saving sergeant lee   

American Revolution & Innovation
by Eric B. Ramey

Sergeant Lee grips the controls with determination as he works his way into a position to strike at the enemy. 

He is tired, sweaty and stressed.  If caught and taken prisoner, he cannot expect quarter from those he is out to destroy.  He is an American soldier, on his own, deep within treacherous territory.  Sergeant Lee knows he has a new type of weapon in his hands, a weapon that can deal his country’s enemies a blow of revolutionary proportions.  Physically exhausted, he tightens his grip and pushes forward…

234 years later…

In the rugged terrain of Afghanistan, the United States has “rolled out” a revolutionary new weapon, capable of killing an enemy behind cover.  The XM-25 Individual Airburst Weapon System is a new twist on the old concept of the rocket propelled grenade.  It uses “smart” grenades that actually communicate with the gun.  When fired, these grenades travel to the target, gauge the distance using the launcher’s built-in laser, and explode two feet above and behind an entrenched enemy, effectively eliminating the advantage of cover. 

The XM-25 is only the latest example of American ingenuity appearing on the battlefield and changing the way war is waged… 

When the United States was striving for nationhood, she got help from revolutionary individuals who were willing to bring new ideas, and new weapons, into the fight.  David Bushnell was one of these individuals, a man who took an idea, developed a design, built a machine, and became the father of submarine warfare.

Bushnell was born and raised in colonial Connecticut.  The son of a Saybrook farmer, he attended Yale University at the rather advanced age of 31.  During his time as a student, Bushnell became interested in the concept of exploding gunpowder underwater.  Despite academia’s position that this was an impossibility, Bushnell set out to prove it could be done.  Not only did he prove his theory, he showed that the water’s density made the gunpowder even more destructive when submerged. 

Artists rendering of Bushnell’s Turtle

In 1775, Bushnell graduated into a world set upon by revolution and revolutionary ideas.  Determined to lend their talents to the cause of Independence, Bushnell and his brother Ezra offered the Continental forces a one-man submarine they had constructed. The sub had been designed to place a keg full of gunpowder against the hull of an unsuspecting British warship.  Because the little vessel looked like two turtle shells strapped together, Bushnell christened her the “Turtle.”  Measuring roughly 6 feet high and 7 feet long, the Turtle was the technological wonder of its day.  From the propeller, to the pumps, to the clockwork time-delay device in the gunpowder laden keg, most everything in and on the submarine was new, innovative, and temperamental.  However, the real innovation lay in the bomb around which she was designed.  The submarine was only the delivery system for Bushnell’s underwater mine.  Designed with a time-delay clockwork device to trigger a modified flintlock, the bomb was set to explode after the operator of the submarine had screwed it into the underside of an enemy warship and made his escape.

Like today’s XM-25 grenade launcher, the Turtle was not a new idea, but a new twist on an old idea.  Both weapons, it seems, can trace their genesis to the 16th Century.   In fact, it is very probable that Bushnell based his vessel on an earlier submarine constructed and tested in the 1690’s by Denis Papin, a member of the British Royal Society.  In doing so he demonstrated the uniquely American trait of taking existing technology and improving on it.





On the night of September 6th, Sergeant Lee slipped into New York harbor at the helm of a “new fangled” machine designed to destroy the flagship of the British fleet, H.M.S. Eagle.  Eagle was headquarters to Admiral Richard Howe, the brother of General William Howe, and the nautical half of the British duo sent to quell America’s rebellion.  As overall commander of Crown Forces in America, Admiral Howe and his flagship provided a tempting target for General Washington--a target which, if destroyed, might very well break the naval stranglehold held by Britain, or at the very least, give the British pause.

Bushnell’s brother Ezra was originally trained to pilot the submarine.  However, because of sickness, Ezra Bushnell was unable to operate the Turtle.  In his place, Ezra Lee was chosen and trained to take the submarine into combat.

Gripping the propeller crank in his hand, sweat mixed with condensation dripping into his eyes, Lee slowly made his way towards the Eagle.  His mission: sink beneath her, screw the bomb in place, activate the timer, then make his way back.

Given the complexity of the submarine, and the extreme challenge of navigating while essentially blind, there is little wonder that Lee was not successful in fulfilling his mission. Whether or not Sergeant Lee actually made it to H.M.S. Eagle we do not know; we do know that he was not able to attach the clockwork bomb to her hull.  Lee set the timer on the keg of gunpowder and released it into the sea.  It exploded harmlessly, far from where the Eagle gently rocked and tugged on her anchor. 

Interestingly, Bushnell never viewed the submarine as his real triumph.  He was more excited about the clockwork time-delayed bomb.  Despite his modesty, George Washington himself gave the Turtle its highest compliment, stating that “it was an effort of genius.” 

Bushnell went on to become a captain in the Continental Army’s Corps of Sappers and Miners, dying some years later in relative obscurity, under an assumed name. 

Ezra Lee made another attempt to sink a British warship with the submarine and its bomb, but was again unsuccessful.  He ended the war as a captain, and a war hero in his own right, subsequently fighting in the battles of Trenton, Brandywine and Monmouth.  Despite the fact that the Turtle never fulfilled the intent of its inventor, it did pave the way for subsequent American submarines that were successful, culminating in the first destruction of a warship by a submarine during the American Civil War, 87 years later.

The XM-25 may be the next step in weapons innovation.  But, like the Turtle, the XM-25 is a tricky and complex bit of technology.  The laser used for communicating with the round is battery operated.  Should the battery be damaged or lose its charge, the XM-25’s revolutionary capabilities are lost and it no longer functions as a “smart” weapon.  With the battery gone, it is still effective, but only as a traditional firearm. Many things can go wrong under the stresses of battle, nullifying the effectiveness of this new and innovative weapon. However, as with the submarine, constant innovation can lead to consistent success. Two weapons, so different, yet so similar in their contribution to revolutionizing the battlefield.  They are separated by over two centuries and by two very different conflicts, but these uniquely American innovations not only saved Sergeant Lee from historical obscurity, but continue to let all of our modern day Sergeant Lees battle for our freedom.

For past articles go to