A diver, a daring gambler.
Plunger, the first submarine torpedo boat to be built for the Navy, was authorized by the Congress on 3 March 1893; and a contract for her construction was awarded to Holland Torpedo Boat Co., on 13 March 1895. The boat and the contract were cancelled, however, in April 1900.
(Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2: displacement 107; length 63'10"; beam 11'11"; draft 10'7"; speed 8 knots (surfaced), 7 knots (submerged); complement 7; armament 1 18-inch torpedo tube; class Plunger)
Plunger (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2) was laid down on 21 May 1901 at Elizabethport, N.J., by the Crescent Shipyard of Lewis Nixon, a subcontractor for the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Co. of New York; launched on 1 February 1902; sponsored by Miss Ernestine Wardwell of Baltimore, Md.; and commissioned at the Holland Company yard at New Suffolk, Long Island, N.Y., on 19 September 1903, Lt. Charles P. Nelson in command.
Assigned to the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I., for experimental torpedo work, 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 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 1905, 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, Plunger charged her batteries, then got underway, and made a series of five short dives before returning alongside Apache to recharge batteries for three and a half hours. At 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, the President came on board Plunger, which stood down the bay and made a series of dives before returning to moor alongside the tug almost two hours later. Roosevelt spent almost another hour on board the submarine before he disembarked.
Roosevelt's novel voyage prompted much interest. On 6 September, the President 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 . . . ."
Decommissioned on 3 November 1905, Plunger remained inactive until recommissioned on 23 February 1907, Lt. 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, joining sisterships Porpoise (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 7) and Shark (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 8). On 3 May 1909, Ens. Chester W. Nimitz, the future fleet admiral -- who would later say that he considered the submarines of the time "a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale" -- assumed command of Plunger. That September, the submarine torpedo boat visited New York City to take part in the Hudson-Fulton celebrations.
Reassigned to the Charleston (S.C.) Navy Yard, Plunger reached that port on 24 October 1909 and moored alongside the gunboat Castine, the parent ship for the Atlantic Submarine Fleet. Shortly thereafter, Castine's medical officer, Assistant Surgeon Micajah Boland, inspected 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 largely 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 the boats" live on board the "parent ship."
Assigned to the Reserve Torpedo Division on 12 April 1910, Plunger was renamed A-1 (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 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 the former monitor Puritan, the partially dismantled torpedo boat was authorized for sale on 25 August 1921, on an "as is, where is" basis. She was sold for scrap on 26 January 1922.
Updated by Mark L. Evans
25 June 2018