A Fascination with WWII Submarines – USS Torsk

The ‘Unterseeboot’

My fascination with World War II submarines goes back a long way. My father gave a me a hardcover copy of Das Boot for Christmas back in 1975 when I was 15, and I’ve been hooked on World War II subs ever since. Particularly German U-boats. He started a life-long interest that has led me to explore the available American subs as a means of fulfilling my need to see the real thing. The USS Torsk is my most recent visit. A highly decorated warship and one of only two Tench-class submarines located inside the United States, its claim to fame is credit for the last sinking of an enemy ship by the United States Navy in World War II—a Japanese frigate off the coast of Japan, which it torpedoed on August 14, 1945.

USS Torsk

Hands-On World War II History

Electrical control room in the aft section

While German U-boats are my primary interest, I’ve not seen or boarded one yet. American boats are more available, of course, and  in addition to the Torsk I’ve been aboard one other U.S. submarine—the USS Pampanito in San Francisco Bay, which features audio recordings by her original crew on portable players that you carry through the ship with you. And I’ve seen the USS Bowfin in Pearl Harbor, but didn’t go aboard (I think it was closed). My ultimate pilgrimage will be (with my wife, who also loves WWII submarines as much as I do) to see U-505 at The Museum of Science and industry in Chicago. The 505 is a captured U-boat, one of the few Type VIIC U-boats left in the world, and from which an Enigma machine and coding documents were acquired. There are so few U-boats in existence because not only were the losses high, but the many boats still surviving at the end of the war were scuttled so that they wouldn’t become the property of the Allies.

You’ll imagine what it must have been like in the shadowy world of a WWII submarine…
The Torsk’s Conning tower

The great thing about these floating museums is that you can experience the history first hand and up close. You can touch the knobs and levers and imagine what it must have been like in the shadowy world of a WWII submarine with 80 other shipmates (50 for German U-boats). All the sweat, oil, grime and stale air…the boredom of fruitless patrol contrasted with the terror of depth charges falling on you. One of the sailors from the Pampanito said that when the ship submerged it would get so hot from the diesels, still hot from running on the surface, that they wore only their “skivvies.” And these subs have 4 engines! He also said the engines were so loud when running that the noise was deafening, and there was no hearing protection back then. Consequently, there was a real hazard to the sailors’ hearing.

The Torsk is located at the Historic Ships in Baltimore exhibit. I highly recommend visiting these and other museums (including flight museums) where you can see and touch all sorts of historic military craft. It’s totally engaging and an outing you won’t forget, and you’ll want to go back again because you just can’t absorb everything in one visit. You’ll also have an increased appreciation for our service men and women and the sacrifices they make for our freedoms.

See my Facebook post with interior photos of the Torsk here

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