When I give tours at the National World War I Museum and Memorial, I ask a lot of questions. One is for those in the group to name as many weapons first used in WW I as they can. I’m looking for airplane, tank, gas and flamethrower as the most prominent ones.
But I get al lot of other guesses such as machine gun, barbed wire, trenches and submarine. All are incorrect.
Many guess submarine as they are vaguely aware from a long-ago high school history class that a lot of submarines were used and the German re-use of unrestricted submarine warfare was the straw that finally caused President Woodrow Wilson to ask Congress to declare war on Germany and the Central Powers.
But when anyone guesses submarine, they are wrong by 138 years.
That is the subject of today’s column. Believe it or not, if the almost always reliable This Day in U.S. Military History is accurate this time, today is an exact date in U.S. naval history.
The calendar says that on this date back in 1776, the world’s first submarine attack occurred. But it was long before the term submarine was coined, so the undersea vessel the fledgling United States Navy used on Sept. 7, 1776, was called a submersible craft.
Its name was the Turtle, with no USS as I suppose that term hadn’t yet been coined either. The calendar gave no information about the size of the crew or a description of the Turtle, but did say the captain, although he was called the skipper, was Ezra Lee.
The Turtle’s mission that day was to sneak under the British ship HMS Eagle, the flagship of Admiral Richard Howe, that was in New York Harbor, and attach a time bomb to the hull of the British ship.
The Eagle had 64 guns, so it was a biggie. The Turtle made it under the Eagle without being detected, although Lee could see British seamen on the deck, but since they had no clue that an enemy vessel was beneath them, no one was looking down and the Turtle was never spotted.
But alas, that is about all that went right during the world’s first submarine, or submersible craft, attack in history.
Lee’s men had almost secured the bomb when the boring tools failed to penetrate a layer of iron sheathing under the Eagle. The Turtle retreated before it was discovered, and the bomb exploded as it was supposed to, but when it did it was not attached to the Eagle. The blast caused no damage to either the Eagle or the Turtle.
It was time for a hasty retreat, which the Turtle did.
The Turtle’s career was short. The week after the first undersea attack in maritime history, it made several more attempts to sink British ships on the Hudson River, but each time the result was the same – failure.
The calendar did not specify the reasons for the subsequent failures, nor say how many there were. All it said was the failures “were due to lack of operator skill,” whatever that means.
During the Battle of Fort Lee, its location not further identified, the Turtle was lost when the American sloop towing it was sunk by the British. And that was the end of the not-so-successful Turtle.
John Reichley is a retired Army officer and Department of the Army civilian employee.