Simanaitis Says

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IT’S LIKELY THAT the Turtle was the world’s first submarine to attack an enemy ship. Or was this just American Revolutionary War propaganda? In either case, here in Part 2 art imitates life, be it real or imaged.

Ezra Lee, Patriot Submariner. British Admiral Richard Howe’s flagship HMS Eagle was blocking New York harbor. And when General George Washington authorized use of the Turtle for its attack, he personally selected Sgt. Ezra Lee to operate the submarine.

Ezra Lee, 1749–1821, American colonial soldier, best known for piloting the Turtle.

Ezra Lee and his exploits are the subject of an Inheritance radio program, May 23, 1954, rebroadcast on SiriusXM’s “Radio Classics”. This program, titled “The Nut Megger and the Turtle,” is also available for download at Old Time Radio Downloads.

It’s a charming, if apocryphal, tale of Lee, a brave but troublesome loner from Connecticut who exchanges guardhouse time for the dangerous assignment of piloting the Turtle. There’s fun in Lee’s being the Turtle’s self-described Captain, First Mate, and Crew. In true colonial fashion, Nut Megger Lee displays less than enthusiasm in learning that Bushnell’s Turtle was built in rival Massachusetts.

A replica of the Turtle is at the Oceanographic Museum of Monaco. Image by Zenit.

Attack on HMS Eagle. According to Wikipedia, “At 11:00 pm on September 6, 1776, Sgt. Lee piloted the submersible toward Admiral Richard Howe’s flagship, Eagle, then moored off Governors Island…. It took two hours to reach his destination, as it was hard work manipulating the hand-operated controls and foot pedals to propel the submersible into position. Adding to his difficulties was a fairly strong current and the darkness…. The plan failed.”

One problem was Lee’s inability to attach the mine to the Eagle’s hull. Folk legend has it that the ship’s copper sheathing prevented this. However, later research indicates that such sheathing was paper-thin, defensive only against attack by woodworms and other marine life. It is conjectured that in Lee’s attempt to attach the mine, he struck an iron plate on the ship’s rudder hinge.

Lee managed to get away from the Eagle and rid the Turtle of its timed ordinance. The mine drifted into the East River and exploded “with tremendous violence, throwing large columns of water and pieces of wood that composed it high into the air,” according to Wikipedia.

Fake News? On the other hand, Wikipedia also notes, “It was the first recorded use of a submarine to attack a ship; however, the only records documenting it are American. British records contain no accounts of an attack by a submarine or any reports of explosion the night of the supposed attack on Eagle.

British naval historian Richard Compton-Hall’s modern view is that the entire story is fabricated as disinformation and morale-boosting propaganda.

Art Imitates Life. The fact—or legend—of the Turtle lives on. As reported by Randy Kennedy in “An Artist and His Sub Surrender in Brooklyn,” The New York Times, August 4, 2007, a New York City police boat stopped three men escorting and piloting a replica based on the Turtle as it approached RMS Queen Mary 2, then docked at the cruise ship terminal in Red Hook, New York. The replica was created by New York artist Philip “Duke” Riley and two residents of Rhode Island, one of whom claimed to be a descendant of David Bushnell.

Riley and his replica got within 200 feet of RMS Queen Mary 2. Image by Damon Winter/The New York Times, August 4, 2007.

The Coast Guard issued Riley a citation for having an unsafe vessel and for violating the security zone around Queen Mary 2. Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly called it an incident of ‘marine mischief.’

I wonder what Nut Megger Ezra Lee would have said. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2019

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