Groton, Connecticut, is home to Fort Griswold, Submarine Base New London, but most importantly, the USS Nautilus Museum and Library. The town is filled with a plethora of naval service men and women and their families, who proudly serve the United States in underwater vessels in efforts to keep the United States of America a safe nation for which all can live. While the coastal town of Groton is internationally known as the “Submarine capital of the world”, it would be nonexistent if not for the efforts of David Bushnell and Ezra Lee, the inventor and first submariner of the first combat submarine, The Turtle. The Turtle embodies the institutions of American freedom, an appreciation for true patriotism, and is respected as one of the proudest symbols of the United States of America.
David Bushnell and Ezra Lee resided in towns less than thirty minutes away from Groton, where their legacy is being carried on by 16 modern submarines at the New London Sub Base. Before we dive into the waters of these submarines today, we must look at how The Turtle came to be the first combat submarine.
Bushnell was born August 30, 1740 and was the first of five children in a farming family in modern day Westbrook, Connecticut. As the eldest, Bushnell inherited the family farm when his father, Nehemiah Bushnell, died in 1769. However, Bushnell quickly sold the farm to his brother, Ezra Bushnell, in 1771, and started an advanced education at Yale University. During his final year is when outbreak of the American Revolution struck New Haven. While his classmates joined militias, Bushnell knew he could use his mind, resources, and love for the new country, to help advance American warfare and ultimately defeat the British by building something remarkable.
He began studying underwater mines and read of the first submarine created by a Dutch inventor, Cornelius Van Drebel, roughly 150 years beforehand. The 31-year-old was curious if this sort of submersible ship could be used in combat. David Bushnell began formulating the plan to build his version of Van Drebel’s submarine. However, Bushnell was a farmer and with only three years of college, he was not earning the income to build his vessel. Bushnell requests funding from none other than General George Washington. Bushnell presents his idea, and Washington agrees to grant him enough money to construct the submarine. His idea was in motion, but while a brilliant man of mechanics, Bushnell’s ability to manipulate explosives was faulty, and thus enlists the help of Isaac Doolittle, another Connecticut native, clockmaker, and mechanic. The two begin constructing a vessel to hold one soldier, be able to go underwater undetected, and be able to attach an explosive onto a British ship.
The submarine was constructed out of oak, in a barrel shape and bound by heavy iron hoops. To solve the problem of how to submerge the vessel, Bushnell decided that the operator would flood the chamber with water, making it heavier as needed to achieve the desired depth. This air-filled chamber was manufactured by Doolittle using specially made valves and pumps. To provide air to the single operator inside the boat, two snorkels were placed in the chamber that closed over when the boat submerged. Because air was limited, the submarine was designed to stay at the surface until it had to submerge to avoid detection. One of the largest problems that faced The Turtle was the mine that was filled with gunpowder and was to be attached to the enemy ship. Doolittle, and another revolutionary Phineas Pratt, modified a clockwork timing device to trigger a flint from a musket. The sparks would ignite the powder and set it off. The idea was that the operator of the submarine would set off the timing device, leaving him enough time to clear the area. However, yet another founding father, Benjamin Franklin, suggests that the vessel requires more explosives and says the gunpowder should be tripled the amount originally planned. Pratt accepts this advice, and the submarine was complete.
The Turtle was built, now it would be used. Bushnell thought of his brother Ezra to be the first submariner, but he became gravely ill with “camp fever”. A man with the same name, Ezra Lee, was told by General Samuel Holden Parsons, under orders by General George Washington, to navigate The Turtle. Beginning June 1776, Ezra Lee practiced maneuvering the submarine with a guiding hand from its creator David Bushnell. After months of practicing, they planned to attack the HMS Eagle, the British flagship that carried supplies and soldiers into the New York Harbor.
On September 7, 1776, Lee situated himself in The Turtle with sights on destroying the British hull. Unexpectedly, the HMS Eagle was sheathed in copper and The Turtle was not able to attach the explosives to the ship. Lee cleared the area and returned to land with a heavy heart and a failed mission. The submarine experienced two more failed attempts at damaging the British army’s fleet. On its final day, The Turtle was aboard an American ship when that ship was sunk by a British vessel.
With years of planning, constructing, and implementing the submarine, The Turtle never had a successful mission. Despite the disappointing record, The Turtle remains as an American symbol of innovation and patriotism. This vessel and its process began with a David Bushnell who meets George Washington, Isaac Doolittle, Phineas Pratt, Benjamin Franklin, and Ezra Lee, and with each man comes a love for country. While history remembers The Turtle, it is equally important to remember the men who made this iconic American symbol. Without the combined effort of all six men, Groton, Connecticut may be vacant of the military families, sixteen submarines, and the USS Nautilus Museum and Library, where a replica of The Turtle is on display year-round. The fathers of The Turtle brought together a desire for a free country to create what Bushnell wanted; something remarkable.