The Turtle

Naval combat has been a key to successful warfare in history from the ancient Greeks’ and Romans’ galleys to the towering aircraft carriers of today. Keeping control of the sea has been important for thousands of years, and rarely is there an exception. Controlling the seas with naval vessels was especially important to the Americans and the British in the Revolutionary War because sea routes could bring in troops and supplies, and forming blockades could cut them off. The Americans were desperate to throw the British navy out of their waters, so they found a solution–a tiny wooden submarine. Its mission was difficult, but it was the only way to rout the British besides a huge sea battle and the loss of many needed lives.

This exciting tale was originally published in Sea Frontiers July/August 1975 issue, according to George Pararas-Carayannis, and is retold on his website

In 1776, a man named David Bushnell, a graduate of Harvard University, had an idea. The thought was nothing short of ingenious, and it may have led to a whole new class of warships. The idea was to build a submarine that would move to an enemy ship, drill a hole in the hull, place a time-detonated bomb, and leave before the bomb exploded to sink the ship.

The submarine would look like two tortoise shells placed stomach-to-stomach and a lid

This is what the turtle looked like.

with six glass windows on the top. The pilot would have to do everything by hand, from steering to propulsion. Inside the craft, the operator would have to crank the propeller to move the sub. There were two propellers–one to move, and one to descend. The craft was also weighed down with a 600-pound lead ballast to stop the submarine from bobbing.

This must have been what the Turtle looked like. Photo from the World Almanac.

The inside of the submersible was lit with luminescent foxfire fungus (because using fire to illuminate the craft would use up the oxygen, and the pilot would suffocate). The sub’s air supply would only last 30 minutes. The bomb the craft carried consisted of 150 pounds of black powder and used a flintlock detonator to keep it from exploding for up to 12 hours. The sub was named the Turtle because of its shell-like hull.

The turtle was scheduled to attack the British flagship HMS Eagle in the spring of 1776.

The bioluminescent foxfire fungus.

The pilot Ezra Bushnell, David Bushnell’s brother, trained in the safe waters of the Connecticut River, According to Michael Mohl on NavSource Online, a volunteer organization that preserves naval history at Finally, the date for the scheduled attack had come. Unfortunately, on the eve of the attack, Ezra Bushnell died. Fortunately, another man named Ezra Lee volunteered to do the dangerous mission. He trained intensely for months until he was confident he was ready to attack.

The bioluminescent foxfire fungus. Photo from

However, by this time, the British had moved their fleet to New York Harbor, so Lee had to go though many more months of training to prepare for the odd and tricky currents in the harbor. On July 12th, the Turtle was transported by a sloop and successfully placed in the harbor in the dark of night. Lee silently pedaled towards the British warship HMS Eagle and submerged under the ship. Things began to go badly.

As Lee started to drill into the ship’s hull, he accidentally hit metal instead of wood. He tried but couldn’t get through. Lee had no idea where he was drilling because the sub lacked a window on top. When his air supply almost ran out, he surfaced and descended yet again. And he failed again. Lee was exhausted and was forced to pedal back to land because the harbor’s tides had begun to change. He pedaled frantically but was spotted by British sailors. Lee released his bomb in hope of distracting the British. The bomb exploded and, as Lee had hoped, distracted the British. Lee made it back to land alive, but he had failed his mission. It had not been a complete failure, however. The British did recognize the threat and moved their blockade, so the Americans could still get ships in and out of the harbor.

Turtle attacking the HMS Eagle

The Turtle made more attacks later in the war with some success. It once drilled a hole in another British war ship but was not able to get the bomb in place correctly. The bomb exploded and damaged the ship and killed three men. However, the Turtle never sank any ships like it was originally intended.

Even though the Turtle failed its missions, it is considered by many to be a twisted psychological victory and possibly the basis for a new kind of warship–the submarine. Wherever the final resting place of the Turtle may be, it is forever lost in naval history–but remembered as the seed for all submarines to come.

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