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Every Position Aboard a WWII Submarine and Their Duty

USS Pampanito, a Balao-class submarine, was a United States Navy ship, the only one named for a variety of the pompano

Every Position Aboard a WWII Submarine and Their Duty

Throughout World War 2, the role submarines played was an important one. Disrupting shipping, attacking enemy ships, and rescuing downed pilots were a few of the critical roles submarines played during the war. 

The Balao-class submarine for the U.S. Navy was the largest class of submarines and the most effective. With this in mind, let’s look at every crew position on these mighty war machines and what role each performed.

Commanding Officer

USS Bowfin Officers
Every Balao-class submarine had multiple officers including the Commanding Officer.

The most senior person on a World War 2 Balao-class submarine was the Commanding Officer. Also known as the CO, this person was responsible for all crew on board. A commanding officer has the highest authority on a submarine and makes all attack decisions. Additionally, the CO is responsible for the safety of the crew including crew readiness.

Executive Officer

USS Apogon
The role of an Executive Officer was to make sure the whole ship ran like a well-oiled machine.

Second in command to the Commanding Officer, an Executive Officer takes over when the CO needs a break. The EO has similar responsibilities as the CO in that they will supervise the submarine’s crew, handle disciplinary actions, and assign crew duties as necessary.

Engineering Officer

The Engineering Officer had to make sure all submarine equipment was in great shape.

As someone has to be responsible for all equipment on board a submarine, it falls on the Engineering Officer. The most important aspect of this role is ensuring all of the engines and generators are working. This means working with the enlisted crew members to regularly check oil, fuel, and water levels. If any repairs are needed on the sub, the Engineering Officer will coordinate.

Communications Officer

USS Bowfin Radios
Communications Officers were communicating with Allied leaders to receive orders.

The title suggests the job but the Communications Officer is who the CO relies on for all communication. This would include receiving orders from naval command, which relied heavily on encoding and decoding transmissions. The Communications Officer oversees enlisted men to ensure radio communications are always in working order.

Navigation Officer

USS Razorback
Navigating the submarine was the direct responsibility of the Navigation Officer.

The role of the Navigation Officer is essentially the person responsible for navigating the path of the submarine. Knowing the sub’s position in relation to a target or enemy territory is the primary role of the navigation officer. This crew member is also responsible for plotting the course to a target or destination.

Torpedo Officer

Torpedo Tubes USS Bowfin
A Torpedo Officer was responsible for the entire torpedo system being ready to fire.

The job of a Torpedo Officer is exactly as it sounds. This department head would make sure the entire torpedo system was always ready to perform. A Torpedo Officer would make sure the torpedo tubes were loaded, aimed, and ready to fire on the Commanding Officer’s notice.

Chief of the Boat

USS Razorback
The Chief of the Boat is the highest-ranking enlisted soldier on board.

Often going as COB, the Chief of the Boat is generally the most senior enlisted crew member on board a Balao-class submarine. They are responsible for all crew training, discipline, and morale building. The COB works hand-in-hand with the CO to discuss any matters affecting the crew on board.

Sonar Operator

USS Sea Dog
The Sonar Operator on a Balao-class submarine looked for other ships near the submarine.

The Sonar Operator is immediately responsible for knowing every surface and subsurface contact near the submarine. Once the Sonar Operator identifies a potential target, they must determine if it is a friend or foe and alert the CO and EO about the contact.

Yeoman

USS Batfish
Balao-class submariners known as Yeoman worked on communications.

If you’re a Yeoman on a Balao-class submarine, you are going to handle any correspondence. This means you are likely the person using any typewriters on board to write messages. A Yeoman will also help with any encrypting or decrypting of communication.

Quartermaster

USS Becuna
The dive plane on the USS Becuna helped steer the submarine.

Working with the Navigation Officer, the Quartermaster helps navigate the submarine. Using known mapped oceans, the Quartermaster needs to be aware of water depth and any potential hazards.

Torpedo Men

Torpedo Men
When the Commander decided to fire a torpedo, Torpedo men went to work.

Enlisted crew on board were responsible for all torpedo area maintenance. Because torpedos are a submarine’s primary weapon, the role of Torpedo Men was critical, which is why they would conduct frequent inspections.

Machinist’s Mates

USS Batfish
Machinist’s Mates were responsible for all repairs inside a submarine.

Onboard a Balao-class submarine, the Machinist’s Mates were responsible for all maintenance and repairs. Machinist’s Mates would work with the Engineering Officer and supervise the engine room.

Gunner’s Mates

USS Pampanito, a Balao-class submarine, was a United States Navy ship, the only one named for a variety of the pompano
A Gunner’s Mate was responsible for the deck gun when a submarine surfaced.

The secondary weapon on board a submarine, the deck gun, is the responsibility of the Gunner’s Mates. If a submarine were to surface and engage an enemy above the waterline, the Gunner’s Mates would handle these weapons including loading ammunition.

Electricians Mates

USS Pampanito
Crewmembers known as Electrician’s Mates maintained ship lighting and generators.

Another role that works closely with the Engineering Officer is the Electrician’s Mates. These enlisted men will ensure all submarine systems are working. This includes equipment with motors, lighting, and generators that help drive the ship’s propulsion system.

Fire Control Technicians

USS Bowfin
Before a submarine fired torpedoes, the tubes would undergo checks from Fire Control Technicians.

The Fire Control Technician helps operate the fire control system, part of the main weapon for a submarine. The Fire Control Tech was responsible for the testing and maintenance of all combat systems including rangefinder equipment and optic equipment used to visually identify targets.

Radiomen

USS Bowfin
Radiomen were critical to submarines being able to communicate with other ships.

To communicate with other Allied ships, including other submarines, a Radiomen was on board every Balao-class submarine. This role was a specialist in knowing Morse code as well as any onboard encryption devices.

Shipfitters

USS Pampanito, a Balao-class submarine, was a United States Navy ship in San Francisco.
If a Balao-class submarine was damaged, Shipfitters would begin repairs.

Should a Balao-class submarine take any damage while in combat, it was the job of a Shipfitter to repair it. If there was any damage, the Shipfitter would have to solve issues with ventilation, piping, and valves quickly. This role could also include any hull repair work depending on damage levels.

Pharmacists Mates

USS Bowfin
Onboard a Balao-class submarine were crewmen trained in medical care.

Whether called up after a battle or just general injuries, a Pharmacist’s Mates were the medical personnel onboard Balao-class submarines. Their role was to triage any injuries and provide immediate medical care.

Seamen

USS Bowfin
Seamen were enlisted soldiers who ran the day-to-day tasks onboard a submarine.

Often the first role of any enlisted crewman was that of a Seamen. This job was a mish-mosh of duties depending on the needs of the ship. Seamen were responsible for standing watch as a submarine was getting underway or while coming into a port. Seamen would assist with any damage control and perform maintenance as instructed by senior officers.

Steward’s Mates 

USS Razorback
A steward’s mate would be responsible for food preparation and laundry.

As part of a Balao-class submarine crew, the Steward’s Mates were responsible for all meals on board. A typical submarine would store food in every available space as storage was limited. A Steward’s Mate was also responsible for all crew laundry. Because of cramped quarters on board, the U.S. Navy made sure submariners had the best food including an ice cream locker. 

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