On August 29, 1916, the U. S. S. Memphis was wrecked on the beach at Santo Domingo City, Santo Domingo, by enormous seas which were unaccompanied by any wind whatsoever. This statement is made emphatic because, both officially and unofficially, there is frequently seen the statement that the Memphis was wrecked by a hurricane.
The Memphis was the flagship of the commander of the cruiser force, Atlantic fleet, and, at the time of her loss, had been lying at anchor off Santo Domingo City most of the summer.
A great deal of boating was necessary, and it had been found advantageous to anchor as far to the eastward as practicable in order, to get what lee we could from the point on the Duarte side of the Ozama River. The ship was anchored in 8½ fathoms of water, with the lighthouse bearing about 300° true. The prevailing wind and sea were from the southeast, and the anchorage was almost always rough.
The anchorage at Santo Domingo City is very restricted, and there is no protection from east to west through south. The westerly current caused the ship to ride, heading east. The anchorage is on a narrow shelf or ledge. This ledge is so narrow that the 10-fathom curve is but a few yards inside of the 100-fathom curve.
The danger of such an anchorage had been fully realized and everything was habitually kept in readiness to get under way upon short notice. Forty-five minutes was the time within which the ship could get wider way with plenty of power available.
About one week before the loss of the ship a heavy blow came from the south. The ship was ready to get under way in less than 45 minutes. However, the anchor held well and though the wind became very strong it was decided not to get under way at this time.
On the afternoon of August 29, 1916, at 1 o'clock, the usual recreation party was sent ashore and all regular boats ran as usual, up to and including the 3.30 boat. The sea was rough, but no more so than usual.
At 3.45 p. m. orders were given to get ready to get under way. This was done because the commanding officer thought that the swell was increasing. (The writer was below at this time and did not notice any increase in the motion of the ship.) As stated above, plans for getting under way quickly were complete. An emergency steaming watch was already detailed, boilers were primed, etc.
(With the permission of the readers the writer will use the big "I" for a few paragraphs, as he feels that he cannot otherwise describe how suddenly the calamity now arrived.)
At 3.50 p. m. I was in my room and heard the word passed to secure for sea and to get ready to get under way. I was on the sick list at the time and so did not receive the word directly as the other officers did.
At exactly 4 p. m. I stopped at the barometer outside the captain's cabin and read it. It read 30.00, which was not below normal. I had no difficulty in reading this mercurial barometer, so the reader can understand that there was very little motion on the ship.
Being curious in regard to our reason for getting under way, I went on the quarter-deck. Nobody had any idea of trouble ahead at this time.
A moment later I noticed ahead, to the eastward, an immense wave or swell approaching. This swell came at a small angle with the shore line and the inshore end of the swell curled some distance inland. As this swell got close to the ship its face became very steep, but the ship rode over it without swinging up to it.
At 3.45 p. m. a motor sailer had been sent in for the recreation party ashore, and this boat with 38 men in it was about 500 yards from the ship when this first swell passed the ship. At 4.05 p. m. this boat was thrown end over end by the second swell. The boat sank and all but about six of the men in her were drowned or smashed to death on the beach.
It is impossible for me to describe the astounding abruptness of the emergency. Immediately after the capsizing of our boat the U. S. S. Castine got under way and attempted to get to sea by rounding the bow of the Memphis. The seas were too enormous and she was thrown toward the beach, bows on and with her rudder jammed hard left. She backed, and the current gradually drifted her into the lee of the Memphis, where she gathered sternway. At no time was the Castine more than 1000 yards from the Memphis, and yet from the bridge of the Memphis, 45 feet above the water, the Castine disappeared time and time again. Even her mastheads disappeared! To see the Castine fighting for her life was a terrifying sight.
However, the Castine was able to back up close to the Memphis, which was now acting as a breakwater, turn and get to sea under our stern, taking the waves a few points abaft her port beam.
On board the Memphis much was happening. Wave followed wave at intervals of perhaps 30 to 40 seconds. These waves were so large and their faces became so steep that they simply flowed over the ship. They flowed over our bridge many feet deep. They flowed over our stacks and flooded our fires!
These waves were driven by no wind. They took the shape of breakers as they approached the shallow water, but they had very little driving force. Approaching, they appeared irresistible, but, if one held his breath, it required but little strength to hold on to the ship. Things around the decks were torn loose by the motion of the ship, especially after she began landing hard, but the waves seemed to have very little smashing power and did but little direct damage.
At about 4.15 p. m. I reported to the captain that the ship was hitting bottom, but was not dragging. I am certain that she was striking bottom before she dragged, because I was taking bearings and I could plainly see that she struck in the trough of every wave.
Several attempts were made to let go our other anchor, but this could not be done.
At 4.20 p. m. the ship began to drag. Each wave would slide her a couple of hundred feet toward the beach and our anchor with 70 fathoms of chain would not even make her swing up to the sea, which was about broad on our starboard bow. The steep front of each wave acted as an inclined plane and forced the ship inshore.
The water shipped down the stacks so deadened our fires that all hope of saving the ship quickly vanished. Within five minutes after the ship began to drag she was thrown on the bottom so hard that most of the crew were knocked down, mess tables were torn from their brackets, the ready shells for the broadside guns burst from their racks, piping, etc., crashed down, and below decks became a death trap.
On one mighty heave the ship landed well over on her port bilge and many expected to have her turn nearly over on the next wave. However, she straightened up and came in pretty nearly on an even keel.
By this time the ship, originally drawing about 29 feet of water, was in shallow water and the motion became most violent. Practically everybody had to be taken care of on the upper deck.
This would have been an impossibility had anything but the most perfect order and discipline prevailed. The men were superb, and their spirit was fine to see and feel.
Life-lines were quickly rigged and the men were divided into groups by their officers and petty officers. These groups huddled in the lee of the stacks, of the bridge, etc.
Much had happened below. The dynamos stopped, but the engineers stuck to their posts. Two boilers were crushed by a coral pinnacle pushing them up against the deck above. The men in this fire-room were scalded horribly, as were the chief engineer, Lieutenant C. A. Jones, and Machinist Wiley. However, all of them stuck until they were ordered up, and even then Lieutenant Jones refused to go because he thought that he heard the engines turning. What he heard was the engines breaking up under the pounding they were getting from the bottom of the ship. On deck it was difficult to keep the engineer's force from going below in a body when they heard that Lieutenant Jones was hurt and couldn't be gotten out. And nothing could be more inspiring than Lieutenant Jones' request, when he arrived upon the bridge, to "Get my hurt men ashore if you can. Don't bother about me"; while his "hurt men" refused to go ashore until their chief went.
By 4.50 p. m. the ship was in her present position, probably 75 yards from the cliffs along the beach.
Various attempts were made to get a line ashore, but the offshore breeze made this difficult. Finally a quartermaster heaved a lead, on a light line, ashore from the port wing of the bridge. Lines and hawsers were sent ashore and held by our marines and many of the citizens of the city, who did all that they could to help us. These hawsers had to be manned on shore because the motion of the ship would have parted them had they been belayed.
Snatch blocks with hauling lines were used as runners on the hawsers, and boatswain's chairs and bowlines served as breeches buoys. Once started, the rescue of the crew was nearly perfect. Great vigilance was necessary to make the most tired men go first, as it was quite a strain to keep holding on to the ship under the weight of the water that continued to come over.
In less than 3½ hours 750 men were sent ashore over the lines with but one minor accident, due to the parting of a hauling line.
Too much praise cannot be given to Chief Quartermaster Rose, who did so much to steady the men wherever he went, and who took men to the forehold, where they ducked for gear in the inky blackness.
As the crowds of men on the deck thinned, lines were abandoned until but one line was left. The last 24 to leave the ship (22 officers and two chief petty officers) left on this line in couples. The next to the last couple took ashore with them the end of an easing-out line led through a block on the ship. Thus the captain, Edward L. Beach, was eased ashore in safety. The rescue was complete.
When the lines were first rigged not a man would go ashore until the injured men had gone. This was carried to the extent of sending some dead men ashore.
Three times during the wreck the crew cheered. Once, when the Castine got to sea; again, when the first line reached the shore; and again, when Captain Beach landed safely.
To return to the waves—such waves! Several men from the motor sailer, mentioned before, were thrown alive into Fort Ozama, which is situated upon a cut-under cliff more than 40 feet high!
Most of the men killed were lost from the boats in the water. Some men, a very few, were washed overboard and lost within the first 20 minutes of the enormous seas. The others were killed doing their duty below and sticking to their posts under the most trying conditions.
In conclusion, I beg to state that never have I been more proud of being an officer in our navy than I was during the wreck of the Memphis, when every man stuck to his duty, helped his shipmates and proved himself worthy of the best traditions of the service. I know that every member of the crew will join me in wishing to serve again with the captain who was so wonderful throughout the wreck.