What’s in a dive boat’s name? The origins of “Plunger”

“Plunger?  Why Plunger?!”

Captain Rod Brandenburgh has been asked that question ever since he named his first dive boat Plunger  in 1977 or so.  The name “Plunger” was a suggestion from a local ad man and friend of Dr. Brandenburgh (Capt. Rod’s Dad).  According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Plunger is defined as follows:

Plunger noun

            : one that plunges:

            a : diver

            b : a reckless gambler or speculator

            c (1) : a sliding reciprocating piece driven by or against fluid pressure; especially: piston

(2) : a piece with a motion like that of a ram or piston

            d : a rubber suction cup on a handle used to free plumbing obstructions

However the name was recommended for the dive boat as a reference to the first submarine commissioned for the United States Navy. In March of 1893, congress authorized the first submarine to be built for the United States Navy.  John P. Holland won the Naval design competition for his sleek  85′ long (with an 11’6″ beam) steam-powered  submarine.  According to Holland’s design Plunger would make 15 knots at the surface and at depth, a respectable 8 knots. The Navy awarded  the contract to Holland’s firm, the Holland Torpedo Boat Company, on March 13, 1895.  USS Plunger would be (SS-1). America’s first submarine was in production.

In an ironic twist, Holland soon realized that steam power was unsuitable in a submerged environment and he abandoned construction of Plunger in favor of another submarine, Holland, powered by a gasoline engine, which he funded personally. (Gray 1985, 127) The Navy cancelled the contract for Plunger‘s construction in April 1900 prior to her completion. That same month, it purchased Holland and commissioned her as its first Naval Submarine the USS Holland (SS-1).

USS Plunger (SS–2) was laid down in May 1901 at the Crescent Shipyard located in Elizabethport, New Jersey who was subcontracted by J. P. Holland Torpedo Boat Co. The submarine was completed and launched February 1, 1902. Plunger was sponsored by Miss Ernestine Wardwell. She was 64′ long with a 12′ beam and could dive below the surface for short periods of time compared to modern submarines.

USS Plunger reported to the Naval Torpedo Station at Newport, Rhode Island and operated around Provincetown and Newport. She ran test dives and did experimental work on machinery, armaments, and tactics giving the Navy invaluable information on the new science of submarine watercraft and warfare. Perhaps her greatest contribution was as a training vessel for some of America’s first submariners.

President Theodore Roosevelt was so impressed with the new naval weapon that he determined to see it at work in person. With the President on board, Plunger made a dive on March 25, 1905. Reporting the adventure, Roosevelt declared,  “Never in my life have I had such a diverting day nor so much enjoyment in so few hours.”

After overhaul at New London, Plunger was decommissioned on  November 3rd, 1906. She was put back into service on February 23, 1907, to join the 1st Submarine Flotilla with Porpoise (SS–7) and Shark (SS–8). The boat continued operations with this flotilla along the Atlantic coast for the next several years.

In May 1909, Ens. Chester Nimitz, who would win undying fame in World War II as Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, took command of USS Plunger. In September, she steamed to New York for the Hudson-Fulton celebration. On November 6th 1909, Plunger decommissioned and went into reserve at Charleston. Assigned to the Reserve Torpedo Division 12 on April 17, 1910, the boat was re-named A–11 November 17, 1911.

A–1 was struck from the Navy List  February 24, 1913 and used as a target until sold 26 January 1922.

>From the “Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships,” (1970) Vol. 5, pp.329-330.