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Vesuvius

The Vesuvius was an experiment and, unlike many experiments in the Navy was carried through to the bitter end -- even to the test of warfare. The chance was given to prove that the experiment could do just what it was supposed to do. The trouble was that what it was supposed to do was of very little use in warfare.

Lieutenant Edmund Louis Gray Zalinski, of the United States Army, engaged in developing a very novel and formidable weapon of war. It is described in his official report to the Secretary of War as a "pneumatic, dyamite torpedo. do-gun." Capt Edmund Louis Gray Zalinski, credited with developing and perfecting the pneumatic dynamite torpedo gun, served in the 5th U.S. Artillery Regiment from 1866 until his retirement for disability in February 1894. From 1883 to 1888, he served with various batteries of the regiment at Fort Hamilton, and then went to Washington, DC for consultations with the Chief of Ordnance and Chief of Engineers. Afterwards he lectured at the Naval Torpedo Station and Naval War College at Newport, Rhode Island. In 1889, he traveled to Europe to gather military information, returning in 1892 to garrison duty with a battery of the 5th Artillery stationed at the Presidio of San Francisco, California. Soon thereafter he went on extended disability leave. Because he retired in 1894, his continued work with the dynamite gun may have been done in a private capacity.

In 1885 Lieutenant Zalinski began experimenting at Fort Hamilton, in the Narrows, with a novel submarine torpedo boat, the invention of Mr. John P. Holland. The boat can be sunk to any desired depth below the surface of the water, propelled in any direction, and brought to the surface at any time. The boat has a wooden hull, is cigar shaped, and measures 50 feet in length by 8 feet in diameter at the largest part. The floating surface, under ordinary conditions, is 30 feet long. When fitted for actual service, the bow of the vessel will be provided with one of Lieut. Zalinski's compressed air guns for throwing cartridges charged with nitro-glycerine.

The barrel of the 1887 prototype gun was 60 feet long, made of iron tubing, and lined with brass to give a smooth interior. It threw a cylindrical brass or steel torpedo, eight inches in diameter, carrying a charge of 60 pounds of dynamite, a distance of 2 miles. Compressed air, as the name of the gun implies, is the projecting force employed, the rear end of the gun-barrel being connected with an air reservoir, kept under great pressure by an engine and any suitable pumping machinery. The gun is so accurately balanced on its supports, and the mechanical arrangements are so perfect, that but one man is required to aim and fire it.

It was loaded at the breech, and the discharge is effected by a "firing lever," which opens the valves of the reservoir, allowing the highly compressed air to enter the gun behind the torpedo, and as the latter leaves the muzzle the valves close automatically. The charge is exploded by means of an electric fuse, the current for which is derived from a small battery carried within the torpedo. Two forms of this fuse have been designed-one closing the circuit and causing the explosion upon impact with the enemy's vessel, by forcing back a small steel plunger projecting from the extreme forward end of the torpedo; while the other, requiring to be moistened in order to render the battery active, ignites the charge after the torpedo has sunk below the surface of the water.

The final version of the dynamite gun, a 15-inch bore monster, was produced in two versions, one for use aboard the Vesuvius and the other for four coastal defense installations in the United States.

A three-gun battery of pneumatic dynamite torpedo guns was installed at Sandy Hook, NJ, in 1894. Another three-gun battery was placed at Fort Winfield Scott, CA, the next year. Both batteries underwent successful trials. In 1898, according to that year's report of the Chief of Ordnance, the Ordnance Department "placed in serviceable condition the pneumatic-gun batteries at the ports of New York and San Francisco." Two additional batteries of the pneumatic guns were also reported in the process of being manufactured. Three years later, in 1901, the Ord Dept awaited completion of two 15" pneumatic dynamite guns at Fishers Island, NY, and Hilton Head, SC.

The third Vesuvius -- a unique vessel in the Navy inventory which marked a departure from more conventional forms of main battery armament -- was laid down in September 1887 at Philadelphia, Pa., by William Cramp and Sons Ships and Engine Building Co., subcontracted from the Pneumatic Dynamite Gun Co. of New York, N.Y.; launched on 28 April 1888; sponsored by Miss Eleanor Breckinridge; and commissioned on 2 June 1890 at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, Lt. Seaton Schroeder in command.

Vesuvius carried three 15-inch pneumatic guns, mounted forward side-by-side. In order to train these weapons, the ship had to be aimed, like a gun, at its target. Compressed air projected the shells from the "dynamite guns." The explosive used in the shells themselves was actually a "desensitized blasting gelatin" composed of nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine. It was less sensitive to shock than regular dynamite but still sensitive enough that compressed air, rather than powder, had to be utilized as the propellant. Ten shells per gun were carried on board, and the range of flight -varying from 200 yards to one and one-half miles- depended on the amount of air entering the firing chamber.

It was popularly called "The Dynamite Cruiser" but it did not throw dynamite but wet guncotton, the strong explosive of that period. It was designed to throw 250 pounds of gun cotton a distance of one and one half miles or a charge of 150 pounds a distance of two and one half miles and it did that very thing. The only trouble was that, with the daylight there was no chance of getting near enough to shoot a projectile without being sunk a dozen times and at night the search lights again prevented success. Still, she was used, fortunately against an enemy not alert or she would have made one trip only and only one.

The ship was a torpedo boat - not a Destroyer -- and rather a small one at that. Within and a part of the hull were the three guns. These were tubes of about eight inches internal diameter and not very thick and were of brass. They were built in at a low angle and projected above the forecastle deck [near the bow] for a distance of about ten feet and were about four feet high above the deck. They were in the neighborhood of 80 feet long and ran down nearly to the keel of the ship on a slant. The lower parts of the tubes were hinged for a distance of about ten feet so that this last ten feet might be laid horizontally and parallel to the keel. This was done to receive the projectiles when the lower part of the tubes were swung back into position ready for firing.

The projectiles were torpedo shaped, the outer thin covering of metal of the color of a torpedo. Within these was packed the wet gun cotton. At the forward end was an opening in which, just before firing, was placed dry gun cotton. Still, another smaller opening was where a fulminate cap was last screwed in place. The wet gun cotton was absolutely safe, so that rifle bullets had been fired through it without igniting. The dry gun cotton was much less safe and the fulminate was - well fulminate. After the projectile was fired and hit something hard the fulminate set off the dry gun cotton and the dry detonated the wet. An arrangement was made so that, if the projectile hit the water, the explosion would be deferred until the projectile had time to sink to a depth of about ten feet before exploding, thus making a more or less solid background for the detonation to butt against and send its violent tremors in all directions through the water.

The projectile was sent on its way by compressed air. Air pumps of enormous size and weight were installed on board and the air was compressed into tanks to a pressure of 2200 pounds per sq. in. Along the keel were huge tanks about three feet in diameter -- just how long I am not sure but at any rate the main ones were at least 50 feet long. In addition to the main tanks there was one carefully calibrated tank. This was much smaller and about 15 feet long but of the same diameter as the main ones. In this smaller tank was the firing charge. It was filled with the compresed air at 2000 lbs. pressure. Between the firing tank and the guns were large brass pipes, full fifteen inches in diameter and strong enough to withstand this pressure. These pipes led to valves for each gun, so that any one might be fired. At each gun was a huge valve that could be opened suddenly and the compressed air loosed to drive the projectile.

The ship was, of course, aimed for orientation. The distance the projectile went was managed by special valves arranged to cut off the supply of air at the proper time. If full distance was desired the full volume of the firing tank was allowed to rush to the projectile. In other words, it followed full stroke. If a less distance was desired the cut off valves shut off the rush of air at whatever portion of full stroke desired. The calibration for distance was done during many months of experimentation, shots being fired and the distance measured day after until a proper curve was made out for each gun, so that the gunners officer could quickly set the cut off valve for the desired distance. Of course this was on a level, as no earthly way could be to experiment with varying heights and nobody could accurately calculate on the curve of the projectile to determine how to hit an object away from the horizontal. This detail became very important off Santiago, when the only objects to be hit were up in the air.

However, as the result of the long series of experiments a very accurate rate chart was made out and the firing was fair always. It had been found that the probability of hitting a definite spot was three hundred feet either way from the spot. It might be anywhere in that length. Accurate enough for a fort of fair size but not much use for a small object.

After each shot the firing tank had to be filled again to the full pressure of 2000 lbs. When out for business requiring more than three or four shots the pumps were kept going all the time keeping the main storage tanks up to 2200 lbs. if possible. The crew usually fired three shots and the tanks held enough to do that. The last time of all they surprised the Spaniards by firing five shots and the reserve air was enough. Of course it made a great difference whether the shot was for full distance or part stroke.

The projectiles were forward under the berth deck and were laid along in racks parallel to the center line of the ship. Runways and switches were arranged so these projectiles could be moved from their places and let to the proper gun and pushed into the swinging part at the bottom and thus to firing position. As near as I can remember there was room for thirty shells.

Of course the projectiles for the base amount of gun cotton were smaller than the larger ones, the eight inch ones for 250 pounds of guncotton and the six inch held only 150 pounds. When firing the smaller ones there was placed behind the projectile a wooden disc with felt along the edge as a wad to prevent the escape of the air.

As the ordnance officer was down in the bowels, he took his orders to fire from the bridge -- a voice tube connecting. The Captain laid the vessel on the range and gave the order to fire to the ordnance officer. The valves were a peculiar, quick acting affairs that slammed open by force of the compressed air itself and was very ingenious. Also the cut off valve. These details I never knew.

The vessel was very thin and very light and low in the water, as are all torpedo boats. There was a raised forecastle about five feet higher than the main deck that extended from there aft. In this forecastle lived the crew. The boiler and machinery spaces took all the room from deck to keel from the forecastle aft to about the last forty feet which was the officer's quarters. There was a deck house along the center of the ship with passages on either side to the rail. Within this deck house was the chart house under the bridge, the galley and the wardroom with many windows. The bridge was on the top of the deck house. There was about four feet freeboard along the side at the deck house -- a little more forward and less aft.

There were four low type straight away tube boilers, each in a separate compartment with forced draft. The two huge air pumps were aft of the boilers, one above the other and each of the horizontal kind, long and heavy. There were four stages for pressure and when the pump was sending out its air to 2200 pounds pressure it was always possible to light a cigarette from the walls of the last pressure cylinder. These pumps held up as long as needed.

The engines were excellent and were always capable of going the sixteen knots they were designed for. They never gave trouble.

Vesuvius sailed for New York shortly after commissioning and then joined the Fleet at Gardiner's Bay, N.Y., on 1 October 1890. She operated off the east coast with the North Atlantic Squadron into 1895. Highlights of this tour of duty included numerous port visits and participation in local observances of holidays and festivals, as well as gunnery practice and exercises. Experience showed that the ship's unique main battery had two major drawbacks: first, the range was too short; second, the method of aiming was crude and inaccurate.

The vessel had now been in the possession of the Government for three and one-half years, and in case experiments with pneumatic guns show these guns to be of little or no value for naval purposes, it would bo in the interest of economy to transform her into a vessel available for efficient service with as little delay as possible. With this end in view, in December 1893 the Secretary of the Navy recommended that Congress give the Department conditional authority to transform this vessel into a torpedo cruiser. The displacement of the vessel was such thit with her dynamite guns removed a sufficiently powerful battery could be installed to make her a formidable antagonist for unarmored vessels. Her complement was six officers and sixty-four enlisted men, as a dynamite vessel, but if converted into a torpedo cruiser her ship's company will be somewhat modified.

The tests on the Vesuvius had been completed and she was apparently found wanting and was laid up and out of commission on 25 April 1895 for major repairs.

Vesuvius re-entered service on 12 January 1897, Lt. Comdr. John E. Pillsbury in command. The ship got underway from the Philadelphia Navy Yard, bound for Florida, and operated off the east coast through the spring of the following year, 1898. Filibustering became rampant from Florida to Cuba and it would appear that the State Department had to do something about it. So, the Vesuvius was placed in commission in the summer of 1897 for the purpose of lessening this assistance to the enemies of Spain. She was just the ship for the purpose, as she was small and faster than any of the tugs engaged in this work of filibustering.

By this time, American relations with Spain were worsening. The American Fleet gathered in Florida waters, and Vesuvius hurried south from Newport, R.I., and arrived at Key West on 13 May. She remained there until the 28th, when she headed for blockade duty in Cuban coastal waters. Vesuvius performed special duties at the discretion of the Fleet Commander in Chief and served as a dispatch vessel between Cuba and Florida into July of 1898.

On 13 June, Vesuvius conducted the first of eight shore bombardment missions against Santiago, Cuba. The cruiser stealthily closed the shore under cover of darkness, loosed a few rounds of her 15-inch dynamite charges, and then retired to sea. Psychologically, Vesuvius' bombardment caused great anxiety among the Spanish forces ashore, for her devastating shells came in without warning, unaccompanied by the roar of gunfire usually associated with a bombardment. Admiral Sampson wrote accordingly, that Vesuvius' bombardments had "great effect."

After hostilities with Spain ended later that summer, Vesuvius sailed north and called at Charleston, S.C.; New York, and Newport, before reaching Boston. Taken out of active service on 16 September 1898, Vesuvius remained at the Boston Navy Yard until 1904, when she began conversion to a torpedo-testing vessel. Vesuvius lost her unique main battery and acquired four torpedo tubes-three 18-inch and one 21-inch. Recommissioned on 21 June 1905, Vesuvius soon sailed for the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport to begin her new career.

She conducted torpedo experiments at the station for two years until decommissioned on 27 November 1907 for repairs. Recommissioned again on 14 February 1910, Vesuvius remained at Newport for the next 11 years, on occasion serving as station ship, into 1921. Decommissioned and ordered appraised for sale on 21 October 1921, Vesuvius was sold for scrap on 21 April 1922 to J. Lipsitz and Co., Chelsea, Mass.



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Page last modified: 22-07-2011 17:43:26 ZULU