HARTFORD, Conn. — Sgt. Ezra Lee of Lyme piloted the first combat submarine during the early days of the American Revolution, wedging his body into a wildly inventive, one-man vessel that plunged into New York Harbor with the goal of blowing up a British warship.
Designed in the early 1770s by Yale College student David Bushnell of Saybrook, now known as Westbrook, the "Turtle" resembled two joined half-barrels, with enough room inside for one person.
The contraption was outfitted with a brass cover at the top with several portholes, a rudder on its backside and a forward-facing propeller. Inside, the Turtle was guided by a water-filled tube, or barometer, to determine depth and a compass for navigation. Both could be seen using foxfire, a type of bioluminescent fungus in decaying wood.
"There was difficulty in, simply, one man had to do everything," said Amy Trout, curator at the Connecticut River Museum, which has a replica of the Turtle.
"You had to be turning cranks to move the ship up and down," Trout said. "You had to turn enough different cranks to move it back and forth. So he had to have two arms cranking different ways at the same time."
Designed as an attack vessel, the Turtle's exterior was equipped with a large screw that could be twisted into the planks of a ship's hull. The screw was tethered by a rope to a mine, which was essentially an oaken keg with 150 pounds of gunpowder and a timing device fashioned with the assistance of a clockmaker, said author Roy R. Manstan of East Haddam.
"That timing mechanism was set, and I believe it was for about a half an hour, but the clock didn't start ticking until he released the mine," Manstan said.
Manstan is a mechanical engineer and Navy-trained diver who, along with Old Saybrook High School teacher Frederic J. Frese, wrote the book, "Turtle: David Bushnell's Revolutionary Vessel," published in 2010.
The Turtle required a skilled and muscular operator. Bushnell intended for his brother, Ezra Bushnell, to pilot the Turtle, but the brother fell ill. Lee was called on as a substitute by Brig. Gen. Samuel Holden Parsons, Lee's brother-in-law.
On the evening of Sept. 6, 1776, whaling boats towed the Turtle, with Lee inside, toward the British fleet and set him loose to sabotage British Admiral Lord Richard Howe's flagship, "Eagle."
Lee wrote about his voyage in a letter dated Feb. 20, 1815: "The Moon was about 2 hours high, and the daylight about one — when I rowed under the stern of the ship, could see the men on deck, & hear them talk — I then shut down all the doors, sunk down, and came under the stern of the ship, up with the screw against the bottom but found that it would not enter."
He tried screwing the mine into a different part of the ship, but failed again. He came to the surface and considered trying again.
"… but on further thought I gave out, knowing that as soon as it was light the ships' boats would be rowing in all directions, and I thought the best generalship was to retreat, as fast as I could as I had 4 miles to go, before passing Governor's Island…," Lee wrote.
He was going too quickly to use a compass, and instead rose out of the water every few minutes to see if he was heading in the right direction. Zig-zagging in the water, Lee wrote that he attracted the attention of 300 or 400 enemy onlookers, British troops at Governor's Island.
Some of them scrambled into rowboats, chasing him upriver. Lee released the mine in hopes of blasting any pursuers to smithereens. Instead, the pursuers were leery and rowed back to the island. The mine drifted past the island and erupted "with a tremendous explosion, throwing up large bodies of water to an immense height," Lee wrote.
Before there was another opportunity to test the Turtle, the American army had evacuated New York City, retreating north to "Fort Lee," Lee wrote. Subsequent missions to use the Turtle failed because of navigational problems and tides.
Lee recalled one such adventure:
"My intention was to have gone under the ship's stern, and screwed on the magazine [bomb] close to the water's edge, but I was discovered by the Watch and was obliged to abandon this scheme, then shutting my doors, I dove under her, but my cork in the tube, (by which I ascertained my depth) got obstructed, and deceived me, and I descended too deep & did not track the ship …"
In 1785, according to the Navy Department Library, George Washington wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the Turtle, saying, "I then thought, and still think, that it was an effort of genius."
Ezra Lee fought in other Revolutionary battles. He died at 72, on Oct. 29, 1821, and is buried at Duck River Cemetery in Old Lyme.