USS PAMPANITO (SS-383)
by ENC(SS)(DV) C. Mike Carmody, USN(RET)
Republished with permission from the July 2006 issue of THE SUBMARINE REVIEW, a publication of the Naval Submarine League, PO Box 1146, Annandale, Virginia 22003.
In 1942 all beaches on Oaha, Hawaiian Islands, were barb wired and patrolled. No one could go swimming. In early 1943 the threat of invasion was lifted and the beaches were opened. PAMPANITO's crew just finished two great weeks at the Pink Palace (Royal Hawaiian Hotel). We enjoyed Waikiki beach and three great meals per day. These $110.00 a day rooms only cost us 25 cents per day. This was our second stay at the Pink Palace. A bus took us to the ten-ten pier at the Submarine Base where we loaded stores for PAMPANITO's 4th patrol. PS: The pier was called ten-ten because it was one thousand ten feet in length. As Fuel King I had to take on 130,000 gallons of #2 fuel oil and 1,000 gallons of lube oil.
This patrol had many memorable happenings take place which makes this story especially interesting. It started when we learned that Pete Summers, our captain, had suffered from battle stress. He had 10 war patrols to his credit and was granted a much deserved state side leave. As a result, we had no captain. Fortunately, our Squadron Commander, Mike Fanno, a full Captain, volunteered to take command of PAMPANITO on her 4th patrol. He was already a noted naval hero. In March, 1942, as Commanding Officer of USS TROUT, he escaped Corregidor under the nose of the Japanese invaders with seventeen tons of gold and eight tons of silver. The gold & silver was used as ballast, replacing the ammunition and medicine he brought to the trapped defenders of Corregidor.
About 55 days into PAMPANITO's 4th patrol we sank two large ships, one of which we didn't receive credit for until after the war.
We were experiencing heavy seas with 15 to 20 foot waves when our lookouts observed we were leaving an oil slick behind us.
As Fuel King, Chief Merryman and myself had to remedy the problem. We had to convert and repair the #4 fuel ballast tank, which had a broken connection from a previous depth charging attack. The sea was beginning to kick up. During the repair, Chief Merryman, was washed overboard by a freak wave, nearly losing his life. Fortunately, he was rescued.
PAMPANITO was dangerously low on fuel. The Captain asked and was granted permission to terminate the patrol and head to Australia. Most of the crew were experienced veteran submariners and did not seem to harbor fear of the enemy. However, we were about to experience a fear that was caused by nature, not the enemy.
We weren't part of Admiral Halsey's Third Fleet, but were ordered to accompany when a radio message informed us we were entering a typhoon named Cobra. This is when real fear was experienced by the crew.
The fleet was given orders to travel at a particular course thought to be the safest route of travel. However, this Typhoon was unpredictable and kept changing direction. Our 1 MC was kept on so all hands could hear what was going on with the other ships. What we heard was scary. Every vessel in the seventy plus armada was reporting severe damage and were in great danger. All ships were now on their own and had to keep heading into the sixty and seventy foot waves.
The aircraft carrier, CAPE ESPERANCE, was having trouble righting herself while experience 30 degree rolls. Four hundred men in the hangar deck were used to correct the rolls by shifting their weight from port to starboard and vice-versa. This didn't help our morale very much.
We had no one topside. The boat was taking on a lot of water through the main induction and conning tower hatch. One man was stationed next to the conning tower hatch. His job was to close it whenever a wave rolled over the bridge. Leaving the hatch open helped to feed the air to our propulsion engine.
Our bilge pump ran non-stop for 72 hours. Our meals consisted of sandwiches and the crew received little sleep. Two thirds of the men experienced sea sickness.
Fear really set in when CAPE ESPERANCE reported her mast and antennas were being carried away by high seas and only VHF transmissions could be broadcast.
CAPE ESPERENACE's Commanding Officer, Captain Backus, requested that destroyers stand by in case the order to abandon ship had to be made. Three destroyers responded to his call. As destiny would have it, all three destroyers capsized and sank that day. USS MONAGHAN lost 300 men with only 6 survivors, USS HULL lost 260 men with 62 survivors, and USS SPENCE lost 280 men with 23 survivors.
Fortunately, USS CAPE ESPERANCE survived the storm. Total damage to the fleet from Cobra was 890 men killed, 200 aircraft lost, and 28 ships damaged. Nine were so badly damaged they had to be dry docked for major repairs.
How PAMPANITO survived, only God knows. She was a wreck. Inside, almost everything had broken loose. The superstructure was caved in and many of her steel deck plates were missing. Many times PAMPANITO quivered on the crest of a wave and we thought she might break in half. We ran on one engine the entire storm.
On the morning of the 4th day, the 80 mph winds started to abate. As PAMPANITO plunged and vibrated through the sea we could feel the difference in the pressure on our ears. The contorted motion of the boat also started to decrease sharply. All hands admitted that this was the worst and most fearsome storm they had ever ridden. We were all thankful to the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard for constructing such a well built boat.
We departed from the 3' Fleet and made our way heading south to Lombok Strait and Australia. We crossed the Equator and introduced the Polly Wogs to King Neptune, making the entire crew Shellbacks.
On Christmas Eve we entered Lambok Strait, full aware of how dangerous this narrow passage was. Two boats were lost in Lombok Strait during the war.
We traveled through the strait on the surface, at night, at full speed, avoiding enemy small craft and planes. However, we received gun fire from Japanese shore batteries on Bali and Java. After eight hours of battle stations we entered the Indian Ocean, at dawn, on Christmas Day. We had traveled 16,000 miles and were at sea for 65 days. The cooks had one bushel of potatoes left and salvaged enough to make mashed potatoes with canned ham for Christmas dinner.
On 27 December 1944, with little fuel left, we spotted the Northwest Cape and inlet to Exmouth Gulf, Northern Australia, location of a secret fuel barge that was approximately one mile up the channel.
We had just entered the channel when a torpedo fired from a Japanese submarine, ran up the channel, from sea, approximately 50 feet off our port side. We watched in awe as it missed its intended target and ran aground. This was the 5th, but not the last, encounter with a torpedo being fired at us by an enemy submarine.
Exmouth was a secret location because it was the farthest from Japanese controlled air bases. It was a desolate, arid, desert area, with no town. It consisted of a fuel barge, an abandoned radio station, a Quonset hut, and millions of flies.
The fueling detail was run entirely by military convicts who opted for this duty instead of prison. Originally, Exmouth Gulf was intended to be a base similar to Midway Island. It had an airstrip and was the location of the Submarine Tender, USS PELIAS (AS 14).
When the Japanese found out about Exmouth, they sent long range bombers and plastered the place. That ended Exmouth as an advanced base. The submarine tender, planes, and radio people all left and returned to Fremantle, Australia. The Lt( jg) in charge of the fuel barge donated three cases of Emu bitters beer from his meager supply of stores. He was a nice guy. That night we all had a large glass of beer with our evening meal.
After taking on enough fuel to sail 750 miles, we departed Exmouth Gulf under the guise of darkness.
On the morning of 30 December 1944 as we were nearing Fremantle, a large Aussie cabin cruiser came alongside and transferred mail, beer, milk, fruit and veggies to us. We dug into the goodies like starving animals.
As we continued on, the lighthouse outside Fremantle Harbor came into view. The city of Perth was 10 miles up the Black Swan River. The crew couldn't wait for liberty.
We stowed our sea bags at the Ocean Beach Hotel. Uncle Sam took care of the bill for the entire two weeks we were there. Many of the POW's we had rescued during our 3' patrol were waiting to wine and dine us. All the newspapers carried the story about PAMPANITO rescuing 73 fighting men. They made us feel like celebrities.
In 1944 Australian society and technology was known to be at least 20 years behind ours. The outskirts of Perth reminded me of our old American western towns. While passing the King George Hotel, one of Perth's elite establishments, I observed a hitching rail outside the entrance. Saddled horses were tied to it. A Rolls Royce was parked nearby.
Because of a gasoline shortage the taxis pulled a charcoal burner or propane unit for propulsion. They ran well, but didn't have the power to travel up hills. It was common to see passengers pushing these vehicles up hills.
Several crew members and I went on a kangaroo hunt in Bindoon, Australia, 30 miles into the Outback. Our guides were boys from an orphanage run by a Monastery. We donated our five kangaroo kills to their meat supply. We stayed at the Monastery for two nights and indulged in wine supplied by the Monks. They were great hosts. In return, we left all our supplies with them. This included sixty pounds of canned goods and fifteen navy blankets and sheets.
Near the end of our stay in Aussie Land we had another memorable incident. PAMPANITO was tied up at an old dried up wharf which had 15 rickety warehouses on it. Facing us, approximately 300 feet away, was a Panamanian grain ship that had a fire smoldering for three days. Its cargo ignited from spontaneous combustion. Fire fighters were unsuccessful getting the fire under control.
On the afternoon of the 3rd day, the freighter's side blew out causing the old wharf to start blazing. Men loading our mounds of stores fled the fast spreading flames. Those of us on the boat were trapped. Our only exit was blocked by a British Freighter anchored outboard of us. We only had junior officers onboard and they couldn't move the boat. The paint of the British freighter began to blister from the intense heat. Fortunately, two senior officers somehow got aboard and maneuvered PAMPANITO away from the fire with some of the burning wharf attached. The mooring lines were axed, sending the burning wood adrift.
We docked at another pier and continued to load our stores. The wharf was completely destroyed and the freighter sank along side the dock. Shortly after, we departed Australia en route to the Gulf of Tonkin on our 5th war patrol.