In August 1900, Congress approved a contract for six improved Holland (SS-1) type submarines each to cost no more than $170K. In October 1900, a seventh submarine was approved. These were laid down 1900-01 by Crescent Shipyards, Elizabeth NJ and Union Iron Works, San Francisco CA and joined the fleet 1903-04. An eighth unit, Fulton, was ordered by Electric Boat to full naval specifications, and served as a prototype.
The Holland boat Fulton was the invention of John P. Holland, and the result of twenty-five years of experimenting, nine experimental boats having been built before this persistent and courageous inventor produced a craft that came up to his ideals. The steel boat, built like a whale but with a prow coming to a point, manned by a crew of six, travelling at an average rate of eight knots an hour, armed with five Whitehead torpedoes.
The conning towers of the submarines show but a foot or two above the surface--a sinister black spot on the water, like the dorsal fin of a shark, that suggests but does not reveal the cruel power below; for an instant the knob lingers above the surface while the steersman gets his bearings, and then it sinks in a swirling eddy, leaving no mark showing in what direction it has travelled.
The boat started in with her deck awash--that is, with two or three feet freeboard or of deck above the water-line. In this condition she could travel as long as her supply of gasoline held out--her tanks holding enough to drive her 560 knots at the speed of six knots an hour, when in the semi-awash condition; the lower she sank the greater the surface exposed to the friction of the water and the greater power expended to attain a given speed.
The captain and crew, six men in all, entered the Fulton through the round hatch in the conning
tower that projected about two feet above the back of the fish-like vessel. Each man had his own particular place aboard and definite duties to perform, so there was no need to move about much, nor was there much room left by the gasoline motor, the electric motor, storage batteries, air-compressor, and air ballast and gasoline tanks, and the Whitehead torpedoes. The captain stood up inside of the conning tower, with his eyes on a level with the little thick glass windows, and in front of him was the wheel connecting with the rudder that steered the craft right and left; almost at his feet was stationed the man who controlled the diving-rudders; farther aft was the engineer, all ready for the word to start his motor; another man controlled the ballast tanks, and another watched the electric motor and batteries.
With twenty feet of salt water above her and as much below, this mechanical whale cruised along with her human freight as comfortable as they would have been in the same space ashore. The vessel contained
sufficient air to last them several hours, and when it became vitiated there were always the tanks of compressed air ready to be drawn upon.
The seven Holland boats built for the United States Navy, of which the Fulton was a prototype, carry five of these torpedoes, one in the tube and two on either side of the hold, and each boat is also provided with one compensating tank for each torpedo, so that when one or all are fired their weight may be compensated by filling the tanks with water so that the trim of the vessel will be kept the same and her stability retained.
These boats (later A-1 through A-7, designated SS-2 through SS-8)12 were essentially enlarged versions of Holland VI with a more powerful four-cylinder Otto-cycle gasoline engine - 64 feet long, 123 tons submerged displacement, and 180 horsepower. Their nominal submerged endurance was four hours, and they carried a single 18-inch torpedo tube forward with three torpedoes. Five were laid down at the Crescent Shipyard and two at the Union Iron Works in San Francisco, and the last of them (Plunger and Shark) were commissioned in September 1903. These boats - and Holland - provided the Navy's pioneer submariners their initial entrée into the world of undersea warfare.
Electric Boat was forced to turn to foreign business to remain afloat, largely by licensing the right to build overseas variants of Holland's Adder design. Britain's Vickers Sons & Maxim, Ltd., which had purchased an interest in the Company, built five of these, including the Royal Navy's first submarine, Holland I, launched in October 1901, only a few months after Adder herself. Similarly, the Russians built six Adder variants under license, and the Dutch, one - their first submarine O-1 - completed in 1906. Additionally, Japan ordered five prefabricated versions, built for Electric Boat at the Fore River (Massachusetts) Shipbuilding Company and assembled in Japan in 1905. Counting Fulton, this meant that within five years, fully 25 of Holland's A-class submarines were serving worldwide.
The successful outcome of the Spanish-American War in 1898 and the subsequent acquisition of the Philippine Islands gave the United States an even greater stake in the western Pacific. Accordingly, the Navy established a major operating base and repair facility at Cavite in Manila Bay, which would serve the Asiatic Squadron and its successor, the Asiatic Fleet, until the beginning of World War II. At the turn of the 20th century, the Asiatic Squadron consisted largely of a handful of ex-Spanish gunboats - prizes from the recent war with Spain - several light cruisers, and two monitors. Within only two years of the end of the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Navy's first submarine, USS Holland (SS-1) had joined the fleet, and by 1908 there were a dozen in commission, all built to John Holland's basic design and powered by gasoline engines. Moreover, as a result of America's growing interest in the western Pacific, two of these early boats - A-6 (originally USS Porpoise, SS-7) and A-7 (originally USS Shark, SS-8) - arrived in the Philippines in July of that year as deck cargo on the collier USS Caesar (AC-16). This was the very first overseas deployment by U.S. submarines. In October 1909, they were joined by A-2 (originally USS Adder, SS-3) and A-4 (originally USS Moccasin, SS-5), also carried across the Pacific in Caesar's well deck, and collectively they constituted the First Submarine Division of the Asiatic Torpedo Fleet, based at Cavite and Olongapo.
Originally known as the Plunger class, these submarines became known as the "A" class in November 1911, when the Navy did away with submarine names. They were designated A-1 thru 7. In July 1920 they received the designations SS-2 through 7.
Plunger (SS-2 / A-1) was decommissioned in 1910 and employed thereafter as an experimental target for Navy divers. The remainder were decommissioned 1919-21.
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