tour of the submarine…And if you have never been on an actual submarine, it was an eye opener….
The first thing that strikes you when you climb down the steep ladder into the submarine is how incredibly cramped everything is! The submarine carried a crew of 80 young men, and the interior of the submarine was crammed chock full of wires, gauges, dials, switches, wheels, valves, gauges, and engineering equipment right overhead….A jockey would have felt at home inside these cramped quarters, but I am about 6′ tall and felt like ducking every few steps as we progressed on our tour…
You have to wedge yourself through bulkheads, or oval doorways every 10-15 feet to get to the next area of the submarine, actually lift up your legs and step through them…These are the watertight doors we have all seen in movies like U-571, with Mathew McConaughey, as a more recent example of an actual submarine and what it was like to serve on one during wartime conditions….
Besides everything else being so cramped, the luckier men got to sleep in 3 tiered bunk beds with about 2 feet of headroom above them….The men in the fore and aft parts of the vessel actually slept with their hammocks touching the deadly torpedoes they hovered over…The dining area was similarly cramped, with a few small tables and narrow benches jammed together….
It wasn’t just the regular sailors, even the officers quarters were tiny and cramped, including the captains space, about half the size of the smallest cubicle you can imagine, although the captain and the other officers at least had doors to shut and give them the illusion of privacy…..The cook had his own galley to make meals for the entire crew, and what a logistical nightmare that must have been!
Did I mention that these submarines could only stay underwater approximately 16 hours before they had to resurface for air, that there were virtually no shower facilities for the men because almost all the available water on board had to go to run the engines, and that in those days, almost every sailor chain smoked incessantly?
Hygiene and 2nd hand smoke were the least of these sailor’s worries….This submarine warfare was no place for a claustrophobic, that’s for sure! Like I said, I felt cramped just coexisting with the other tourists as they passed through the ship on the tour, and there were way less than 80 of them….
The submarine had a listed depth of 400 feet that it could descend to safely, but twice this particular submarine descended to 650 feet of water without it’s hull being crushed by the immense pressure of the ocean water just outside, once because of an accident, once because it was being depth charged…
If you ended up in a section of the ship that was taking on water, you had to move quickly to escape the area where the water was rushing in, or the rest of the crew would immediately close and lock these watertight doors down, to preserve the integrity of the rest of the ship and avert total disaster…..It sounds harsh, but it was a reality all the sailors knew and accepted….
The submarine Pampanito went on 5-6 cruises in the South Pacific, which usually lasted approximately 75 days and actually sank several enemy vessels….They also participated in a daring rescue of some ship wrecked POW’s they found afloat in the south China sea…The POW’s were shipwrecked and floating for 3 days hanging onto debris left over after other American subs had sunk the Japanese transport ships evacuating them from their prison camps….
And so for 6 extra days their already incredibly crammed quarters on this tiny sub were jammed with an additional 70 people! These prisoners were in terrible shape, sick and emaciated, so it was a true mission of mercy to rescue them and transport them to safety….Their mission was successful, and the former POW’s all were eternally grateful to them for their efforts….
It was a sobering experience to see how our parent’s generation existed during WW II on a submarine, and we were all happy to clamber up the steep ladders to greedily gulp the fresh air on the deck as we left the ship…It was definitely an educational experience, and I would recommend it for anybody, especially baby boomers whose parents served in WW II……
I think this acceptance of things as they were and their implacable will to succeed in WW II was what gave our parent’s generations their name of “The Greatest Generation” in Tom Brokaw’s best selling novel….