Recent news stories and pictures of the two-man submarines the Japanese used against the United States Fleet at Pearl Harbor took the writer back to one day last summer when he stood on the town wharf at Milford, Connecticut, and listened to Simon Lake, “the father of the submarine,” as he told of the first submersible he tried out in near-by waters with himself and a companion for crew.
Lake’s crude little craft was hardly comparable to the tiny submarine American naval officers had an opportunity to examine after it had been cast up on the beach at Oahu, the bodies of its crew—an officer and one enlisted man—tangled in its machinery. And yet, viewing the appearance of the little naval weapon from one angle, history has repeated itself, and confirmation has been provided for the contention that all this talk about Axis powers having dreadful new weapons in their bag of tricks is not based on sound reasoning.
Land battles of World War I saw the use of tanks and planes to the limit of their capabilities. Subsequent years brought development and improvement of both weapons. Then Germany simply coupled the two into an efficient team for blitz warfare. By the same token, Nazi submarine men, mindful of the experiences of U-boat commanders in World War I, have discarded the old idea of the individual commerce-raiding cruise in favor of hunting in packs with a resultant higher bag of cargo tonnage sunk. And again the aircraft teamed with another offensive weapon so that many a merchantman that escaped the torpedo fell victim to the air bomb. The use of the two offensive weapons in combination constituted another progressive step.
Modern naval warfare actually has brought few new ideas in classes of ships from those of the days of sail and tiers of guns peering belligerently from the square ports of the wooden hull. The uses of a nation’s armed vessels must inevitably remain the same. Only their designs, protective characteristics, prime movers, and weapons improve through the years.
The aircraft carrier, of course, has no counterpart in the wooden battle line, but there were escort ships or gun-brigs. There were the fast, fine-lined, tail-sparred sloops of war, the destroyers of their era. Frigates were the forebears of the modem cruiser and it is not hard to trace the evolution of the high-sided ship of the line to the North Carolinas and Washingtons of today.
And strange as it may seem, the ancestors of the modem fast, shallow-draft mosquito craft came into the United States Navy as far back as 1799. True, those ancestors were only a pair of 12-gun schooners, the Experiment and Enterprise, but a narrative of their careers shows a distinct trend toward that harrying, stinging attack on heavier ships that marks the usage of the present-day, infinitely faster mosquito craft.
The two schooners had exceptionally tall spars and their fine-lined hulls showed a remarkable turn of speed for their day when their great sail area went to work under the impulse of a favorable wind. They could turn like lightning and many a naval officer of those days, astounded at the shoal waters they could navigate, was wont to assert that it took “little more than a heavy dew to float them.”
Because they were small their batteries did not mount many guns. But they were heavy pieces, and no ship of their class and era possessed equal offensive power. Their crews were distinctive, too. Like the mosquito craft of today they attracted that class of seamen who counted headlong action far above the discomforts of a vessel that heaved and bucked, reared and plunged dizzily in a sea that would give a ship of the battle line scarcely any motion.
Young, resourceful lieutenants handled the Experiment and Enterprise, and several of these went from their small quarterdecks to fame. David Porter was the Experiment's first lieutenant when she sailed on her initial tour of duty late in 1799, joining Commodore Talbot’s squadron on the Santo Domingo station. Charles Stewart took command of her late in 1800, on his way to becoming one of the Constitution’s fighting captains.
The short naval fracas with the French ended in 1801 and President Jefferson ordered the Navy reduced to 13 frigates, so the Experiment was sold out of the service with more than 30 other small frigates, brigs, sloops, and schooners. But the President specifically ordered that the Enterprise be retained on the Navy List, for “her gallant career has appealed to the sentiment and affection of the people.”
Lieutenants John Shaw and Andrew Sterrett were the early captains of the Enterprise who saw her through her frequent passages at arms with the French privateers that lurked among the West Indies islands. Then the little ship served in the Tripolitan naval campaigns with Stephen Decatur in command. William Burrows was captain of the Enterprise through most of the War of 1812, until he lost his life in action with H.M.S. Boxer. The American ship’s first lieutenant, Edward McCall, brought her into Portland, Maine, with her prize.
Then Renshaw took command and the Enterprise cruised off the southern coast making several captures of British transports, supply ships, and privateers, the most notable being the big privateer Mars of 14 long nines and 75 men. She was chased by frigates on several occasions and once the chase became so hot that all but two of her guns were thrown overboard to lighten the little ship and even then only a shift in the wind saved her. After the war, the Enterprise, unfit for further cruising, ended her days in the naval service as a guardship at Charlestown.
The Experiment, when she reported for duty fresh from her builders’ hands, found Commodore Talbot’s broad pennant flying from the Constitution, 44-gunned “Old Ironsides.” With the big frigate were the General Greene, 28, Boston, 28, Patapsco, 20, and Augusta, 14, watching the sea area off Santo Domingo and around Puerto Rico for the French privateers that were playing hob with American West Indies commerce.
Talbot promptly sent off the new schooner to look into the Bight of Leogane off the north shore of the island of Gonaive, where she found four American merchantmen. A dead calm compelled the Experiment to anchor with them and the five ships shortly were objects of an attack by 10 barges filled with armed negroes and mulattoes that put out from a small inlet. The schooner’s well-served guns and crew of 70 men beat off the attack, saving two of the ships, but the other two were abandoned after the crews had reached the war vessel, for they had drifted out of the protecting range of the Experiment’s battery.
The schooner suffered damage in spars, rigging, and sails and had two slightly wounded, one being Lieutenant Porter. Her captain, Lieutenant William Maley, dismayed by the size of the enemy force, favored surrender, but was prevented from hauling down his flag by Porter and the crew. Maley turned over command of the Experiment to Porter who fought the ship with great gallantry. There was no subsequent investigation of Maley’s conduct for he resigned his commission a few months later.
With Lieutenant Stewart in command, and Porter still first lieutenant, the Experiment, repaired and fit for more trouble, returned to duty by summer and was sent cruising independently off Guadeloupe. Action was soon forthcoming. She took the French privateer Deux Amis, 8, after a 10-minute exchange of shots. A few days later she found her speed her salvation when she was chased by a 16-gun brig and the Diana, 8, a fast-stepping, three-masted schooner which drew ahead of her slower consort. When enough distance intervened, Stewart turned on the Diana suddenly and captured her with little trouble.
The Experiment recaptured a number of American merchantmen that had been prizes of privateers, and marked the latter part of her service by the longest action of her career—a 4-hour night battle with the heavily armed British privateer Louisa Bridger. The tragic mistake in the nationality of the privateer was discovered only after she had surrendered.
The Enterprise had a longer and more adventurous record. In 1800, with Lieutenant Shaw in command, the speedy little schooner snapped up the French privateers Le Cygne, 4, Citoyenne, 6, L’Aigle, 10, and Flambeau, 12. The last, a brig, put up a bitter 20-minute battle off Dominica, before surrendering a dismasted wreck.
Shaw took three more privateers before ill-health compelled him to turn over the Enterprise to a new captain, Lieutenant Sterrett, who had little time to wait for action. He fought a 12-gun privateer lugger for two hours off St. Bartholomew until rocks close aboard to leeward forced the man-of-war to haul out, and the lugger escaped to St. Martin’s with 50 casualties and her mizzenmast and bowsprit shot away. The Enterprise had only one man wounded, sustained little damage, and shortly after captured the privateer L’Amour de la Patrie, 6.
The doughty little ship, kept on the Navy List by her popularity with the people of the nation, saw a lot of hard service in the war Tripoli declared against the United States on May 10, 1801. She reached Gibraltar in July of that year as a part of Commodore Dale’s squadron. Dale, flying his broad pennant in the President, 44, also had the Philadelphia, 36, and Essex, 32, with which to enforce a blockade on Tripoli late in August.
The Enterprise varied the monotony of service as a messenger and water-carrier between the squadron and Malta, by capturing the polacre Tripoli, 14. The engagement involved three hours of chasing and fighting, and she captured her quarry close under the loom of the land regardless of shoals and mounted tribesmen on shore popping at her with their long guns.
Since the squadron had orders not to take prizes, Sterrett stripped the Tripoli of everything except one old sail and spar and sent her into port, much to the annoyance of the Pasha. Congress eventually voted Sterrett a sword and its thanks, while officers and men of the Enterprise were awarded an extra month’s pay.
Commodores Richard V. Morris, Edward Preble, and John Rodgers succeeded Dale in command of the squadron. Heavy frigates came and went between the States and the blockading line off Tripoli. The Philadelphia was lost to the enemy, then burned by the daring men of the Intrepid, and finally naval authorities came to the conclusion that small ships could blockade more effectively. Enemy commerce had dwindled to the little coasters, so the Enterprise, with the 16-gun-brigs Siren, Argus, and Scourge, and the schooner Vixen, 12, assumed the business of gathering in these small craft creeping along the coast.
Outside lay the Constitution, flying the broad pennant and ready for the heavy work should her brood of daring mosquito craft happen to flush quarry too big for them to handle. Peace was signed on June 10, 1805, and Lieutenant Stephen Decatur brought the Enterprise home for a much- needed refit after five years of foreign service.
The War of 1812 found the little ship still ready for action, but the Navy Department, forgetful of her handiness and speed, changed her into a brig and crowded her decks with a battery of 16 guns, the added weight making her cranky and hard to handle. She was slower under her new rig, but she went to war against Britain, serving faithfully, slipping in and out of British blockading lines that held several of the few American frigates in port.
The Enterprise captured a number of prizes—supply ships, a transport or two— but did not square off against a man-of- war foe until she met the Boxer, a 14-gun brig, off Pemaquid Point on the coast of Maine, September 5, 1813. The resultant action was bitter and lasted for an hour before the Briton surrendered. Both Lieutenant William Burrows, commanding the Enterprise, and Lieutenant Samuel Blyth, captain of the Boxer, were dead of wounds when victor and vanquished reached Portland Harbor. They lie side-by-side to this day in a Portland churchyard, while descendants of the little Enterprise and Experiment, fast, hard-hitting mosquito craft, guard our coasts and commerce against the foes of the nation.