In the mid 1770’s, During America’s War of Independence with England, David Bushnell, an inventive guy on the American side, created the world’s first attack submarine. Using whiskey barrel technology, he made a watertight, clam shell-shaped vehicle with barely enough room for one man. The thing, nicknamed the Turtle, was placed in New York Harbor one night containing Sgt. Ezra Lee, a 45-year-old man who was stronger than the frail inventor. He had two hand-operated propeller vanes, one for forward travel, the other for directional control.
The plan was to turn a crank mounted in the ceiling of the Turtle, which would screw an eye-hook into the underside of the Eagle. Attached to the hook was a bomb. After several attempts at attaching the bomb, Ezra finally realized it couldn’t be done. The ship was probably coated in copper plating to keep barnacles from growing on the ship, and the hook wouldn’t drill into the ship. (Historians are not sure about why the bomb couldn’t be attached, this is their theory.)
Dawn was coming, and Ezra Lee had to get away quickly before he would be discovered. Again, he cranked furiously, but some sailors on the ship saw him. Realizing he was in trouble, he released the bomb, which floated to the surface and blew up harmlessly. But it saved his life. The ship’s men had never seen anything like the Turtle and weren’t even sure it was a human-invented thing. It might be a monster. After the little explosion, they were truly afraid. And Ezra Lee sailed to harbor, his submarine was opened, and he was safe.
This was the first and last submarine voyage of the eighteenth century. David Bushnell was quite fascinated with inventions and explosive things in particular. He devoted his mental efforts to the war, but his creations never made any serious contribution. Once, some English soldiers found a strange keg floating in the water. They rowed out to it in a little boat and pulled it out of the water. On the contraption they found gears turning. This would be unusual by today’s standards, but truly weird back in 1776. At about the time they made this observation, the time bomb exploded, killing three of the men and injuring some others. It was supposed to have floated up to a place where several enemy ships were docked and blow them up, but the men intercepted it. This was the only one of Mr. Bushnell’s inventions that came anywhere close to working right.
An unsuccessful attempt was made to sink a Union ship participating in the Mobile Harbor portion of the Union blockade. The Union blockade was a mostly successful attempt by President Abraham Lincoln to cut off shipping from the Confederacy. Shortly thereafter, the American Diver sank without loss of life. Very little documentation remains. The plan above was drawn by co-inventor James McClintock.
This submarine measures 20 feet in length, with a three foot beam and six foot depth.
The Hunley, originally called the “Fish Boat,” was built in Mobile, Alabama and put on a train for delivery to Charleston, South Carolina.
It had ballast tanks and hand-operated pumps at either end. It also had a unique safety feature. Iron weights were bolted to the underside. In case the boat became too heavy, bolts could be unscrewed from inside, releasing the weights.
This was built in a time just before portable engines, motors and batteries became practical, so it was human powered. A crew of seven men would turn a large crank inside the 40-foot (12-meter) long boat to power the propeller. An eighth crew member was in charge of steering.
Five members of the crew lost their lives when the Fish Boat sank in a training exercise. Evidently, one crewman accidentally stepped on the diving plane control while the hatches were still open, causing the boat to fill with water. The boat was salvaged, and manned with a new crew. It sank again, this time taking not only the lives of the second crew, but of Mr. Hunley himself who was aboard as commander.
Again the boat was raised, and outfitted with a third crew. This crew went right to work and pushed their front-mounted explosive-loaded probe into the side of the USS Housatonic, then backed away, blowing up the enemy ship. Unfortunately, the Hunley never returned. The experts believe the Hunley was unable to detach from the torpedo before it blew up, which knocked the crew unconscious. They may have died shortly thereafter of oxygen starvation.
The Fish Boat remained under the water until it was discovered in 1995 and raised in 2000. The remains of the men indicated that they died at their stations, not having made any attempt to escape.
One out of every four of the American submariners didn’t make it back alive from World War II. Three out of four of the German submariners didn’t make it back alive.
In his book about serving on German submarines in World War II, Iron Coffins, Herbert Werner writes of a time when during a shakedown cruise of a new boat, they decided to do a test dive. The ship sank right to the bottom. One of the French workmen conscripted to build the boat had sabotaged it by jamming a wrench in a valve.
Herbert’s crew were able to find the wrench and stop the leak, but the submarine was hopelessly stuck in the mud. They tried everything for nearly twenty hours, but as the batteries were running out, and the air was becoming toxic, they were about to give up hope. Someone thought that they might be able to rock the sub out of the mud, much like shifting your car repeatedly from forward to reverse might get it out of a snowbank. The men, already cold and exhausted in the mucky air, started running back and forth from the front to the back of the boat, in hopes of getting it to tilt forward and back. That finally freed them from the mud, and they rose quickly to the surface, opening the hatches to fresh air as quickly as possible.
And that’s what happened. Moments before the loss of the sub, the crew sent a message to a nearby support ship via underwater telephone that they had a ‘minor problem, were angling up, and blowing the ballast tanks.’
To blow the ballast tanks means to fill large tanks on the sides of the submarine with air, replacing the water they held, so the ship will quickly float to the surface. On the Thresher, that didn’t work. Later experiments with the plumbing used on that boat showed that the air rushing through the valves created a venturi effect, cooling so rapidly that water vapor froze, jamming the valves.
So what probably happened is that the boat sprang a leak in a pipe in the engine room. They had started toward the surface by driving forward with the bow planes – flat fins on the sides of the sub – angled upward. They had to shut down the reactor, because the water leak was shorting out the electrical control systems. That killed their power. The emergency batteries were not sufficient to keep them moving forward. Meanwhile, the ship was filling with water. In minutes their upward progress came to a halt, and they started to slip down, instead. Their last message was “Exceeding test depth.” Shortly after, the support ship heard the sound of an underwater implosion.
The general agreement is that a pipe junction failed. The salt-water pipes in that submarine used for engine cooling and other things were fastened with silver brazing. That’s a process like soldering which holds pipes together. Silver brazing is much stronger than ordinary solder. It melts at a higher temperature than solder, but much lower than the temperature required for welding, which would weaken the steel pipes. Silver brazing is a manual process, requiring a degree of expertise beyond MIG welding or other typical construction processes. In the pipe junctions that were tested, fourteen percent failed. Hundreds of junctions were not tested at all. This was the fanciest sub in the US Navy, and the boys were excited to get it back into service, so the little concern about pipes was set aside. Too bad. All 129 men aboard died in the implosion.
The Navy was deeply sorry about this first-ever loss of a nuclear submarine and its crew. They instituted a program called SUBSAFE, which was supposed to fix this sort of problem in the rest of their fleet.
There is no doubt that the Germans had very high-tech submarines during World War II. In April 1945, the U1206 was launched, commanded by Carl Adolf Schlidt, complete with a snorkel so the engines could run and the batteries could be charged while remaining underwater, and a new waste disposal system. Rather than holding human waste in a holding tank, they had a high pressure compressed air squirter that was triggered with a flush of the toilet. It would launch the stuff into the surrounding water.
On the maiden voyage, the system malfunctioned as the submarine was skulking off the coast of Scotland. Sewage and seawater backed up into the boat. Not only was it horribly stinky, it flooded the battery compartment, wrecking the boat’s electrical system and generating deadly amounts of chlorine gas in the process. The sub had to come to the surface. It was immediately attacked by the British Royal Air Force, resulting in the loss of the ship and three men.
During World War II, the HMS Trident was tasked with bringing supplies to the northern Soviet Union near Finland. To express their gratitude, residents gave a gift to the submariners, a reindeer. Somehow, the men got the animal, nearly as big as a horse into the boat through a torpedo hatch, where she lived with the crew for six weeks, sleeping in the captain’s quarters.
But in 1968, the Navy experimented with cutting costs, so the USS Scorpion was sailing from Rota, Spain to Norfolk, Virgian, USA, without the SUBSAFE retrofit. In an emergency, this boat too, could not blow tanks to reach the surface quickly.
Twenty years later, the US Navy still had not seen wreckage from the USS Thresher or the USS Scorpion, and this was worrisome. Were the nuclear reactors leaking? Were they damaging the local oceanic environment?
When oceanographer and former Navy commander Robert Ballard approached the Navy for funding to find the Titanic, they weren’t interested. However they were interested in finding the Thresher and the Scorpion. Dr. Ballard had the deep submersible vehicle they needed to photograph the subs and measure for radiation leakage. So they worked out a deal: He was given the funding to find the subs, and if he was able to find and photograph them, he would then be allowed to use whatever was left of his allowance to go look for the Titanic. He did find both subs, and to everyone’s relief, the engines of both subs had not leaked any significant radiation. He had twelve days left to search for the Titanic, which as you know, he also found.
The US Navy would really like to have the information the sub contained, and they were willing to spend any amount of taxpayer money to get it. Would it be possible to build special equipment to get the ship? Yes, there was a possibility. It would involve a huge ship designed from scratch for the job. It would take a workforce and expenditure as big as anything since the Manhattan Project.
But how to keep the whole works secret? Not only must the Soviets not know, but if the US public became aware, somebody would most certainly blab to Russia that their nuclear submarine was about to be stolen.
The Navy approached reclusive billionaire entrepreneur Howard Hughes. You may remember him. He was the eccentric movie star who made more and more money, first in the movie business, then in airplanes, which fascinated him, and eventually he diversified into all kinds of industry, including shipping.
He agreed to front the specialized ship, claiming to the public that it was for mining underwater minerals, specifically magnesium nodules. Called the Hughes Glomar Explorer (later renamed GSF Explorer), this was no secret project. Everyone knew about it. In fact, industries around the globe noticed Mr. Hughes’ interest in underwater mineral exploration, and started planning their own underwater mining ships. Only thing is, it wasn’t a mining ship at all. That was the secret part. In the middle of the ship was a huge open-bottom hold, more than three hundred feet long. The ship had huge scaffolds and machines to lower 300 sixty-foot (20 meter) sections of pipe to the ocean floor. At the end of all that pipe was a grappling mechanism with two rows of hooks large enough to pick up a full-grown submarine. You might imagine a thing that looks like a plastic hair clip, but this one is made from steel and as long as a football field.
So, they got the $350,000,000 Glomar Explorer built, and sailed it out over the sub. They lowered the grappling mechanism. The ocean is so deep that it took two days to get it to the bottom. With underwater cameras and lights attached to the mechanism, they arranged it perfectly over the sub, and closed the hooks. But the hooks stuck a bit on the ocean floor. There was concern that the hooks might have been damaged, but there’s no way they were going to raise it all the way back up for two days to inspect it, then lower it back down.
They went ahead and grabbed the submarine. They started lifting, and all started out well. About half-way up, three of the hooks broke off, and the submarine suddenly shifted in the remaining hooks.
According to one report, in their cameras attached to the grappling mechanism, they saw a cruise missile armed with a nuclear warhead ever so gently slip out of a silo and start sinking to the bottom of the ocean. There was nothing they could do about that. By the time it hit the bottom, it would be going 80 miles per hour (128 kph). All they could do was sit tight and hope it didn’t blow them to Kingdom Come when it landed. It didn’t.
As they continued to lift the sub, it fell apart, and most of the sub slipped away. By the time they raised it to the surface, all they had was about fifteen percent of what they started out with. All the prizes were gone. The section they had contained no super-secret torpedos, no missiles, no codebooks, nothing! (According to another report, there was same useful material recovered, including two torpedos, but if so, the military covered that up.)
The Glomar Explorer sailed back, and they made plans to go back a year later and get the rest of the sub. But unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it), the public found out about the project, and so the ship was mothballed for the next 22 years.
Then what happened? Did the Navy finally scrap it? No, in 1997, they leased it to Global Marine Drilling, later GlobalSantaFe Corporation, which refitted it for deep ocean drilling at a cost of $180 million. Yet, as of today, the Glomar Explorer remains idle.
The problem started with a hydrogen peroxide leak. This chemical, which you may be familiar with as a home disinfectant, is volatile when highly concentrated. It can be used as a propellant in torpedos. A faulty weld in a torpedo filled its torpedo tube with hydrogen peroxide, and the resulting explosion blew the inner and outer doors off the tube. Normally, this would have flooded only the forward compartment, but an air conditioning duct allowed the force of the explosion and resultant flooding into some compartments further to the rear, including the control room. The men in the control room were disoriented at least, if not killed instantly, and so could not initiate emergency surfacing procedures. The ship sank. The collision with the bottom at 100 meters (330 feet), combined with the heat from the explosion, caused the remaining torpedos to explode with such force that seismic waves were detected hundreds of miles away. This destroyed most of the remaining compartments in the ship. The last three were still habitable, and that’s where the 23 survivors were trapped.
Empty superoxide canisters, used to make exhausted air breathable for a while longer, were found in these last compartments, so the men were conscious and alive.
Fortunately, the nuclear engines had shut down automatically, but unfortunately, this means that the electricity was soon depleted, since nuclear submarines have only small backup batteries. Without electricity the men had to endure complete darkness, and encroaching cold. Once divers were able to enter the shipwreck, they discovered that water had flooded the last compartments waist deep. It seems that eventually, a superoxide cartridge set off a fire, which finally killed the survivors. It is not known whether they survived the cold, wet darkness for a few hours or a few days.
Rescue attempts were made during the first few days, but due to mechanical and political difficulties, entry was not gained until it was too late.