Lest We Forget

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

On the evening of 15 February, the boredom was about to end, but not in a way that Ham would have wanted. Just a little after 2130, he engaged another Sailor in conversation as a way of getting his mind off the creeping pace of time. When the talk had dwindled, Ham was about to turn in, but suddenly a great flame shot up, engulfing the forward part of the ship. A piece of flying debris struck Ham in the face, knocking him senseless.

In that instant, many of Ham's shipmates perished, as a huge explosion up forward on the port side ripped open the ship and curled her main deck back on itself. Debris rained down into the harbor for hundreds of yards around the stricken vessel.

Once he recovered his senses, Ham began helping others lower the captain's gig and noted with dismay how quickly the boat had reached the water, a clear indication that the Maine was sinking. Positioning himself in the boat's bow, Ham began pulling men from the water.

As the gig pulled up alongside the ship's stern, Ham saw the commanding officer, Captain Charles Sigsbee, standing on the poop deck, loudly declaring, "I won't leave until I'm sure everybody is off." The poop deck was the Maine 's highest remaining deck, and it was now at the same level as the gig's gunwale. When Ham overheard the ship's executive officer whisper to Captain Sigsbee that the raging fire was very close to the forward magazine and that it might blow at any moment, the young Sailor felt a great urge to shout "Let's get out of here!" But he sat quietly in the bow, holding tightly to the bowline that tethered the small boat to the sinking, burning ship.

At last, Sigsbee was convinced that no one else remained on board, so he stepped into the gig and ordered the crew to shove off. Ham gratefully took in the bowline, aware that his hands ached from the tight grip he had used to hold it during those tense moments. Oars struck the water, and the gig moved across the harbor toward a nearby American merchant vessel as the Maine , burning furiously, slowly disappeared into Havana Harbor.

Ambrose Ham was one of the fortunate ones; 266 of his shipmates were lost in the great disaster. The cause of the explosion is still a subject of debate, but the incident was one of the factors leading to the Spanish-American War.

Lieutenant Commander Cutler is the author of several books, including A Sailor's History of the U.S Navy and Brown Water, Black Berets .
 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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Events and Conferences

Guest Lecturer
12:30pm, “Shifley Lecture Series,” U.S. Naval Academy Museum, 118 Maryland Ave., Annapolis, MD /... Read More

 
 

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