The Daring Gambler Held All the Cards – The Plunger Legacy

There are few other submarine names that show the progression of the growth of America’s submarine propulsion power as clearly as the family of boats named Plunger

I wanted to end Submarine Month (April 2020) with a classic story and a tribute to one of the most decorated submarines of the Cold War at the time of her retirement. From the early days of experimentation as a small steam powered vessel to the efficient nuclear power that propelled her most current generation, Plunger lived up to her name as a Daring Gambler. As you will read, when it came to propulsion systems, this Gambler would hold all the cards.


A Submarine Torpedo Boat Glides Down the Ways.

Rolls Violently and Gives Men on the Superstructure a Ducking.

Holland’s Second Steel Fish Will Soon Be in Readiness for Modern Warfare.

BALTIMORE, MD, Aug. 7 – Amid a din of cheers and shrieking steam whistles the Holland submarine torpedo-boat Plunger glided down the ways of the Columbian Iron Works at noon to-day. As she struck the water she rolled violently from side to side, and the men on her superstructure, who had volunteered to go with her on her first plunge, clung to the mast, which bore the stars and stripes and the navy “jack.”

Several ladies screamed in fright, but after a second or two the steel fish slowly righted and rested with about a third of her body above the waterline. On a platform erected beside the port bow stood Miss Ernestine Wardwell and her father, Colonel Wardwell. In her right hand Miss Wardwell held a bottle of champagne decorated with ribbons of the National and Maryland colors. The moment the vessel moved she shattered the bottle against the bow and said: “I christen thee Plunger.”

A cheer arose from the assemblage, which for an hour previous had been pouring through the gateway of the iron works. Then everything ashore and afloat in the neighborhood that possessed a steam whistle blew it in salute of the strange new craft. The tug Mohawk was in waiting in the stream, and towed the Plunger back to the works. W. O. Beckenbaugh then mounted a platform and sang verses composed for the occasion. The first was to the Plunger, the second to William Malster, president of the Columbian Iron Works, and the third to John P. Holland, the boat’s inventor. The Plunger is not regarded so efficient as the Holland, launched in Elizabeth, N. J., last spring. She can only use torpedoes from two tubes in her bow in warfare. The Holland not only has a torpedo tube in the bow, but an aerial gun in the bow and a submarine can in the stern. The Plunger is simply a submarine torpedo-boat. The Holland can fight most destructively probably when running on the surface, being capable of hurling dynamite cartridges through the air for a mile or more.

Plunger, the first submarine torpedo boat to be built for the Navy, was authorized by Congress 3 March 1893; a contract for her construction was awarded to Holland Torpedo Boat Co. 13 March 1895. However, the boat and the contract were cancelled in April 1900.

The flaw in the first Plunger was a design feature that was inserted by the Navy. Steam.

A small boiler requiring all of the associated equipment (including a smoke stack that was foldable) provided the motive power underway on the surface.

From a contemporary newspaper article about the boat: The first part of the submerged run is made with steam, but in about one minute the pressure in the boiler is exhausted and the temperature greatly reduced. Steam is then shut off. The large dynamo started and the friction clutches on the engine screw shafts opened. The vessel can then proceed on the submerged run with the power derived from the storage batteries.

By 1900, it was obvious to all that steam power on the Plunger was a non-starter. So by April, just as the Navy was signing the contract for the Holland Boat, the first Plunger was written off as another failure.

The Next chapter: Plunger I (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2) 1903–1921

A Presidential Impact

(From the Navy Heritage Page)

(Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2: displacement 107; length 63’10”; beam 11’11”; draft 10’7″; speed 8 knots (surfaced), 7 knots (submerged); complement 7; armament 1 18-inch torpedo tube; class Plunger)

Plunger (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2) was laid down on 21 May 1901 at Elizabethport, N.J., by the Crescent Shipyard of Lewis Nixon, a subcontractor for the John P. Holland Torpedo Boat Co. of New York; launched on 1 February 1902; sponsored by Miss Ernestine Wardwell of Baltimore, Md.; and commissioned at the Holland Company yard at New Suffolk, Long Island, N.Y., on 19 September 1903, Lt. Charles P. Nelson in command.

Assigned to the Naval Torpedo Station, Newport, R.I., for experimental torpedo work, Plunger operated locally from that facility for the next two years, a period of time broken only by an overhaul at the Holland yard at New Suffolk between March and November 1904. Besides testing machinery, armament, and tactics, the submarine torpedo boat also served as a training ship for the crews of new submersibles emerging from the builder’s yards.

In August 1905, Plunger underwent two weeks of upkeep before clearing the yard on 22 August, towed by the tug Apache, bound for Oyster Bay, where she would conduct trials near the home of President Theodore Roosevelt. Upon her arrival that afternoon, the submarine torpedo boat moored alongside the tug and prepared for a visit by the Chief Executive. Her crew busily cleaned all stations and painted the outside of the boat.

The following morning, beneath leaden gray skies, Plunger charged her batteries, then got underway, and made a series of five short dives before returning alongside Apache to recharge batteries for three and a half hours. At 3:30 p.m. that afternoon, the President came on board Plunger, which stood down the bay and made a series of dives before returning to moor alongside the tug almost two hours later. Roosevelt spent almost another hour on board the submarine before he disembarked.

Roosevelt’s novel voyage prompted much interest. On 6 September, the President wrote from Oyster Bay to Hermann Speck von Steinberg: “I myself am both amused and interested as to what you say about the interest excited about my trip in the Plunger. I went down in it chiefly because I did not like to have the officers and enlisted men think I wanted them to try things I was reluctant to try myself. I believe a good deal can be done with these submarines, although there is always the danger of people getting carried away with the idea and thinking that they can be of more use than they possibly could be.” To another correspondent he declared that never in his life had he experienced “such a diverting day . . . nor so much enjoyment in so few hours . . . .”

Decommissioned on 3 November 1905, Plunger remained inactive until recommissioned on 23 February 1907, Lt. Guy W. S. Castle in command. On 7 March 1907, she was assigned to the First Submarine Flotilla, based at the New York Navy Yard, joining sister ships Porpoise (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 7) and Shark (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 8). On 3 May 1909, Ens. Chester W. Nimitz, the future fleet admiral — who would later say that he considered the submarines of the time “a cross between a Jules Verne fantasy and a humpbacked whale” — assumed command of Plunger. That September, the submarine torpedo boat visited New York City to take part in the Hudson-Fulton celebrations.

Reassigned to the Charleston (S.C.) Navy Yard, Plunger reached that port on 24 October 1909 and moored alongside the gunboat Castine, the parent ship for the Atlantic Submarine Fleet. Shortly thereafter, Castine’s medical officer, Assistant Surgeon Micajah Boland, inspected Plunger and two other submarine torpedo boats. His report graphically described living conditions on these boats.

He found “. . . their sanitary condition to be far from satisfactory, notwithstanding the fact that they had been at sea only about forty-five hours.”

“One officer and a crew of 10 or 12 men,” he continued, “had been living, that is, sleeping, cooking, eating, and answering the calls of nature aboard each of these boats in addition to performing their duty navigating them. Being small, they pitch and roll considerably in a smooth sea, and about half the crew become seasick, due largely to the foul air in the boats; when the sea is moderately rough, practically the whole crew is seasick. Food has to be carried in crates and, when preparing for a cruise of several days, cramps very much the already overcrowded boat; even the cooked meats soon spoil, increasing the foulness of the air, and the use of the toilet, which is only screened off, adds to the unpleasant odor. The small electric stoves with which the boats are supplied cannot furnish heat enough, hence they are cold and damp at certain seasons of the year and, in rough weather when water is shipped down the conning tower hatch, which must be kept open, they are wet and extremely uncomfortable. These conditions are a serious menace to the health of the members of the crew; there seems to be no remedy for them on prolonged cruises.”

Surgeon Boland recommended that cruises be limited to 36 hours and that when not underway the crews of the submarines, “except those absolutely necessary to be on the boats” live on board the “parent ship.”

Assigned to the Reserve Torpedo Division on 12 April 1910, Plunger was renamed A-1 (Submarine Torpedo Boat No. 2) on 17 November 1911. Stricken from the Naval Vessel Register on 24 February 1913 and having been authorized for use as an “experimental target,” the submersible was designated as “Target E” on 29 August 1916. Ultimately hoisted on board the hulk of the former monitor Puritan, the partially dismantled torpedo boat was authorized for sale on 25 August 1921, on an “as is, where is” basis. She was sold for scrap on 26 January 1922.

The New Plunger Fights: The Second World War

USS Plunger (SS-179), a Porpoise-class submarine, was the second ship of the United States Navy to be named plunger after a diver or a daring gambler. Unlike most American submarines of the day, she was not named for a fish or other sea-dwelling creature. Plunger received 14 battle stars for World War II service.

Built before the war started, this Plunger was one of the first boats to respond to the Japanese attack at Pearl Harbor. She sailed all the way through the war and earned those battle stars. She was used for training after the war until decommissioned. I will do a more thorough job of recording her history at a future date.

The Final Chapter- USS Plunger SSN 595

The newest Plunger in the family joined a fast growing response to the Soviets in the Cold War.

Thresher Class Attack Submarine: Laid down, 2 March 1960, at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, CA.; Launched, 9 December 1961; Commissioned, USS Plunger (SSN-595), 21 November 1962; Decommissioned, 3 January 1990; Struck from the Naval Register, 2 February 1990; Laid up at Bremerton Naval Shipyard; Final Disposition, entered the NPSSRP (Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program) at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, Bremerton, WA., 5 January 1995 and completed 8 March 1996.

Specifications: Displacement, Surfaced: 3,540 t., Submerged: 4,200 t.; Length 278′ 5″; Beam 31′ 8″; ; Speed, Surfaced 15 kts, Submerged 28+ kts; Operating Depth 400′; Complement, 143; Sensors, Raytheon BQS-6A or -6B active/passive systems BQQ-1 and the Edo BQR-7 passive, conformal array, TB-26 Towed Sonar Array; Armament, four 21″ torpedo tubes, forward, MK 48 torpedoes, UUM-44A SUBROC, UGM-84A/C Harpoon, MK 57 deep water mines, Mk 60 CAPTOR mines; Propulsion System, one S5W nuclear reactor, two Westinghouse steam turbines, one propeller 15,000 shp.

From the “Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships,”

(1970) Vol. 5, p.330. PLUNGER

Plunger: A diver, a daring gambler.


Displacement: Surfaced: 3,700 t. Submerged: 4,300 t.

Length: 278’6”

Beam: 31’8”

Speed: 20+ k.

Complement: 100

Armament: 4 21” torpedo tubes


The third PLUNGER (SSN-595) was authorized as an SSGN but was laid down as an SSN 2 March 1960 at Mare Island Shipyard, Vallejo, Calif.; launched 9 December 1961; sponsored by Mrs. Clinton P. Anderson; and commissioned at Mare Island 21 November 1962, Comdr. William M. Adams in command.

Following a trip to Puget Sound 27 November to test torpedo tubes and sound gear, PLUNGER departed Mare Island 5 January 1963 for shakedown to Pearl Harbor. PLUNGER next was homeported at Mare Island and operated to test the performance of sonar and the fire control system. In April she changed homeport to Pearl Harbor, where she became flagship of ComSubDiv 71, 1 April.

Continuing in a testing capacity, PLUNGER evaluated the most advanced class of nuclear attack subs. Operating off the U.S. west coast during the spring and summer, she proceeded to Wake Island 15 September 1964 for SubRon Operational Evaluation missile firing.

At Pearl Harbor again in January 1965, PLUNGER was selected to demonstrate the capability of the Navy’s latest ASW weapon system to Dr. Donald Hornig, Special Assistant to the President for Science and Technology. At Wake Island in May, PLUNGER participated in C/S-17, the SubRon Operational Training Test. In September, she prepared for WestPac deployment, which continued into mid 1966. During this deployment, PLUNGER conducted evaluation exercises of AN/SQS-36 sonar and traveled as far east as Okinawa and Subic Bay. She also conducted ASW exercises and executed oceanographic and port surveys.

At Pearl Harbor with SubRon 7 in 1967, PLUNGER operated to improve the ASW readiness of the Pacific fleet; from 6 to 22 March, she participated in ASW exercises and later continued in advanced type-training work. During inport periods at Pearl Harbor, PLUNGER provided services to Fleet Training Program Pearl Harbor. Homeporting at Puget Sound the last 6 months of 1967, PLUNGER returned to Pearl Harbor

1 February 1968 and continues operations with the Pacific Fleet into 1970.

USS Plunger underwent a refit in Bremerton from 1980-1982 receiving several modernizations including the BQQ-5 Sonar System. She returned to San Diego after sea trials in 1983. She deployed to Westpac from January – June 1984 participating in two long operations during the deployment. She was involved in a collision with a freighter off Southern California while coming to periscope depth in early 1985 which damaged portions of her bow and sonar dome. These repairs required an unscheduled drydock during the spring of 1985.

In 1986 Plunger won the Marjorie Sterrett Battleship Fund Award, becoming the first warship to win both the Sterrett and the Arleigh Burke Awards. In this year, too, Plunger made yet another deployment to the Western Pacific, making port calls in Yokosuka, Japan and Subic Bay in the Philippines as well as visiting Hong Kong as a liberty port. During the 1986 WestPac Plunger participated in naval exercises with ships from the US, Japan, and other nations as well as a ten-week “special operation”, for which it was awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation. After returning from the WestPac Plunger conducted normal operations in the SoCal Operational Area for the next several months.

The next few years saw a number of other accomplishments – Plunger was recognized for excellence in virtually every major inspection and won the Battle Efficiency (the coveted “Battle E”) award for overall combat readiness. Although aging, Plunger maintained a grueling operational schedule, spending over 60% of her time at sea and never missing a scheduled underway period – a record that many much newer submarines were unable to match.

Plunger made her final WestPac deployment in 1988, visiting Japan and the Philippines as well as Guam and Chinhae, South Korea (and making port calls in Okinawa and Hong Kong) and conducting another two-month “special operation” that garnered her a Navy Unit Commendation. This WestPac was followed by another fairly intense period of routine operations out of San Diego and, in December 1988, departure for her final “special operation” – this time keeping her crew at sea over Christmas, New Year’s Day, and (to the disappointment of the crew) Super Bowl Sunday. This special operation ended with Plunger completing its final Operational Reactor Safeguards Examination (which it passed with flying colors) and giving its crew some well-earned R&R in Pearl Harbor Hawaii.

[Deactivated, in commission, on 10 February 1989, PLUNGER was formally decommissioned on 3 January 1990 and stricken from the Navy Register the following 2 February. She went through the Navy’s Nuclear Powered Ship and Submarine Recycling Program at Bremerton, Washington between 5 January 1995 and 8 March 1996. Upon completing the program, the vessel ceased to exist as a complete ship.

At the time of decommissioning Plunger was noted by the San Diego Tribune as being the most-decorated submarine in the Pacific Fleet and it was the most-decorated warship in San Diego. Through its history, Plunger was awarded four Navy Unit Commendations as well as multiple Meritorious Unit Commendations, Battle Efficiency, and other awards. And as of its retirement Plunger was the only submarine to win the Arleigh Burke Award (in 1969 under Commanding Officer Nils Thunman).

A fine legacy for a fine name.

Oil fired Steam, Gasoline, Diesel and finally Nuclear power all played a role in the lives of these boats called Plunger. It will be interesting to see if any other boats had all of the same series of progressive propulsion. As far as I have seen so far, the name Plunger is the only one that crosses all of the propulsive platforms. I guess that will have to be a lookup.

Mister Mac

8 thoughts on “The Daring Gambler Held All the Cards – The Plunger Legacy

  1. Nothing was said concerning that while leaving the Bay Area for sea trials she lost her screw and had to be towed back to Mare Island early in her life.

    1. Well, you just mentioned it so there you are. Also not mentioned was that time during WW2 that the second Plunger fell off the blocks onto its side into the drydock. That will probably be covered in the next article about the WW2 boat.

    1. John, The life of any submarine contains many chapters. I am always interested in hearing about the ones that are missing. But I rarely intentionally neglect any story. Especially one that I did not find in my research. The focus on this story was on the different types of power plants for the generations of Plunger. Thanks for the feedback.

    2. Thank you for pointing this out, though I see from the authors comments that the 1970s were skipped for a reason. I am Al Wilderman’s son, and curious to know if you knew him or maybe served on the ship with him?

    1. Ernest, the life of every submarine contains many chapters. I try and research those chapters using open sources. Since the story was really about the transition of submarine power plants from the early days to the advent of nuclear power, it was not my intent to cover every year the boat was in service. But thanks for the feedback.

  2. Another interesting fact is that during the last 5 yrs of SSN 595’s active service, she won the Battle E 4 out of the 5 yrs. Based on the crew’s outstanding performance of 100% on time departures and excellent scores on all examinations in the 4th yr, they should have won it that yr as well, but the theory was that awarding the Plunger the Battle E 5 yrs in a row would have been extremely demoralizing to the rest of the squadron. Also, the year that the crew was awarded the last N.U.C., it was actually nominated for a P.U.C. for it’s performance on WESTPAC but it was later changed to a N.U.C. somewhere up the chain of command.

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