July 03, 2022

Museum Review - Jeremiah O'Brien and Pampanito

On the other end of Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco from the disastrous Maritime National Historic Site are two WWII-era ships in the hands of private nonprofits. One is the submarine Pampanito, a typical fleet boat of the type that strangled Japan, while the other is Liberty Ship Jeremiah O'Brien. They're moored at the same pier, although the two ships are run by different organizations, and you have to pay for them separately.

Pampanito and Jeremiah O'Brien1

Jeremiah O'Brien

Type: Working Liberty Ship museum
Location: San Francisco, California
Rating: 4.2/5, Slightly overpriced but very charming, definitely the best of the downtown museum ships
Price: $20 for normal adults

Jeremiah O'Brien

Jeremiah O'Brien is one of three survivors of the 2,710 Liberty Ships built to carry cargo in support of the Allied War Effort, one of the great industrial achievements of the war. That alone would make her interesting, but unlike the vast majority of museum ships, she's fully operational, and regularly takes guests on cruises around the Bay, occasionally venturing further afield.

I man O'Brien's 3" gun

Getting onboard requires a trip up a fairly narrow and bouncy ladder, disgorging you onto the main deck. The ship is about as original as she can be with modern regulatory requirements, so while there are some modern liferafts and such, it's mostly stuff that would be familiar to her original crew almost 80 years ago. Pretty much everything you'd want to see is open to the public, with the 3" gun forward being movable (I helped a kid shoot at airplanes and submarines) and all of the rigging being intact. There's a museum in the forward cargo hold covering O'Brien's own history, the Battle of the Atlantic, and a lot on D-Day, which O'Brien participated in. It's all done quite well, with a particular note being the astonishing diorama of the Normandy Landings donated to the ship during her visit to France for the 50th anniversary of D-Day.

The diorama of the Normandy landings

The island is also open, including all of the crew quarters, the galley and mess areas, the navigation spaces, and the engines. Signage is a bit sparse, but except in the engines, what you're seeing is pretty self-explanatory, and the vast majority of the stuff inside is also original. The engineer was onboard, and we were able to go down to the bottom of the engine room and have a look around. It was all quite familiar, except that the turbines I'm used to had been replaced by a giant triple expansion reciprocating engine, and that everything was operational, with drip trays everywhere. It was gorgeous, and the engineer and I talked for quite a while about a bunch of different stuff, with Garrett (the others didn't like fun and didn't come aboard O'Brien) standing by and nodding.

The crew were replacing a crankshaft bearing while we were there

Among other things, I learned that O'Brien is probably the only museum ship still in her original class, licensed to carry cargo, although she usually only carries passengers on her cruises. On the whole, I found her to exemplify the best of the museum ship world. She was clearly loved by her crew, and there was a thrill of being aboard a working vessel from so long ago, something that Iowa, as much as I love her, will never be again.

USS Pampanito

Type: WWII Fleet Boat
Location: San Francisco, California
Rating: 2.5/5, Not bad, but overpriced, and one of a large number of fleet boats scattered around the country
Price: $25 for normal adults

I plot an attack in Pampanito's control room

I was far less impressed by Pampanito than I was by the O'Brien. It wasn't that they did anything majorly wrong. I didn't like that the only signage was directing you to the audio tour, and there was more glass than I'd have preferred, but the latter is pretty common on submarines, which in general are hard to do well because of how cramped they are. I think that the audio tour shouldn't be the only information onboard, as they don't work great with a group that wants to talk, and it's nice to be able to skip stuff you already know. I did listen to a bit of the audio tour later, and while it was fine, I don't regret not listening to it onboard. There was some cool stuff onboard, like a pair of torpedoes with sections cut out of the sides so you could see the innards, but the conning tower and its torpedo data computer remained steadfastly out of reach.

A cutaway Mk 14 torpedo

Besides being far less charming than O'Brien, there's the cost issue. Pampanito costs a dollar more than Iowa, and there's far less to see onboard. The price wasn't offensive like it was at the Hyde Street Pier, but it's clearly not a good value. There are a lot of Fleet Boats around the country, and while I won't say not to visit Pampanito, I would suggest checking if you have access to a different one that might have more supporting exhibits and be cheaper.

1 All photos courtesy of Garrett


  1. July 03, 2022Emilio said...

    IIRC the Pampanito was the real star of the Down Periscope movie, one of the few comedies lauded on the Proceeding of the USNI.

  2. July 04, 2022Neal said...

    Sorry if this is a duplicate as my original one seems to have dropped out.

    Are there any museum subs that allow access to the conning tower? All the ones that I have visited in the U.S. and around the world have had it blocked off. Shame as it seems as if it would be the most interesting location on the sub.

  3. July 05, 2022bean said...

    I think Drum provides access. Don't know for sure (I didn't really take notes at the time) and haven't run across any others.

  4. July 07, 2022Jack said...

    $25 to go on the Pampanito? I know the cost of living in San Francisco is one of the most expensive in the US, but really? Patriot's Point in Charleston is $27 but you get the USS Yorktown, USS Laffey, Vietnam Experience, Medal of Honor Museum, and the Cold War Memorial. Sadly, the USS Clamagore is gonna be made into a reef due to lack of maintenance. Still $25 for a sub?

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