Rap, rap, rap on my stateroom door. Never a heavy sleeper, I was instantly awake and, switching on the lights, was greeted by the orderly’s announcement, “Code messages, sir.”
It was routine procedure for members of the Admiral’s staff to take night duty in turn, to handle important incoming radio messages and all code messages were considered important. The night of August 1, 1914, happened to be my tour of duty. My ship was the U.S.S. California, flagship of Admiral Thomas B. Howard, U. S. Navy, Commander in Chief of the United States Pacific Fleet.
We were anchored at Mazatlan, Mexico, an important seaport in the State of Sinaloa, where conditions had become critical. For more than three years Mexico had been rent by a succession of revolutions and now Mazatlan, a rich prize, was in great danger of being lost to its defenders.
The conditions at Mazatlan had brought about the presence of United States, British, and German men-of-war. The German cruiser, Leipzig, under command of Captain F. Haun, had but recently arrived as relief for the Nurnberg, Captain Karl von Schonberg, which had been in Mexican waters many months. Both cruisers belonged to the German squadron in China, for which station the Nurnberg had departed after being relieved. British interests were represented by the gunboat Algerine under Captain Robert G. Corbett. In addition to the California, several other vessels of the U. S. Fleet, including the collier Saturn, were at Mazatlan.
Mazatlan was held by the Federal authorities popularly known as Huertistas and had been closely invested for some months by the Constitutionalistas, as the followers of Carranza were called. The latter controlled the rest of the state, which is immensely rich in mining and other resources. Under normal conditions Mazatlan was the outlet for much of the wealth produced in the state. There was no cable connection and all telegraph lines had long since been severed. Mail came by steamer from San Francisco every two weeks. Due to atmospheric conditions, long distance communication with the relatively inefficient radio apparatus of 1914 was an unreliable and difficult procedure.
The most dependable channel of communication was through the facilities of the naval radio station at San Diego, California, and by mutual agreement the U.S.S. California handled the messages to and from San Diego for all men-of-war at Mazatlan. As far as the Algerine was concerned, there was no other choice as she had no electric plant, much less radio equipment.
Late news of the world was scarce and what little there was, was gleaned from such radio press broadcasts as could be intercepted through the static of a tropical summer. We knew of the unsettled state of affairs in Europe and disquieting bits of information had filtered through the air following the ultimatum Serbia had received from Austria. However, the general impression prevailed that the difficulties would be patched up as usual and that we were being treated to another of the all too frequent saber rattlings in which European governments indulged. So as I sat in my bunk in the early morning hours of Sunday, August 2, 1914, and thumbed through the batch of messages handed me, I was startled to find a code message for the Leipzig and one for the Algerine; startled because no code messages had previously been received by us for either ship. The Algerine message I recall distinctly, as it was in numerals and I had never seen a similar one. We used letters exclusively in our code work.
I might digress to say that our systems of enciphering messages at that time were decidedly amateurish. There is a service yarn to the effect that when we entered the World War and began sending radio messages in our code, the British Admiralty promptly advised the Navy Department to discontinue its use as they had long ago broken the code and doubtless the Germans had done likewise.
As I looked at the two code messages, I sensed that something important was concealed behind the apparently meaningless jumbles of letters and numerals. Had war come? If so, surely our own Admiral would be in receipt of such important information. Hastily I opened a safe, secured a code book and obtained the gist of our own code messages. Nothing except routine business, but I still had a feeling that the other messages contained tidings far from good.
I went on deck where I paused, arrested by the sheer beauty of the soft, tropical night with dawn just over the horizon. The Algerine and Leipzig swung peacefully at their anchors and on the California’s deck the few men on watch went quietly about their appointed tasks. Although I felt that the pieces of paper in my hand presaged trouble, little could I have conjectured by even the wildest flight of imagination what the ultimate outcome of that “trouble” was to be for two of the ships present-—the Leipzig was sunk in the battle of the Falkland Islands with practically her entire crew, and the California, subsequently renamed San Diego) went down off the south coast of Long Island after striking a German mine, fortunately with comparatively little loss of life.
I arranged for transmission of the Algerine’s message by bridge signal. This was possible as the British and United States Navies used the same system of night signaling. The Leipzig’s message was delivered as soon as steam could be raised in a ship’s launch. The Algerine likewise received the written copy of her message.
In the latter part of July it had become apparent that Mazatlan must either soon be evacuated or be taken by assault and there was much concern for the safety of foreigners and their property should street fighting occur. In a consultation with Admiral Howard the German and British captains proposed that an international armed force be landed for the protection of foreign interests. This policy was not agreeable to the Admiral, who favored calling a conference of responsible representatives from both Mexican factions in the hope of arriving at some method of insuring the safety of foreigners and their possessions.
Such a conference was arranged to meet on the California at 2:00 p.m., July 28. It was attended by General Herbinerto Rivera of the Federal forces, Senor Riveros, the Constitutionalist Governor of Sinaloa, General Ramon Iturbe, commanding the forces investing Mazatlan, Captain Haun and Captain Corbett. A number of minor Mexican officials of both factions also were present.
The conference, presided over by Admiral Howard, was a lengthy one during which the German and British captains joined in presenting one suggestion after another. The Mexicans indulged in torrents of Spanish; no one can be more prolix than a Spanish-speaking politician. Finally it was decided to take on board the various men-of-war on July 31 all foreigners who desired to leave Mazatlan for the time being. The Federals agreed to protect the embarkation of the refugees and the Constitutionalistas agreed not to fire on boats in the harbor while the transfer was being made. Both Mexican factions further agreed to afford all possible protection to foreign interests in Mazatlan. When the Mexicans departed, there occurred the unusual incident of enemy generals having successive personal salutes fired in their honor from the same ship.
As arranged, all foreigners and their families were taken to the various ships on July 31 by the boats of the several men- of-war. In this embarkation the United States, British, and German bluejackets closely co-operated. At the request of Captain Corbett the English women were accommodated on the California, the Algerine being too small a ship to afford them comfortable quarters.
By arrangement between the British Ambassador in Washington and the Navy Department, the Algerine was supplied with fuel, food, and such other necessities as could be spared from our supply ships. The Leipzig had fallen heir to a small British cargo steamer under charter to the Nurnberg. This steamer, the Cetriana, was commanded by a British naval reserve officer and flew the distinctive blue ensign of the British Naval Reserve. When chartered, the Cetriana had had a cargo of some 3,000 tons of coal, a large part of which had been used by the Nurnberg.
After having attended to the delivery of the Leipzig and Algerine messages I went to my room and had scarcely fallen asleep when I was again called and informed that Captain Corbett was on deck and desired to see the Admiral immediately. While hastily dressing I pondered the various reasons which could have brought the Britisher so promptly to our ship. Evidently something urgent. I came to the conclusion that Captain Corbett had come to make a request of some kind—just what, my rapidly racing thoughts could not decide.
I went immediately to the Admiral’s cabin, awakened him, and gave him all the details I had. He thought a moment and then said that if it was war, Corbett hadn’t a chance against the Leipzig. This statement could not be questioned as the Leipzig in every way was at least three times the more powerful ship—size, speed, and gun power.
At the Admiral’s direction I showed Captain Corbett into the cabin. The recollection of that early morning scene is still vivid. The Admiral, conservative, wary, and shrewd, facing what request he knew not, from a man he liked and for whom he had much sympathy. Corbett, a typical Britisher, florid of face, calm and assured in manner. He showed no evidence of being under strain. Probably I was the most excited of the three, although I had nothing at stake.
Captain Corbett apologized for having disturbed the Admiral at such an early hour and then relieved the tension by asking that he be allowed to take at least 100 tons of coal as soon as possible from the Saturn. In an attempt to elicit information, the Admiral protested that Sunday was no day for coaling. Corbett replied that he had information which he was not at liberty to divulge, but that unless he was allowed, to take coal immediately it might well be that later he would not be permitted to have coal at all. The Admiral took the hint and said that orders would be given the Saturn to be ready to furnish coal at any time after 8:00 a.m. Captain Corbett expressed his appreciation and returned to his ship.
He had hardly departed when Captain Haun arrived and requested that the Admiral see him. The German, who spoke perfect English, told the Admiral that he had received news of importance which he could not discuss, that he was departing immediately with the Cetriana for La Paz, Lower California, to coal, and probably would not return and would the Admiral be so kind as to take the 35 refugees from the Leipzig? It was agreed that they should be sent to the California and Captain Haun departed. We did not see him again. He was a fine man whom we all liked. Later he went down with his ship.
The German refugees came on board °ur ship and soon thereafter the Leipzig and the Cetriana, flying the German and British flags, respectively, sailed to the westward. Afterward it was learned that they went directly to Magdalena Bay in Lower California where the Leipzig took all the coal remaining in the Cetriana. The latter was released, suffering no damage except the destruction of her radio apparatus. This was a generous gesture on the part of the Leipzig, as by that time the Germans must have learned by radio that war with England had been declared.
After an exciting experience, replete with narrow escapes and difficulty in obtaining coal, the Leipzig succeeded on October 14 in joining Admiral von Spee’s squadron at Easter Island, far to the west of South America. Captain Haun had handled matters so successfully that when he joined von Spee he had three colliers under convoy.
Coaling completed, Captain Corbett again called and asked that the refugees on bis ship be transferred as it was necessary that he go south. The British refugees were placed on one of our other ships and alter dark the Algerine started south, but eventually reached Esquimalt, Canada, some 2,000 miles north! It must have been an anxious voyage for all on the small, slow, highly armed gunboat, with the knowledge of a stronger enemy ship abroad and no radio information at all.
Subsequently we were informed that the British and German captains had decided to carry out their original proposition and had made all preparations to send ashore a joint landing force for the protection of their interests should it become necessary. Furthermore the Germans had placed placards on the doors of all establishments of their nationality, which proclaimed the property to be under the protection of the Leipzig. After the latter’s departure, the German Consul had an embarrassing time explaining the necessity for the placards to the Mexican officials.
On August 10, Mazatlan was evacuated by the Federals and peacefully occupied by their opponents. The refugees on the ships went ashore and normal conditions prevailed.
As war between England and Germany was not declared until August 4, the code messages received on August 2 for the Leipzig and the Algerine must have been precautionary or warning in character, but even these could not have been expected, as the close co-operation by the German and British captains at Mazatlan showed how little they anticipated trouble between their countries despite their knowledge that a European crisis existed.
Under the circumstances, however, neither captain would have been justified had he not given careful consideration to his course of action in the event of hostilities. Aside from the matter of handling the tactics of the immediate situation, both were faced with the necessity of contacting distant supporting units or bases. Let us hope that the two men on whom rested the responsibility for their ships, and whose previous personal relations had been harmonious and friendly, welcomed the peaceful parting made possible by the contents of the two code messages received that August morning.