THE FORTRESS of San Juan de Ulua, in the harbor of Vera Cruz, Mexico, derives its name from that of the small island on which it stands. It was here that the Spanish mariner Don Juan de Grijalba, voyaging from Cuba, landed in June of the year 1518. As it happened to be the feast day of St. John the Baptist, Grijalba called the little island “San Juan de Ulua” after the saint’s day and “Ulua” which he understood to be the Indian name of that part of the mainland. The following year, the great conquistador Cortes landed at the same place and established a settlement on the shore a scant mile away, which he named “Villa Rica de Vera Cruz.” The present city of Vera Cruz near by was founded by the Count of Monterey in 1560.
The site of this first Spanish stronghold on the North American Continent was shrewdly chosen. It was almost perfectly protected from enemy ships, as well as from the fierce “Northers” that blow down across the Gulf, by a cordon of jagged reefs through which the pirate craft that swarmed in these waters in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries could thread their way only with the greatest difficulty, as attested by the numbers of black and rotting wrecks that lay along the outer fringes of the reefs. The old Spanish navigators called the harbor of Vera Cruz “a pocket full of holes” from the great number of devious channels leading into it through this dangerous barrier.
Exactly when the Spaniards began the construction of the Forteleza de San Juan de Ulua is difficult to determine. Some historians fix the date as early as 1582 and point to such dates as 1633, 1654, and later that are deeply inscribed here and there in the masonry as indicating the progress of the castle’s building. The structure was not fully completed, however, until 1796 when a light-tower was erected on the southeast (seaward) corner of the ramparts, at a cost of nearly $100,000 which was defrayed by the “Vera Cruz Consulate,” a corporation composed of Vera Cruz merchants. It was the first and for many years the only lighthouse anywhere on the Mexican coast. The lantern, operated by clockwork, was designed by the celebrated navigator and astronomer Mendoza y Rios and constructed in London. Lieutenant Raphael Semmes, U. S. Navy, who was attached to the Home Squadron off Vera Cruz in the War with Mexico, declared that this powerful, flashing light was superior to any light on the coast of the United States at that time.
It is said that $40,000,000 was spent in the building of Ulua. The wrought-iron gates and the massive and beautifully chased bronze mooring rings set into the sides of the mole, as well as the heavy bronze mortars and culverins, embossed with the armorial bearings of Castile and Aragon, bear witness to the vast sums which must have been lavished in the erection of this monument to the power and pride that once were Spain’s in the New World. Charles V once told one of his courtiers that Ulua had cost the crown so many golden ducats that, from the palace windows in Madrid, he fancied he could see its walls, grim, silent, and terrible, rising out of the green waters of the Western Sea.
Major Ripley describes the body of the work as “a quadrangle of great capacity; the southern bastion has a cavalier of high command; the sea front, which looks upon Gallega Reef, is covered by a demilune and redoubts of re-entering places of arms, and beyond these by water batteries extending entirely across the front.” The outer walls, of solid white stone and cement, are from 12 to 18 feet thick, rising in places to a height of 60 feet above the water and enclosing an area of about 15 acres, more than covering the original island. The stone used in the construction is of a porous, rather soft, coral formation, in which cannon balls harmlessly embedded themselves without splitting or cracking the immensely thick walls. The inner walls are so constructed that even if the outer walls were successfully stormed, the besiegers would still be exposed to a murderous fire from the batteries. Water was (and still is) supplied the garrison by seven great cisterns, of more than 700,000 gallons capacity, sunk deep in the foundations, into which the abundant rainfall during the rainy season drains from the roofs and parapets.
An Englishman who visited the castle after its Spanish garrison had been finally expelled in 1821, by Mexico’s greatest soldier and patriot, Santa Ana, describes the general plan of the vast fortification in the following words:
We entered the fortress from below at the principal gate which was of great strength and skilfully contrived, and then went along a stone passage which had several gateways and cunningly devised narrow passes, with high stone walls on each side. This was terminated by a canal or moat with a draw-bridge over it. We next arrived at flights of stairs and passing up several vault-like ascents, we gained the top of the grand batteries. The general characteristic is that of great strength and plenty of room to work in. They mounted 120 long 24-pounders, all of brass. They were, for the most part, in excellent condition. The mortars were of large caliber, though not in such good order as the guns. The powder magazines were each literally a dry stone well plugged at the top with blankets and having a round metal lid over the mouth that opened upon the batteries.
We next descended to the inner works and gained the secondary walls by a circuitous route. Besides the necessity to the besiegers of having guides who well knew every turn of the works, the excitement and smoke are almost certain to produce confusion, in which the voices or presence of the guides would be lost and the party, dashing onward, might only arrive at a dead wall, a gap looking out upon the sea, or the mouth of a 24- pounder. The circuitous route of our descent from the upper to the lower range of walls was entirely exposed to the batteries, the guns grinning at us all the way like so many black tusks as we traversed stone causeways and narrow passes. Whole regiments might have been raked down, after they had conquered the outer walls.
Now we descended a very wide and steep flight of stone stairs which led down into the grand castle square, or little town, as one might almost call it. We entered at the bottom through some gateways (the architect had never missed an opportunity for giving the besieged protection in retreating and time to rally), and then found ourselves in a large open square, enclosed on all sides by very lofty walls, the lower part of which displayed doors and entrances into guard houses and shops of various kinds for the sale of such articles as the garrison would need. The Governor’s house was at the farther end. It was a genuine soldier’s lodgement, and very bare of ornament except that of war, for it was riddled all over with the marks of shot and shell. Its strong covered balcony, intended to serve as a protection both from the broiling sun and from the fall of missiles, was in many places tom in long gaps. All the towers and buildings of any elevation had been knocked about and defaced by the shot and shells from Vera Cruz previous to the surrender of the castle. But the mutilation and destruction did not materially affect the strength of the place. Very few of the guns had been dislodged; even the outer batteries were not injured so as to render them ineffective, with the exception of a gap of ruins in one or two places. There is about a mile’s breadth of sea running between San Juan de Ulua and the town of Vera Cruz.
Much the most powerful fortification of its kind ever built in the Western Hemisphere, the citadel was considered by military engineers to be impregnable. As a matter of fact, Ulua never has been reduced by gunfire or captured by direct assault, though it has several times in its history fallen into the hands of enemies by siege or treachery. Percy G. Martin in his Mexico of the XXth Century says,
It is almost impossible to enumerate the number of times in its stormy career that this ancient port was bombarded, besieged and sacked. It was here that the great Francis Drake took his first lesson in piracy. John Hawkins, one of Queen Elizabeth’s loyal but distinctly dishonest sea rovers, once captured and occupied the fort.
Ulua was again surprised and captured in 1668 by the buccaneer Juan Aguinas Acle, who was soon driven away by a rival with a stronger fleet. The pirate Lorencillo, in 1693, defeated the garrison and sacked the city of Vera Cruz at his leisure, retiring after two weeks of carousing with an immense amount of plunder. Again, in 1712, the buccaneers Laurent and Van Horn seized the port and plundered it for ten days, killing hundreds of Mexicans and committing other untold outrages. A French squadron under Admiral Baudin and the Prince de Joinville forced the surrender of the castle in 1838, after an unopposed bombardment which lasted for six hours with no apparent damage to the fortifications. The fall of Ulua on this occasion created an immense sensation throughout Mexico and was considered a national scandal. The commandant of the fortress was publicly disgraced but defended himself on the grounds that the fault rested with the military governor of Vera Cruz who had ignored his repeated requests for better guns and ammunition. Baudin found the batteries to comprise 177 guns, with emplacements provided for 370. This armament was shortly thereafter strengthened, pursuant to the recommendations of a board of high ranking Mexican officers, who at the same time recommended a war garrison of 1,700 infantry, 300 artillery, and 228 naval troops, with 100 supernumeraries.
When Commodore David Conner, U. S. Navy, arrived off Vera Cruz with his Home Squadron in 1847, to join forces with the U. S. Army forces under Major General Winfield Scott, he was informed by Secretary of the Navy Bancroft that his squadron was not considered strong enough to reduce San Juan de Ulua by gunfire. General Scott agreed that the fortress was probably impregnable if well garrisoned, basing this opinion on the reconnaissance reports of the Army engineers on his staff, among whom were Colonel Joseph G. Totten, Captain Robert E. Lee, and Lieutenants P. G. T. Beauregard and Geo. B. McClellan. General Scott later stated in his memoirs that the walls of Ulua were as impervious to the shot of naval batteries as the sides of Mt. Orizaba, and that when the American forces approached it in 1847 the castle had the capacity to sink the entire American Navy. The exact strength of the batteries at that time was a matter of speculation, one authority stating that the castle mounted at least 128 guns, most of them heavy and many of modem manufacture, including 8-inch seacoast howitzers and 10-inch Paixhans; the garrison comprising about 1,000 troops of the line, augmented by militia and supernumeraries. Another authority claims that there were 224 mounted guns and mortars, besides a considerable number of unmounted pieces, with a garrison probably numbering 1,500. Dr. J. Frost, in speaking of the strong anti-American and pro-Mexican feeling in Europe at the time, says that the British newspapers so scouted the idea that General Scott could possibly succeed in his planned assault on Vera Cruz that, when the surprising news reached England that the city had fallen, they could account for it only by asserting that the castle had been betrayed by its commander.
The surrender of the castle itself was, as a matter of fact, brought about indirectly by the defection of Governor General Morales of Vera Cruz who escaped from the beleaguered city one night by boat, after resigning command to his subordinate, General Jose Juan de Landero, and instructing General Jose Duran, in command of Ulua, to regard himself as under General Landero’s orders. When the city was surrendered on March 27, 1847, upon the insistent demands of the foreign consuls supported by the alcalde, the Mexican flag on the castle was like-wise hauled down, although the citadel had suffered but little damage and the garrison still had considerable supplies of food, water, and ammunition. Commodore Matthew C. Perry, who had relieved Commodore Conner on March 21, 1847, took formal possession of the castle, which was garrisoned by American troops until the evacuation of the U. S. armies from Mexico, through the port of Vera Cruz in June, 1848. Commodore Perry used the island as a coal depot for steamers, constructing a long timber wharf behind the castle for the discharge of coal and other military supplies.
After this costly war, the Mexican government made no further effort to modernize or strengthen the defenses of Ulua but gradually converted the fortress to other uses, building new structures within and around the massive walls. With the acquisition of some coast defense gunboats, President Porfirio Diaz established a naval dockyard at the fortress, the official designation of which was the “Arsenal Nacional.” Blacksmith, machine and boiler shops, with a small power plant and foundry, were erected in the old plaza de armas which the British visitor, fifty or more years before, had referred to as “the grand castle square or little town.” Other shops, offices, and storerooms were located on the ramparts and in the galleries and casemates. Even the little chapel, which had once occupied a deep recess in the courtyard wall, and was now inside the machine shop, accommodated a lathe and drill press in 1914, the old holy water font serving as a convenient receptacle for cotton waste.
A small floating dock was moored in the harbor in the lee of the arsenal. A weather station was installed in the large tower on the southwest comer of the ramparts, facing the city, reporting observations daily to Mexico City by telegraph and flying the usual weather signals for the information of shipping in the harbor. A torpedo school and shop were housed in a galvanized iron shed on the wide mole near the water gate. Large quantities of ammunition were customarily stored in the old magazines. The military prison in the castle remained under the administration of the War Department and was commanded by a colonel of the Mexican Army; the arsenal being a naval activity under the command of a commodore.
Vera Cruz and its famous castle again yielded to the force of foreign arms on April 21, 1914, when President Wilson ordered the seizure of the custom-house to prevent the landing by the Hamburg American liner Ypiranga of a large German shipment of arms and ammunition for President Victoriano Huerta. The city was invested by the naval forces of Rear Admiral Charles J. Badger, Commander in Chief of the U. S. Atlantic Fleet, which operated ashore under the immediate command of Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher. The Mexicans offered no organized resistance and, after several days of sniping in the streets and plazas and a house-to-house search for arms, order was restored throughout the city and the American flag was raised over Admiral Fletcher’s headquarters in the Hotel Terminal. General Gustavo A. Maass, Military Governor of Vera Cruz, emulating the strategy of his predecessor General Morales 67 years before, left his post and family in the city just before Admiral Fletcher’s forces landed and withdrew into the back country with his officers, most of his artillery, and much rolling stock, ostensibly to assume command of the Mexican federal troops reported to be advancing on Vera Cruz to repel the threatened Yankee invasion. There was no foundation whatever for the story that appeared in some of the American newspapers that, before leaving the city, General Maass released and armed several hundred of the prisoners in Ulua who proceeded to pillage the arsenal and shops and to terrorize the city and surrounding countryside.
At no time during the military operations attending the seizure of the customhouse and the subjugation of the city was there a single shot fired from or upon San Juan de Ulua. Early on the morning of the American landing, an ensign from the Navy transport Prairie visited the arsenal and informed the commandant, Colonel Aurelio Vigil, that Admiral Fletcher was about to take the custom-house and that any aggressive move on his part would be followed by a naval bombardment of the fort. Colonel Vigil politely replied that he understood the situation perfectly and that, having only a small prison guard left under his command and no artillery, he would remain neutral unless the fort were fired upon, in which case it would be his duty to return the fire as best he could. As soon as the American officer returned to his ship and the landing forces started moving ashore, a bright new Mexican flag was hoisted over the ancient ramparts of Ulua where it remained flying until the American colors were raised over the city on April 27. The once impregnable citadel did not mount a single piece of modern ordnance at this time.
At nine o’clock that same evening, a Mexican naval officer from the castle came off to the Prairie to request that 300 sailors and navy yard workmen who had remained at the fort and had not participated in the fighting that day in the city be allowed to leave the station and to join General Maass outside the town. Notwithstanding the refusal of this permission, pending the restoration of order in the city, most of the workmen and sailors, the latter attired in workmen’s clothes, succeeded in making their way along the breakwater into Vera Cruz without being detected and fired upon. Incidentally, the Mexican officer who came aboard the Prairie that night had served in the Spanish Navy and had been on board the Don Juan de Austria in the Battle of Manila Bay.
Colonel Vigil, in full uniform, made an official call on Admiral Fletcher at the latter’s headquarters on April 24. He stated that food supplies at the prison were running low, that he had no funds for the payment of his soldiers, and that, under the circumstances, he was compelled to ask the American Admiral for assistance. Admiral Fletcher thereupon directed Commander H. O. Stickney, commanding the Prairie, to make an immediate investigation of conditions at the fort. Proceeding ashore, Commander Stickney was courteously received by the prison commandant who explained fully the difficulties of his position. Pointing to his small force of two officers and about 100 men, then at drill in the prison yard, and to the absence of any arms in the fort, other than rifles and pistols, Colonel Vigil stated that he had not felt called upon to take any part in the hostilities and that his sole duty, as he saw it, was to guard the prisoners, about 515 in all, who had been left in his care. Many of them were desperate characters who could not be turned loose on the public under any circumstances. In addition to the soldiers and prisoners, the families of several of the officers were living at the fort with their servants, 872 persons all told, and the food situation was rapidly becoming acute. The usual sources of supply had been cut off by the Mexican military lines that encircled the city and the prison contractor had stopped making deliveries. Colonel Vigil announced his willingness to remain at his post, provided he could obtain subsistence and pay for his men, but expressed some anxiety as to his ability to prevent their desertion.
The number of troops in the fort had recently been increased by the arrival at Vera Cruz of the Mexican coastwise steamer Tehuantepec, having on board 49 recruits in charge of an officer of the Mexican Army. The vessel was detained by Admiral Fletcher and the men sent to the castle. Commander Stickney found the naval arsenal entirely deserted except for one man whom Colonel Vigil had detailed there as a watchman.
When the commander in chief learned of the true situation at Ulua, he directed Commander Stickney to draw up formal terms for Colonel Vigil’s surrender of the fort and ordered a marine guard sent ashore to take charge. The marine detachment of the North Dakota, 60 men, under the command of Captain Paul Chamberlain, was landed at the arsenal late in the evening of April 27. Colonel Vigil greeted the marine officers cordially and suggested that the transfer of command take place the next morning. This was agreed to and marines were posted on top of the walls with orders to remain on the alert until morning when the Mexican guard would surrender their arms in accordance with the terms of capitulation. During the night, Captain Chamberlain received a message from the Prairie that the American colors would be raised over the fort at eight o’clock the next morning and an ensign was sent ashore to be used for that purpose, the marines having no colors with them.
At “morning colors,” on April 28, 1914, while the strains of the “Star-Spangled Banner” floated in across the water from the battleships lying out in the roads, the American flag was raised over Ulua by Lieutenant George K. Shuler and Corporal Kovach of the Marine Corps, honors being rendered by a bugler and color guard. There were no other formalities to mark this second occasion in history when the Stars and Stripes were hoisted over San Juan de Ulua. Colonel Vigil relinquished his command with manifest relief. He was deeply chagrined by the helplessness of his position and by the manner in which he had been left at the fort without instructions. He was commended by the commander in chief for his gallant behavior and devotion to duty and was given permission to leave the city with his officers and men, without arms.
The marine guard pitched into their new job with characteristic energy and efficiency. A thousand Navy rations were quickly obtained from the fleet. Prisoners were released from their cells and mustered in the fresh air and sunlight of the prison courtyard. Kitchen police were detailed. A huge cauldron of beef stew was speedily prepared in the old prison kitchen and the famished Mexicans were soon enjoying the first hearty meal any of them had tasted in many a long day, their only mess equipment being old tin cans to hold their stew. Although Captain Chamberlain found none of the prisoners confined in dungeons, and only one in “solitary,” the large cells in which they were herded were overcrowded and filthy beyond description. Until the cells could be cleaned and disinfected, the prisoners camped out under guard in the prison courtyard during the day and were confined in the demilune, across the moat, at night. The Mexican officers co-operated with the Americans in every possible way and the prisoners were completely won over by the kindness and good food of their new jailers. There was no trouble in securing eager volunteers for all the dirty jobs around the prison; they all volunteered.
As the political relations between the governments of President Huerta and President Wilson made it appear that the United States Fleet might remain at Vera Cruz indefinitely, the commander in chief decided to place the naval arsenal in full commission. The Military Government of Vera Cruz had been turned over to General Frederick Funston and his military forces on April 30, San Juan de Ulua remaining under naval control, as it had in 1847 when General Scott captured the city.
The newly commissioned fleet repair ship Vestal, in which the writer was serving, arrived at Vera Cruz on the second day of May and was moored inside the breakwater about 500 yards off the arsenal. Her commanding officer, Commander Edward L. Beach, was ordered by the commander in chief to assume command at once of the prison and dockyard at San Juan de Ulua and to operate all the available repair and supply facilities, in conjunction with those of the Vestal, in serving the fleet and the United States Army forces ashore. Commander Beach hoisted his command pennant on May 5, and the ancient Spanish citadel became, for the time being, the “U. S. Naval Station, Vera Cruz.” Immediately upon taking command, the new commandant, with his heads of departments, made a searching tour of inspection to survey the resources and facilities of the station and to adopt measures for the preservation of Mexican property as had been specially enjoined by the commander in chief.
From top to bottom, in almost every one of its maze of buildings, rooms, galleries, towers, passageways, and patios, the arsenal at Ulua was a scene of the wildest disorder. The vandalism and looting that had taken place had been most thorough. Locks had been broken, doors and shutters smashed, furniture overturned, desk drawers pulled out, lockers rifled, books, papers, and broken glass scattered everywhere. A carpenter’s mate, with a helper supplied with the Vestal's entire stock of padlocks and chain, accompanied the inspection party, systematically securing each building and compartment containing valuable property or stores.
Some of the instruments and equipment of the government meteorological station had been destroyed or removed. The interiors of both the dispensary and the prison infirmary were completely wrecked and the floors strewn with broken bottles, surgical dressings, instruments, drugs, and medicines. All offices, including the commandant’s, had been thoroughly ransacked and all portable articles of value taken away. The only place in the entire arsenal, apparently, which had not been broken into and plundered was the torpedo school, the most expensively equipped and furnished establishment in the fort. Here everything was found in perfect order, with assembled mines and torpedoes stowed in racks, mechanical parts mounted for study on tables or benches, the more delicate mechanisms being in glass cases. Air compressors, tools, and equipment showed excellent care. American and European ordnance books stood on the shelves. The blackboards in the classroom still contained the neat drawings and diagrams of the young cadets who had so bravely faced death in the bombardment of the Naval Academy. A torpedo tube mounted in the wide doorway opening upon the inner harbor was, undoubtedly, what had saved the torpedo school from pillage. That torpedoes and mechanical mines were kept in the torpedo-room on the mole was known to the fleet and the torpedo tube, mounted in the doorway, could be plainly seen from the deck of the Prairie which was moored inside the breakwater only a few hundred yards from the arsenal. The young officer who was sent to the fort on the morning of April 21 had been specifically instructed to warn the Mexican commandant that the Prairie’s guns were trained on the torpedo tube at point-blank range and that if anyone was seen approaching it, the tube would instantly be blown to pieces. This warning had served to keep everyone in the fort well clear of the torpedo-room. It had also been rumored in the fleet that electric mines, controlled from the arsenal, were planted inside the entrance to the harbor. It was not until Commander Stickney visited the arsenal, after the fighting in the city was over, that the Americans learned that there were no war heads or charges for the torpedoes and mines and that there were no mines laid in the harbor. Colonel Vigil invited Commander Stickney to have a thorough search made of the fort and torpedo-room, to satisfy himself that there were no weapons of any kind other than the small arms belonging to the officers and prison guard.
Marine sentries were posted about the arsenal and all unauthorized persons denied admittance to the island. Visiting parties coming to the fort were required to obtain passes and to be accompanied by responsible escorts, officers or petty officers, to prevent further depredations of souvenir hunters. Nothing was too high, or too heavy, or too securely fastened to keep these insatiable collectors from trying to take it away. Even the blackened beef bones which had been embedded in the original walls of the old guard rooms and prison kitchen, to serve as musket rests and pegs on which to hang pots and pans, were surreptitiously broken off and carried away under the impression that they were human bones. The island was thronged with visitors almost daily; noted war correspondents, American and foreign diplomats and their ladies, refugees from the interior awaiting steamship transportation, officers and men of our own Army and Navy, as well as from the foreign men-of-war in port. The British cruisers Essex, Lancaster, Suffolk, Berwick, Bristol, and Hermione, under command of Rear Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock; the French cruisers Condé and Descartes, the German Dresden, the Spanish Carlos V, and the Dutch Kortenaar—all were there, at various times, during that fateful summer of 1914.
Dry dock, power plant, shops, station craft, and storekeeping department were soon commissioned under the direction of the Vestal officers and manned by the Vestal personnel, assisted by details from other vessels of the fleet. A radio station was set up ashore. Former navy yard mechanics and workmen began drifting back, seeking re-employment. Among them was the former assistant dockmaster, an American-born, naturalized Mexican, who had been an assistant engineer in the U. S. auxiliary cruiser St. Louis during the Spanish-American War and who more recently had been the engineer officer of a Mexican gunboat sunk on the Pacific coast. Within five days the dock had been tested and the U. S. gunboat Eagle was successfully docked. From then on, “El Dique” was in continuous service, docking the smaller vessels of the fleet, station craft, municipal, customs, and lighthouse vessels and several Mexican coastwise steamers. The facilities of the arsenal machine shops, carpenter shop, and foundry were likewise actively employed, greatly relieving the load on the Vestal’s shops.
The former assistant director of the weather bureau returned to the arsenal and secured the commandant’s permission to reopen the observatory in the west tower. Offices and quarters for the observers were fitted out from the arsenal, new instruments and equipment being procured by the director from Mexico City.
Lying at the dockyard, in various degrees of disrepair, were found the harbor tug Tulum, the fire tug Nereida, the steam launch Juana, a 50,000-gallon water barge, and two small, more or less serviceable, lighters. All were docked and overhauled and rendered valuable services to the city of Vera Cruz and the fleet during the occupation. It may be mentioned that the Tulum was disrespectfully referred to in the fleet that summer as the “Piffle” or “Grape Juice.” Possibly the most interesting of the many mechanical relics we found on the station was an ancient, hand-operated fire engine of a strange and wonderful French design. This too was reconditioned and used by the sanitary officer for flushing out the cells and dungeons of the prison with salt water drawn from the moat.
The Mexican training ship Yucatan, a bark, which lay inside the breakwater, had not been in commission for several years. Officially serving as a receiving ship for new naval recruits, she had been used chiefly as a private club by the Mexican naval officers attached to the station. A boarding party from the Vestal found that the Yucatan had been abandoned by her shipkeepers who had thoroughly ransacked the officers’ quarters, pantries, and storerooms before leaving. Small quantities of clothing and quartermaster’s stores remaining on board were removed to the arsenal for safekeeping.
An actual inventory of all arsenal property and stores was out of the question, with the limited time and personnel at our disposal. Thousands of dollars worth of stores were scattered everywhere. It was quite evident that the Mexicans either had never heard of a general storekeeping system or thoroughly disapproved of such a thing. Though much of the material was valuable only as antiques, there were considerable quantities of such useful items as lumber, bar and heavy sheet metals, coke, and gasoline, with lesser quantities of hand tools, pipe fittings, hardware, and paints. Standard Navy storekeeping and accounting procedure was followed in the requisition and issue of all material to the fleet and the Army, itemized and fully descriptive invoices being prepared and receipts obtained for everything that went off the station. All stores were systematically collected and segregated; rusting tools and machinery were cleaned and oiled; broken shelving, bins, and lockers were repaired and all material was re-stowed where it would be safe and accessible.
A German trade-mark could be found on practically everything in Mexico in 1914. Tools, instruments, and packages bore the names of German manufacturers and German importers in Vera Cruz. The rifles and pistols found in the armories and magazines, and hidden in various places about the fort, were all of German or Austrian make—Mauser and Luger. Several hundred rifles were discovered in most unexpected hiding places, all with bolt mechanisms removed and hidden elsewhere. Some were at the bottoms of the deep cisterns, others were buried under sand and coal piles, or beneath the lime pits containing the slaked lime used for making whitewash—Mexico’s all-purpose paint. One cache of arms was accidentally uncovered in the cemetery. Thousands of rounds of rifle ammunition and several cases of loaded 1-pounder shells, dynamite, and fuses were also found in out-of-the- way places. To prevent accident, all arms and explosives were carefully collected and stowed in an old underground magazine in a remote part of the fort.
The most pressing matter awaiting the new commandant’s attention at the prison was the investigation of the cases of the 443 prisoners that still remained in custody. A number of the more prominent political prisoners had been liberated by Captain Chamberlain, at Admiral Badger’s direction, among them being Senor Olivares, a brother-in-law of the late President Madero, Senor Fernando Iglesias Calderon, of a distinguished Mexican family, and Carlos Suarez, nephew of Vice- President Suarez who had been assassinated with Madero. The prison records were very incomplete and it was necessary for Commander Beach to hear, personally, each one of the 443 cases. He was assisted in this by Professor Carlos Cusachs, U. S. Navy, intelligence officer on the staff of the commander in chief, and by two Mexican officers of the former prison guard who had been detained for that duty. About 120 of the prisoners were reputed to be convicted or accused criminals of the most degenerate types. The rest were mostly Indian conscripts that had been “recruited” for General Huerta’s army, largely from the jails in the State of Tabasco, and brought to Vera Cruz under guard. These men, according to the Mexican officers, had not been charged with any misdemeanor whatsoever.
PLAN OF SAN JUAN DE ULUA
Those who were finally identified as mere political offenders were released by order of General Funston, the Military Governor. The convicts and criminal suspects were transferred to jails in Vera Cruz in custody of the Army. Pending their release or transfer, all prisoners were required to bathe daily in the warm tidal waters of the moat and were decently outfitted with clothing from the well-stocked naval clothing storerooms at the arsenal. The able-bodied were employed in cleaning up the prison and arsenal and in overhauling and oiling machinery. The sick were cared for in the prison infirmary until they could be taken to hospitals in the city. Navy rations were supplied the prisoners by vessels of the fleet.
Probably no man has ever survived to tell the complete story of the horrors of Ulua’s prison. The cells in which the Americans found prisoners confined in 1914, foul and overcrowded as they were, were palatial compared to others discovered by the Vestal’s sanitary squad in the course of its adventures in the Stygian labyrinths beneath the castle walls. The more famous dungeons bore such highly descriptive names as “El Purgatorio,” “La Gloria,” and “El Inferno” and were decorated with pictures of devils and grinning skulls which had been scratched on the slimy walls by the half- crazed inmates. These catacombs beneath Ulua dripped with seepage from the sea. Their occupants never saw a ray of sunlight and the only sound that reached their ears was the unceasing crash of the surf on Gallega Reef. Food was shoved in to them at the end of long poles thrust through narrow slits and passed by the prisoners from cell to cell. Those whom death did not release from their torment became raving maniacs. Tuberculosis claimed most of the victims and epidemics of yellow jack and smallpox frequently wiped out prisoners and jailers alike. One cell beneath the north bastion, reached by a steep and narrow flight of slippery stone steps, resembled a deep well, with no outlet or openings except near the top. Rusty arm and leg shackles set into the stone floor and the spout of a small water pipe, not more than half an inch in diameter, which projected through a hole in the ceiling directly overhead, clearly explained what had gone on here in by-gone days. Another gentle reminder of the days of the Spanish Inquisition was a torture rack which the storekeepers uncovered in a pile of moldering lumber and rubbish in the demilune.
Unbelievable quantities of sulphur, creosote, and other disinfectants were used by Dr. Dessez, the Vestal's surgeon, in what was probably the first cleansing and fumigation the underground regions of the prison had known in the entire 300 years of its history. The squads of prisoners sent into the dungeons to scrape and shovel out the accumulations of unspeakable filth and crawling vermin could work only a few minutes at a time because of the unbearable odor. After a thorough flushing with sea water, all compartments were tightly sealed for 48 hours and fumigated with nearly a ton of burning sulphur. Renovated cells and passageways were finally whitewashed and the floors thickly sprinkled with chlorinated lime. The armies of huge gray rats and the long-tailed, mangy cats that inhabited the island defy description. They resembled nothing of like species that any of us had ever seen.
One incident in the naval administration of San Juan de Ulua may be related in illustration of the evil reputation of the military prison throughout Mexico. A detachment of Carranzistas had been driven within the American lines around Vera Cruz by Mexican government troops and General Funston had directed that they be interned at Ulua, authorizing the parole of the officers at the commandant’s discretion. When the officers and men, about 100 in number, were embarked on a tug at the Sanidad Wharf in Vera Cruz for transportation across the harbor to the citadel they became hysterical as soon as they perceived their destination. Their colonel appealed to Commander Beach for mercy, saying, “Captain, two years ago my regiment numbered more than 2,000 men. These are all that are left. We were killed in battle; we froze on the tablelands; we thirsted in the desert; we died in the jungles; we starved at all times; but, would to God, Captain, we had all died like men under the open sky rather than like beasts in the dungeons of Ulua.” Arriving at the citadel, the soldiers were marched to the barracks where they were billeted. The officers were escorted to the quarters in the Commandancia recently vacated by the Mexican Military Governor. These spacious quarters, on top of the wall, were cooled by the pleasant breezes from off the Gulf and opened on a garden filled with palms, flowering shrubs, and vines. Here an attractive luncheon, with servants to serve it, awaited the astonished officers. “Gentlemen,” said Commander Beach, “this is your dungeon in Ulua. Make yourselves at home until I can arrange the matter of your paroles.”
The cemetery at San Juan de Ulua deserves a chapter by itself. Not even the rusting chains and shackles that hung from the oozing walls of the dungeons, or the dark, bullet-pitted scar that ran, breast high, along the stone wall at one end of the prison courtyard, has graphically epitomized the tragic history of Ulua as did that lonely graveyard on the reef outside the prison walls. A brownish- yellow waste of rotting bones and coral bleaching in the tropical sun, its utter desolation unrelieved by a single flower or blade of grass, this acre which God had certainly forgot was left to the care of the obscene buzzards (zopilotes) that perched on the crumbling headstones and wooden crosses. At the water’s edge, partly submerged, its inscription almost obliterated by storm and weather, we found a small granite monument which now stands in Memorial Hall at the Naval Academy. The faint lettering, which has since been traced out in black paint, reads, “A la Memoria de Los Americanos que Sucumbieron en Esta Forteleza el Año de 1847,” a mute reminder of that small group of American heroes who found their last resting place on a coral reef behind San Juan de Ulua. Who these men were or who it was that set up the little monument to their memory, naval records do not state.
Absorbed as we were in Vera Cruz by our own little war, which our government had informed the world was not a war, the gathering war clouds in Europe nevertheless provided the chief topic of conversation in the officers’ messes and around the cafe tables in the Diligencias during that ominous month of July, 1914. We watched with growing interest the British, French, German, and other European men-of-war lying peacefully at their moorings in the harbor, their crews drinking their beer together in the cantinas ashore, while their officers played tennis every afternoon at the Covadonga Club and mingled, with the utmost good fellowship, at the cafes and at social functions aboard ship. The exodus began on July 15 when the German cruiser Dresden slipped out of the harbor and disappeared to the eastward, headed for the doom that awaited her, some months later, near far-off Cumberland Bay. On the 28th, the small Dutch battleship Kortenaar sailed, to be followed at dawn the next morning by the Berwick of Admiral Cradock’s Fourth Cruiser Squadron. On July 30, Admiral Cradock himself left Vera Cruz in his flagship Suffolk, soon to emblazon his name on the scroll of Britain’s naval heroes in the unequal battle with Von Spee’s cruisers off Coronel. The two French cruisers Condi and Descartes sailed at daylight on August 1, under orders to operate with Admiral Cradock’s forces. Three days later England declared war on Germany and the world speedily forgot Vera Cruz.
On September 19, Rear Admiral Frank Beatty, then commanding the U. S. Naval Forces still remaining at Vera Cruz, sent the following order to the Commandant of the Naval Station, San Juan de Ulua: “You are authorized to transfer to the Military Governor, Vera Cruz, Fort San Juan de Ulua, navy yard and floating dry dock as soon as possible. Complete arrangements for transfer of shore radio station but this transfer will not be made until two days prior to evacuation of Vera Cruz.” As these orders had been anticipated and all arrangements made for carrying them out, Ulua, with all its appurtenances, was turned over to the Army that same day. Naval personnel and equipment were returned to the ships and the Vestal sailed for home. The Army held on two months longer before General Funston received orders from the War Department to evacuate the city and fortress and to embark his troops on the transports that were waiting in the harbor. As soon as General Funston left, Carranza’s troops, the “Constitucionalistas,” marched into the city and took possession. And thus ended the last American occupation of Vera Cruz and the Fortress of San Juan de Ulua.
Editor’s Note.—See photographs of San Juan de Ulua taken from President Roosevelt’s collection, p. 1178
A General who is to do great things must possess civil qualities. It is because he is reputed to be the best brain that the soldiers obey and respect him.—Napoleon, Military Maxims.
 Current Hydrographic Office charts show the partially submerged wreck of the dock which sank in 1922.