USS PORPOISE (SS-7) was laid down at Crescent Shipyard in Elizabeth, NJ, on 13 December 1900, just eight months after the United States Submarine Force was born. After her commissioning on 19 September 1903, PORPOISE experimented with the launching of torpedoes and served as a training platform for new officers. Then, only five years into her life, she was decommissioned, partially disassembled, and loaded onto a collier alongside her sister sub, USS SHARK (SS-8), for transport to the Philippines. By the end of 1908 she had been recommissioned.
In April of 1909, PORPOISE received a new commanding officer, Ensign Kenneth Whiting, a 1905 graduate of the Naval Academy. On the fifteenth, Whiting took the boat out with his crew of six, none of whom knew that the dive they were about to undertake would not be strictly routine. In the middle of Manila Bay, Whiting submerged his boat and waited until she leveled off on the bottom, 20 feet down. (The depth does not seem substantial until one considers the fact that the boat’s test depth was only somewhere between 30 and 70 feet.) Then the commanding officer revealed his plan.
PORPOISE, a PLUNGER-class boat, was very small: only 64 feet long and 12 feet at diameter and weighing in at under 110 tons. She was not even big enough to house her crew; instead, the men lived aboard USS ELCANO (PG-38), a gunboat that had been captured from the Spanish during the Spanish-American war. Because submarine technology was, at the time, very primitive, PORPOISE’s level of safety was also questionable, especially when she was submerged. If the boat were to sink or be rendered incapable of surfacing, there was no guarantee that the crew would be able to make it out alive. Ensign Whiting felt that he had a solution to this potential problem—the boat’s 18-inch-wide torpedo tube. Whiting believed that it was possible for a man to escape from a sub through that narrow hole in the hull and he was prepared to test that theory himself.
Relinquishing control of PORPOISE to his crew, Whiting opened the inner door of the tube and squeezed himself inside; he reached forward and held onto the crossbar that braced the outer door. The crew closed the inner door behind him and then opened the outer, sending water rushing into the tube. His hold on the crossbar drew Whiting forward until his forearms up to his elbows were outside the tube. Once the pressure equalized, which happened quickly given the small size of the tube, he was able to shimmy the rest of the way out and pop to the surface, where the boat met him moments later. The entire evolution took just 77 seconds. In the log, he described the event thusly: “Whiting went through the torpedo tube, boat lying in [the] water in [a] normal condition, as an experiment….” He passed the word of the escape along to his flotilla commander, but sought no further recognition for the accomplishment—he was apparently happy simply to prove that it could be done.
PORPOISE, renamed A-6 on 17 November 1911, remained in the Philippines through World War I, during which she patrolled the entrance to Manila Bay and escorted ships into and out of the port. She was decommissioned on 12 December 1919 and sunk as a target in July of 1921.
Whiting would go on to command three other submarines before finding his true passion: aviation. He learned to fly in 1914, becoming Naval Aviator #16; he was the last officer to be taught by Orville Wright. During World War I he commanded the 1st Naval Air Unit in France before shifting to Naval Air Stations 14 and 15 in England. He was awarded the Navy Cross for his service. During that time, he began to advocate for the creation of what was known as a “plane carrier,” a ship capable of launching aircraft. When the Navy converted a collier, USS JUPITER (AC-3), into its first aircraft carrier, USS LANGLEY (CV-1) in 1920, Whiting became the first commanding officer. When the first airplane was catapult-launched off LANGLEY’s deck, Whiting was at the plane’s controls. He continued to shape the future of naval aviation until his death in 1943. Eight months after his passing, USS KENNETH WHITING (AV-14), the lead ship of a class of seaplane tenders, was commissioned.