'An Appalling Calamity'

By Noah Andre Trudeau

The German ships present in Apia Harbor were all sail/steam hybrids: the iron/wood composite gunboat Adler , the iron-hulled gunboat Eber , and, most powerful of the three, the 12-gunner Olga , a 2,424-ton corvette.

The biggest American warship on station was also the most recent arrival, the 3,900-ton wooden-hulled cruiser Trenton , mounting 15 guns and serving as the flagship for Rear Admiral Lewis Ashfield Kimberly, commanding the U.S. naval force on Pacific Station. Next down in size was the 2,033-ton screw sloop Vandalia . The 1,375-ton sloop Nipsic rounded out the U.S. presence. The final major player on the scene was the British observation vessel HMS Calliope , a 2,770-ton iron- and steel-sheathed cruiser armed with 16 guns. Also in Apia Harbor were at least nine merchant vessels, making things extremely tight in the small anchorage. In the opinion of the Calliope ’s Captain Henry Coey Kane, no more than four major ships should have been anchored in it at any one time. The restricted space underscored a litany of dangers for craft caught there in a storm.

Apia was located on the northern side of the island of Upolu, inside a fully exposed V-shaped bay that faced almost directly north. A barrier reef stretched across the harbor’s mouth with just a single opening three cables (720 yards) wide permitting entrance. Much of the harbor had been fashioned by freshwater outflow from the Mulivai and Vaisingano rivers, which descended from the south. The harbor floor was all coral, but over the years the rivers had deposited enough silt to allow for marine growth and sufficient traction for ship anchors. The river flow interacted with the ocean movement to create strong and unpredictable currents throughout the harbor, which was ringed by shelves and nearly continuous reefs. Only a short stretch of sandy beach at the mouth of the Vaisingano interrupted the sharp-edged perimeter.

For a ship captain, the best defense in case of bad weather was to be somewhere else.

When March Winds Blow

The opening months of 1889 had not been without their usual share of storms, the heaviest coming on 13–14 February. That tempest had caused the Eber to sideswipe a reef, bending her propeller shaft, causing the loss of several knots in speed. February’s intensity seemed to satisfy everyone that the storm season was winding down. As Admiral Kimberly recollected, “The local pilots and other old residents on shore, supposed the backbone of the season’s bad weather had been broken.” 1 A coppery red sunset was seen on 12 March. It began to rain on 13 March, the precipitation continuing into the next day with frequent squalls and a generally falling barometer.

The weather had worsened on the morning of 15 March to the point that the warships began to batten down. Upper hampers were struck, leaving only topgallants. Lower yards were eased down to the deck. Any loose equipment was firmly lashed or moved under cover. Anchors where checked. Engines were warmed up. For each commander, a moment of truth arrived that day when the decision had to be made whether to meet the weather in the harbor or retreat into open water. Kimberly later enumerated his reasons for staying. The most anyone was expecting was heavy rains, and a run out to sea would have consumed much hard-to-replace coal. The admiral was confident that with kedge anchors deployed and the steam engines operating to relieve strain on the chains, they could weather the storm.

National pride also played a part. No captain wanted to be the first to scurry his flag out of the harbor, and even late in the morning of 15 March, with the weather continuing to deteriorate, no warship budged from the anchorage. The one saving grace was that so far the wind had come from the south.

All that began to change after 1400. It was about then, a scientist later reckoned, that the eye of the tempest was located just north of Apia Harbor. The barometer dipped to an ominous and record-setting 29.07. There was a sullen calm under a leaden sky that made everyone hold their breath. By now the local weather prophets had changed their tune. “The old timers,” wrote the American consul from his office in the town, “expect a hurricane during the night.” 2 The storm again began to increase in intensity. Rain fell in blinding sheets, and the wind made a dramatic shift. It was roaring in from the north; any vessel still hoping to clear the cramped harbor would have to battle powerful headwinds and waves. By sunset the combination of frothy spray, rain, and darkness had reduced visibility to virtually nil. The seven warships, crammed so tightly into the limited space, began yawing wildly at the end of their iron tethers.

For a brief period around midnight the barometer began rising and everyone thought the crisis was ending. It was a cruel trick of nature. What was happening was a rare but not unknown phenomenon called recurvature. The typhoon was being pushed back by powerful upper-level winds that forced the weather system to retrace its steps. From the evidence in hand it would also seem that the tempest further intensified during this period. The storm’s greatest energy was now being funneled directly into the unprotected bay.

Hell in a Harbor

The wind was unrelenting; according to Admiral Kimberly, “for nearly 24 hours, the gale was a hurricane.” 3 Great waves surged into the anchorage where they encountered ricocheting currents from all quarters of the tight harbor, made even worse by the blasting discharge from the two rivers, suddenly hugely swollen by the rain deluging the island’s interior. The powerful river flow began scouring the bottom of the bay. The warship crews fighting for their lives counted on their anchors to see them through the storm, but now the overloaded rivers had ground the sea bed down to the hard coral, leaving little for the anchors to grip. Soon the vessels began dragging about the anchorage, dangerous to themselves and others.

It is a testament to the skill and determination of their crews that the warships survived until the morning of 16 March before they began to succumb. The first was the Eber , already crippled by previous damage to her propeller shaft. Starting around 0800, catastrophe piled on catastrophe. A series of mountainous waves pushed the ship onto the inner basin reefs bordering the harbor’s western side, and the weakened propeller finally gave way. For just a few seconds, the craft ground along the coral edge before crash-diving, taking with her the captain and 72 of his crew. The four survivors who struggled weakly toward the shore found themselves plucked from certain death by strong Samoan arms. These were some of Mataafa’s men, who had come down from the hills to exploit the chaos caused by the storm but instead followed their humanitarian impulses.

Next to go was the Nipsic , which had had more than her share of ill luck. Caught in the powerful harbor currents near the mouth of the Vaisingano, the ship had been propelled about the anchorage, overrunning and sinking a merchant schooner around dawn. Shortly after that, she was speared on her port side by the Olga , also fighting for her life. Besides having a section of her side crushed in, the Nipsic lost her smokestack, allowing a torrent of seawater to engulf her critically important boilers. Adding insult to injury, the toppled 3,000-pound stack began rolling across the deck, piling on the terror that gripped the Nipsic ’s crew. A few brave men continued to fight for the ship. When the drenched coal refused to burn, Captain Dennis W. Mullan remembered he had barrels of salt pork in the hold and ordered their contents fed into the boiler furnaces—a desperate improvisation that bought a few more hours of life to the vessel.

Perhaps a half hour after the Eber met her fate, another series of heavy waves and the loss of a critical anchor left Mullan with no choice but to try to beach the Nipsic . Somehow in the cauldron of wave, rain, wind, and lurching ships, the determined captain conned his ship onto a patch of sand near the mouth of the Vaisingano. Several panicked men drowned as they jumped or were swept into the tumultuous waters; a few more perished in efforts to get a lifeline onto the shore where some of Mataafa’s men were waiting to help. Finally, with the assistance of a Samoan human chain that heroically pushed out into the turbulent bay, the line was established and survivors began coming on shore. Once safe, many of the Nipsic ’s exhausted and demoralized crew put distance between themselves and the hellish harbor. Not only did they show no interest in helping their mates still struggling on board the Trenton and Vandalia , but a few uncovered liquor stocks in town and promptly got roaring drunk.

The Olga already had been an unwilling collaborator in the demise of the Nipsic , and she performed a similar service for the Adler . After surviving several close calls and a long night of barely avoiding the reef, the Adler was just pulling free from a scrape with the coral by virtue of training, discipline, courage, and hastily repaired steering tackle, only to see the Olga loom up out of the dark. She struck, splintering the Adler ’s bowsprit before sloughing off for a short distance. Contrary winds and currents made the Adler ’s beaching attempt impossible. With her last anchor cut loose, a powerful swell lifted the Adler onto the western reef, cracking her keel and rolling her on her side, but leaving the bow facing the shore. About 20 men were lost in the foaming brine while the remainder lashed themselves to whatever seemed secure. They were drenched, cold, and miserable, and some would bear the psychological scars of their experience for the rest of their lives, but they were alive.

Crashing Waves and Desperate Gambles

The ordeal of the Vandalia was the worst suffered by the American warships on station. Shortly after midnight the underpowered ship began shifting position, dragging perilously close to HMS Calliope . Being near the harbor entrance exposed the Vandalia to powerful waves, and an especially destructive one smashed into the ship just after daylight, violently slamming Captain Cornelius M. Schoonmaker around in his cabin. When the badly injured officer came out on deck, another sudden lurch of the vessel caused him to strike his head, requiring that he be carried below.

Command passed to Lieutenant James Carlin, who soon had a major problem. The Vandalia and Calliope had shifted about so that the English cruiser was poised to puncture the American’s port side. Again and again the iron ship seemed sure to strike, yet just as often the surging seas pulled her away. The luck of the Vandalia ran out shortly after 0730 on 16 March as another wave brought the two ships hard together. For the next 90 minutes the Vandalia ’s sturdy construction and desperate damage control kept her afloat. It was during this period that Schoonmaker reappeared, pale but determined. The ship was now veering broadside to the waves, the roiling maelstrom making it nearly impossible for men to work on deck. Not long after 1030 the decision was reached to beach the Vandalia.

For a moment it seemed as if the desperate gamble would pay off, but once the Vandalia came abreast of the Vaisingano River, the powerfully swirling currents twisted the ship so that she was again broadside to the fierce elements. She crashed against the lower western reef. At the command to abandon ship, weary crewmen fought their way onto the deck only to face peril in any attempt to essay the 40 or 50 yards to shore. Fifteen-foot waves began breaking up the Vandalia , whose debris, Lieutenant Carlin later wrote, was “going over us as if shot out of a cannon. A bump from this was death.” 4 A great wave flooded the ship’s entire length, and Schoonmaker was gone. The crew’s last chance for survival was to clamber into the rigging and be lashed by the howling winds, a desperate act that promised only to prolong their suffering.

Blessed with the newest and most powerful engines in the anchorage, HMS Calliope still fought a failing battle trying to hold position. After unintentionally spearing the Vandalia , the Calliope was nearly rammed by a careening Olga . Between the reef and the other two struggling vessels, Captain Kane’s ship was pinned in a deadly box. It was, he said afterward, “the most ticklish position I was ever in.” 5 As he saw it, the only chance was to use the powerful engines to haul out of the harbor. Orders were given to rev them up to maximum and then, with the ship’s stern just 20 feet from the deadly reef, the anchor cables were cut.

Even with the boiler gauges red-lined, the Calliope made barely one knot of headway. The last obstacle to her freedom was the massive Trenton , as helpless as any of the smaller ships. Expertly timing his move with the heaving seas and the abrupt lurches of the unpredictable Trenton , Kane conned the Calliope under the American’s looming stern and around it. Fighting to maintain passageway, the officers and men of the Calliope heard an unexpected sound mingled with the keening winds. It was cheering. Even as they were fighting for their lives, the Trenton ’s Sailors paused long enough to salute the courage of their English compatriots. Captain Kane could barely register the honor before the fight went on. In the storm’s darkness and spray, he could barely see ahead. After finding the narrow entrance by compass and nerve, he drove the ship out of the harbor, though he wouldn’t realize it until the next day. The Calliope ’s engines ran at full power for more than ten hours and never faltered.

Struggle and Salvation

Just two warships remained afloat in Apia Harbor as the Calliope clawed her way out, but one would soon be on the beach. After punching into the port side of the Nipsic , coming close to doing the same thing to the Calliope , then becoming fatally entangled with the Trenton later in the afternoon, the Olga finally ended up grounded on the soft mud of the eastern bay, her stern to the wind.

The fight of the Trenton was made far more difficult by a serious design flaw. Most vessels’ bow ports for the anchor chain and docking hawsers led to the open gun deck, but the Trenton ’s hawseholes vented internally, into the forward berth area. In heavy seas the lower section could count on a wetting; now, with her bow pointed into the teeth of a typhoon, the influx was overwhelming the pumps. Frantic efforts were made to stopper the flood, but they were never enough. The added weight drove the bow down and by 1000 the water around the boilers was waist-deep.

Countless acts of heroism took place as the Yankee Bluejackets fought to keep the critical sails in place to maintain the Trenton ’s position to the wind, an especially difficult task once the ship’s rudder had been smashed. The men only paused in their efforts long enough to cheer the Calliope as the valiant ship fought her way to freedom. Despite everyone’s efforts, wind and sea power began to tell, and the great Trenton , originally anchored near the harbor’s mouth, was steadily driven deeper into the bay. With all canvas in tatters, crewmen were ordered into the mizzen rigging to form a human sail in a last-ditch effort to keep the ship’s head into the wind. Precious time was bought by a quirk in topography; the western interior reef fell away to the southwest, so as the Trenton was pushed along its coral perimeter, her hull found enough open space to continue the struggle to survive.

Then came the entanglement with the Olga . In clearing that, the Trenton got caught in the Vaisingano current, which drove her hard toward the coral shelf, putting her on a collision course with the already stricken Vandalia , her surviving crew clinging desperately to the rigging. A widely syndicated newspaper account at the time reported that the Trenton ’s band played “The Star-Spangled Banner” to buck up less fortunate comrades—a notion later scoffed at by Trenton survivors. “Why, man, it was as much as a man could do to keep from being thrown about by the sea and the motion of the vessel,” said a boatswain’s mate. “He did well if he held on to himself, without thinking of such a thing as holding on to a musical instrument and playing it into the bargain.” 6

Now the storm swung the Trenton ’s stern tightly into the Vandalia ’s side. A series of lines were quickly heaved from the flagship. Even better, the storm pushed the Trenton nearly parallel to the Vandalia and just 40 feet apart. For a few precious and desperate minutes, many of the Vandalia ’s crew climbed, swung, or hauled themselves aboard the Trenton . As unexpectedly as it was offered, this last chance was gone. “Soon after [the survivors crossed over] we struck the Vandalia with violence,” Admiral Kimberly later reported, “and her main and mizzen masts went by the board.” 7 In a dramatic turnabout, the hulk of the Vandalia became an unmoving anchor point for the Trenton . The flagship’s larger size now provided limited protection to her crew and those lucky ones from the Vandalia who made the dangerous transfer. As long as the Trenton ’s hull held together it offered refuge to the weary Sailors.

Then, finally, early on the morning of 17 March, the storm began to abate. The winds died away completely by 0500, though the harbor waters still churned. With the help of Samoan muscle, lines were made fast to the shore and the slow process of transferring Sailors to the land began. The effort soon spread to all ships in the harbor, American or German, though Teutonic suspicions of Samoan intentions limited the aid they received.

Foreign Domination Forestalled

The next days were a blur of activity as the injured were tended and efforts made to restore the wrecked vessels. National pride dictated that each country would repair one of its own. For the Americans it would be the Nipsic , for the Germans, the Olga . On 19 March, the Calliope returned to Apia Harbor, her brave crewmen astonished at the destruction they had avoided. Besides the demolished warships, none of the merchant vessels had survived, though most of their crews had been sent ashore before the storm broke. The next day, with the Calliope ’s help, one of Kimberly’s officers connected with an Auckland-bound steamer and a working telegraph to the United States. By 30 March the story of the disaster was filling columns in U.S. newspapers.

Back in Apia Harbor, German and American work on ship repairs paused only for the sad duties of burial as bodies were found and identified, including that of the unfortunate Captain Schoonmaker. On 2 April the Olga , in company with a passing German passenger steamer, set off for Sydney. Fifteen days later the Nipsic weighed anchor and reached Auckland, though not without scary moments when some of the patchwork failed to hold up in the open sea. In the final tally, 86 German sailors perished in the storm and 60 Americans, for a total of 146 military lives lost. Added to that were one Samoan Samaritan and two merchant seamen. In the harbor itself, most of the hulks were completely dismantled, while pieces of the Adler lingered for many years, a poignant reminder at low tide of the life-and-death drama that had played out in its usually placid waters. A stone memorial outside Apia remembers the German casualties, while a Mare Island Navy Yard tablet notes the Americans lost.

At first it seemed that affairs in the Samoan Islands were to pick up where they had left off before the typhoon intervened. However, its awesome violence took much of the starch out of the foreign warriors. Kimberly managed to arrange for a truce while higher powers gathered in distant Berlin. It was decided that the islands would remain free of foreign domination. Laupepa was placed on the throne, Mataafa professed himself a loyal subject, and Tamasese was allowed to retire from public view. Ten years later, the three powers reconsidered their positions and reinserted themselves into Samoan affairs. By the Tripartite Convention of 1899 Germany assumed control of the islands lying west of 171° latitude, and the Americans claimed oversight of those east of that line.

The three surviving ships met varied fates. The Olga lasted until 1908 when she was scrapped, while the Nipsic was decommissioned in 1890 and spent several years as a stationary barracks/prison before passing into private hands as a barge. A bit more glory awaited the heroic HMS Calliope , which took part in Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee Review of the Fleet at Spithead in 1897. After reassignment to various service duties, the ship lost her name for 16 years and then regained it for 22 more before being scrapped in 1953. Afterward, her helm was presented as a gift to the government of Western Samoa, which subsequently passed it along to a New Zealand museum.

The events in Apia Harbor were still fresh on the mind of President Benjamin Harrison in his State of the Union Message in early December 1889. Terming the incident an “appalling calamity,” the President went on to praise the U.S. Sailors for what they had accomplished. “It is most gratifying,” he wrote, “to state that the credit of the American Navy for seamanship, courage, and generosity was magnificently sustained in the storm-beaten harbor of Apia.” 8

 



1. Louis Ashfield Kimberly, Samoan Hurricane (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Foundation, 1965), quoted from online version at www.history.navy.mil/library/online/samoan.htm .

2. Edwin P. Hoyt, The Typhoon that Stopped a War (New York: David McKay Company, 1968), p. 58.

3. Everett Hayden, “The Samoan Hurricane of March, 1889,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 17, no. 2 (1891), p. 286.

4. James William Carlin, Letter of 26 March 1889, Naval Historical Foundation Papers (Library of Congress Manuscript Collection).

5. Graham Wilson, “Glory for the Squadron: HMS Calliope in the Great Hurricane at Samoa 1889,” Journal of the Australian Naval Institute , May/July 1996, p. 52.

6. The New York Times , 3 July 1889.

7. Report of Rear Admiral L.A. Kimberly in Annual Report of the Secretary of the Navy (1889); quoted from online version at www.history.navy.mil/faqs/faq102-3.htm .

8. Benjamin Harrison (3 December 1889), http://www.infoplease.com/t/hist/state-of-the-union/101.html .

 

Other sources:

John Alexander Clinton Gray, Amerika Samoa (Annapolis, MD: U.S. Naval Institute, 1960).

Bob Drury and Tom Clavin, Halsey’s Typhoon (New York: Grove Press, 2007).

Harrie Webster, “A Personal Narrative of the Wreck of the ‘Vandalia’ at Samoa, March 16, 1889,” The United Service (October 1894).

 

Mr. Trudeau is the author of many books about the American Civil War, including Southern Storm: Sherman's March to the Sea (HarperCollins, 2008); Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage (HarperCollins, 2002); Like Men of War: Black Troops in the Civil War, 1862-1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1998); and Out of the Storm: The End of the Civil War, April-June 1865 (Little, Brown and Company, 1994).

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