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Undersea battle star: Inside the USS Pampanito

With six wartime patrols, multiple ships sunk, and dozens of POWs rescued, the USS Pampanito has a fascinating story. Here’s an up-close look.

Geoffrey Morrison/CNET

The USS Pampanito submarine sits dockside at Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. Countless tourists and locals have likely seen it, an obviously older boat that looks out of place and time in the relentlessly modern Bay Area. The ship was built during World War II, and earned 6 battle stars before the end of the war.

After the war, this Balao-class diesel-electric sub served as a training ship and even starred in some movies. Some of her sister ships continued their lives in foreign navies.

Now, as a museum ship, the Pampanito is one of the most easily accessed submarines you can tour. We decided to give it a closer look.

Third patrol

On the afternoon of September 15, 1944, the USS Pampanito spotted men floating adrift at sea on a makeshift raft. They were filthy and covered in oil. As the sub approached, they could hear voices speaking in English.    

The men turned out to be British and Australian sailors who'd been captured by the Japanese -- tragically, they had been passengers aboard a convoy ship the Pampanito had just helped sink. The sub switched missions immediately to one of rescue. The Pampanito pulled 73 men from the water and was able to radio for other subs in its wolfpack to come and do the same.

Submarines don't carry doctors on board. Pharmacist's Mate First Class Maurice L. Demers was the closest they had. Trained in medicine and formerly a hospital corpsman, he worked himself nearly to exhaustion during the five-day journey to the nearest American base in Saipan. Not a spacious place to begin with, it was all the more difficult and crowded while the sub carried twice its normal complement, half of them close to death. Amazingly, only one man died during the journey.

The Pampanito went back out on three more patrols before the war ended.


The Pampanito was decommissioned in December, 1945. In the '60s she was a training ship for the Naval Reserve, then in 1975 she was converted to her current life as a museum ship in San Francisco.

Given Pampanito's condition and location, she has been used as a stand-in for other WWII-era submarines. Most notably In Enemy Hands, with William H. Macy and Lauren Holly, and Down Periscope with Kelsey Grammar and, yes, Lauren Holly. The latter film is definitely not as bad as you'd expect. I'm kidding -- it totally is. I still enjoyed it though.

San Francisco sub

The USS Pampanito is one of the most accessible museum submarines in the world, adjacent to one of the most touristy spots of a one of America's top tourist destinations. It's well worth a visit, either before or after some chowder in a bread bowl on Fisherman's Wharf. Just as interesting is the SS Jeremiah O'Brien, a Liberty ship that was part of the D-Day invasion. It's a just a short walk down the same dock where you'll find the Pampanito.

The sub is open pretty much every day. Tickets are a bit steep, at $20 for adults, but kids and seniors are less.

But if you aren't planning on heading to Northern California any time soon, check out the gallery above. 

As well as covering TV and other display tech, Geoff does photo tours of cool museums and locations around the world, including nuclear submarinesmassive aircraft carriersmedieval castles, epic 10,000 mile road trips, and more. Check out Tech Treks for all his tours and adventures.

He wrote a bestselling sci-fi novel about city-size submarines, along with a sequel. You can follow his adventures on Instagram and his YouTube channel.