In New York Harbor near midnight on Sept. 6, 1776, Army Sgt. Ezra Lee crept out of a small rowboat into an egg-shaped wooden vessel and fastened the hatch over his head. For the first time in the history of naval warfare, an enemy ship was about to be attacked by a submarine -- in this case, two shell-shaped wooden halves fastened together with iron bands and covered completely with a thick coating of waterproof pitch.
Lee, of Old Lyme, Conn., was the first and only pilot of what is often called the first submarine — David Bushnell's American Turtle, built in Saybrook, Conn., in 1775. Originally, Bushnell's brother Ezra had been slated to launch an attack against the British in July, but the tides had been unfavorable, and Ezra Bushnell had fallen ill. Ezra Lee, selected from a group of volunteers, had reportedly trained for two months before the Sept. 6 operation.
The attack was against the 64-gun British warship Eagle. Inside the Turtle, Lee pedaled a contraption not unlike a modern bicycle to bring the vessel to the British ship's side, when tides swept him past his target. He had to wait for the tides to reverse before he could try to fix a torpedo to the Eagle's hull. Kept upright by a lead weight in its bottom, the Turtle contained enough air for only about half an hour, so Lee's time was limited. He tried in vain to drill into the enemy's hull to attach the limpet charge, but a metal plate prevented his screws from entering. Lee, having consumed his air, was forced back to the surface.
The exhausted Lee then pumped out all his ballast water and began pedaling back to shore. The top of the strange little craft bobbed out of the water, and the British sent out a boat to investigate. Desperate to escape that patrol and to lighten the Turtle, Lee released a time-operated torpedo. Picking up speed with that weight gone, he pedaled furiously and reached safety at The Battery.
While this might have seemed an inglorious finish, the torpedo's later explosion startled the British fleet, causing them to raise anchors and flee to the lower bay. Some historians maintain that this prevented them from blockading New York Harbor — thus Lee, through his last-ditch attempt to stay afloat, may have turned the tide of battle.
Few details of Ezra Lee's life or career can be discovered, but his role in this fascinating chapter of American naval history is well documented and proves him a stalwart, courageous figure.