Many of us might be curious, if not intrigued, to know what it’s like inside a submarine. The modern submarine USS Florida, for instance, is massive at 18,000 tons at full displacement and can accommodate up to 160 crew on board. Things were different for the sailors of WWII when even the most advanced warships could be cramped. So if you ever imagined submarines as cruise ships under the sea where you could watch schools of fishes swim by the window, then you’re wrong. It’s far from being luxurious.

USS Pampanito

World War II submarines were a lot smaller. For instance, the Balao-class USS Pampanito, launched in July 1943, only had a displacement of 1,526 long tons when surfaced and 2,391 long tons when submerged(The weight difference was due to water in her ballast tanks)In that very small space packed with machinery, 80 people (70 crewmen and 10 officers) had to fit in. Add their equipment, gears, bunkbed, food storage, toilets, sinks, and showers. There wasn’t much place to stretch. In fact, enlisted men had to share their racks on 12 hour shifts. Senior enlisted had their own, but junior enlisted had to practice what was known as “Hot Racking.” 

According to maritime.org, here’s the specifics of USS Pampanito:

  • 70 enlisted crewmen and 10 officers lived aboard the submarine
  • 70 crewmen shared 60 bunks; officers had their own bunks
  • 70 crewmen shared three toilets, two sinks, and two showers
USS Pampanito (SS-383). SuperchilumCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • War patrols lasted 45 to 60 days
  • The Pampanito had its own ice-cream maker – an authentic machine is onboard for viewing.
  • The boat has a near-perfect restoration to its 1945 configuration
  • Letters, artifacts, and memorabilia from crewmen and their families have been preserved
  • True to the submarine service’s reputation, Pampanito chefs dished up the best meals in the Navy in its shoe-box size galley

At least it has room for an ice-cream maker? 

Torpedoes

The forward torpedo room was generally the largest compartment on the submarine, until you started putting torpedoes in their racks, then it got a lot smaller. Sailors were also berthed in this compartment as well, so you tried to sleep while work was going on all around you.

Forward Torpedo Room, USS Pampanito (SS-383)

Torpedoes are underwater ranged weapons carried by submarines. They are launched, when needed, to fire at enemy ships or submarines where it explodes either at contact or at close proximity to the target.

Going back to the USS Pampanito, there were both forward and after torpedo rooms that carried a total of 24 torpedoes. Some crewmen even had to share their compartment space with 16 torpedoes.

Crewmen didn’t have much time to enjoy their food. They were almost always in a rush for their shifts, and heading to your post meant passing through all these tiny compartments as quickly as possible. They were working 24/7 for the ship’s vital maintenance.

Possibility of Being Attacked

Then, of course, we add the possibility of being attacked. As per maritime.org:

Submarines were subject to attack by aircraft, surface warships, and enemy submarines. Mines were also a real hazard. The principal World War II anti-submarine weapon was the depth charge, essentially an underwater bomb that exploded by a depth-controlled mechanism. During Pampanito‘s first war patrol, she was damaged by depth charges; however, the crew was able to repair most of the damage at sea, and she continued on patrol. Under attack, Pampanito would submerge to her maximum operating depth of 400 feet and somehow, if the truth were known, would go beyond to about 600 feet which were 50% beyond her allowed depth. She would maintain absolute silence to avoid detection. A submarine’s best defenses were always depth and silence. The noise of a depth charge was earsplitting and terrifying.

US military veteran Allen Vann also shared his experiences and recollection of when he was a submariner during World War II.

“I remember my first taste of battle was in this submarine going to Midway. It was quite an exciting thing. We took some depth charges, but we survived.

The noise was deafening. It broke bunks off the walls, and debris was flying everywhere. We wore helmets down there because there was so much stuff flying everywhere. We just sat and took it. That’s all you could do. It could last eight hours or so, not constant but every hour or so … Meanwhile, we were trying to move and get away at the time, but when we heard them coming in, we would settle down and kill all the motors and noise. We went through about four of those before they finally ran out of ammunition.”

USS Pampanito (SS-383). SuperchilumCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Other Concerns

But, the possibility of an attack was not the only problem. Other problems under the sea were the lack of oxygen and battery power. Without proper ventilation, mold and mildew would grow throughout the ship. Bathing was also not a regular thing as there was a limited water supply inside the ship. For this reason, grooming standards were pretty relaxed aboard submarines and most of the men grew beards because shaving used up scarce water supplies Laundry? It was an unknown concept. So combine the sweats, unwashed laundry, smell of food cooking, unbathed comrades, and the heat inside the cramped-up space, it sure is quite a unique sniffing experience.

Submarines generally ran submerged during the day and would surface at night to run their diesel engines and recharge their batteries. Because of the need to be able to dive quickly, only a few men were allowed up on deck at any given time. They tried to rotate this among the crew, but you might go days without seeing any sunlight or even the night stars.

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In contrast to being on a war patrol, when the submarine returned to bases like Pearl Harbor they had luxury just showered on them. The famous Royal Hawaiian Hotel on Waikiki beach was commandeered for the rest and recreation of returning submarine crews. Sub crews also received hazard pay. This princely sum varied between $5-$20 per month depending on your rank and time in service.

Duty aboard submarines is not just uncomfortable, it was also very dangerous.  During WWII, the submarine service had a 25% casualty rate, making it the most deadly job you could have in the military.  For this reason, submariners are all volunteers, and apparently, there was no shortage of men wanting to signup for sub duty.

While living conditions are certainly better on submarines today than in WWII, they are still cramped, water is still carefully rationed, patrols are long and crews see very daylight while at sea.

And in keeping with the difficulty and dangers of life aboard a submarine, its crews are all volunteers.

 

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