Ladies and Gentlemen — Fellow Clansmen:
When I promised the committee to give you this evening a few of my personal reminiscences in the Spanish American and World War, I promised myself to make them as brief as possible and not to bore you. Of course much that was of interest to me as a professional Naval Officer might not interest the laymen and conversely, the incidents to which I attach little or no importance are the very things that would be more of interest from another point of view.
It so happened that the first official order issued which showed there was a prospect of war between Spain and the United States was issued early in January, 1898 to the U. S. S. Nashville, to which vessel I was attached at the time. The Nashville had been detailed to go to the Mediterranean to join the European Squadron, and she sailed from the Navy Yard at Norfolk, Va., with the European destination in view. Upon arrival off Old Point Comfort in Hampton Roads, a signal was made to anchor and await important dispatches. The Nashville received orders then to go to Port Royal, S. C., for the purpose of drilling and training the crew and to prepare for every eventuality. Later as war became more imminent, the Nashville was sent to Key West.
In February, while at Galveston, Texas, we learned of the destruction of the U. S. S. Maine in Havana Harbor, and the officers surmised at once that war was inevitable. I remember that at the time the battleship Texas also was at Galveston, and the two ships were ordered to return to Key West at once. For several weeks thereafter, it was my duty to command the funeral parties of the officers and men recovered from the wreck of the Maine and buried at Key West.
Until war was declared early in April, there was a gradual mobilization at Key West of vessels of the Navy, and drills were constantly being carried out to prepare for war. Finally war was declared on April 22, and the Fleet then at Key West received orders, I think about 10:00 P.M., to proceed to the blockade of the Cuban Coast.
We sailed from Key West at daylight the morning of the 23rd of April. The ships had never been drilled at sea together, and the organization was crude.
Soon after leaving Key West the smoke of a steamer was sighted. I was Officer of the Watch at the time on the Nashville, and with a telescope I thought I recognized the Spanish flag as the strange steamer drew nearer. Therefore, I prepared a signal to the effect that the p65 strange steamer shows Spanish colors. The maritime I was certain, I reported to the Captain with permission to inform the Commander-in‑Chief, who was some miles distant. The request was granted, and the signal made first by the Nashville, although other ships were nearer the stranger. Evidently the Commander-in‑Chief appreciated the action of the Nashville, for almost at once he signalled to the Nashville to heave to the stranger.
The Nashville left formation, and she thereafter fired a shot across the stranger's bows. The steamer stopped, and I left the Nashville in a boat with an armed crew and boarded the steamer, which was the Spanish steamer "Buena Ventura" bound from a Gulf port for Barcelona and laden with lumber. She had sailed before the declaration of war, and the captain was surprised to know that war existed between Spain and the United States.
I received orders to take the "Buena Ventura" into Key West •about 15 miles distant. I turned the steamer over to the Admiral in command of the port, and, with the armed crew, later in the day rejoined the Nashville.
I tell this incident for it was the Nashville that fired the first shot of the Spanish American war. Also later as will appear, it was the Nashville that fired the last shot of the war.
A day or two later, the Admiral learned that a large Spanish merchant steamer laden with troops and a large cargo of munitions was bound for Cien Fuegos. The cruisers and Nashville, and the small converted yacht, Eagle, were detailed to intercept this liner, which was the Montserrat. This little squadron started on the evening of the 25th.
About 4 o'clock the next morning, the Marblehead and Eagle went ashore on the Coral Reef at the west end of Cuba. This caused a delay of perhaps 8 hours. Upon arrival off Cien Fuegos, the squadron Commander, the late Captain Bowman H. McCalla, U. S. N. communicated with the insurgents and found that the Montserrat had already arrived in port. On this trip, however, we captured a small coasting steamer called the Argonaut together with a dozen Spanish officers and about 50 men. The Argonaut was bound, I think, to a Jamaican port and had on board a large quantity of personal property, including jewels, that was being shipped to Spain to escape possible capture by the Americans.
In those days there was prize money, and several years later I received a check for about $100.00, which was my share of the Argonaut.
We remained off the shore of Cien Fuegos for several days blockading when it became necessary to return to Key West for fuel. Later we returned again to Cien Fuegos with orders to cut the cables which p66 led from that port to the Dutch West Indies, Jamaica and perhaps other places.
At daybreak on the morning of May 11, four boats left the Marblehead and Nashville for the purpose of grappling for the cables and cutting out sections of them. Two of the boats were large sailing launches and were equipped with grapnels, tools, etc., for lifting and cutting the cables, while the other two were steam launches with armed crews to protect the launches while they were at work.
It seems that this expedition was reported to the Spanish Commander who sent from Cien Fuegos, a distance of •about 6 miles, a battalion of infantry to prevent, if possible, cutting the cables.
The boat expedition started in about 6:00 A.M., went right in shore close to the beach, found the cables near the cable station, grappled them and began cutting out sections. This work continued for several hours, when suddenly I thought that a heavy downpour of rain had started. I was in command of the two steam launches to protect the other boats. Almost at once I realized that we were under very heavy musketry fire.
As a matter of fact the Spanish troops had arrived from Cien Fuegos and were firing at us from a bluff covered with chaparrel, a distance of not over 300 or 400 yards. The armed boats immediately opened fire on the enemy, but had no effect in silencing their fire naturally. The two boats engaged in cutting the cables continued their work until it was completed.
In the meantime, the Nashville and Marblehead, realizing the conditions, began shelling the bluffs where the Spanish were supposed to be. The two steam launches took the sailing launches in tow and took them back to their ships. There were several killed and many wounded in the boats. None of our men were killed owing to the poor marksmanship of the Spaniards. This small unimportant engagement had more casualties on our side than did the battle of Santiago or the battle of Manila Bay.
The Nashville continued blockading the South Coast of Cuba until the battle of Santiago. On the day of that battle, the Nashville was en route to join the Fleet off Santiago. We arrived several days after the battle, and I visited the Spanish ships; some of them were still burning.
After the capture of Santiago, the Nashville was sent to blockade the port of Bibaro.a1 This was a small port connected by rail with the interior town of Holguin, at which was stationed a small Spanish army. Blockade runners had supplied the Spanish army in Cuba during the war through the port of Gibaro.a2
The armistice came several weeks later, and almost immediately thereafter yellow fever broke out at Key West, whereupon the Admiral p67 commanding the blockading vessels and all other vessels with the exception of the Nashville were ordered North to escape the yellow fever.
The little Nashville was forgotten, and we remained at Gibaro thinking that a state of war still existed until the latter part of September. One night the light of a steamer was sighted off Gibaro, whereupon the Nashville went out to get a shot across the bow, and this was the last shot of the war, and sent an officer on board. The steamer proved to be a small British steamer chartered by the owners of some sugar plantations for the purpose of bringing supplies for the foreign population and with bona fide orders to U. S. Naval vessels to permit the landing of the supplies. In the meantime it seems that the Nashville had been thought of again, and a small gunboat came down to give us orders to return to the U. S., which we did at full speed — and then some!
In the winter of 1917 I was on duty in Washington in charge of the Division of Naval Militia affairs and had charge of preparing to mobilize the Naval Militia — a force of 10,000 officers and men, in case we should be drawn into the World War. As early as February 3, every thoughtful Naval Officer knew that the U. S. would be compelled to join in the war, and that fact was brought to the attention of higher authority for the purpose of making preparations.
As is now well known, the policy of the Government at that time was to do nothing to show that the U. S. even considered the possibility of entering the World War. Therefore, nothing was done in the way of preparedness. This policy of not preparing for war, not even heeding the lessons from past wars, seems to be unfortunately one of the few drawbacks to a republican form of Government.
The reasons which impelled the U. S. to declare war are too well known to need to be mentioned here. Upon the declaration of war, the Naval Militia were mobilized, and immediately steps were taken to create and organize a large Reserve for the Navy.
I had determined to go to sea as soon as possible and made application to that effect. It was very agreeable, therefore, for me to receive in June verbal orders to fit out and take to France a squadron of small vessels. We had received information from the French that anything that could float and carry a gun would be valuable in the campaign against the Boch submarine. The Navy Department had commandeered a large number of vessels and determined to fit out 12 of them as mine sweepers. For this purpose, 2 fishing vessels of about 1200 tons were selected to be fitted as mine sweepers, and I was given p68 orders to rush the alterations as fast as possible. A large seagoing yacht of about 1700 tons, the Wakiva, was detailed to the flagship and a supply vessel of 5,000 tons, the Bath, was assigned to the squadron. In addition I was told to make arrangements to convoy 12 small submarine chasers, which had been purchased in the U. S. by France and manned by French crews.
For six weeks I spent the days at the Navy Yards from Boston to Norfolk and the nights on the train going from one Yard to another, selecting crews and hastening as much as possible the preparations of assembling the squadron and making a start. The squadron was assembled in Massachusetts Bay about the middle of August and sailed for France on the 17th of August without ever having had a tactical or other drill. The guns even had never been once fired, and one may easily imagine the difficulties of such a voyage. The little trawlers were so laden with coal and supplies that they had a freeboard of •less than 2 feet. They were not built to carry cargoes, and the hulls working in a seaway caused the oakum to come out of the seams, and many of them leaked. In fact one sank alongside of the dock at the Boston Navy Yard just on the eve of sailing. This vessel joined the squadron in France 3 months later.
The first stop of the squadron was the Azores, which was reached in about 12 days. We had fine weather all the way, which was a blessing for a gale certainly would have caused several of the boats to founder.
On the way to the Azores, such drills as possible were carried out and attempt made to organize the squadron. This was a difficult matter. All the crews were new to the boats, and many had engine and boiler troubles, so that frequently the Bath and Wakiva would be towing two of the trawlers at the same time; also trawlers had to tow sub‑chasers.
In order to practice what would have to be done in the war zone, the squadron steamed at night without lights. In the morning they would be seen scattered over the horizon far and wide, and it would take several hours to get them together and go ahead again as a squadron.
Just before sighting the Azores, I received a radiogram cautioning me to look out for submarines that were supposed to be operating in that vicinity.
The night before arrival at Ponta I had an experience that was perhaps the most tense of all my Naval career. About 10:00 P.M. I heard the general alarm sound. I went to the bridge and found that some vessel had been making, what the officer of the watch reported as, signals flashing lights. Soon I saw the lights myself in one direction and apparently answered in another. If the ships of the squadron were in the position assigned, they could not be making p69 these signals. In fact, they had strict orders to make no signals and show no lights whatever.
I at once thought of the warning concerning submarines, and it was possible that the two vessels whose lights were seen could be submarines signalling to each other. Had I been sure of this, I would have had the searchlights turned not vessels and opened fire on them. Knowing, however, that my vessels could very well be out of position and not sure that the strange vessel sighted was not of my own squadron, I hesitated to open fire. However, the decision had to be made immediately, and I decided that the vessels were not submarines. This luckily was the correct decision, for later I learned that two French submarine chasers were, contrary to orders, signalling to each other. However, the point is, had the vessels been submarines and my decision incorrect, I would have failed signallyº in the protection of the squadron.
At Ponta the squadron refueled as rapidly as possible, changes were made in the crews, and one Captain was demoted. As fast as the vessels were ready to proceed, I sent them outside the harbor for target practice. In fact, I had gunnery drills by every vessel before starting for France. At the Azores I received orders to proceed to Brest. After a stay of four days at the Azores, we started for the war zone.
Soon after sailing we encountered a moderate gale, which caused the squadron to scatter. When the gale moderated, I succeeded in getting information of all vessels with the exception of two. These I communicated with by radio, but despite all efforts I was not able to have them rejoin the squadron until the morning I sighted the French Coast. This was due to poor Navigation on the part of the Captains.
We sighted the French Coast one morning early and soon thereafter were enveloped in fog. Luckily the fog lasted but a short time, and when daylight broke, I had the entire squadron with the exception of the supply ship, which had disappeared during the fog. We were met by an American yacht and without incident steamed into Brest Harbor in good formation. The Bath followed a few hours later, having been picked up by another American yacht. It will always be a source of pride to me that my little squadron, one of four sent over, made the quickest trip from the U. S. to France.
After a short rest, the vessels of the squadron were at once detailed for active duty. The squadron as such was disbanded and attached to other Divisions, and I was detailed as Chief of Staff to the Admiral commanding all the American Forces on the West Coast of France. This Admiral soon after was detached, and I became temporarily commander of the force until the arrival of Rear Admiral H. B. Wilson, a distinguished officer who made a splendid reputation during the p70 rest of the war in command of all Naval activities in France and the waters on the West Coast of France.b
For his services, Admiral Wilson afterwards was made Commander-in‑Chief of the Atlantic Fleet and is now Superintendent of the Naval Academy, one of the most important assignments on shore. Soon after his arrival, Admiral Wilson decided to divide the West Coast of France into Districts, for the purposes of safeguarding the convoys keeping the channels clear of mines, piloting troop ships, etc.
I was given command of the District south of the Brest District with headquarters at Lorient. In my District was the Loire river with the ports of Saint Nazaire and Nantes thereon. All the American mine sweepers in France were again placed under my command, and I was given a small yacht, the Guinevere for flagship. I proceeded to Lorient and began immediately to engage in mine sweeping with the fright sweepers.
Also I organized the District to provide for the various duties which would soon develop. It was necessary to have a base of supplies for repairs and maintenance of the vessels, a system of communications, and to provide for convoying and piloting the ships going in and out of the harbors in my District. Sites for air stations had been selected, and these were built and manned. Plans were prepared and work started on fuel oil tanks, as it was proposed to base destroyers on Lorient as soon as facilities could be established for their maintenance.
Mine sweeping was perhaps the most dangerous occupation carried on in the war zone. Fortunately, however, the rise and fall of the tides on the west coast of France was •about 10 feet so that by sweeping at high water there was not much danger of the sweepers striking a mine. This was not always the case, and the French lost several mine-sweepers. We were very fortunate, however, in not losing any through that cause. The flagship Guinevere was wrecked on the rocks in a fog, and one mine sweeper struck some of the rocks and soon after sank. Another one foundered in a gale off the isle of Ushant.º
The German mine-layers apparently carried out a routine and laid mines about once a month within my District. These mines were generally discovered by fishermen sighting the submarine or by the submarine sinking the ship and a convoy. Also the fishermen were very expert in watching for mines and reporting them, for they could frequently be seen at low tide.
The mines were swept for by means of wire ropes to which were attached explosive scissors. These scissors would cut the mooring lines of the mines, and the mines would come to the surface. Then the mine was exploded or sunk by small arm fire at a distance of 200 or 300 yards.
a1 a2 Sic. Gibara is clearly meant.
b Henry Braid Wilson: see George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, p496; for details on his "Suicide Fleet", see Ralph Paine, The First Yale Unit, II.31 ff.
Images with borders lead to more information.
The thicker the border, the more information. (Details here.)
The U. S. Navy
A page or image on this site is in the public domain ONLY if its URL has a total of one *asterisk. If the URL has two **asterisks, the item is copyright someone else, and used by permission or fair use. If the URL has none the item is © Bill Thayer.
See my copyright page for details and contact information.
Page updated: 28 Sep 14