Inside the Turtle
By Dan R. Arman
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It was hard work pedaling by candlelight. After three hours, the muscles in Ezra’s arms were already beginning to ache, but the pilot pressed on. His little one-man submarine bobbed on the surface of the water like a cork.
Fortunately, Ezra could see his goal was not far off. The Redcoats had set up a blockade of New York Harbor in 1776. For months, no supplies or food had been able to reach the city by sea. The commander of the British naval forces, Lord Howe, had also anchored his flagship, the Eagle, in the harbor. Ezra’s mission was to slip his sub underneath the Eagle and plant an explosive devise on the hull of the ship under cover of darkness. The explosive would be powerful enough to blow a gaping hole on the bottom of the ship. If everything went according to plan, the Eagle would sink within minutes. The blockade could be broken. But things were not going according to plan.
“One, two, one, two,” Ezra said as he pedaled furiously. The key to piloting the little sub was timing one’s breathing with pedaling the screw-shaped oar with the arms. Ezra had to keep his feet firmly on the pedals below him. The pedals controlled the rudder that steered the sub.
Ezra decided he was close enough to the British ship and snuffed out his candle. The pilot knew that the Redcoats wouldn't be looking for a submarine. They would never have seen one before. The lobsterbacks were in for a big surprise when this Yankee boat attacked them from underneath, like an angry shark.
Ezra’s sub was the very first of its kind. They called it the Turtle, but it may as well have been called the Egg, for that’s what it was shaped like. It was designed so that the pilot sat on a chair in the middle of the ship. A weight made of lead kept the entire ship upright in the water.
Ezra hadn't been the first pilot of the Turtle--or even the first Ezra to pilot it. The first pilot had been the designer’s brother, Ezra Bushnell. He and David, the designer, had worked hard on the sub. They had put it on plenty of test runs up in Connecticut before deciding it was time to use it in combat. Unfortunately, the other Ezra contracted a fever and died only yesterday. Ezra Lee was chosen from among 20 volunteers to replace the inventor’s fallen brother. He had trained in the Turtle a few weeks before the mission, but didn't nearly have as much experience working the tough Atlantic currents as the Bushnells. Still, Ezra was in peak physical condition and a tough naval officer. You have to have a strong character to survive on an American warship and endure the hardships of the sea.
Ezra pulled the hatch above him closed. It was now time to submerge. The pilot turned a crank that opened a valve to the ballast tanks. Ezra could hear and feel the rush of water entering the tanks. The Turtle slipped beneath the waves.
Ezra re-lit the candle in his cockpit and watched the needle on his depth gauge.
“Five feet, six feet, ten feet, fifteen feet,” Ezra counted off to himself.
When the Turtle reached twenty feet down, he shut off the ballast valve. Ezra returned to his pedaling. He had to be mindful of his compass so that he didn't run off course. And now time was against him as well as the current. He had thirty minutes to attach the bomb to the Eagle and get to a safe distance. After that, there would not be enough air to breath in the little sub. New York Harbor would become Ezra’s grave.
At last sight, the Turtle had been 500 yards off the Eagle’s port bow. One of the most important things Ezra had to learn from practice was measuring distance underwater. If it wasn't timed perfectly, the Turtle could emerge short of its target or on the other side of the ship. The enemy might then spot the sub.
Ezra’s best guess was to count the number of times he pedaled. He also had to estimate how hard the current was pushing against or with the submarine. Finally, when he figured he was directly beneath the ship, it was time to work the pumps. The pumps groaned as he worked them with his feet. Slowly, water was being forced out of the ballast tanks and the Turtle was rising.
Suddenly, with a clang, the Turtle struck the British ship. But Ezra’s heart sank. He had been hoping for a thud. That would have meant he had struck wood. A clang meant that he had hit metal, possibly the ship's rudder or an iron band holding the ships wooden planks together. Ezra couldn't attach the bomb to metal with his drill. There had to be wood.
The pilot worked the pedals furiously and tried to reposition the Turtle underneath the Eagle. He couldn't seem to find a wooden spot where he could drill. Finally, with his air almost gone, Ezra finally headed away. But he wasn't about to give up.
The Turtle surfaced for air directly behind the Eagle. Then, it quickly ducked under again, barely making a sound. This time, when Ezra came up under the British ship, he felt a scraping. He may have hit wood.
Ezra started up the drill, but after a few minutes he realized he wasn't getting anywhere. There was still metal blocking his efforts. The pilot backed the Turtle away from the ship’s hull and surfaced again.
By now, Ezra noticed the new day was about to break. He could see the shoreline of Governor’s Island. Ezra was sure that any British troops posted as lookouts there could see him as well. Also, the current was beginning to shift. The tide was pushing away from the shore. If he wanted to ever get back to base, Ezra had to start back now or risk being pushed out to sea and lost forever.
Just as he thought of this, the pilot spotted a British patrol boat headed from the north. They had spotted him, and would probably capture him in minutes if he did nothing. Ezra’s only advantage was that the British probably didn't know what it was they were looking at or if he was hostile.
Ezra thought about making a race for the shore. But he was exhausted and light-headed from being deprived of air. His body was slick with sweat and he would not be able to peddle as fast as the British sailors could row. Submerging was out of the question because Ezra was sure he would pass out if he had to go under again. But he still had the bomb.
Thinking quickly, Ezra set the timer for as long as he could and then released it into the water. The summoned all the strength he had left and pedaled for shore. Seconds ticked by like hours. Still, he didn't think he could get away fast enough from the bomb and the British patrol ship.
At last, an enormous explosion caused a bulge of water to rise high into the air. The British ship, which had closed to just a hundred yards astern, was lifted into the sky and nearly tipped over. The surprised British sailors scampered and shouted aboard their flooded vessel. They had completely forgotten about Ezra and his little Turtle.
--- Dan R. Arman