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Submarine History

Early History - 1775-1900

David Bushnell and the Turtle: With the British blockading New York harbor, a new graduate of Yale University, David Bushnell, put his Ivy League education to work. He devised a unique craft, constructed like a barrel, powered by unusual propellers, and semi-submersible. This odd craft was designed to slip in under cover of darkness and using an auger, attach a limpet mine to an English warship. Asking for volunteers, General George Washington obtained a pilot for the craft, SGT Ezra Lee.

On 06 September 1776, SGT Lee set out in the Turtle to attack the HMS Eagle. He later reported that he was unable to penetrate the hull of the ship with the auger, and withdrew. The British, sighting the craft, opened fire. Lee cut the mine loose, which drifted into the British anchorage. The British later withdrew their ships to a new anchorage.

Thus the era of American Submarine warfare was born. Bushnell and Lee attempted two more attacks during the war, but met with no success.

Robert Fulton and the Nautilus: Robert Fulton, better known for his role in the development of the steam engine, was also pivotal in the invention of the submarine. His Nautilus was an elongated iron craft with a multi-man crew. She was man powered and exhibited the first use of diving planes for dynamic control. Meeting with no interest in the United States, Fulton took his idea to France.

The Birth of the United States Submarine Force

In 1900, Irish immigrant John Holland won a submarine design competition held by the U. S. Navy. His design, later known as the USS Holland (SS-1), was the first to incorporate modern torpedoes, gasoline/electric power, and a hull form optimized for under water performance. This basic design became the standard for United States submarine development through WWI.

World War I

The United States Submarine Force saw little action during the war, but the art of submarine production and design saw great development. These improvements were led by Germany, whose U-Boats were equipped with advanced diesel engines, underwater sound gear, advanced ordnance and effective periscopes. It also saw the development of two entirely new forms of warfare: Unrestricted submarine warfare and Anti-Submarine Warfare (ASW). These would become critical items in the wars to come.

World War II

This was the era when submarine warfare really came into its own. The actions of the German U- Boat fleet nearly turned the tide for the Germans. Too little, too late, they were unable to choke off the Allies' supply lines.

On the American side, the submarines in the Pacific Theater were the critical factor in the American's campaign. They were responsible for half of all ships sunk, and yet made up only a fraction of the Navy in the region. Mainly tasked with hunting down valuable merchant traffic, tankers and supply ships, they starved the Japanese war machine of valuable supplies. Submarines such as Wahoo, Parche, Barb, Trepang, and men like Sam Dealey, Howard W. Gilmore, Eugene Fluckey, "Mush" Morton and "Red" Ramage forged the proud tradition of aggressiveness and excellence in the submarine force.

The Cold War

The end of WWII brought about a new conflict, one in which the contestants were fairly evenly matched. The Russian Navy brought huge numbers and resources to bear against the United States technological advantage. The development of nuclear power meant that a true submarine could finally be built. Free of dependence on the outside world, the submarine became a true underwater monster, prowling the deep in search of all traffic.

SSBNs, or "Boomers", were soon produced and became the most solid leg of the deterrence triad. As submarines became quieter and more sophisticated, their importance to the Navy became greater. Soon no area of the world was off limits to the modern fast attack, from the polar ice caps to the Indian Ocean.


- This page last updated 10/22/2003 -

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