Friday, November 23, 2012

Battleship Oregon at Santiago Cuba Spanish American War

By Lt. Edward W. Eberle,
In Command of the Forward Turret during the Battle

Captain Charles Clark,
Commander of the Oregon
On Sunday, the 3rd of July, 1898, a disheartened lot of officers sat about the Oregon's ward-room breakfast-table, off San­tiago; for the officer of the morning watch had sent down the news that a press-boat had just hailed the ship and reported that the army had suffered heavy losses in front of the city, and that the outlook was very discouraging. Our officers and men were dressed in their cleanest white, and the bugle had sounded the first call for Sunday morning inspection, when suddenly, at twenty-eight minutes after nine, our sharp-eyed chief quartermaster sighted the masthead of a ship coming from behind Smith Cay. Immediately the alarm-gongs rang out the call to battle-stations; the emergency signal, "The enemy is escaping," was hoisted; and a six-pounder was fired and the siren was sounded to attract the attention of the fleet. For thirty-four long days and nights we had constantly watched that "hole in the wall," praying that Spain's fleet would come out and give battle; and after having abandoned hope, here they were at last! Our men jumped about the decks, waving their caps and cheering, and enthusiastically yelling, "There they come! There they come!" The officers were more serious, for we expected a day of hot work. No artist could do justice to that fascinating and awe-in­spiring scene, when, led by the Maria Teresa, the Spanish fleet majestically swept out of the narrow harbor. Their large red-and-yel­low ensigns stood out brilliantly against the dark-green background of the Morro and Socapa headlands, and their massive black hulls, with great white waves piled under their bows, seemed veritable things of life. At the call to general quarters, the Oregon, charged ahead at full speed under forced draft, and the fleet headed in to meet the enemy. The Teresa was just abreast the Morro as we opened fire with an eight-inch gun, to which she and the forts replied with a shower of shell. She turned sharply to the westward, and was followed by the Vizcaya, Colon, and Oquendo, in the order named. As soon as they cleared the harbor their speed was increased and their fire became furious. Our ships opened a heavy fire, and then the Oregon turned more to the westward, in order to head off the rapidly moving column.

Captain Clark and Cadet Overstreet watching a shot
Fired by the Oregon at the Colon
For some minutes Captain Clark stood on the bridge, giving orders, and studying the situation; and the thought that was then uppermost in his mind is clearly expressed in the words of his official report to Admiral Sampson: "As soon as it was evident that the enemy's ships were trying to break through and escape to the westward, we went ahead full speed, with the determina­tion of carrying out to the utmost your order, 'If the enemy tries to escape, the ships must close and engage as soon as pos­sible, and endeavor to sink his vessels or force them to run ashore.' "The Spaniards passed rapidly to the westward, and the firing being at long range, we sent our six-pounder crews behind the turrets for protection. Our turret crews soon settled down to steady and deliberate work, and as the ship's increasing speed enabled us to close in on the enemy, our gun fire became very effective. The en­gineer force was doing magnificent work, and the Oregon was fairly jumping out of the water; and at ten minutes to ten she dashed between the Iowa and the Texas, passing within one hundred yards of the Iowa, and continued her destructive gun fire. This wonderful burst of speed, which enabled the Oregon to pass all the ships except the Brooklyn, excited the astonishment and admira­tion of the officers of the Iowa. One of them described it thus: "The Oregon came racing across the Iowa's bows, and charged right down on the Spanish fleet, letting go first at one vessel, then at the other, and all the time carrying a great white bone in her teeth, that told of her engine-power and wonderful speed." By this time Admiral Cervera's ships were in a well-defined column, steaming parallel with the coast-line, at high speed. The gun fire of both fleets was rapid and furious, but most of the enemy's shells passed over us.

Crew of the Oregon’s starboard forward 8-inch turret,
 during the chase of the Colon, watching the 
 work of the forward 13-inch turret
As we swept past the Iowa, Captain Clark was standing in his favorite place on top of the forward thirteen-inch turret, when word came to him that the torpedo-boats were coming out. The six-pounder crews were immediately ordered to their guns, and in less time than it takes to write it they were peppering away at the two destroyers. As the leading vessel, the Pluton, came out, she appeared to hesitate for a moment, and then turned to the westward and followed in the wake of the others. Our after-guns were also turned upon the torpedo-boats, and the fire of these guns, together with the fire of all the ships astern of us, simply overwhelmed them. There was a perfect hail of projectiles, and the water about the boats was whipped into a mass of foam; but the plucky little vessels fought their guns until a shell (which, it is claimed, was fired by our after six-inch gun) struck the Furor amidships and caused an explosion. This torpedo-boat was literally torn to pieces and in her death-agony circled round and round before disappearing beneath the waves. Her rudder had been jammed hard over, and with the last steam in her boilers her propellers continued to turn, mangling those who had life enough left to jump overboard. With her consort destroyed and herself a battered wreck, the Pluton crept inshore, and sank in shoal water, about four miles west of Morro Castle. Just twelve minutes of gun fire had accomplished their destruction.

While our after-guns were firing on the torpedo-boats, our forward guns were ham­mering away at the third and fourth armored vessels, which were now on our starboard bow, in a broken column. The Brooklyn was on our port bow, engaging the two leading ships. The Teresa was farther offshore than the other three vessels, and was being passed by them. We brought her sharp on our star­board bow, and as we gained on her our forward guns engaged her at two thousand yards' range when (about ten minutes after ten) we discovered her to be on fire. The Teresa was soon left behind by the other vessels. Smoke and flames were pouring from her upper works, and the sight of her hopeless condition served to double the energy of our ships, for their fire became more rapid and deadly than ever. The Ore­gon, Texas, and Iowa hurled their terrific broadsides into her as she turned inshore and steamed slowly for the beach at Juan Gonzales, six miles from Santiago. Only forty minutes had elapsed since the stately Teresa had led the column out of the harbor. She boldly went to her death, fighting her guns until overwhelmed by fire and shell.

Surrender of the Colon
The Oregon now charged on after the Oquendo, and opened on her with the for­ward guns, and also with all the guns of the starboard battery as soon as they could be brought to bear. For a while the enemy's vessels appeared badly bunched. The Colon was just passing inshore of the Vizcaya, and the Oquendo was in a direct line between us and those two ships. We closed rapidly on the Oquendo, and, at a range of nine hun­dred yards, poured into her the hottest and most destructive fire of that eventful day. Each gun-captain fought his gun as if victory depended upon him alone, and within twelve minutes after the Teresa had given up the fight the Oquendo was burning fiercely. She too turned inshore, with port helm head­ing slightly to the eastward; and as we drew her abeam, our guns raked her unmercifully. The Oquendo made the pluckiest fight and suffered the most severe punishment, as is attested by her torn and battered hull, which rested upon the beach half a mile west of the Teresa. When flames burst from the Oquendo, and she turned inshore, Captain Clark, who was standing on top of the forward thirteen-inch turret, called out to me, "We have set­tled another; look out for the rest!" This was answered by a mighty cheer, which was repeated through the ammunition passages and magazines, and down among the heroes of the boiler and engine rooms.

Crew of Oregon returning cheers from the
 Texas after the Colon’s surrender
With bulldog determination, the Oregon continued on in her mad race after the Viz­caya, now two miles away, and opened with the forward guns. The Brooklyn, still on our port bow, was apparently about two miles off the Vizcaya's port beam, and all three vessels were firing furiously. The Colon, now far ahead and close inshore, was increasing her lead. The Brooklyn signaled to the fleet, "Close up," and we repeated the signal to the ships astern; but the clouds of smoke and the long distance prevented their seeing it. In fact, the only vessels that we could distinguish astern were the Texas on our starboard quarter and the Vixen on our port quarter. Our speed steadily increased, and when we were about three thousand yards from the Vizcaya, that vessel swung offshore and headed across our bow, firing her for­ward guns at the Brooklyn and her port ones at us. By this manoeuver the Vizcaya ex­posed her broadside to us, and a big shell from one of our turret guns seemed to strike her in the port bow, when she immediately resumed her former course. A few minutes later, at about a quarter to eleven, the man in the fighting-top reported that a thirteen-inch shell had struck her amidships, heeling her to starboard and sending up a volume of steam and smoke. Cheer after cheer rang through the ship, and our gun fire increased in rapidity. The Vizcaya was on fire and heading for the shore! Captain Clark, who had been moving about the decks commend­ing officers and men for their good work, and telling his "children" not to expose them­selves needlessly, was at this instant standing on top of the after thirteen-inch turret, con­versing with the officer of that turret. The turret-officer was deploring the fact that his guns would not bear on the enemy's remain­ing ships, when suddenly the burning Viz­caya was seen off our starboard bow, heading for the beach, and the captain exclaimed, "There's your chance! There's your chance!" and in another moment the after-turret was thundering away with awful effect. The close range enabled our six-pounders to play havoc with the Vizcaya's upper works, and our fire was very heavy un­til she drew abaft our starboard beam, when, at eleven o'clock, she hauled down her colors alit ran ashore at Aserraderos, eighteen miles from the Morro This made the third large burning wreck within ninety minutes.

When the Vizcaya gave up the fight and headed for the shore, the Brooklyn hoisted the signal, "Well done, Oregon"; and then began the grandest chase in naval history. The Colon was now six miles ahead, and for a time it looked as if she might escape; but our efficient engineer department proved equal to the occasion, and our speed increased to more than sixteen knots. The Brooklyn, now broad off our port bow, was steering for the distant headland to cut off the Colon, while we were steadily edging in on her and forcing her nearer the shore. We sent our men to dinner by watches; but after getting a bite, they returned on deck to follow the exciting chase and take a pull at their pipes. The Brooklyn signaled, "She seems built in Italy"; and Captain Clark told the signal-officer to answer with the following message: "She may have been built in Italy, but she will end on the coast of Cuba." As we dashed onward, slowly gaining, and soon to be within range, the enthusiasm was at high pitch. An old boatswain's mate stationed in the fighting-top gave way to his excited feelings, and yelled through a megaphone, "Oh, captain, I say, can't you give her a thirteen-inch shell, for God's sake!" The men in the engineer force, ever unmindful of the frightful heat, were straining every muscle to its utmost, and their heroic officers were assisting the exhausted firemen to feed the roaring furnaces.

The Oregon’s amateur band playing on the 
turret after the surrender of the Colon
Several times the Colon turned in as if looking for a good place to run ashore, but each time changed her mind and continued to run for her life. It was ten minutes to one when Captain Clark gave me orders to "try a thirteen-inch shell on her"; and soon an 1100 pound projectile was flying after her. The chief engineer was just coming on deck to ask the captain to fire a gun in order to encourage his exhausted men; and when they heard the old thirteen-inch roar, they knew that we were within range, and made the effort of their lives.

The scene on the Oregon's decks at this time was most inspiring. Officers and men were crowded on top of the forward turrets, and some were aloft, all eager to see the final work of that great day. The Brooklyn fired a few eight-inch shells, and we fired two eight-inch; but all fell short, and the eight-inch guns ceased firing. The Colon also fired a few shots, but they fell far short of their mark. Our forward thirteen-inch guns con­tinued to fire slowly and deliberately, with increasing range, and the sixth shot, at a range of ninety-five hundred yards (nearly five miles), dropped just ahead of the Colon, whereupon she headed for the shore. Our men were cheering wildly, and a few minutes later, at twelve minutes after one o'clock, a thirteen-inch shell struck under the Cola's stern. Immediately her colors dropped in a heap at the foot of her flagstaff. The bugle sounded, "Cease firing!" The Colon had surrendered, and the last shot of July 3 had been fired.

That was a moment to live for. Suddenly the thunder of heavy guns was replaced by the strains of "The Star-Spangled Banner" from the band. On our forward deck, five hundred and fifty men, mostly bare to the waist, and begrimed with powder, smoke, and coal-dust, were embracing one another, and cheering with that fervor and joy which mark the outpouring of the hearts of men who know how to look into the face of death. There were rousing cheers for our beloved captain, and the tender words he spoke to the crew caused many a heart to soften. Amid ringing cheers the Brooklyn signaled, "Con­gratulations upon the glorious victory"; and her cheers were returned with wild enthu­siasm.

After lowering her colors, the Colon ran ashore at Rio Tarquino, one of the most beautiful spots on the south coast of Cuba, about fifty miles west of Santiago and thirty-two miles beyond the Vizcaya's resting-place. Her demoralized and drunken crew treacher­ously fell to destroying her armament and equipment.

At the time of the Colon's surrender the Brooklyn was off our port bow, while between six and seven miles astern, and hull down, we saw the masts of two vessels which were reported as the Iowa and the Texas, but proved to be the New York and the Texas. These two vessels and the Vixen joined us at about twenty minutes after two, just as the Brooklyn's boat was returning from the Colon; and their splendid crews gave us rousing cheers. All commanding officers reported on board the New York, and Captain Clark received an ovation from the flagship. Thanksgiving went up from every heart when the casualty signals announced that only one life had been sacrificed in the annihilation of Spain's naval power in the Western Hemisphere. Captain Clark soon returned from the flagship, with orders to go to the eastward, with the Brook­lyn, and destroy the Spanish battle-ship that was reported off Siboney. This news put new life into our tired men, for we concluded that Admiral Camara's squadron had arrived, and that we had more interesting work ahead of us. But just as we were ready to start the flagship learned that the reported Spanish battleship was an Austrian vessel, and sig­naled, "Oregon, take charge of prize and haul her off the beach."

This was after four o'clock. When our prize crew reached the Colon, they found fifteen feet of water in her engine-rooms, and all valves open. The prisoners were im­mediately sent aft on the quarter-deck, and, with their effects, were transferred to the Resolute. These men had been told that we would starve them or cut their throats, and it was pitiful to see them with their pockets filled with hardtack and strips of raw meat, to subsist upon until their throats were cut". How their faces brightened when they learned that they were to be treated with every kindness and fed far better than they had ever been fed before!

Five cows were found tied up on the Colon's forecastle, and some of them succeeded in swimming ashore after our men had cut them adrift. Our souvenirs consisted of several battle-flags, pictures of the ship and officers, a captain's gig, two cutters, a dog, two cats, some chickens, and a black pig. The Colon's pig became the Oregon's mascot, and was promptly named “Dennis Blanco": "Dennis" because all his predecessors in the navy had borne that name, and "Blanco"—well, probably because he was of the opposite color, so very black.

It soon became necessary to let go the Colon's anchor, and our chief boatswain's mate (a man of many years' naval service) was on the forecastle, getting the anchor ready, when that unfortunate vessel's chief boatswain's mate began giving orders, where­upon our old shellback drew his revolver, and marched the intoxicated Spaniard aft to the quarter-deck, proudly remarking, "I’ll have you understand that I am chief boat­swain's mate of this ship now!"

Several dead bodies with bullet-holes through them were found in the fire-room and on deck, and members of the Colon's crew volunteered the information that these men had been shot by their own officers for attempting to come on deck from the fire-room to get a breath of fresh air.

After our men had taken possession, one of the wounded prisoners died. He was wrapped in the flag of his country, and as he was lowered into the deep, one of his drunken shipmates pronounced the benediction: "Pobre diablo! Viva Espana!" When the prisoners were told the name of our ship they exclaimed, "Oh, that's that Yankee devil!"—the most gratifying compliment of the day. While they were being transferred, our officers and men were working like beavers to keep the Colon afloat; but their efforts were in vain, for at eleven o'clock that night she listed to starboard and turned over on her side, our officers leaving her just as she went over. The American flag had been hoisted, and went down with her. The Texas and the Oregon remained by the wreck all night, and the next morning we started for our station at Santiago. The burning and battered wrecks strewn along the beach made a pitiful picture. Floating about them were uniforms, boxes, trunks, and here and there bodies of the dead.

The Oregon's Fourth of July reception by the fleet off Santiago, and Commodore Schley's greeting signal of "Welcome back, brave Oregon," were something to be cherished.

From The Century Magazine, 1899.

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