[Ed. Note: Captain Caldwell is a retired submarine officer who commanded SPIKEFISH and SubDiv 22. His father was the commissioning CO of HOLLAND and therefore the U.S. Navy’s first submarine skipper.]
U.S. Submarine Torpedo Boat HOLLAND (SS 1) was the Navy’s first commissioned submarine and thus the forerunner of today’s submarine fleet. She was designed in 1890 by John P. Holland, an inventor and self-taught engineer who had emigrated from Ireland some 25 years earlier. Built under his supervision at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth port, New Jersey, the HOLLAND VI as she was known, was launched on 17 May 1897, and christened HOLLAND by Mrs. Lewis Nixon, wife of the shipyard’s owner.
HOLLAND was not the world’s first submarine-submersible vehicles had been the subject of much thought and experimentation over the preceding 150 years, with varying degrees of success. During the American Revolution, in an effort to break the British blockade of New York harbor, Sergeant Ezra Lee maneuvered the TURTLE, a one-man, human-powered submarine designed and built by David Bushnell, down the bay and attempted to affix an explosive device to the bottom of a blockading British warship. Thwarted by the ship’s copper sheathing, Lee nonetheless alarmed the British enough to cause the withdrawal of the blockading ship. At the start of the 19th century prolific inventor Robert Fulton built his version of a submarine, but was unable to sell it either at home or abroad. Sixty years later during the Civil War the Confederates, whose key port of Charleston, South Carolina was blockaded by Union warships, developed a screw-driven cigar shaped submersible, the HUNLEY, which towed a floating charge of explosive at the end of a long line. Attacks were consummated by diving under the target and dragging the explosive charge (fitted with a contact exploder) into the side of the target. Powered by eight men turning cranks, CSS HUNLEY set off one evening to attack a blockading sloop-of-war near the harbor’s mouth. The attack was successful, and to HUNLEY goes the honor of being the first submarine to destroy an enemy ship. Jubilation over HUNLEY’s success was tempered by the fact that the explosion which sank USS HOUSATONIC also destroyed HUNLEY. The submarine sank on several previous occasions during trials and training, killing a total of 35 crew members. The South, desperately short of able-bodied men, could not afford this weapon system.
Interest in submarines increased during the second half of the 19th century as technological improvements in metallurgy, electrical engineering, internal combustion engines and weaponry offered answers to vexing questions about suitable material for hulls and appurtenances, efficient propulsion and effective armament. France and Spain were early developers of submers-ibles, with Sweden and Italy also producing designs. Notably absent from the submarine sweepstakes was the British Navy, which, possessing the world’s most powerful fleet, could see no sense in fostering a weapon which if successful might render its proud warships obsolete.
John P. Holland, encouraged by Irish nationalists seeking a weapon to cripple the British Navy, designed and built four submarines between 1875, when he arrived from Ireland, and 1888 when he first sought to interest the United States Navy in his design for a submarine torpedo boat. The surge of enthusiasm for submarines which developed on both sides of the Atlantic attracted the attention of the press and stimulated wide public interest. Periodicals and daily newspapers printed articles that read like science fiction; Jules Verne’s Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was much discussed; profound papers were presented at the U.S. Naval War College.
In response to U.S. Navy solicitations for submarine boat designs, John Holland had submitted his plans for submarines on three previous occasions. In each competitive review his design won; however, in one instance Congress failed to appropriate money for construction and in the other cases the funds appropri-ated were diverted by the Navy Department to help pay for the completion of surface ships then under construction. The life of the impecunious inventor was filled with frustration. Finally, in 1895, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company was awarded a contract for $200,000 to build a submarine to be called PLUNGER. Unfortunately, as its construction progressed it was increasingly evident that many of the specifications insisted upon by the Navy were impractical and could not be met. As a result, work on John Holland’s fifth submarine languished.
In 1896 the Holland Torpedo Boat Company bit the bullet and decided to invest its own capital in the construction of a submarine of new improved design which would bring together all of John Holland’s most up-to-date ideas. As a private endeavor, design and construction of the HOLLAND VI would not be impeded by Navy generated change requests or the need to meet unrealistic government specifications. John Holland was delighted, and the new boat quickly took shape on the building ways.
As designed and constructed, HOLLAND was 53 feet long with a maximum diameter of 10-1/4 feet and a submerged displacement of 74 tons. In the fully surfaced condition she drew about 8-1/2 feet and displaced about 64 tons. HOLLAND’s sleek lines were drawn by her designer in conscious imitation of the porpoise, and every effort was made to enhance submerged performance. As a result, when operating on the surface HOLLAND VI lay low in the water, provided very little topside deck space and scant protection from the sea for personnel on deck.
The HOLLAND VI was powered on the surface by a 45 horsepower gasoline engine which drove her single three bladed propeller, producing a top speed of eight knots. Sixty lead acid cells made up the storage battery which provided power for a maximum speed of five knots during submerged operations. The engine, motor and tailshaft were connected through friction clutches to permit the motor, when driven by the gasoline engine as a generator, to recharge the storage battery. HOLLAND VI was fitted with a double rudder, and courses were steered with reference to a heavily compensated magnetic compass. For submerged operations, the main ballast tanks were flooded to approach neutral buoyancy, then the submarine pushed ahead on battery power and applied dive angles to the diving rudders to force the boat down to the desired operating depth. The boat was so ballasted that even with the ballast tanks full of water she carried about 100 pounds of positive buoyancy. This safety feature insured that she would rise to the surface in case a casualty caused by a Joss of propulsion power. Compressed air at 2000 pounds per square inch was stored in four steel bottles and used to empty the ballast tanks, operate the rudder and diving planes, discharge weapons and replenish the boat’s atmosphere during protracted periods of submergence.
HOLLAND VI was designed to be a warship, with much of the limited interior space dedicated to weapons. These included a single 18 inch diameter torpedo tube (containing a Whitehead torpedo) mounted in the bow on the ship’ s horizontal axis. Also installed in HOLLAND VI’s bow was a Zalinsky dynamite gun, an eight inch pneumatic tube mounted on the centerline above the torpedo tube, ftxed in train and permanently elevated approximate-ly 15 degrees. It was built to lob an explosive charge for a distance of up to a 1000 yards. Initially HOLLAND VI carried a second dynamite gun pointed aft. This was removed before the boat was sold to the Navy, as its potential military value did not justify the space and weight required.
After launching and fitting out at Lewis Nixon’s shipyard in Elizabethport, HOLLAND VI was moved to a ship basin at Perth Amboy, New Jersey where preliminary static test dives could be made. On 17 March 1989 the HOLLAND VI, escorted by a tug, proceeded down the Raritan River for her initial submerged run in Raritan Bay. This was a success, but a few days later while operating submerged south of Staten Island, HOLLAND VI ran into a mud bank off Tottenville, New York. The boat was unharmed, but difficulties in steering and the sluggish performance of the magnetic compass were highlighted as problems. Further operational trials were conducted during the spring, including one before a Navy inspection team, whose recommendations led to the scheduling of more trials. In November 1898 a Navy Board of Inspection headed by Captain R.D. (“Fighting Bob”) Evans witnessed sea trials conducted in New York harbor along the Brooklyn shore. While the trials were generally successful, recurrent problems with steering control were noted by the Board, which recommended that the Navy not acquire the HOLLAND VI until successful completion of still more trials.
This was discouraging to the inventor, to the builders and to those who had invested in the Holland Torpedo Boat Company. For 10 years John Holland had tried to interest the U .S. Navy in the submarine torpedo boat as an implement of war. His efforts were thwarted repeatedly by an entrenched military and civilian bureaucracy which begrudged the diversion of funds from major warships. The potential for stealth and for underwater exploration offered by submersible boats had long intrigued farsighted people in both Europe and America, as advancements in technology made such craft seem more and more feasible. However, such visionar-ies were rare in the upper echelons of the Navy, which was still struggling to throw off post-Civil War doldrums.
Following the Navy trials in November 1898, HOLLAND VI entered a nearby shipyard in the Bronx for extensive alterations which included rebuilding the stern to position the propeller forward of the horizontal and vertical rudders, removal of the after dynamite gun and improvements to the steering and diving controls. After work was completed in the spring of 1898, HOLLAND VI was towed to Peconic Bay at the east end of Long Island, where a base was established at New Suffolk, New York to support operations in the quiet, sheltered waters of the bay. This change of venue was the result of one or two near catastrophes resulting from efforts to operate submerged in the crowded shipping lanes of New York harbor.
Much of the spring and summer of 1899 was spend conducting surfaced and submerged training operations in preparation for more Navy trials . These finally took place on 6 November 1899 in Little Peconic Bay before a Navy Board of Inspection consisting of five officers led by Rear Admiral Frederick Rodgers. HOLLAND VI performed to the full satisfaction of the Board, and was immediately offered for sale to the Navy for $160,000.
Within the Navy, opposition remained strong to spending money on a craft whose wartime potential appeared so limited. Accordingly, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company concluded it would be expedient to sent the submarine to Washington for demonstrations before various members of Congress and other officials in support of the company’s lobbying activities. After a leisurely journey which included an inland passage across New Jersey on the Delaware and Raritan Canal, down the Delaware River, through the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal into Chesapeake Bay and up the Potomac River, HOLLAND moored at the Washington Navy Yard on Christmas Eve, 1899.
As soon as test ranges were established in the Potomac River, HOLLAND was ready to display her unique capabilities. Both the general public and the national press were much taken by the drama of the submarine. Crowds of people thronged to view the boat and to talk to members of the crew, whose adventures under the ocean in a sealed tin can seemed outrageously risky. The thought that this tiny boat might actually be able to sink a capital ship engaged the imagination of the country. It was David and Goliath all over again, and nearly everyone was cheering for David.
Several underway demonstrations were conducted in March and April 1900, but perhaps the most important of these occurred on 14 March when Admiral George Dewey and his staff, members of both the House and Senate Naval Affairs Committees, and the Assistant Secretary of the Navy sailed down the Potomac in the yacht JOSEPHINE and the naval gunboat SYLPH to watch HOLLAND perform. Admiral Dewey’s flag secretary, Lieutenant Harry H. Caldwell (later to become the submarine’s first Navy skipper), was embarked in HOLLAND, having received permis-sion to observe the operation of the boat from within. The boat and its crew flawlessly performed the routines of diving, running submerged, firing a torpedo and surfacing; favorably impressing the distinguished spectators. The Spanish-American War was recent history, and its recollection caused many of the officials to ponder on what might have been if Spain had possessed and deployed such a weapon. Later, Admiral Dewey would state in testimony before the House Committee on Naval Affairs that if the Spanish squadron at Manila Bay had included two such craft his fleet would have been in an untenable position.
HOLLAND VI was purchased by the U.S. Navy on 11 April 1900, the date since celebrated as the birthday of the Submarine Force. The purchase contract also called for construction of an additional submarine of improved design, and for training a Navy crew. HOLLAND arrived at the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island on 24 June 1900 and was officially delivered to the Officer-in-Charge by Captain Frank T. Cable, the civilian trial crew skipper.
June 1900 was an important month in the early history of American submarine development. Not only did the Navy take possession of its first submarine, but Congress during the same month appropriated funds for construction of a class of five improved Holland type submarines.
These events marked the peak of John Holland’s distinguished career as a submarine designer and builder. It had taken 25 years of painfully slow progress for him to translate his vision of a practical undersea boat into reality. A persistent man with a dream, John Holland never lost sight of it, or lost faith in his ability to achieve it. A capable engineer, he was quick to recognize the value of new technology as it evolved and to adapt it to his purpose. He early noted the potential of the internal combustion engine for surface propulsion, coupled with a storage battery for use submerged, over existing steam system designs. Unfortunately, Holland was not a particularly astute business
man. In 1893 he had formed the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company with himself as Manager, issuing stock to raise money. Five years later when HOLLAND VI showed its potential he found he had lost control of the company and with it his patents. In the epochal month of June 1900 incident to a company reorganization, he was demoted from General Manager to Chief Engineer. Thereafter John Holland’s influence in the company dwindled, while the company focused on marketing its proven design around the world.
HOLLAND VI stands as a monument to its creator’s depth of vision, perseverance and engineering acumen. The submarine of today bears an uncanny resemblance to his HOLLAND VI. The hull shape based on a body of rotation, single screw, minimal superstructure, diving procedure philosophy and weapons systems (including missile tubes) are examples of features command on HOLLAND VI and SEAWOLF. John Holland would have applauded the advent of nuclear power, that major technical advance which sundered the submarine’s ties to the ocean surface. If he had lived long enough he might have invented it.