|Return to Submarine
article published in Sea
Frontiers , July-August 1976)
linked from: Miscellaneous
writings of Dr. George Pararas-Carayannis
sampling of his main work can be found here: http://www.drgeorgepc.com/Tsunami2011JapanSanriku.html
|A CHAPTER of
early American maritime history that has often been overlooked is that
of early submarines and, in particular, the story of the first American
submarine in the War of Independence.
was called Turtle and was designed by David Bushnell, who also developed
the naval mine. Turtle's first engagement was also the first naval battle
in history involving a submarine and took place in New York Harbor in 1776.
the idea of a vessel to transport and attach timed explosives to enemy
warships, Bushnell considered using a submarine. There were, however, many
engineering and design problems, which he had to solve with the limited
technology of that time-problems such as building a watertight, pressure-proof
hull, providing for vertical and horizontal propulsion, vertical stability,
variable ballast, steering controls, and a weapons-delivery system, to
name a few. Bushnell eventually solved these problems and introduced some
innovations. For example, he was the first submarine designer to equip
such a vessel with a snorkel breathing device and to use a two-bladed propeller
for ship propulsion.
Although the submarine
that Bushnell designed and built has been called many different names by
historians, Turtle is the one most commonly used. Turtle had an unusual
appearance, resembling two upper tortoise shells of equal size, joined
together. She measured 7 feet in depth from the bottom of her detachable
keep to the top of her upper "shell,' and was constructed of oak timbers,
which were carefully shaped, joined together, and caulked at the joints.
To insure watertightness, the vessel was bound with iron bands and entirely
covered with pitch on the outside.
A little egg shaped
wooden submarine held together by iron straps, Turtle bobbed like a cork
in rough surface winds and seas even though she was lead weighted at the
bottom. In this hand- and foot-operated contraption, one person could descend
by operating a valve to admit water into the ballast tank and ascend with
the use of pumps to eject the water. Two flap-type air vents at the top
opened when the hatch was clear of water and closed when it was not. The
air supply lasted only 30 minutes.
by Pedals and Cranks
was capable of carrying one person who sat upright on a seat resembling
that of a bicycle. Turtle s supply of air, in the submerged state, would
last about 30 minutes. Located at the bottom of the submarine were
a lead weight for ballast and an aperture with a valve to admit water for
descent. Two brass forcing pumps served to eject the water from within
for ascent. In front of the seated operator was a screw type oar for propelling
the vessel forward or backward while, above him, there was a similar oar
for ascending, descending, or maintenance of depth. The rudder, located
behind the operator, was operated by foot. Furthermore, Turtle was equipped
with a depth gauge, a compass to direct the course, and a ventilator to
supply the vessel with fresh air at the surface.
Turtle was built
at Saybrook, Connecticut, by David Bushnell and his brother, Ezra. After
the vessel's completion in 1775, they tested her in the Connecticut River.
Unfortunately, the tests indicated that Turtle was not ready to be used
against the ships of the British fleet which were blockading Boston Harbor.
Problems ranged from the failure of a ballast pump to the need for phosphorescent
fox-fire to light the interior of the submarine.
In the spring
of 1776, Turtle was ready to be transported by a sloop to Boston to fight
the British fleet. By that time, however, the news was received that the
British had broken off their blockade there and had moved their ships north
to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Since there were still British warships in New
York Harbor, Turtle was secretly transported there and stationed at The
Battery in Manhattan, which was still under the control of America's General
Putnam, with his army of about 9,000 men.
at the Port of New York
The waters of
New York Harbor, between The Battery and Governor's Island, had complex
patterns of currents and tides, presenting navigational problems completely
different from those in the Connecticut River. Ezra, who operated Turtle,
trained through June, 1776 until he and David were satisfied that he was
familiar with the tidal conditions. General Putnam gave them permission
to attack the 64-gun British warship Eagle at the first opportunity.
presented itself on July 12 when Lord Howe, the commander of the British
naval forces, anchored Eagle off Staten Island, but one adversity followed
another. Ezra Bushnell became ill with fever and was unable to operate
Turtle. Since General Putnam and George Washington agreed that the submarine
should be tried against the enemy, Sergeant Ezra Lee of Old Lyme, Connecticut
was selected from a group of volunteers to operate her. For the next two
months, Ezra Lee trained intensively.
of September 6, the moon and the tide were favorable for attack. Turtle
was towed by a small rowboat toward Eagle. Halfway to Staten Island, the
rowboat stopped, and Lee entered Turtle and fastened the hatch over his
head. For the first time in the history of naval warfare, a submarine was
engaged in a war against an enemy ship.
pedaling, Lee brought Turtle on the side of Eagle. After taking some ballast,
he submerged completely. When he thought he was under his target, he pumped
out a small quantity of water from the ballast tank, until a jarring bump
indicated he was beneath Eagle. For the next few minutes, Lee vainly tried
to attach a torpedo to her hull. When the air in his little cabin was almost
used up, Lee had no choice but to abandon his attempt and surface. After
replenishing the air in the cabin and resting, he again descended underneath
Eagle to try to affix a torpedo on her hull. He failed. A metal plate covered
the area where he was trying to drill. Having consumed his air, he was
forced to abandon his goal and surface.
Lee was exhausted,
and the outgoing tide threatened to take the small craft out to sea. Desperately,
he ejected all the ballast water and began pedaling with all his remaining
strength. With the ballast water pumped out, one third of Turtle's hull
stuck out of the water, making it clearly visible in daylight.
In fact, as dawn
broke, two British soldiers set out from Governor's Island in a patrol
skiff to investigate the floating object. To divert the patrol and to lighten
his craft, Lee released a time operated 250-pound (250 pounds = 113 Kilograms)
torpedo and, picking up speed, reached The Battery and safety.
attempting to attach a torpedo on HMS Eagle's hull.
the torpedo exploded, shattering the silence of the early morning and arousing
the British fleet. Quickly, the British raised their anchors and hurriedly
moved their ships to the safer waters of lower New York Bay.
s original mission was unsuccessful, some historians claim that the venture
was not a complete failure. They suggest that the incident drove the British
ships to a new location from which they could not maintain an effective
blockade of New York. Also, although Turtle inflicted no damage to any
British vessel, an intangible psychological victory might have been attained,
simply through her use as a weapon.
Turtle was equally
unsuccessful in two subsequent efforts against Eagle and another British
frigate. In both instances, the tides and tricky currents of New York Harbor
frustrated the ventures. In an effort to move the submarine to areas where
attacks could occur under more favorable conditions, Bushnell loaded Turtle
aboard a fast sloop, hoping that the sloop could slip unnoticed past the
British into Long Island Sound and back to Connecticut. A British frigate
discovered the sloop, however, and, according to the British, sank her
and her precious cargo. The Americans claimed that she was dismantled and
moved inland to keep her out of enemy hands.
Whatever the final
fate of Turtle, as the first American war submarine, she came to a premature
end and closed a not-so-glorious chapter of maritime history in the American
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