Step Into History at Pier 45 in San Francisco

By Alexa Chipman May 25, 2017

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary admission.

On a secluded pier, hidden from the bustle of Pier 39, is a colorful banner indicating “Historic Pier 45” arched across an entrance next to the Musee Mecanique. Behind its cheerful red and blue is a miniature World War II maritime museum, with the liberty ship SS Jeremiah O’Brien and submarine USS Pampanito (SS-383), both primarily independently operated and open for tours with a small fee.

USS Pampanito

USS Pampanito in San Francisco

Built for long-range patrols on the hunt for enemy shipping, Pampanito is a sleek, dangerous boat with the most advanced technology of her time on board—volunteers have scoured the world in an attempt to bring her as close to original specifications as possible, and their attention to detail shows. Forerunners of modern computing are on board—the cypher machine to send and receive encrypted messages, and the Torpedo Data Computer (TDC), which assisted with the complex calculations needed to determine range and firing angle between two constantly moving platforms. This “futuristic” technology was unique to United States submarines, allowing for more accurate firing from a safe distance, protecting crews from going in close where the mostly surface vessel was vulnerable.

USS Pampanito in San Francisco

Despite the name submarine, World War II boats could only run on batteries when submerged, and the men on board would have trouble surviving more than a day, with limited battery power and carbon dioxide poisoning occurring, even using lithium hydroxide powder to coat the decks. If she needed to submerge quickly, it was almost instantaneous—any men on deck had to get below and secure the hatch within 30 seconds. Unfortunately, the conning tower is closed off to the public, which is where the periscope is, but walking through the control room, with its dramatic red lighting, makes it easy to imagine what it was like.

Along with the impressive record of stopping enemy shipping—submarines were 2% of the Navy and destroyed 55%—Pampanito miraculously saved a group of POWs who had been captured early in the war. The men were being transported as labor, after undergoing heinous treatment building the Burma “Death” railway, when the submarine sank the ship they were imprisoned on. The men had given up hope, when Pampanito returned to the area hunting for intel, and happened to discover that the survivors were friendlies. Frank Farmer, the first to be rescued, stated that as the ship sank, his thought was that he knew they were going to die, but at least they would be free. In a highly unusual mission for a submarine, Pampanito called for assistance, and many of the survivors were brought on board to be cleaned up and returned home safely.

USS Pampanito in San Francisco

Pampanito is cramped quarters, and during the beginning of a patrol, every available space was filled with food supplies, including the showers. Before you think it was romantic being on board, remember that you would be “hot bunking” with multiple people sharing the same bed in constant oppressive heat with terrible hours, and if you pressed the wrong button, everyone could be killed. It wasn’t all bad—submariners were volunteers who passed rigorous training. They wanted to be there, and they were the best at what they did, forming close comradery. The food was amazing, with ice cream, sizzling french fries, and a baker on board who did nothing but make cookies, rolls, and fresh bread for the crew. Most of the men aboard grew up during the Great Depression, and that sort of treatment was a luxury. To this day, having fabulous meals available is a highlight of the submarine service.

If you go on a tour, ask for the audio—relevant clips of interviews and explanatory background of the vessel help put each area in context.

Daily 9:00 a.m. to varying
(Phone 415.775.1943 to find out when it closes on the day you plan to visit)
Visit the website

SS Jeremiah O’Brien

Jeremiah O’Brien has been a fixture in San Francisco bay for as long as I can remember. During the 1940s, the harbor was a hubbub of activity for the war effort, with liberty ships being churned out in massive assembly lines from Richmond. Mare Island Naval Shipyard in Vallejo was at its peak, with constant traffic going through for research, repair and shipbuilding. With veterans from World War II becoming difficult to find, their stories are fading; being able to go aboard and see what life was like in a tactile way is not only exciting, but imperative to preserve their history.

Still in operating condition, Jeremiah O’Brien, affectionately known as “Jerry,” still goes on tours of the bay—from relaxing afternoon cruises with wine tasting to an up close view of the famous Fleet Week, when modern US Navy ships arrive in the bay along with an air show from the Blue Angels. She was launched in 1943 and carried supplies and troops during the war, until joining the Reserve Fleet in Suisun Bay, where she languished until 1979, when volunteers saved her from being scrapped.

After being lovingly restored, she was able to participate in the 50th Anniversary of D-Day. Currently she is the only operational liberty ship in its original state, and clambering aboard is quite an experience—a tribute to the those who built and maintained her. Be sure to visit the engine room on Steaming Weekends to see her in action, but it does get loud!

Daily 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
Visit the website

Where to Eat

Bistro Boudin in San Francisco

Being right next to Pier 39 means that the options are wide open, from budget friendly, albeit dodgy, roadside grills to gourmet dining. I prefer getting away from the crowds, which can be over-the-top even during the off season. If you can wade your way through the lower area and past the baking demonstration windows, I recommend Bistro Boudin. Walk up the staircase, following signs to their museum, and concierge will take it from there.

The bistro has a wide, open floor plan with sleek design and an industrial flare. Unlike the mayhem below, their elegant seating tends to be quieter, with a spectacular view of the bay, including Pier 45. Their menu is primarily seafood, as to be expected, with a wine list of local favorites that pair well with the offered dishes. They have a wide range of cocktails available, also leaning toward signatures that are light and refreshing with fish, like the Moscow Mule. I was impressed not only with the level of service, but presentation and taste. The bread provided as appetizer is delicious, and they offer an annual bread club that is rather like a wine club, only each month you receive a specially baked loaf.

Daily 11:30 a.m. to 10:00 p.m.
(Will vary during Fleet Week)
Visit the website

Visiting Pier 45 is an educational and intriguing experience, with plenty to do in the surrounding area. If you do plan on visiting, try to arrive before 8:30am in order to find parking, otherwise take public transit. Don’t be in a hurry when you leave—it can take awhile to ease your way out through the traffic.

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