On the night of 15 February 1898, USS Maine inexplicably exploded and sank to the bottom of Havana Harbor. The battleship had been sent to Cuba to "show the flag" in the midst of a worsening revolutionary situation that threatened the safety of U.S. citizens there. The cause of the explosion has never been determined though many theories have been offered, but at the time Spain was blamed, and this incendiary event touched off the Spanish-American War.
f the Spanish were indeed the perpetrators of this tragic event, subsequent events would indicate that they might well have hoped that one of the 266 killed in the explosion had been Maine's executive officer, Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright.
Once war was declared, Wainwright was given command of USS Gloucester, formerly tycoon J. P. Morgan's wooden yacht, Corsair. The former pleasure craft was hardly a formidable warship, displacing a mere 786 tons and armed with an array of 6-pounder and 3-pounder guns. But that would not prevent her from playing a significant role in one of the major sea battles of the war.
On the morning of 3 July, the Spanish Atlantic Fleet emerged from Santiago Harbor, Cuba, to face an American force of battleships and cruisers. These large American warships were up to the task, but were endangered by the presence of Spanish destroyers armed with torpedoes.
Lieutenant Commander Wainwright was there in Gloucester and turned his diminutive yacht-turned-warship toward the enemy, using her excellent speed to close the Spanish destroyers Furor and Plutón. Ignoring the heavy fire from the Spanish ships and the nearby fort guarding the entrance to the harbor, Wainwright charged headlong into the fray. Gloucester's 3- and 6-pounders fired continuously, while two of her crew inflicted serious casualties on the enemy with shoulder-fired Colt rifles.
Plutón slowed as Gloucester's firing took its toll, and then, while trying to avoid further damage from the yacht's relentless fire, the Spanish destroyer ran onto some rocks and exploded. Soon, Gloucester's persistent and accurate fire severed Furor's steering cables and she began circling helplessly, unable to evade the hammering delivered by Wainwright's little ship. She too succumbed and eventually went to the bottom.
Free to engage the heavier part of the Spanish fleet, the U.S. battleships and cruisers soon destroyed the enemy and the battle of Santiago was over. Miraculously, the U.S. fleet suffered only one fatality in this major engagement. Without Richard Wainwright and his crew, things might have been significantly different.
The name Atlanta has had a distinguished lineage in the U.S. Navy. The first Atlanta was a captured armored ram that retained her Confederate name on recommissioning with a Union crew on 26 September 1863. The second was the Navy's first modern "Steel Navy" warship, a protected cruiser commissioned in July 1886 that served until 1912. The name was next assigned to the first of a new class of "anti-aircraft" light cruisers, the CL-51, which entered service on 24 December 1941 and served brilliantly during the first year of the war in the Pacific, succumbing to massive battle damage on 13 November 1942. To commemorate the illustrious CL-51, a new Cleveland-class light cruiser was assigned the name; christened on 6 February 1944 by Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell, the 17,700-ton, 610-ft. CL-104 saw her first combat action in support of aircraft carriers during the Okinawa invasion in May 1945 and conducted shore bombardment missions against the Japanese home islands that July. With the end of the war the following month, the Atlanta spent the rest of her brief career as an active cruiser in the Pacific before being placed in Reserve on 1 July 1949.
Although six of her sister Cleveland-class cruisers were taken from mothballs and converted into guided missile ships in the early 1960s, the mothballed Atlanta met her administrative fate on 1 October 1962 when she was stricken. Instead of being scrapped, however, the ship was earmarked for Operation Spin Drift, a series of aerial explosive trials conducted during 1965 off the island of Kahoolawe, Hawaii. Before her official reactivation as miscellaneous ship IX-304 on 15 May 1964, the cruiser had been stripped of all armament and superstructure. In their place were erected two new bridge superstructures, one facing aft and duplicating the design of a contemporary Leahy-class guided missile frigate (later cruiser) and a second, similar but blast-hardened deckhouse fitted forward to accommodate the navigating bridge and the uptakes for two of the ship's boilers, which provided steam to drive the reactivated outboard pair of propeller shafts. Festooning the ship's topside area were examples of the antennas for various radars then in service, along with several weapons launchers, including torpedo tubes and an ASROC container. After three successful explosives trials, the ship was laid up at Stockton, California; stricken again on 1 April 1970, her still-sound hull was blown in two and sunk on 1 October of that year during torpedo trials off San Clemente Island.
The photo shows the Atlanta as IX-304 entering Pearl Harbor late in 1964. The most recent Atlanta, a Los Angeles-class nuclear-powered attack submarine numbered SSN-712, was commissioned on 6 March 1982 and retired almost exactly 17 years later.