Military Milestones from the Turtle to 9/11

This Week in American Military History:

Sept. 7, 1776:  Just before dawn, an odd-looking barrel-shaped craft silently makes its way down the Hudson River from Manhattan toward a British warship, HMS Eagle, anchored in New York Harbor.

The craft, designed by Yale graduate David Bushnell and christened “Turtle,” is piloted by a Continental Army sergeant who is hand-cranking two screws for propulsion. As the Turtle nears its target, the pilot opens a valve allowing enough water into a small ballast tank, increasing the weight of the craft and causing it to slip beneath the surface. Maneuvering underwater, the pilot positions his craft below the Eagle then attempts to bore a hole through the enemy hull.

If everything goes according to plan, a timed explosive-device will to be placed into the hole. The device will then detonate after the Turtle makes its escape.

The operation, however, will not be successful, as the pilot will be unable to drill through a layer of copper sheathing on the enemy hull. But the bold attempt will go down in history as one of America’s great Naval milestones.

Bushnell’s Turtle is not the first functional submarine in history (Dutch inventor Cornelius Drebbel’s “underwater boat” successfully navigated a portion of England’s Thames River in 1623). But the Turtle is the first-ever submarine to be used as an attack platform in combat.

Sept. 8, 1781:  Continental Army forces under the command of Maj. Gen. Nathaniel Greene clash with British forces under Lt. Col. Alexander Stewart in the Battle of Eutaw Springs (S.C.).

Which of the two armies will actually gain the tactical advantage will be debated into the 21st century. But it will in fact prove to be a strategic victory for the Continentals as the British — bloodied, though not quite as severely as the Continentals — will be forced to abandon much of their previously gained ground in the South.

Sept. 9, 1776:  The United Colonies are renamed the United States.

Sept. 9, 1943:  American and British forces begin hitting the beaches at Salerno, Italy in Operation Avalanche.

One U.S. sailor describing the landings will say: “German planes would come out of the sun and strafe the beaches … The German pilots [were] almost at eye level as they went up the beaches. If you were caught in the open, all you could do was to fall on your face and pray. There was no cover.”

Sept. 11, 1777:  British forces under the command of Gen. William Howe decisively defeat Continental forces under Gen. George Washington. Though a British victory, Howe is stunned by the tenacity and resistance of his American foe.

Sept. 11, 1814:  American forces under the command of U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb and U.S. Navy Capt. Thomas MacDonough decisively defeat British forces “on land and lake” in the Battle of Plattsburgh (also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain) during the War of 1812.

Sept. 12, 1918
:  Battle of St. Mihiel (France) opens between Allied American-French forces (primarily U.S. Army and Marine forces under the overall command of U.S. Army Gen. John J. “Black Jack” Pershing) and Imperial German Army forces under Gen. Johannes Georg von der Marwitz.

In the afternoon, Lt. Col. (future four-star general) George S. Patton — destined to lead America’s first tank attack against the enemy — and Brig. Gen. (future five-star general) Douglas MacArthur will meet on the battlefield, and according to the U.S. Army Historical Foundation: “The lieutenant colonel [Patton] sported a Colt .45 pistol with an ivory grip and his engraved initials. A pipe was clenched in his teeth. The brigadier [MacArthur] wore a barracks cap and a muffler his mother knitted for him. As they spoke to each other, a German artillery barrage opened up and began marching towards their position. Infantrymen scattered and dove for cover, but the two officers remained standing, coolly talking with each other.”

U.S. Marine Gen. John A. Lejeune, will describe his personal experience of the battle: “In war, if a man is to keep his sanity, he must come to regard death as being just as normal as life and hold himself always in readiness, mentally and spiritually, to answer the call of the grim reaper whenever fate decrees that his hour has struck.”  

Sept. 11, 2001:  Islamist terrorists inspired and led by Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden hijack and crash two commercial airliners into the World Trade Center. A third slams into the Pentagon. A fourth crashes into the Pennsylvania countryside during a brave attempt by American passengers to retake the aircraft.

Sept. 12, 1942
:  Battle of Bloody Ridge opens on Guadalcanal (see next week).

: “This Week in American Military History,” appears every week as a feature of HUMAN EVENTS.

Let’s increase awareness of American military tradition and honor America’s greatest heroes by supporting the Medal of Honor Society’s 2010 Convention to be held in Charleston, S.C., Sept. 29 – Oct. 3, 2010 (for more information, click here).