Submarine USS A-1 (SS-2) - Ship's History

By: Robert Loys Sminkey,

Commander, United States Navy, Retired

The first USS A-1 (Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 2) was the submarine torpedo boat originally laid down as USS Plunger (Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 2) on 21 May 1901 at Elizabethport, New Jersey, by the Crescent Shipyard of Lewis Nixon, a subcontractor for the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Company of New York; christened by Miss Ernestine

Wardwell of Baltimore, Maryland, and launched on 1 February 1902; and commissioned at the Holland Company yard at New Suffolk, Long Island, New York, on 19 September 1903 with Lieutenant Charles P. Nelson in command.

When commissioned, USS A-1 (SS-2)...USS Holland was SS-1 - the U.S. Navy's first commissioned submarine...displaced 107 tons; was 63'10" in length; had a beam of 11'11"; drew 10'7" of water when in diving trim on the surface; could make 8 knots at speed on the surface and 7 knots submerged; was manned by 7 officers and men; and was armed with one 18-inch torpedo tube. USS A-1 was the lead ship of the Plunger Class.

Assigned to the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island, for experimental torpedo work, USS Plunger operated locally from that facility for the next two years, a period of time broken only by an overhaul at the Holland yard at New Suffolk between March and November of 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.

In August of 1905, USS Plunger underwent two weeks of upkeep before clearing the yard on 22 August, towed by the tug "Apache," bound for Oyster Bay, where she would conduct trials near the home of President Theodore Roosevelt. Upon her arrival that afternoon, the submarine torpedo boat moored alongside the tug and prepared for a visit by the Chief Executive. Her crew busily cleaned all stations and painted the outside of the boat.

The following morning, beneath leaden gray skies, USS Plunger charged her batteries, then got underway, and made a series of five short dives before returning alongside "Apache" to recharge her batteries for three and a half hours. At 1530 that afternoon, the President came on board USS Plunger, which then stood down the bay and made a series of dives before returning to moor alongside the tug almost two hours later. President Roosevelt spent almost another hour on board the submarine before he disembarked.

Teddy Roosevelt's novel voyage prompted much interest. On

6 September, the President wrote from Oyster Bay to Hermann Speck von Sternberg: "I myself am both amused and interested as to what you say about the interest excited about my trip in USS 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..." Teddy was the first U.S. president to ride in a submarine.

Decommissioned on 3 November 1905, USS Plunger remained inactive until recommissioned on 23 February 1907 with Lieutenant Guy W.S. Castle in command. On 7 March 1907, she was assigned to the First Submarine Flotilla, based at the New York Navy Yard...the Brooklyn Navy Yard...joining sisterships USS Porpoise (Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 7) and USS Shark (Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 8). On 3 May 1909, Ensign Chester W. Nimitz, the future Fleet Admiral--who would later say he considered the submarines of the time "a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale"--assumed command of USS Plunger. That September, the submarine torpedo boat visited New York City to take part in the Hudson-Fulton celebrations.

Reassigned to the Charleston (South Carolina) Navy Yard, USS Plunger reached that port on 24 October 1909 and moored alongside gunboat USS Castine, the submarine tender for the Atlantic Submarine Fleet. Shortly thereafter, USS Castine's medical officer, Assistant Surgeon Micajah Boland, inspected USS Plunger and two other submarine torpedo boats. His report graphically described living conditions on these boats. He found " ... their sanitary condition to be far from satisfactory, notwithstanding the fact that they had been at sea only about forty-five hours."

"One officer and a crew of 10 or 12 men," he continued, "had been living, that is, sleeping, cooking, eating, and answering the calls of nature aboard each of these boats in addition to performing their duty navigating them. Being small, they pitch and roll considerably in a smooth sea, and about half the crew become seasick, due largly to the foul air in the boats; when the sea is moderately rough, practically the whole crew is seasick. Food has to be carried in crates and, when preparing for a cruise of several days, cramps very much the already overcrowded boat; even the cooked meats soon spoil, increasing the foulness of the air and the use of the toilet, which is only screened off, adds to the unpleasant odor. The small electric stoves with which the boats are supplied can not furnish heat enough, hence they are cold and damp at certain seasons of the year and, in rough weather when water is shipped down the conning tower hatch, which must be kept open, they are wet and extremely uncomfortable.

These conditions are a serious menace to the health of the members of the crew; there seems to be no remedy for them on prolonged cruises."

Surgeon Boland recommended that cruises be limited to 36 hours and that when not underway the crews of the submarines, "except those absolutely necessary to be on boats" live on board the "parent ship" (Submarine Tender).

Assigned to the Reserve Torpedo Division on 12 April 1910, USS Plunger was renamed USS A-1 (Submarine Torpedo Boat Number 2) on 17 November 1911. Stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 24 February 1913 and having been authorized for use as an "experimental target," the submersible was designated as "Target E" on 29 August 1916. Ultimately hoisted on board the hulk of former monitor

USS Puritan, the partially dismantled submarine was authorized for sale on 25 August 1921, on an "as is, where is" basis.

USS A-1 (SS-2) was sold for scrap on 26 January 1922.