With its sheltered waters, easy anchorage, and mild winter climate, the Bay of Florida, north of the Tortugas and Key West, had long been regarded by our Navy as an ideal winter drill ground and there the North Atlantic Fleet, under Rear Admiral Montgomery Sicard, had been assembled in the early part of 1898. Then attached to the staff of James Gordon Bennett’s famous old New York Herald, I was assigned to report the doings of the fleet. Reaching Tampa by rail, I embarked on the steamship Olivette which made Key West a port of call on her voyages to and from Havana. Disembarking in Key West I found this cable awaiting me:
Fleet orders cancelled, go Havana, relieve Caldwell tell him come home.—Bennett.
Cabling “En route Havana, arriving tomorrow morning,” I hurried back on board, and so early and quietly did the Olivette anchor in Havana harbor that I was asleep in my stateroom when there came a knock on the door and in breezed an old colleague, John R. Caldwell, all elation as he whacked me on the back. “More than welcome!” he said. “Herald cabled word of your coming. Don’t know of anyone I’d rather have assisting me. And it was about time,” he hurried on, “for the Herald to send reinforcement, for it is badly needed here.”
“Not reinforcement, old egg,” I managed get in as I handed him the cable.
John looked as one suddenly stricken. Then he burst out: “The blanket-blank Spaniards! They’ve got in their work at last—been threatening for weeks, been telling me they would reach Mr. Bennett and get my scalp. Well—,” and John subsided into a seat, “it’s plain enough they have.”
Naturally I knew of the blistering reports John had been sending from Havana telling of the atrocities of Weyler “the butcher,” and the concentration camps. General Weyler had been recalled to Spain and had been replaced by Blanco whose milder rule, Spain was telling the world, was bringing peace throughout Cuba. John didn’t believe a bit of that and was saying so.
Coming ashore, we had coffee and rolls in a cafe and repaired to the Inglaterra Hotel where John was quartered. After I had registered and had been assigned a room, John brought me to his quarters, still emitting fire and brimstone against the Spanish regime in Cuba, telling of the insurgents and their recent raids into the suburbs of Havana and hoping they would keep it up. He found time to tell of a tattered American who had joined the insurgents and who a few days previously had surreptitiously made his way into Havana and to the Herald Bureau, a ragged individual to whom John had willingly loaned the five dollars he needed. He was from Kansas and his name was Fred Funston....History remembers him as the American general who captured Aguinaldo.
John extracted a bottle from somewhere and we had a snifter. The room, facing the bay, was on the top floor and from its window the U.S.S. Maine could be seen, riding to the buoy to which she had been escorted by a Spanish pilot.
John gazed out of the window, absently fumbling a curtain cord; and then turning to me, he said, “Meri, if you will give me your word you won’t write or repeat it until I can get around to it, I’ll tell you a corker. It’s a story I want to write myself, but not now, nor soon; first I want to be in some hideaway out of range of the Navy Department before I write that story.”
I promised it would go into the morgue, and John—hesitating a bit as if as yet not fully decided about this revelation—lit a cigarette, dropped into a chair, and before proceeding, exacted another promise of secrecy. Then he chuckled and went on, and I listened to a revelation—whose sequel was a war.
“It’s like Raymond Hitchcock and a drop curtain,” John grinned. “Things around here were getting parlous and I felt the need of sidearm artillery, which you can’t get in Havana. So I wrote to the Herald explaining this need and they shipped me a revolver. But there were no cartridges and you can’t buy cartridges in Havana. I felt the need of cartridges. I also felt the need of them pronto.
“Before I left New York we had framed up a code. But there was nothing in it that could explain this lack of cartridges. So I cabled:
Camera received but no plates, please rush by next steamer.
“To this I signed my full name, indicating the message was a cipher. I knew that Fred Burgin, handling the Havana cables and who had sent the revolver, would understand.
“But Burgin was off duty that night and a young assistant, turning to the code book, translated the message to read that the U. S Consulate was being attacked. That was the spark to set off the long smouldering trouble between this Nation and Spain. As I later came to know, it set off a lot of fireworks in the Herald office. Burgin’s assistant hurried his translation to City Editor Reick.
There was no way of checking up on the message, for it had been received after the cable office in Havana had closed. Reick called up the Washington Bureau of the Herald and told its chief, Harry Brown, about the message and directed him to at once inform government officials.
“There was a hurried gathering of State, War, and Navy Department heads, and soon thereafter a telegram was on its way to Rear Admiral Sicard, commanding the fleet off Tortugas, to send one of his ships post haste to Havana.
“Next morning a messenger from the cable office knocked at my door and handed me a cable reading:
Send report Cuban cane crop. Want for main section.
“I recognized that as a code message, and turning to the code book translated the first sentence to read: A U.S. man-of-war has been ordered to Havana. The second sentence gave the name, the Maine.
“Across the hallway were the quarters of Gen. Fitzhugh Lee, U. S. Consul General. I knocked on his door, and when he opened it I told him that the battleship Maine had been ordered to Havana. ‘Nonsense,’ said the General, ‘the government would never send a Navy vessel here unless I requested it—which I haven’t done.’
“Just then came the thud of guns. Going to the window we saw the Maine entering the harbor, with bulbs of white smoke drifting from her saluting battery.”
Just as Caldwell finished telling the inside story of why the Maine was now in Havana harbor, there came a knock on the door. Freeman Halstead, a young Canadian attached to the Herald Bureau, came in, accompanied by Felipe Ruiz, a Mexican employed by the Bureau as interpreter and local news gatherer. We repaired to the restaurant for the 11 o’clock breakfast of the Havanese, the place heavily populated with Spanish army officers, all in uniform and with side arms. I was chiefly interested in what John and Halstead were telling me of the strict censorship, the personalities of the Spanish army officers detailed as censors, and the devices correspondents had used in getting their reports past the censors. Halstead carried with him an invaluable sheet of paper, which he surreptitiously showed—a cable blank upon which he had impressed the censor’s stamp at a moment when the censor’s attention was elsewhere. He said Sylvester Scovil of the World had a similar sheet, obtained in the same way. Both sheets have an important part in the narrative.
A group of American correspondents were breakfasting at another table, only one of whom I had met before—Charlie Pepper of the Washington Star. The others were Scovil, of the World, George Bronson Rea, representing the Hearst papers, and Eugene Bryson of the Associated Press. We didn’t linger, for John had to pack up for departure; but before embarking he took me around to the Palace which we found largely inhabited by Secretary General Congosto, a bearded Castilian in control of all press matter, and a man reputed to be of slick and slippery qualities.
I wanted to pay a visit to the Maine, and going down to the boat landing that afternoon I found her steam launch there. Presenting my card to the boat officer, I was told to hop in. Having served ten years in the Navy and the succeeding ones in staying on shore and writing about it, I felt sure I’d find some old friends on board. I discovered several: Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright, with whom I had served on the flagship Galena, and now executive officer of the Maine; Lieutenant J.J. Blandin, a former shipmate on the corvette Swatara; and Lieutenant Carl W. Jungen, who had once been my division officer on the training ship Saratoga.
It was the first time I had been on board the Maine, and never had I seen a more spic and span warship. I noted also that small arms were stacked on deck, and I knew what that meant—that they were there for a quick jump ashore of a landing party in case of a call from the Consulate. One of the group showing me around the ship was Lieutenant John Hood, who later was to attain the rank of Rear Admiral and to be conspicuous among that notable group constituting the Navy War College. I recall his comments upon Spanish military mentality. I ran somewhat like this: “Here is Spain’s chief bastion in the western world, with sea approaches well defended with seacoast batteries. But once inside Havana harbor, a navy vessel commands the situation . . . not a Spanish gun bearing on the harbor!”
Invited to dinner in the wardroom, I had with me that guarded secret as to why the Maine was in Havana harbor, and with such diplomacy as I could command I sought the other end of the story—that of her departure from the Southern Drill Grounds.
Pieced together from what the officers at my end of the table said, it had been around midnight when the torpedo boat Cushing had come in from Key West. She ranged alongside the flagship New York, and soon afterwards the flagship signalled “Commanding officer of Maine report on board.” Upon his return Captain Sigsbee gave orders for getting the Maine underway. The guns were loaded and all gun crews at their stations as the ship neared Havana.
The day following the visit to the Maine I fell in with a fellow countryman, a quiet spoken person with deep set gray eyes, and an expressionless face. He was known as a collector of antiques, had been several months in Havana, and his quarters were littered with the junk he had acquired. I fell in with him in the bar of the Inglaterra, and while we were sipping cocktails an acquaintance of his came in—a lieutenant from the Spanish Cruiser Alfonso XII, stationed at Havana. He joined our party, and the two began a lively conversation in Spanish which I could not follow. But from a word now and then from my collector friend, I gathered that he was steering the talk along the line of a possible war between Spain and the United States, and the relative naval strength of the two nations. The Spaniard became excited and the syllables pelted fast.
Later my collector friend, in the tempo of the prodded dormouse, told me the substance of the Spanish viewpoint, which briefly was this:
While the Spanish Navy was numerically inferior to ours, it was far superior in discipline and in accuracy of gunfire; that it was well known in Madrid that the crews of our Navy ships were foreigners and that all would immediately desert in event of war—therefore the Spanish Navy would lay tribute on American seacoast cities and exact reparation past all counting. Again and again the Spanish officer emphasized the superiority of Spanish naval discipline and the accuracy of their gun fire. Undoubtedly the substance of that talk was in the mail that day. Although I never suspected it at the time, I later came to know that my “collector” was an agent of the U.S. Secret Service.
Superior gunfire! Uh—huh! Later I was to view the wrecks of four Spanish cruisers beached near Santiago and to report the grim comment of Capt. Robley Evans of the battleship Iowa: “The Dons didn’t hit a damn thing but the water.”
Out of the Inglaterra I went into the brilliant sunshine of that pleasant fifteenth day of February, 1898. The streets were filled with people, the Prado was lovely with greenery and palms, and in the shimmering bay the Maine rode to her buoy. Did Spain engage in any Cervantean ribaldry over the coming of the Maine? Sure she did. On a blank wall off the Prado someone had drawn a crude caricature of a strutting Uncle Sam and a figure representing Hispania slipping a banana peel under his foot. I learned that it had been drawn soon after the Maine's arrival at Havana some three weeks before.
The Havana cable closed at 9 P.M. and it was a standing order from my office that if nothing had broken loose in Havana during the day, to file the word “tranquillo” before closing time. Even that had to go through the censor’s office in the Palace. So along about 9 o’clock on the evening of February 15, 1898, I fared to the Palace in a cab with Ruiz. Filing “tranquillo,” we got back into the cab, and passing a cafe frequented by our gang I got out and was entering the place when the city shook to a terrific explosion. Amid a shower of falling plaster every light in the place went out, as did every other electric light in the city.
Wild confusion followed, and a mass rush out of doors. “What was it?” everyone was asking. Some guessed that the busy Cuban insurgents, infiltrating into Havana, had blown up the Palace. One man was yelling that the Regla arsenal, across the bay, had blown up, or been blown up.
Recalling that my room in the Inglaterra hotel was on the top floor I hurried there, but nowhere visible was any glare so I returned to the street as a squadron of cavalry went by at a gallop. Amid the general melee of wildly excited people, the milling crowds, the increasing excitement, and the growing uncertainty, a tall form came plowing through the throng and whirled me out of it.
“The Maine—” his voice panted “—I was coming back from the drydock and saw it all!”
England had just delivered a floating dry-dock in Havana. Englishman Rolfe, one of those who had brought it there, was the speaker.
And the cable office was closed! The vital matter was to get it reopened. As I recall, the whole corps of correspondents reached the Palace at about the same time. Congosto came in, unctuous, oily, bland, deeply distressed that the Maine had selected Havana harbor as the place to blow herself up. But as she had, well, he realized it was an American warship and had not only given orders for the cable office to be reopened but had assigned two extra censors, and had given orders to rush our matter through. Good old Congosto! Not so bad as he had been painted!
While tearing away at a bulletin telling of the disaster, I was joined by Halstead, who brought word that some of the survivors had been rescued by boats from the Spanish cruiser Alfonso XII. Ruiz said others were being taken to the City Hospital. Halstead’s boatmen had circled the wreck, which showed only the after section above water, but could see no sign of life on board. Telling Halstead to add that to my bulletin and then hurry out to the Spanish cruiser and to file all the news he could get there, I hurried to the hospital, accompanied by Ruiz, to be halted at the entrance by a cordon of Spanish soldiers.
“Officer from Maine” Ruiz said glibly in Spanish, and a way was instantly opened, the guards saluting as we hurried past, followed by stretchers bearing dripping and mangled bodies.
Most of the victims were either dead or dying, and only one was able to talk coherently. All he knew was that he was asleep in his hammock when he was hurled high in air by a terrific explosion, had struck the water, and someone had rescued him.
That bulletin, a rather long one, had just been written and filed when Halstead returned. His quest had been a waterhaul—Spanish cruiser had rescued no one.
Then word came that the censor’s office would close at 1 A.M., and that no more messages would be sent after that hour. In a last effort to round up last minute news, Halstead, Ruiz, and myself went to the Machina wharf off which the Maine had floated, and then for the first time heard that some of the survivors had been taken on board the Ward Line Steamship City of Washington.
Telling Halstead and Ruiz to collect every item of news, to bulletin it at once, and to report to me on the City of Washington as soon as the cable closed, I hired a boat and went to the Ward liner to find the most welcome surprise of that tragic night: the news that all of the officers of the Maine (with the exception of the slain Lieutenants Merrit and Jenkins) had been brought to that haven by boats from the Maine and the Washington along with rescued members of the crew—many of them wounded. Lieutenant Commander Wainwright and the surviving officers told me what had happened. Every account fell into the same pattern: a forward explosion which tore away the bow—the settling of the ship until only her upper works were above water—the calling away of the boats and the survivors climbing into them, aided by succoring boats from the Ward liner.
While I was still taking notes from survivors, Halstead came on board, and the word he brought was like another explosion. It was that all of our work had been for nothing; that Congosto had held up all dispatches—all except the brief “Reserve Judgment” cable of Captain Sigsbee, and Bryson’s 2,000-word dispatch to the Associated Press, censored to less than 100 words. Halstead learned that one other dispatch had gone through, Scovil employing his treasured cable blank in a message to his wife. From it she understood that something terrible had happened in Havana. From her Pennsylvania home she telephoned the World for particulars—but the much excited World wanted particulars from her!
The greatest story since Gettysburg, and the cable blocked! Suddenly a bright ray of light struck me. The Olivette was due in that morning and was scheduled to depart again for Key West about nightfall.
Cablegrams between Havana and Washington resulted in the Olivette being commandeered as a transport to convey the wounded of the Maine along with some of her officers and the rest of her crew to Key West. I recall the thrill that came when Lieutenant Commander Wainwright told me of the arrangement. Here was a chance to retrieve the news disaster of the night, and I quickly grabbed it. Captain Sigsbee, Father Chidwick, the chaplain of the Maine, and some other officers were to remain in Havana.
And Halstead still had with him that priceless cable blank! I directed him to use it in a message to our Key West man, saying I would arrive on the Olivette that afternoon—and to get the wire and hold it, at whatever cost!
Everything went through as planned. With the Maine's survivors and wounded on board, the Olivette sailed around noon. A search showed no other correspondent on board, but it revealed that their manuscripts were, all entrusted to sundry members of the crew for expeditious delivery to agents in Key West for quick transmission to cable office. During the. 98 mile voyage to Key West, Lieutenant John J. Blandin, who had been officer of the deck at the time of the explosion and whose testimony was of priceless value, wrote for me a graphic 1,500 word account. Lieutenant Carl W. Jungen wrote his account, Surgeon Henneberger told me about the wounded, and others contributed their experiences. In all I had about 12,000 words ready for the wire—as complete a story as could have been filed within that time.
But as the Olivette was being warped alongside her pier in Key West that night, I saw a tightly rolled manuscript tossed from the rail of the Olivette to be caught by the Key West agent of one of those alert Havana correspondents; the catcher immediately began fighting his way out of the crowd to race for the cable office. Another and another manuscript sailed through the air, and other agents struggled out of the mob, all headed for the cable office. My heart sank into my shoes. What if my cable to Key West had not got through?
It had! Upon receiving it, the Herald’s Key West correspondent had hurried to the cable office and presented it to the manager. The manager had said, “If you want to hold the wire, you will have to file something.”
There was a dusty old Patent Office report reposing on a nearby table. Our man began filing that—and he was still cabling that Patent Office report, holding the wire against all comers, until I reached him. My 12,000 words had a clear wire, blocking all other dispatches—a grip relaxed only to allow officers of the Maine to send messages to their families.
The fever and chills of that hectic Havana night, the trickiness of chance that helped so much, and the crowded day of getting it all together were submerged as the drama moved into another phase. The U. S. Naval Board of Inquiry, delegated to ascertain the cause of the explosion, came to Havana and at once became the center of world attention. The Board was headed by Captain (later Rear Admiral) W. T. Sampson and arrived on the Light House tender Fern, which anchored far out in the bay.
Suddenly made a news center, Havana was swarming with correspondents, some from British newspapers. We of the American press were at the receiving end of frantic cables telling us that we must immediately ascertain whether that explosion came from the interior of the Maine, as Spain was telling the world, or from the outside—that war or peace—everything—depended on just that! Even so!
But how were we to get that information, even if we were in Havana? A cordon of Spanish patrol boats from the Alfonso XII would allow no one to approach the wreck, nor were we allowed on board the Fern or even near it.
Such was the situation when around 10 o’clock one night there came an impetuous knock upon my hotel door and in burst Gunner Charles Morgan, of the flagship New York, a New Orleans boy with whom I had been shipmates in the Old Navy, and a warm personal friend though I hadn’t heard of him for years. But I recognized him at once, also that he was tremendously excited. So guarded had been the vigilance of those on board the Fern that none of us in Havana knew that Navy divers were at work on the Maine.
“A big piece of news for you,” Charlie said, as he closed the door. “I am in charge of the divers and we have found the keel of the Maine within 18 inches of the surface! We found it there tonight,” Charlie hurried on. “Mr. Powelson was with me and he identified the keel plates.”
Wilfred Van Ness Powelson was one of the naval constructors who had built the Maine and who had been summoned as an expert to go over the wreck.
Here was the biggest piece of news that could have emanated from Havana at that time. The fact that the Maine’s keel had been hove up until it was within 18 inches of the surface meant only one thing—that the battleship had been blown up by a mine placed beneath the keel. It meant war!
But how was this portentous news to be gotten past the Spanish censor? I had a despatch boat in the harbor, which had been used for the carrying of despatches to Key West, but she could render no help in this emergency, for by the rules of the port no vessel could leave between the hours of sunset and sunrise.
There was nothing in the Herald’s secret code book by which this information about the Maine’s keel could be conveyed. While on my way to the censor’s office I evolved several messages, meant to deceive the censor and yet be clear to the editor for whom they were intended, but rejected them all. The one I finally submitted read as follows:
In important story which will be filed from despatch boat in Key West tomorrow, please note that main story is mine.
The censor, a Spanish colonel, and whose knowledge of English was disappointingly good, read the message attentively, and inquired if I thought it necessary to pay high cable tolls in order to claim credit for a despatch that had not yet been sent. I endeavored to assure him that unless I took this precaution the despatch might be credited to someone else in the bureau.
“You can,” he said, and his voice wasn’t nice, “tell that to your marines.”
Realizing that the effort had been thoroughly crude, I tried to think up something else, knowing this censor would be going off duty at 11 o’clock, and another would be coming on.
My formative years spent in the Navy, which among other things does not teach he art of deceiving censors, imposed a handicap in this matter of deception, but I made another try. From the hotel newsstand that day I had bought a copy of Life and had read therein Kipling’s poem, “The Destroyers.” I thought that might help, and being back to the hotel, I got the copy. And when the relief censor came on, I presented him with this message:
Navy contingent left in Havana interestingly reading Kipling’s poem current Life—especially last verse.
The scheme was utterly crude, but I thought I might as well try it and so I presented it to the oncoming censor. He wanted to see the poem, so I showed it to him. His mind focused upon that last verse:
The doom-holt in the darkness freed,
The mine that splits the main;
The white hot wake, the ’wildering speed—
The Choosers of the Slain!
I very knew that my office would at once hit upon that pregnant line, “The mine splits the main” as containing the message I was trying to get to them. The censor hit upon it, too.
Baffled in all efforts to get the story through that night, I went on board our despatch boat and set out for Key West as soon as the harbor rules permitted. At Key West I filed enough on the wire to occupy most of the first page space of the Herald of the next day.
The alert Scovil of the World had got an inkling of the story, but having no despatch boat he had to depend upon the cable. Knowing how hard it was to get anything past the censor, he wrote a purely descriptive story about the crowds on the Prado, the brilliant sunshine, sea breezes droning through the palm trees, the shimmering bay and—buzzards roosting on the keel of the Maine.
As all of it was extremely complimentary to the scenery and the climate, the censor let it go. But when it reached the World’s New York office, the cable editor failed to catch the significance of the line “buzzards roosting on the keel of the Maine.” And as the paper had no room for flowery description, it was assumed that the Havana man had become over-enthused with aguardiente, and the despatch was spiked. A realization of what the correspondent was trying to tell his office came only when the Herald’s account was published on the ensuing morning.
War was declared on April 25. It was a war that changed the whole future of the United States. It abolished yellow fever, taught us a lesson in unpreparedness, led to the upbuilding of our Navy, and started us on the road to World Power.
(Author’s note:—This article is from an early chapter in the author’s projected autobiography of 85 years.)