Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places.- Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Aug 26, 2020: Hazard Pay
Here we see the experimental submarine USS Plunger (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2) broadside with what looks like her entire crew on deck, 115 years ago this month. The tiny boat, only 64-feet long, was only the second official submarine that the U.S. Navy-owned and some of the most iron-willed men of the 20th Century would walk her decks.
After Revolutionary War forerunners such as the David Bushnell Turtle and Civil War beasts like the oar-powered Alligator and the follow-on hand-cranked Intelligent Whale, on 3 March 1893, Congress authorized the first “submarine torpedo boat” to be built for the U.S. Navy. Irish inventor and early submarine expert John P. Holland won the design competition in 1895 to build the craft, which he intended to be a submarine with triple propeller shafts powered by a steam engine with a retractable smokestack!
A 150-ton, 85-foot-long steel beast with a pair of early torpedo tubes, the craft spent five years at Holland’s yard before the contract was canceled. Instead, the first U.S. Navy submarine became Holland’s personally-funded Holland VI prototype, a 53-footer with a gasoline engine for puttering around on the surface and an electric motor for use while under the waves. This vessel would go on to be the USS Holland (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2, or SS-1), which had a reloadable 18-inch torpedo tube with three torpedoes as well as a dynamite gun.
Following immediately on the heels of the Holland was Plunger, effectively a more advanced version of the Navy’s first submarine, being larger, faster, and capable of carrying five torpedoes.
Using a 160-hp Otto gasoline engine, Plunger could streak along at about 8 knots on the surface while churning 7 knots while submerged on a set of Electro Dynamic electric motors. Period photos gave her the illusion of being a speedy craft.
Laid down on 21 May 1901 at Elizabethport, N.J., by the Crescent Shipyard of Lewis Nixon, a subcontractor for Holland, Plunger commissioned at the Holland Company’s Long Island yard on 19 September 1903, Lt. Charles P. Nelson in command.
She was something of a novelty and was assigned to the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I., for experimental torpedo work.
As noted by DANFS,
“Plunger operated locally from that facility for the next two years, a period broken only by an overhaul at the Holland yard at New Suffolk between March and November 1904. Besides testing machinery, armament, and tactics, the submarine torpedo boat also served as a training ship for the crews of new submersibles emerging from the builder’s yards.”
On 22 August 1905, she had the distinction of visiting former Secretary of the Navy and then-current President Teddy Roosevelt at Oyster Bay. The Old Bull Moose spent some time aboard, taking the conn himself and even submerging five times in the shallow water, the first President to dive on a submarine while in office.
The story made national news.
Roosevelt wrote from Oyster Bay to Hermann Speck von Steinberg:
“I myself am both amused and interested as to what you say about the interest excited about my trip in the Plunger. I went down in it chiefly because I did not like to have the officers and enlisted men think I wanted them to try things I was reluctant to try myself. I believe a good deal can be done with these submarines, although there is always the danger of people getting carried away with the idea and thinking that they can be of more use than they possibly could be.”
To another correspondent, he declared that never in his life had he experienced “such a diverting day … nor so much enjoyment in so few hours.”
According to the Navy, a sitting president would not cruise on a commissioned U.S. Navy submarine again until Dwight D. Eisenhower dropped in on the USS Seawolf (SSN 575) in 1957–ironically a boat that LT James Earl “Jimmy” Carter was to be engineering officer on.
Further, Plunger’s 1905 presidential dive would prove vital to submariners’ wallets for the next century, as noted by FTGC(SS) Larry Smith, a submarine vet from the 1970s and 80s.
The Naval hierarchy in 1905 considered submarine duty, neither unusual nor dangerous, and classified it as shore duty. Therefore, submariners received twenty-five percent less pay than sailors going to sea in Destroyers, Cruisers and similar surface ships.
Roosevelt’s two-hour trip on Plunger convinced him that this discrimination was unfair. He described submarine duty as hazardous and difficult, and he found that submariners “have to be trained to the highest possible point as well as to show iron nerve in order to be of any use in their positions…”
Roosevelt directed that officer service on submarines be equated with duty on surface ships. Enlisted men qualified in submarines were to receive ten dollars per month in addition to the pay of their rating. They were also to be paid a dollar for every day in which they were submerged while underway. Enlisted men assigned to submarines but not yet qualified received an additional five dollars per month.
Roosevelt did not dilly-dally once he made a decision. He issued an Executive Order directing the extra pay for enlisted personnel. This was the beginning of submarine pay!
In 1907, Plunger was under the command of one very young and very wet Ensign Chester Nimitz who lead a huge crew of one Chief and five sailors.
Nimitz would go on to successively command three other boats after leaving Plunger— USS Snapper, USS Narwhal, and USS Skipjack— remaining in the submarine service until 1913 at which point he was in command of the Atlantic Submarine Flotilla.
The small but hearty young boat served for ten years in more or less active duty, then spend almost another ten in mothballs as a target before she was scrapped in 1922.
She spent the Great War hoisted aboard the hulk of the former Civil War monitor USS Puritan, then more than 50-years old, a blend of the Navy’s past and future if there ever were one.
The little submarine’s name was quickly recycled for the Porpoise-class fleet boat, USS Plunger (SS-179), which was ordered in 1935. Off Diamond Head when Japanese planes attacked on 7 December 1941, she scored an important victory for the country when she sent a Japanese freighter to the bottom just weeks afterward while on her first war patrol.
In 1960, retired Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, USN, trekked down to at Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California to speak at the keel-laying ceremony of the new Permit-class attack boat, USS Plunger (SSN-595), the third such submarine to carry the name, bringing the story of Submarine No. 2 full circle.
Nimitz was of course something of a sentimental man, often signing photos of ships he had a connection with. In his papers, which were turned over to the Navy after his death he had kept this snapshot.
Displacement: 107 long tons (109 t)
Propulsion: 160-hp Otto gasoline engine, Electro Dynamic electric motors.
Speed: 8 kn surfaced, 7 kn submerged
Complement: 7 (1 officer, 1 chief, 5 sailors)
Armament: 1 × 18 in (460 mm) torpedo tube, with four reloads.
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