Noe Valley Voice April 2004

Family Adventures Close to Home
The Urge to Submerge: Aboard the USS Pampanito

By Rosie Ruley Atkins

"Is it yellow?" Zoe, 8, asks. We're riding the F-train to the USS Pampanito, the decommissioned World War II submarine that's docked at Fisherman's Wharf.

"Probably gray," I say. "They painted the subs and ships gray and black to make them harder to spot during battles."

"Yellow would be better," Miles, 8, says. "If the enemy saw a yellow submarine, they'd think it was the Beatles and they wouldn't attack."

"Unless they were on the USS Rolling Stones," I say. Blank stares ensue.

We're greeted at the gangplank by a cheerful Naval reservist who says, "Howdy."

"Ahoy," I respond, trying to sound nautical. Miles and Zoe pretend they're not with me.

Equipped with our personal audio tour, we descend the steep stairwell into the aft torpedo room, where we find about a dozen green vinyl bunks hanging from chains directly above a cache of torpedoes.

Miles heads straight for the cutaway warhead that's displayed next to a bunk.

"Is this the part that explodes?" he asks with enthusiasm, apparently squelching his inner peacenik.

There's something about my son standing next to so much destructive, if decommissioned power, that makes me nervous.

"Move away from the bomb," I tell him.

He and Zoe duck through the tiny door, or hatch, into the engine room. As I scrunch down and raise my knees to step over the lip of the curved opening, I quiz my crew: "Who knows why they put this hatch so high above the deck?" Zoe correctly guesses that the hatch system was designed to keep flood waters from moving from one room to the next.

"But what if you got locked in when there was a leak?" Miles asks.

I'm silent and then he says, "Oh."

It Was Hot Down There

The audio tour, which features the voices and stories of several sailors who actually served on the Pampanito, explains how the ear-splitting diesel engines were shut down and all air intake and exhaust systems were sealed when the boat (the Navy really does refer to subs as "boats") was submerged. We learn that the boat would go from being so loud that the crew could only communicate with hand signals to being absolutely silent. Because of the heat from the engines and the lack of air circulation, the temperature would rise to about 100 degrees.

"Creepy," Miles says, whistling softly at the thought of the sub silently sinking into the deep blue.

We examine the brass fittings and the dazzling array of meters, levers, and buttons that once ran the ship. We learn that, over the years, volunteers have scoured the world to find replacements for nearly every missing or broken fitting from the sub, so that today the Pampanito is considered among the finest examples of maritime preservation in the world.

Nestled among the myriad fittings is a simple lever with three settings: Start, Stop, and Run.

"That looks pretty simple," Miles says, pulling the lever. I half expect the engines to roar to life.

A Shower Had to Last 10 Days

The crew's quarters is a compact room housing 36 bunks stacked three high. Those bunks, along with two toilets, two sinks, and two showers, housed 40 of the boat's crew of 70 enlisted men and 10 officers.

"The ultimate slumber party!" Zoe exclaims.

We learn that the crew's water supply was extremely limited, with most of the desalinated water that the filters produced being used to cool the engines.

"We got a shower every 10 days to three weeks," the sailor on the audiotape tells us.

"The ultimate smelly slumber party," Miles observes.

"Holy cow," Zoe says, pinching her nostrils.

The crew's mess features four tiny tables with padded food lockers that served as benches, and piped-in music from the early 1940s. This small room served as the boat's social center, where the crew, in shifts of 24, passed time eating meals, listening to radio, playing cards and checkers, and drinking gallons of coffee. Squeezed into the mess with two second-graders and a dozen or so tourists, I get a sense of the cramped living conditions the submariners endured.

Fresh Bread and Tasty Stews

The upside to submarine life was the food. To make up for cramped quarters and the long, dangerous assignments, the Navy provided submarine crews with the best food in all the military.

A chef and a baker served 240 meals every day, producing such delicacies as fresh-baked bread, French fries, and tasty stews from the closet-sized kitchen.

We sign the logbook on one of the tables, perusing the names and comments left by visitors. The Pampanito is one of the most popular historic vessels in the U.S., receiving more than 200,000 visitors a year. Leafing through the logbook, we see addresses from around the world, even Japan, a notion that likely would have been unthinkable to those who served on the ship. (The Pampanito sank six Japanese ships during its six patrols of the Pacific during World War II.)

In the control room, we meet Dewey Reed, a volunteer docent and U.S. Navy veteran who served on submarines on the East Coast and at the Arctic Circle from 1959 to 1969.

He shows us the "Christmas Tree," a seemingly low-tech panel of red and green lights that signaled the boat's readiness for descent.

"You wanted all greens," says Reed. "If there was a red, or a blank, the control room would get on the phone and find out why."

"What if nobody answered the phone?" Miles asks.

"We'd head back up," Reed says. "Fast."

No Cell Phones in World War II

We hear the hum of a Red & White Ferry passing on the other side of the hub, and the sub rocks in its wake; it's a strange feeling when you can't see the water or the horizon.

Reed points out the now obsolete technology that was cutting-edge during World War II. LORAN and dead-reckoning navigation systems have been replaced with GPS; Morse code has been supplanted by cellular technology.

"Did you ping?" I ask. (Everything I know about submarines, I learned from The Hunt for Red October and the Beatles.)

"Not as a matter of practice," Reed says. "You'd be broadcasting your position if you went around pinging. Submarines mostly worked in secret."

Such secrecy wasn't always the case, though. Reed recounts the friendly encounters between his sub and the Russian fishing and naval vessels that plied the international waters around the Arctic Circle.

"We'd smile and wave. They'd smile and wave. It was all pretty calm," he says.

Most Dangerous Job in the Navy

In the radio room, we see the Electronic Cipher Machine, which was used to decode secret Morse code messages and to try to break enemy communications. Pinned above a telegraph machine is a telegram dated July 13, 1944, informing Yeoman Earl Watkins that he's the father of a healthy son. Knowing that submariners worked the most dangerous jobs in the Navy, I pause and think about the urgency that Yeoman Watkins must have felt to return home safely.

The officers' quarters are relatively luxurious, with personal lockers and only three bunks per room. The captain's quarters, a miniature stateroom, even features official U.S. Navy bed linens in a cool, retro design.

The forward torpedo room houses more bunks and a graphic description of the method used to fire torpedoes. By this time, though, my attention is given over entirely to the overhead escape hatch. After an hour, I am ready to exit the sub's close quarters.

We emerge into the fresh air to find a flock of gulls sunbathing on the bow of the vessel, staring longingly at the tourists spooning chowder out of sourdough bowls. Colorful sails dot the bay, and tourists wave from the Alcatraz-bound Red & White fleet.

I think about how lucky we are to live in a place where a prison and a warship are entertainment. Listening to the kids as they marvel at the bunk beds and the good stories Dewey Reed told, I consider using this tour as an instructive moment.

Then I hear Zoe say, "The sub is cool, but they used it in a war. That part is sad."

"They were really brave," Miles says.

The kids wear serious expressions as they ascend the gangplank.


The USS Pampanito is berthed at Pier 45, behind the San Francisco History Museum at Fisherman's Wharf (near where Taylor Street meets Jefferson).

Hours are 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sunday through Thursday; and 9 a.m. to 8 p.m., Friday and Saturday. The hours are extended during the summer months.

Admission is $7 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $3 for kids 6 to 12; children under 6 get in free with an adult. The audio tour is included in the admission.

The Pampanito hosts 6,000 children each year as part of a special educational program, which offers overnight visits and access to normally off-limits areas of the sub.

Call 415-775-1943 or visit for more information.

--Rosie Ruley Atkins

Are We There Yet? is a Noe Valley Voice feature about places to go and things to do with your kids. If there's an activity or outing you'd like to see explored, please e-mail us at

APRIL 2004