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Design, Construction, and Naming Notes

These Holland/EB design harbor defense boats were the first production class ordered by the USN. They were enlarged and improved versions of the USS Holland. Plunger was the first boat authorized, but her construction was delayed while the Navy worked to resolve the contractual issues of the earlier, unsuccessful, and never completed steam-powered Plunger of 1891. Thus, Adder was the first boat commissioned and the class was originally referred to as the Adder class. The new Plunger, along with Adder, Moccasin, Porpoise, and Shark were built at Lewis Nixon's Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, NJ. Grampus and Pike were built at Union Iron Works in San Francisco, the first submarines to be built on the west coast.

There was an eighth member of the class. Named Fulton, it was essentially a prototype used to test equipment used in the rest of the boats, and to prove out the design. It was built solely with Electric Boat Company funds, and it was hoped that the Navy would buy it. Bureaucracy prevailed and no naval appropriations were earmarked for it so the company, anxious to recoup their investment, sold it to Russia.

This class created the paradigm for submarine design worldwide. Its "advanced" qualities were undeniable and it became a standard on which many countries judged their own designs. Direct copies were purchased by the navies of the United Kingdom, Japan, and Russia. Although quickly superseded by rapid technological developments, the A-class legacy lasts to the present day.

This class originally carried the names of fish/marine and stinging creatures. On November 17, 1911 they were all renamed into the A-class. Additionally, on July 17, 1920 the boats remaining on the Navy List (either active or reserve) had their designations changed from the general submarine series into the SS series. Plunger had been stricken from the Navy List in 1913 and thus was never officially redesignated.

Plunger/A-1 (Submarine No. 2)

Page From 1906 edition of Navy Today in the Private Collection of Ric Hedman
Page From 1906 edition of Navy Today in the Private Collection of Ric Hedman
Plunger in drydock, possibly at Norfolk Navy Yard, VA., late fall 1905. She was likely being prepared for a two year period of inactive reserve. The men shown topside are most likely civilian yard workers, as none of them are wearing a uniform. The rectangular torpedo loading hatch is open on the forward deck. On the far right in the photo, the boat's single torpedo tube outer door is open.

See more A-1 photos

Adder/A-2 (Submarine No. 3, later SS-3)

Library of Congress photo
Library of Congress photo
Adder under tow, most likely on Long Island Sound en-route to New Suffolk on Great Peconic Bay where the Holland Torpedo Boat Company had its operating facility. The date is likely the late summer of 1901. Adder was built at the Crescent Shipyard in Elizabethport, NJ., owned by Lewis Nixon, who was a subcontractor for John Holland. The tow cable can be seen on the right side of the photo. The three men on deck are HTBC employees. The man in the center has the topside helm or steering wheel in his hands and is no doubt keeping the submarine steady and stopping it from tracking back and forth as it is being towed.

See more A-2 photos

Grampus/A-3 (Submarine No. 4, later SS-4)

Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman.
Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman.
Grampus running builder's trials in San Francisco Bay until the purview of Union Iron Works company staff. It is likely a few members of the boat's Navy crew were onboard to observe. Two men are sitting on the coaming of the conning tower hatch. A horizontal helm wheel has been installed and one of the men is steering the boat using this wheel. The man actually steering appears to be wearing a Navy style cap and might be the prospective commanding officer, LT Arthur MacArthur, Jr., the brother of the future Army general.

See more A-3 photos

Moccasin/A-4 (Submarine No. 5, later SS-5)

Photo NH 107060 courtesy of NHHC.
Photo NH 107060 courtesy of NHHC.
A-4 moored at her berth at the Cavite Navy Yard, Philippines, circa 1911-1917. The purpose of the box structure on her forward deck and the elongated bridge platform is not known. The boat could not dive with this much clutter topside, so it may have been put temporarily in place while the boat made an extensive surface run to conduct an engine endurance test. The box would have also obstructed the torpedo loading hatch. Note also that A-4 has been fitted with a removeable false bow, intended to keep the deck and the low conning tower a little drier while running on the surface. The boat is trimmed down aft, not an unusual condition for these boats, especially if they were not carrying any torpedoes.

See more A-4 photos

Pike/A-5 (Submarine No. 6, later SS-6)

Photo courtesy of Darryl Baker.
Photo courtesy of Darryl Baker.
This photo of Pike was taken in the San Francisco Bay area, (possibly Mare Island), and has Ensign Kirkwood H. Donavin and six crew topside to pose for the camera. Photo date is the late summer of 1911.

The helmsman, standing next to Donavin, seems to be smoking a pipe. Note that the shaft for the helm extends down into the pressure hull. It mates up to the below deck helm. The topside helm is removable and was usually stored outboard the torpedo tube inside the hull. The man standing at the left and leaning on the jackstaff looks to have pinned the commissioning pennant so it wouldn’t flap in his and the others faces.

The two men in shadow in front of the bridge seem to be officers and more likely are day riders. The flag at the top of the periscope looks to be a Squadron flag and has the numeral “1” on it. One of the men may be the Commodore of the 1st Submarine Group, Pacific Torpedo Flotilla, Ensign James Perdue Olding and possibly his aide. One man is wearing a necktie and both are wearing officer's caps. There looks to be one Chief topside. The crew was mostly made up of rated personnel. The Navy was taking only volunteers and the most experienced in their rates at that time. The Chief standing between the two ventilators is either GMC Raymond Ryan or EMC William H. Essig. These two men were known to have been aboard during the time frame of this photo but no identified images of either man has been found.

The tall “pole” is the periscope. These early periscopes were fixed in place and only pointed forward. They did offer some protection allowing the submarine to be deeper and not needing to broach to see out of the deadlights in the conning tower.

At the base of the periscope is the magnetic compass binnacle. They were placed above and as far away from the steel hulls as possible. The compass was viewed through a series of mirrors. Just behind the conning tower near the “X” bracing for the bridge is the ship's air whistle.

See more A-5 photos

Porpoise/A-6 (Submarine No. 7, later SS-7)

Photo NH 98836 courtesy of NHHC.
Photo NH 98836 courtesy of NHHC.
A-6 preparing to get underway from the Cavite Navy Yard, Philippines, approximately 1912. The entire canvas bridge structure and awning would have to be disassembled and taken below before the boat dived, so perhaps she is headed out on a surface patrol. There is a large box sitting on her forward deck, similar to the A-4 photo above. Its purpose is unknown. Just aft of the conning tower fairwater is the Allied Signal Bell, an early underwater signaling device.

See more A-6 photos

Shark/A-7 (Submarine No. 8, later SS-8)

Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman
Photo in the private collection of Ric Hedman
A-7 with her crew on deck, Manila Bay, Philippines, approximately 1915. Most of the A-class boats had a false bow fitted to improve seakeeping, and A-7 is sporting one here. The boat's single, fixed eyepiece periscope is mounted aft of the conning tower. The eyepiece did not rotate so the operator had to turn the whole boat in order to look to either side. Even with this limitation, the periscope was a tremendous advantage over having to periodically pop to the surface to see where you were going.

See more A-7 photos

General A-class and group photos

Photo NH 90185 courtesy of NHHC
Photo NH 90185 courtesy of NHHC
Three A-class submarines in the Dewey Drydock at Subic Bay, Philippines, approximately 1912. Left to right: A-6, A-4, and A-2. At the far left is the bow of the steam sloop-of-war USS Mohican, by this time relegated to a station ship and tender to the A-boats.

USS Dewey (Drydock No. 1, later YFD-1) was a fixture in Subic Bay for over 37 years. She provided invaluable repair services to dozens of Asiatic Fleet ships and submarines during her career. She was scuttled by U.S. forces to prevent capture in early 1942, but was raised and reconditioned by the Japanese. She was sunk a 2nd time by U.S. forces in 1944 and destroyed.

See more General A-class and Group photos

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