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Two armies are two bodies which meet and try to frighten each other-- Napoleon Bonaparte
It was suggested to me that I give a talk or write a paper on my experiences last summer, experiences that to me were the most interesting and exciting I suppose I will ever have. As it was left to me to select the method, I have chosen this as the easier, not that I always choose the easier way when I have an alternative, but only when I think it is the better way.
Before the order came for us to go, I believe I passed about two or three weeks (those two or three weeks in May) of more lightning changes from hope to despair and despair to hope, than in any three weeks I ever spent before. For a while I didn’t do anything but read the papers, until I got so disgusted that nobody could get me to look at a paper.
It was the darkest just before dawn. Not more than two days before Commander Hawley began to enlist the Naval Reserve boys the papers had it that we were not going to be called out at all. Then came the physical examinations, and with this in prospect I passed some very anxious hours, and the night before the examination was a sleepless night for me. Nothing was harder than to see the fellows, boys who had been in the Reserve two and three years, fail at the last moment.
The first detachment, two hundred boys, left Tuesday morning, May 24th from Union Depot. We knew we were bound for Key West by way of Tampa, but that was all we knew. We had no idea how long we would be kept in Key West before being assigned to the ships, or to what ships we would be assigned.
Tom Murray, Earle Dean, Walter Graves (you all know them) and myself, were in the same detachment, the same two hundred, although not in the same car. Three boys who went to Armour Institute when I did (and between us there has always been the greatest friendship) were in the same car. We were not separated during the whole cruise, a circumstance which I will always remember as one of the greatest pieces of good fortune that ever happened to me.
I don’t want to say much about the leave taking. I will always remember it. I will always remember those whom I kissed good-by.
There was not much laughing and noise for the first hour or so. I believe as I sat there and looked out of the window, and thought of those I had just left behind at Union Station, I realized more fully than I ever had before that I was going away to war and might not come back. We did not have the excitement of expectation then; we had actually started; and it was the first time, I guess, I had seriously thought of getting killed, or having a leg shot off, or getting hurt; but it did not last long, and I don’t believe I ever thought about it afterwards. I know I never thought about getting killed during any of the bombardments, or in the battle, or, if I did, it was with a feeling of not caring much either way.
But, as I say, the seriousness did not last long. Nearly every one had bags and boxes of things to eat. Oh, many and many a time, off Santiago, did I think of the good things in those boxes and the way we wasted the cake and cookies we couldn’t eat. As I remember, it was one of the most exasperating thoughts I ever had, to think, when I was eating hardtack, of the way I threw away, on that train, chocolate layer cake, or as Dickens would say, geological cake.
There were some mandolins and guitars in the car, and some of the boys had good voices, and one or two were regular comedians. On that trip I had one of the finest times I ever had. At one of the stations we bought a large flag and rigged it on the rear end of the last car. There was a large canvas sign on the side of our car which read “Chicago Tars for Sampson’s fleet”. One of the boys got a coupling pin and hung it in the center of the car and used to strike the bells every half hour, “To get the fellows used to it before we got on a ship”, he said to me.
At the stations where we stopped for meals there was always a large crowd waiting for us and the tables were loaded with good things to eat. It made me think more of some foot-ball trips I have taken than of going to war. I remember thinking it was too much of a good time, I thought it ought to be a little rougher. One of the fellows who was talking to me about it said he was afraid the boys would get soft, and some of them would think it was all going to be like this, and when the change came they wouldn’t be able to stand it ---but they did.
We would sit in our under shirts with a handkerchief around our heads, as it was rather dusty (at Montgomery, Alabama, I think it was, each boy in the car got a red bandana handkerchief ) and read, or write letters, when not skylarking. I bought a large number of postal cards and would hand them to some one to mail as we slowed up in going through a town.
We arrived at Tampa, Thursday morning, May 26th, and had breakfast, dinner and supper that day on the Olivette. You probably remember the name. As we were not going to leave until evening on the Mascotte there was all day to do nearly as we pleased. About a hundred of us went in swimming. It was my first taste of swimming in salt water and I can’t say I liked it as well as the Lake.
The streets were full of soldiers and Army officers, especially when, towards evening, it began to grow cooler. That day was a hot day. I remember thinking at the time I wouldn’t want to live in that town. There is a difference in the air. You can’t help feeling lazy.
Long lines of transport steamers were tied to the pier and carpenters were busy putting stalls for the horses and bunks for the soldiers.
When we went aboard the Mascotte in the evening a large crowd gathered to see us off. We sang all the songs we could think of and they applauded. Everybody was happy.
The night there was not near room enough in the staterooms, but each fellow had a mattress, I had one myself and slept on the upper deck and wouldn’t have traded with anybody. A rumor went the rounds that the “Oregon” was at Key West, but nobody seemed to know certainly about it.
Friday afternoon we entered Key West Harbor. The first sight of the Spanish prizes and the war ships was intensely interesting to me. The Monitor “Terror” and the “Wilmington” and “Helena” were there. We passed right astern the “Wilmington”, and I thought if I could get on that ship my cup of happiness would be full.
We were marched over the gangplank, through a crowd of negroes, and into a large coal yard on the dock, and lined up in two double ranks. I thought we were waiting until all were off the steamer before being marched to a Hotel or somewhere for supper. We all thought we were going to stay there at least a couple of weeks. I hardly knew what was going on when the officers began assigning batches of men to the different ships. I found out afterwards that the officers were there before we were and waiting for us. I was one of the sixty assigned to the “Oregon”.
After we had picked our bags out of the general pile, a boatswain marched us aboard a tug that was to take us out to where the “Oregon” was lying. We had not seen her yet. She was lying out about three miles, taking on coal---I should say “coaling up”.
On the way out to the “Oregon” that tug was full of just suppressed excitement. A fellow would say “Bert, can you realize it?” “No, I can’t”. And then we would shake hands. Everybody was shaking hands.
Word was passed around for all to stick together, and dire threats were made against any fellow who should make any break before the officers or the men when we first went aboard.
The “Oregon” had arrived only the night before and all hands were hard at work. She was coaling from a ship on each side. As we stood there on the quarter deck you can imagine how I looked at the guns and the men. I could see the crew peering at us from every point. They seemed to spring up everywhere.
The Master-at-Arms, “Jimmy Legs” he is called, was sent for and divided us off into different messes. I was assigned to mess No. 1. Although I had no idea then what a mess was, or where it was, or who were in it, or anything about it, I knew I was to remember I was in No. 1 and find out about the rest the best way I could.
The Master-at-Arms was one of the most peculiar characters I ever knew. He was grey haired; about fifty years old. The utterly disgusted tone of voice he would use when he was mad at anything would invariably make me laugh. I used to ask him foolish questions on purpose, to hear what he would say; like this, “Is there any mail coming on board today Jimmy?” That was always enough to bring down a load of wrath. I remember once, just after the “Colon” had hauled down her colors and run on the beach, I went down on the berth deck for something, I have forgotten what. Nobody was down there except old Jimmy Legs. He was looking at the “Colon” with a pair of field glasses through one of the battle ports; so I walked up to him and said, Jimmy, I hear they are going to give those Spaniards three months provisions and put them ashore. Do you think they will?” He turned and looked at me about three minutes before he could get his voice, and about that time I had important business elsewhere. But I am wandering.
I thought I had a fairly good idea of what a battleship looked like, but when we followed the Master-at-Arms below, it was a perfect mystic-maze to me. If I had got separated down there I would have had no idea which way to go.
You are all familiar with the appearance of the outside of a battle-ship and you form a mind picture of how it looks inside; at least I did; but you will have to see it with your own eyes.
The crew had eaten their supper, but we were given some canned corn beef and cocoa. I took mine out on the 13 in. barbette. I can remember just where I went, exactly how things looked, the boys talked to me, and what they said. Everything, no matter how trivial, that happened that evening, remains stamped on my memory.
I was down on the berth-deck when two firemen got into a fight, and as I thought they were fair physical specimens of the crew, I remember sizing up my chances against one of them. A fellow named Oseresos took me in tow and showed me around. He explained so many things that when we got through I didn’t know much more than when we started, but we were always the best of friends after that, although he was not a fellow who had many friends. The crew couldn’t have treated us better, been more kind to us, or more willing to help us if we had been their guests.
That night we slept on blankets on the berth-deck, and “hot” is no name for it. I thought I’d melt away before morning. About five o’clock, as I was awake, I saw one of the crew getting some bread out of a large chest. I thought he was getting himself something to eat; but no, he was one of the mess cooks starting to get breakfast. I soon found out that there is no eating between meals on a man-of-war.
The whole ships crew is divided into messes, fifteen to twenty-five in each mess. Each has its own cook and caterer appointed from its own members—the cooks are excused from other duties—and all are entirely independent of each other. The chest I spoke of was one of the mess chests. There is a mess chest and locker for each mess. The cooks mix the food and carry it to the galley on the gun-deck and then go after it when mess is piped. These cooks are continually quarreling and purloining mess-gear, knives, forks and spoons. One day we would have nearly enough to go around and the next day there would be hardly any, according to whether our cook had been successful in making a raid. There was never enough for all. A fellow generally got one piece. It might be a spoon, or a knife, or a fork; or he might not get anything, according to whether he was there at the first rush. That brings up another point; Nobody was allowed to lay a finger on anything until the pipe of the whistle, but we were all right there, ready and waiting. There was always enough food to go around. I don’t know that I would care to eat it now, but I ate an awful amount then and I know it tasted good.
The next night after we came aboard, on May 27th, the “Oregon” left Key West. Nobody was sure then where we were going although we rather thought it might be Santiago, and as soon as we saw we were steaming along the north coast of Cuba we felt sure of it.
I gradually became acquainted with the men. There were so many of us that I never felt that I had to particularly try to get acquainted. In time I came to know nearly all the crew by sight and a great many of them by name, but I never became particularly friendly with more than one or two.
During the trip to Santiago, as we had not been assigned our billets or stations, there was not much for us to do in the way of work. It did not take me long to become familiar with the ship and the routine, but until I was assigned my cleaning station the routine did not bother me. We did about as we pleased the first few days.
As we steamed to our blockading position before Santiago the last day of May, the crews of the other ships as we passed them stood at “Attention” and gave us cheer after cheer.
The ships never changed their relative positions during all the time of the blockade except during a bombardment or when one of them would go to Guantanamo to take on coal. The sea was too rough there for coaling and they had to run down to Guantanamo Bay, but never more than one ship was gone at a time. The “Oregon” went down there twice and it was just a great big piece of luck that it was not the “Oregon” instead of the Massachusetts that was there July 3.
No ship ever dropped an anchor. The sea, with the exception of a very few days, was always calm. We floated around with the propeller turning just enough to keep in position.
Nearly everyone asks me if I was sea-sick, so, I will put it of record that I never was. The ship never pitched enough to make even the most susceptible person sick.
We were all assigned our station-billets about the time we arrived at Santiago. My station at general quarters was in the forward 6in. magazine.
The first time I ever went down in the magazine was in the first bombardment. There was no practice, no drill. The first crack was the real thing (if you will excuse a slang phrase), and I never could see but that our boys were just as efficient as the crew who had been drilling at it for months; and it was the same with the work.
No petty officer on the “Oregon” ever entered a single complaint to the first-lieutenant against any boy from Chicago.
In fact, we were too willing. You may think a fellow can’t be too willing, but he can on a man-of-war. The best man-of-war’s man is one who will not lift a finger to help at anything unless he is ordered to, and then do it well and quickly. If you see a man breaking his back to do something, and you are standing right beside him, don’t make a move to help him unless you have been ordered to. It didn’t take me long to find that out. A petty officer will swear at you just as readily for helping when you have not been told to as for not helping when you have been. I have in mind once when a carpenters mate was carrying below a pile of wood that would take him an hour, and as I was standing there with nothing to do I offered to help him. The chief carpenters mate came up and saw me starting to lift up a piece of wood and said “Have you been ordered to help him?” I said, “No”. He said, “Get out!”, and I quit. Never after that did I, out of kindness, offer to help anybody.
Another question everyone asks me is “Pretty hot down there, wasn’t it?” There are one or two questions that everyone asks. Another one is, “You must be tired talking about it?”
I never felt the heat there any more than during a summer up here. Sometimes I thought it was not so hot. There was generally a little breeze blowing up on the deck, but below decks it was hot all the time, and during an engagement it was terrific. Nobody ever stayed below any longer than was absolutely necessary. Some parts, of course, were hotter than others. The ammunition deck, which is below the berth deck, was always hotter. Down there the perspiration would run off in streams, just standing still, without making a move.
The ammunition passages on this deck, where the shell and powder are pushed along on overhead trolleys to the hoists, are only five feet wide and the sides and deck are always too hot to keep a hand on them. During a bombardment, when all the hatches are battened down, it is very much hotter. My magazine was two decks below this; the cover over the hatchway leading down was always kept locked; the opening was about three feet square, and we climbed down a ladder.
The “Oregon” had not been there many days before the first general bombardment. The whole fleet bombarded four times. The first and second of July we were firing nearly all day, and the battle on the third made three days of almost continual fighting. Sometimes a ship would bombard alone. The Texas did once, and so did the Indiana the day after she arrived with the troop-ships.
As the “Oregon” was not engaged either of these times, I was on deck and it seemed for all the world like a panarama. I had to keep bearing in mind that they were actually firing at each other.
It was intensely interesting and exciting to see the belch of smoke from the Texas and the cloud of sand and dirt when the shell struck on the hill-side; and then the answering puff of smoke, and the boom from the Spanish battery, and the immense column of water thrown up where it struck. The Texas was struck that day.
The day the Indiana took a hard hand she laid a course exactly between the batteries and the “Oregon”. We couldn’t have been in a better position to watch if I had ordered it myself. She steamed slowly along, only firing her 8 and 13 in. guns; eleven times before the Spanish answered a shot. I saw from the way she was going that there would be a few moments when the Indiana and the “Oregon” would be exactly in line from the battery, and I can remember debating in my mind whether I hadn’t better step behind the turret. A shell did go over the Indiana and strike exactly between us.
I thought of Tom And Earle and how queer it was that I should be standing on the “Oregon” watching them on the Indiana bombarding the Spanish batteries, way down in Cuba, and a few months before the wildest flight of imagination could not have thought of it.
However, these bombardments never did much harm, much permanent harm, as far as I was able to see. We would dismount their guns, but after we had stopped and sheared off, with field-glasses we could see the Spaniards working and repairing. I could see crowds of them shoveling and working with wheel-barrows. The day our troop-ships came in sight, old Morro and the batteries were covered with people waving their arms and hats. They thought it was Camara’s fleet.
Discipline was in a great measure relaxed during the blockade. In fact, during all the time we were on the ship, the discipline was never as strict as in ordinary times of peace. I mean in such things as smoking only at certain hours, or strickness about the uniform or places where we could sleep. For instance, at quarters twice a day, which is roll-call, every one must have on shoes and stockings except on Sundays.
Anybody could sleep wherever he could find a place to lie down; on the quarter deck or any of the decks; on the bridge or the turrets; and some always slung their hammocks.
Four boys, great friends of mine, and myself, had a kind of monopoly on the after starboard 8 in. turret. We always slept there. I used to look forward to it every night. We would spread our blankets side by side and then lie down, and talk and argue, or tell stories, before going to sleep. It was very seldom or never that we were all sleeping at the same time. Some were on watch all the time. Those coming off would wake those going on. Two of the boys were on the search-lights. There were four lights on the bridge. One was only a few feet away, and at times would shine directly over us. One night when mail came aboard after dark I climbed up on the search-light and read the letters. It was a little stronger than a Rochester burner at home.
The search-light work of the ships was faultless. In all the month or more off Santiago there was hardly a moment when there was not a light on the entrance to the bay. The ships relieved each other at two-hour watches and one light would not be turned off until the other was on.
In taking up its position for search-light work a ship would move in very close, sometimes as close as 1200 yards. That is within very easy range. I never could understand, nor could anybody else, why the enemy never fired on us.
Sometimes when our light was square on the Morro it looked as close as four or five blocks off. I could see every detail of the fort that plainly.
A few times they did fire on us. I remember one night after the Vesuvius arrived the “Oregon” took up a position almost between her and the battery so as to protect her as much as possible while she threw some of her shells. We were lying on the turret, watching her, I could just make her out, a little deeper black than the surrounding darkness. She threw two shells. They went almost directly over us. I could see them very plainly. They looked like a ball of fire. The report of the discharge was no louder than a six-pounder, and by listening intently I could just catch the distant boom of the explosion. I hadn’t been watching long when there was a flash from the battery and I heard the shriek of the shell as it went over us. It makes a kind of whistling moan. It was the first shell I had heard with my own ears, and I suppose I thought I was rather exposed because I didn’t stay there long. I didn’t see where the other fellows went to at the time but I jumped from the turret onto the bridge and crouched down behind the hammock nettings. Two marines were down behind the same place. We had been there about a minute when there was another bang from the battery and I began to realize that the thing I was behind was not going to do me any good if a shot struck it, so I ran along the bridge and down onto the superstructure behind the turret where I found the other fellows. The Spaniards fired two more shots and after that we went back on the turret.
All the ships had bands. We had one, a pretty good one, too, although it was made up of just fellows in the crew. They played nearly every evening from about half past six to eight, and that hour and a half was eagerly looked forward to by every one in the crew. Some of the boys had fine voices, and some evenings would get back on top of the after 13 in. turret and sing and play for the officers on the quarter deck. One of the boys had and especially fine voice. After the battle he composed a song and used to sing it with tremendous applause from both officers and crew. I can remember one verse of it.
“On July the third Cavara came out
To tackle our wonderful fleet:
When he poked his nose, on him we did close,
We knew that he was our meat.
The “Oregon” was the first to let go,
We did them up with ease
And Commodore Schley as he passed us by,
Said! “The “Oregon” is the whole cheese””.
July the Third was a day I will never forget. It started out as peaceful and serene as a Sunday could be. The sea was as calm as a lake and everyone was in their clean white Sunday clothes. Friday and Saturday had been two hard days of fighting. In fact, the rumor was, that we were going to bombard until old Morro surrendered, no matter how many days it took, and we were all disappointed that Sunday morning when things started out in the same old ordinary way. It was just a few minutes before quarters, at half past nine. First call had gone on the “Oregon” and the crews were actually at quarters on some of the ships. On the following day I wrote a home letter describing the battle from my position in the magazine, and what I saw of it. I don’t think I can do better than quote substantially from the letter: “I was sitting on one of the anchor-davits reading one of the home letters and waiting for the call to quarters. Everybody was standing or sitting around. The “Oregon” was nearly off the entrance at the regular blockading position of three miles. I happened to look at the entrance and I thought I saw two masts moving along just coming around the point. I had looked at that entrance a thousand times and so little expected to see anything like this, I thought I must be mistaken. I stood up and looked again. Just then someone one the bridge yelled: “The Spanish fleet is coming out”! It was as if an electric shock had struck every man on the deck. Everyone started and those sitting down sprang to their feet. Just then the big gongs began to clang, and then came the long battle-roll of the drum. Talk about excitement! We were not going into a bombardment this time. The Spanish fleet was coming out to give battle. Everybody was running in different directions. Apparently there was the wildest confusion, but really there was none. As I ran along the gun-deck to the hatch leading down to the berth-deck the gun-crews were letting down the battleports for the 6 in. guns. There was a jam at the hatchway. The drummer-boy was standing amidships beating the drum, one continuous long roll, the men running. I remember thinking of the battles at sea I had read about. After getting on the berth-deck I ran forward to the hatch leading down to the ammunition deck. The crowd was thinner here. The Master-at-Arms was yelling, “Close these battle-ports; close these battle-ports.” I got down on the orlop –deck. This is the deck where the ammunition is run along on trolleys to the hoists and hoisted to the different guns. The petty officer in charge of our magazine was unlocking the padlock on the battle-hatch leading down. I went down that ladder faster than I ever went down a ladder before. Just as I struck the bottom, bang! Went our first gun, the first gun fired in the battle, and we fired the last one. By this time every gun on the ship was banging. There was clanking of chain-gear, shouting of orders, cheering and yelling as some piece of good news was passed along from the deck above; everybody was stripped to the waist, perspiration rolling off. The magazine was full of smoke. I worked as I never worked before. “Torpedo boat blown up”, Cruiser on fire and headed for the beach”, and the, another torpedo boat blown up”, and the last, “Viscaya on fire and headed for the beach, still firing”. We cheered and we yelled, we danced, we pounded each other on the back, we shook hands and cheered again. Soon the fire slackened. I say soon: Christensen looked at his watch and it was ten minutes after twelve. The ship was trembling; I could tell we were going ahead at full speed. Someone yelled down the hatch that we were under forced speed draft chasing the Christobal Colon and the Brooklyn was on port bow but not gaining on us. We were not firing now and I got permission from Christensen to go up on the gun-deck. I looked through the battle port of a 6 in. gun and could see the Spaniard off our starboard bow about seven miles, hugging the shore and smoke pouring out of the funnels. I looked back and could see the Viscaya on the shore with an immense column of dark black smoke going up from her, and further back were two other columns of smoke. I had been watching about half and hour. We were gaining all the time and began to fire at her with the 8 in. guns. I didn’t see any of them hit her, although they came mighty close. Finally one of the 13 in. shells went over her bow. She headed right for the beach and hauled down her colors. Cheering, cheering, cheering! You will know I have good reason for feeling proud. Proud! I feel as though I was walking on air, proud to have been on the “Oregon”.
I was alongside of her in one of the boats but as the first few boatloads had sacked her we were not allowed to board her. The boys got clothes, uniforms, swords, revolvers, bags of money, silver plate, anything they could lay their hands on. As she began to sink, everybody was taken off by eleven o’clock that night and the next morning she was lying on her side.
Within a day or two after the battle the “Oregon” left for Guantanamo Bay and stayed there, with the exception of the 13th and14th of July, when we went back to Santiago, until we left for New York. Life here after a couple of weeks began to grow monotonous, although it was relieved by the excitement of the expectation of going to Spain. It is hardly necessary to say that we were all very disappointed when peace was declared.
I wrote a number of letters home from here and I have endeavored to pick out some of the things that I think will be most interesting. As all the supply ships were in the bay we lived very high, fresh meat and sugar and flour. These were all great delicacies; but in all the time I was away I never had to complain about the food, although it was rather rough at times.
About the last of July we had general “field day”. It means cleaning and painting ship from signal yard to double bottoms. No cleaning could be more thorough than that on a man-of-war. It was very pretty. Everything below decks is milk white; all bolts and hammock hooks are black; and with green and red water pipes, the highly polished bright work and the spotless decks, nothing could be finer. All the extra trimmings and hand-rails were brought out. It seemed like old times to the old crew but it was all new to us. The “Oregon” only took three of her own boats with her when she left Key West but we took all the small boats from the Christobal Colon.
I see that in one of the letters I said I was getting so used to washing and mending my own clothes that it was getting to be second nature. I didn’t think twice about it, but I am inclined to think I would do an awful amount of thinking about it now.
All those who wished to could go in swimming at a certain time every day. I, myself, did not miss a day for a month and a half. We used to dive off the 8 in. gun turrets. Sometimes a boatload of those who could not swim was allowed to go to the beach. I managed to get in that boat several times. I didn’t care so much about the going in bathing; I wanted to get a run on the beach.
About the first week in August Captain Clark was taken sick and had to leave us. I cannot praise him too highly. I think he is the finest Captain of them all.
About the middle of August the good news came to come home. We were all glad. The trip to New York was uneventful; the sea was calm and there was not a cloud in the sky.
You have all read of the reception given us, of the great Naval Parade. It was a wonderful sight. New York was thrown open to the sailors. We couldn’t spend money. We could do no wrong.
About the sixth of September we were transferred to the receiving ship Vermont, preparatory to being sent home in a body. The day we left the “Oregon” the crew gathered on the deck and gave us cheer after cheer. They said they were sorry to have us go, and I believe they were. We had made a great many friends.
My discharge is dated September 12th., which makes my term of service just a summer’s vacation.
Note: by Bertram Willard Edwards of Chicago, a member of the Naval Reserve, USS OREGON.
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