The ship's bell had just rung three times... 9:30 A.M., as the Brooklyn's quartermaster noticed a black cloud rising to the sky near the entrance of Santiago Harbor. It was a cloud that was quickly moving towards the open sea, and he instantly realized what was happening. "Report to the commodore and the captain that the enemy ships are coming out," he shouted into his megaphone. There was no need. Commodore Schley had already witnessed the surprising site on the horizon. "We'll give it to them now!" he shouted exuberantly. Looking eastward he could no longer see the New York. The Admiral's flagship was already well away from the blockade on its brief trip to Siboney for the meeting with General Shafter. The long awaited Caribbean counterpart to Admiral Dewey's earlier victory in the Pacific was now in the hands of the fleet's second in command.
As quickly as Admiral Cervera's flagship Teresa cleared the shoals it turned hard to starboard, unleashing a volley of fire on the USS Brooklyn with its forward guns as the captain ordered full speed in a do-or-die race westward. The USS Iowa was first to return fire, its six-pound guns responding to the Spanish bombardment while the Brooklyn began a quick loop before making a hot pursuit. Moments later the hull of the Viscaya came into view, turning quickly to follow the Teresa westward. And then, one-by-one, the remaining ships of the Spanish flotilla followed suit, steaming out in 7-minute intervals "as gaily as brides of the alter," Captain John Woodward Philip of the Texas later recalled.
Despite the galling fire from the American ships, the element of surprise almost worked, throwing the US ships into a brief moment of confusion. Commodore Schley ordered his flagship hard to starboard to fire its aft turret guns at the Teresa. Though the move brought Admiral Cervera under a devastating fire that slammed hard into the side of his ship, the move also put the Brooklyn directly in front of the Texas, moving quickly from its position east of the Brooklyn to give chase. "The smoke from our guns began to hang so heavily and densely over the ship that for a few minutes we could see nothing." Captain John Philip later recalled. "Suddenly a whiff of breeze and a lull in the firing lifted the pall, and there, bearing towards us and across our bows, turning on her port helm, with big waves curling over her bows and great clouds of black smoke pouring from her funnels was the Brooklyn. She looked as big as half a dozen Great Easterns and seemed so near that it took our breath away."
The unlikely turn to port by the Brooklyn was never fully explained by Commodore Schley, and would become the subject of debate in years to follow. It was, by any measure, a fortunate turn of events. Admiral Cervera knew that the Brooklyn was one of the fastest of the ships in the US fleet, and had turned the Teresa to ram her, only to find his efforts thwarted by the unexpected turn of his target eastward.
"Look out for the Texas, sir!", the Brooklyn's navigator called out as quickly as he noted the very real danger of a collision between the two US vessels.
"Damn the Texas!" Commodore Schley shouted back. "Let her look out for herself!" In all probability, it was only the quick action of Captain Philip in reversing both engines, that prevented the two ships from colliding.
Meanwhile, the Teresa was taking a pounding from all five of the big American ships. Captain Conchas was killed in the initial volley, falling at the side of Admiral Cervera who, in the absence of other officers, personally took command of his flagship. A 8-inch shell from one of the American ships slammed into one of the Teresa's gunshields, destroying two 5-inch gun positions and killing all members of the gun crew. Two 13-inch shells from the Oregon slammed into her hull, exploding in the after torpedo room with much destruction and great loss of life.
As the first ship out of the harbor, the Teresa became the first and primary target of the American blockade. Within minutes it was riddled with gaping holes and fires raged across and throughout the obviously doomed cruiser. "The enormous American projectiles tore through the sides of our vessels--setting them on fire and dealing death on every side, " Admiral Cervera recalled. "I signaled my fleet that the hope of escape was impossible, and to hug the shore and wreck their ships rather than allow them to be captured."
Less than half-an-hour had passed since the Teresa had emerged from Santiago Harbor when Admiral Cervera ordered the burning Spanish cruiser to head towards the shoreline. His hopes of scuttling his flagship were thwarted by the fires that prevented surviving sailors from reaching the sea cocks that would flood the vessel and send it to the bottom. Near the shore only a few miles from the opening at Santiago Harbor, Cervera struck the colors and ordered his men to leave the ship and swim for the shore. Stripped to his underwear and assisted by his son, Lieutenant Angel Cervera, the legendary Spanish admiral then followed his crew to safety. The Infanta Maria Teresa had taken 29 direct hits from the American guns.
Following behind the wake of the Teresa came the Vizcaya and Cristobal Colon, neatly spaced at to emerge at 7 minute intervals. While Admiral Cervera's flag ship was taking the full force of the American blockade, these managed to emerge nearly unscathed to turn hard towards the west. Hugging the coast, both ships traveled under a full head of steam and managed to initially break free of the cordon. As the Teresa had turned in flames towards its final demise near Nima-Nima cove, the fourth ship in the line was beginning its run. With the quickly escaping Vizcaya and Colon moving beyond range of the American guns, it was the Almirante Oquendo that became the primary target of the guns that had just destroyed the Teresa.
The full fury of the American guns of four battleships and one cruiser shredded the armored hull of the Oquendo, and within fifteen minutes her Captain was among the numerous casualties. His executive officer took command, only to be completely severed by the next salvo to bombard the ship. The third officer in command quickly met the same fate, and within ten minutes all remaining officers were killed or seriously wounded. It mattered little, for few survivors remained for any officer to command. The bodies of more than 100 of the Oqauendo's crew littered the decks.
The attrition in the ranks forced the wounded Captain Lazaga to resume command of his own doomed ship. He ordered all remaining torpedoes launched in a desperate hope of exacting some damage on the American war ships before he lost his own, then ordered the decks of the Qquendo sprayed with oil and set on fire to insure that his vessel would never be salvaged by his enemies. Only ten minutes after the Teresa was abandoned, the Oquendo ran aground less than a mile from the flagship and broke in two. Fifty-seven large rounds had pierced the armor of the Oquendo to seal its fate. Captain Lazaga was not among the few survivors, and was assumed lost in the flames that destroyed his once proud armored cruiser.
In slightly more than half an hour, two of Cervera's ships had been totally destroyed. His sole hope of any victory lay in the prospect of the Vizcaya and Colon out-running the American ships. Both had emerged from the harbor prepared for a race, but the surprised American fleet was not. Only the USS Iowa on the eastern edge of the blockade was up to full steam. The nearer Brooklyn, among the speediest of the American warships, had been at half-power to conserve coal. It would take twenty minutes for most of the American ships to reach full steam and give chase. Meanwhile, the last two ships of Cervera's squadron had emerged. They were the smaller destroyers Pluton and Furor, capable of outrunning most larger warships but no match for their big guns. Even worse, the reason that these small destroyers were capable of high speeds was the fact that each was only lightly armored. The big shells that began to rain around them were quickly spelling certain doom.
Stationed just to the east entrance of the harbor opening was the Glouchester, an equally small but well prepared gunboat. The former yacht of J. Pierpont Morgan named the Corsair, it had been purchased for $225,000 by the Navy at the outbreak of the war and rechristened the Glouchester.
Lieutenant Commander Richard Wainwright, the former Executive Officer of the USS Maine, had wisely held his position when the first four cruisers of Cervera's squadron emerged to clash with the larger warships of the US Navy. When the Pluton emerged the USS Indiana signaled "Torpedo boats coming out." Despite orders to remain back while the larger warships dropped their heavy shells on the small destroyers, Wainwright ordered the Glouchester into action. (He later claimed he miss-read the Indiana's signal to say, "Gunboats close in!" It remains for historians to guess if this was true, or if it was simply the eager Lieutenant Commander's excuse for ignoring orders to get his share of the action.)
As the Glouchester raced towards the Pluton, its presence forced the Indiana to cease fire to avoid destroying the armored American yacht. For minutes the three smaller vessels traded shots with their smaller guns, the Glouchester daring to pit itself against both the Pluton and Furor. Suddenly a 12-inch shell from one of the larger American warships crashed into the Pluton's side, piercing the light armor to crash into the forward boilers. The resulting explosion literally ripped the small destroyer's decks to shreds. Yawing to the starboard and moving towards the beach, the Pluton struck the headland causing a large section of the bow to sheer off.
Meanwhile the Furor lost momentum and began turning in circles, the tiller ropes fouled by the remains of one of the ship's dead boatswains. In grisly desperation, Spanish sailors were cutting the body in pieces to free the steering mechanisms when another shell destroyed the boat's engine. Quickly the surviving Spaniards abandoned ship and not a moment too soon. A large shell from the Oregon slammed into the engine room, blowing the entire ship into small pieces. The fast sinking destroyer would be the only Spanish ship in the squadron that would not reach the shoreline in the course of the battle.
It was nearly 10:30, and in less than one hour the US Navy had utterly destroyed four of Cervera's six ships. The cannonade had been among the worst ever witnessed in any Naval battle. Hundreds of Spaniards had died, many were wounded, and survivors strained against the sea to reach the safety of shore. Unfortunately for many, Cuban insurgents were scouring the shoreline for these survivors, and the insurgents were NOT intent on taking prisoners. Amazingly, as two enemy ships sped towards Cienfuegos, and while four others lay sinking and burning, not a single American had been killed in the battle.
Meanwhile the Brooklyn was in hot pursuit of the remaining enemy ships, followed closely by the Texas and Oregon, these having built up steam for the case. The faster Colon had overtaken the Viscaya, which had received some hits as it left the harbor. Both ships had become handicapped by their long period of idleness inside Santiago Harbor. Their hulls were now covered with the natural organisms of the sea that had accumulated during the period of activity. This created a drag to slow them down. Usually capable of 20 or more knots, both were able only to muster close to 15 knots, and their speed dropped with each passing minute allowing the Brooklyn to overtake the Viscaya as the Colon moved into the lead of the race.
The Texas and Brooklyn began firing as they came broadside of the Viscaya, unleashing a deadly rain from their guns. The Spanish cruiser had heavy armor, but quickly began to crumple beneath the sheer force of the multiple guns. The Spaniards returned fire, but most was ineffective. Two or three enemy rounds did crash through the superstructure of the Brooklyn, one of them piercing the gun deck. Commodore Schely instructed Captain Cook to obtain a casualty report, only to learn that two men had been slightly wounded. Certain the report was in error and that there must indeed be a higher rate of casualty, Captain Cook ordered the messenger to, "Go down to the hospital and tell Dr. Fitzsimons to report to me the number of dead and wounded." As the messenger departed to reconfirm the amazing but good news that the American sailors had escaped danger, the only major American casualty of the day fell.
Twenty-five year old George Ellis was a clean-cut, devoutly religious young sailor who had often lamented the lack of a chaplain aboard his ship. The day prior to the naval battle at Santiago, he had received a number of religious tracts in the mail from his church back home, and quickly distributed them among his fellow sailors. One of the Brooklyn's officers stated, "he had impressed me very much because he had what so few of us have, the courage to acknowledge in the presence of a conglomerate lot of men, such as you find on the warships, his belief in God, and his love for his religion and his church." That morning the Chief Yeoman had visited with the same officer, sharing with him a recently received photo of his wife and baby.
As the guns of the Viscaya attempted to respond to the incoming fire from the American ships, Yeoman Ellis was on the conning tower with Commodore Schley and Captain Cook. It was his job to mark the range between the warring ships, a job that required him to make readings from in front of the 8-inch turret, a dangerous and exposed position.
Commodore Schley noted that the Viscaya seemed to be turning and Yeoman Ellis rushed to his position to take a new reading. "Twelve hundred yards," he shouted back to the commanders. The American's adjusted their guns, as the Viscaya continued to unleash volleys of its own fire. Most of the enemy shells were high but with a discernible thump, one of the shells slammed into Yeoman Ellis, decapitating him and dropping his lifeless torso to the deck. Blood and brain matter sprayed the conning tower, staining the uniforms of the commanders. Dr. DeValin rushed forward, noting quickly that the young sailor was dead. Another sailor stepped to the doctor's side to assist him in throwing the headless body into the sea, a harsh but commonly necessary action during a battle at sea. From the conning tower Commodore noted their actions and shouted quickly, "Don't throw that body overboard. Take it below, and we'll give it a Christian burial." Chief Yeoman Ellis was the only American killed on any of the American ships during the naval battle at Santiago.
The continued pounding had taken its toll on the Viscaya. The reason Schley had noticed a change in the range was because the besieged Spanish cruiser had made a swift turn to the south as if to ram the Brooklyn. Moments after Yeoman Ellis was struck down a big shell from either the Brooklyn or Oregon crashed into the torpedo room of the Viscaya, setting off an explosion that tore off her bow. As the men of the USS Texas continued to pound the battered enemy ship, its fate was sealed. Cheers erupted across the decks as the Americans watched the Viscaya turn towards the shoreline in its death throes. Above the din Captain John Phillip ordered, "Don't cheer boys! Those poor devils are dying."
In the sick bay of the Vizcaya Captain Eulate, a naval officer highly respected by both sides, lay while being treated for his own wounds. "Almost faint from the loss of blood I resigned my command to the executive officer with clear and positive instructions not to surrender the ship but rather to beach and burn her," he recounted. "In the sick bay I met Ensign Luis Fajardo, who was having a serious wound dressed. When I asked him what was the matter with him he answered that they had wounded him in one arm but he still had one left for his country. I immediately convened the officers who were nearest and asked them whether there was anyone among them who though we could do anything more in the defense of our country and our honor, and the unanimous reply was that nothing more could be done." As the Viscaya moved towards the shore at Acceraderes, her decks were awash with flames. As it struck the ground that would mark the end of her gallant but futile race, burning sailors leaped into the sea to swim for safety. The American battleships had ceased firing, and the USS Iowa, now catching up to the other three ships of Schley's squadron, diverted for a humanitarian mission.
The Colon was six miles ahead of the battle, but slowing as the Brooklyn and Oregon continued pursuit. The resulting run would last until nearly one o'clock, and would cover sixty miles. Shortly after noon the Colon had used all of its good Spanish coal, and switched to the inferior coal obtained at Santiago. Loosing speed, the American warships began overtaking her, firing big guns in its path. All hope of escape vanishing, the Colon struck her colors and headed for shore, sailors opening the sea cocks to completely sink the vessel. When at last the Colon slipped beneath the Caribbean swells, only her port guns remained visible, pointing skyward. The naval battle of Santiago harbor was over, and Admiral Cervera's fleet was utterly destroyed.
The Naval Battle at Santiago Harbor
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