One. Hundred. Feet. Then pull closer.
The two steam cutters were fitted out as mini-gunboats to provide the sailing launches with covering fire and pin down the Spanish soldiers firing from the rifle pits along the beach and from the surrounding hills. For this purpose, each of the steam cutters, in addition to its crew of five, carried a sergeant and six Marines to act as sharpshooters. To supplement the Marines and provide greater firepower, additional armaments were added. A one-pound Hotchkiss cannon was mounted aboard Marblehead’s steam cutter, while Nashville’s cutter was fitted out with two Colt machine guns. Together, the two cutters provided the operation with significant firepower.What was that mission? Computer Network Attack before computers? Electronic attack with a hatchet? Still lessons, ahem satellite comms ahem, to be taken on board today.
Just after dawn on the morning of May 11, 1898, Nashville’s cutter and launch pushed away from the gunboat. They were soon joined by the boats from Marblehead. Winslow was in command aboard Nashville’s sailing launch; Lieutenant E.A. Anderson of Marblehead, the expedition’s second-in-command, was in charge of the flagship’s sailing launch. En-sign T.P. Magruder commanded both of the accompanying steam cutters.
The task of the supporting naval squadron during the operation was to draw the Spaniards’ fire away from the work boats. And the gunboats wasted no time in putting their part of the plan into operation. At 6:45 a.m. both ships got underway. Marblehead was the first to open fire upon the Spanish positions on shore. And no sooner had the sound of Marblehead’s opening salvo faded than Nashville commenced firing as well. The ships soon found the range of their target, their shells falling regularly in the vicinity of the cable house.
There was no doubt about the effectiveness of the naval fire. The cable house on the beach was quickly destroyed.
Again and again the shells found their mark, bursting and sending clouds of stone and mortar into the air, Winslow would later write of the engagement, …until one shot, striking the tottering structure, burst, and brought it down, leaving nothing but a disordered pile of masonry covering the wreck of the electrical equipment.
At five minutes before 7 o’clock,, the second phase of the raid began when, with the bombardment continuing, the boat flotilla started moving toward its designated position offshore. The steam cutters led the way, each towing one of the sailing launches. When they were about 300 to 400 feet offshore, the steam launches threw off their tow lines, leaving the sailing launches to move in toward shore under their own oar power. The men in the sailing launches began throwing their grappling hooks overboard in order to locate the telegraphic cables.
The presence of coral, however, made the task of locating and raising the cable with grappling hooks particularly difficult. In order to grapple the cable, the men had first to be able to see it on the bottom through the clear Caribbean water. To do this, the launches were forced to move closer and closer to the shore — closer and closer to the source of enemy fire.
Almost from the beginning, the Americans had lost all hope of keeping their true intentions secret. A Spanish cavalryman astride a white horse spotted the boats as they moved toward the beach. The sharpshooters in the steam launches opened fire in an attempt to prevent him from escaping and raising the alarm among other Spanish troops in the area. The pitching of the boats in the Caribbean waves, however, made precise shooting impossible. The Spaniard was successful in his escape, and word of the American operation quickly spread among the Spanish troops.
The boats were about 100 feet from the shore when the sailors saw the first of the cables in about 20 feet of water. This particular cable ran east and connected Cienfuegos to Santiago.
The sailors aboard the launches wasted no time in trying to raise the cable, but pulling it up from the bottom and aboard the boats proved difficult. The heavy submarine cable, two inches in diameter, was shielded in so much lead and insulation that it weighed about 6 pounds per linear foot. The 30 men in both boats heaved and strained to pull the cable to the surface. The heavy cable, laid taut along the bottom, seemed to weigh tons, Winslow later wrote.
They finally did raise it, and now the steam cutters towed the launches to deeper water for the task of cutting the cable. Here inexperience at the task began to tell. The sailors aboard the launches at first tried to use axes to hack through the cable. Then, when this method proved unsatisfactory, they tried to cut through with cold chisels. They finally found, however, that hacksaws worked the best. All the experimentation took time. It took 20 to 30 minutes to complete the first cut, but the work went more quickly after that. The sailors finally managed to make two cuts in the cable, removing a section of about 150 feet to make it difficult for the Spanish to repair.
Despite the heavy labor, the first step of the operation had gone with surprising ease. The eastbound cable, though, had been out of the line of fire from the Spanish rifle pits on the beach. In addition, the task had been largely completed before reinforcements arrived from the town. All in all, the Spanish response so far had been weak and ineffective. Winslow later wrote that the Spanish fire was so desultory and ineffective that the working parties had paid no attention to it.
Such a lack of enemy resistance, however, was not to last for long. The search for the second cable took the boats farther and farther to the west, and when the American sailors discovered the second cable, their launches were directly in front of Spanish rifle pits on the shore. To make matters worse, the underwater coral again forced the boats to move closer to shore to search for cable. When the crews finally discovered it, the launches were within 100 feet of the shore — close to the Spanish rifle pits dug along the beach.
To ease the plight of the cable-cutting parties, the ships’ commanders increased their bombardment of the Spanish positions on shore. According to Winslow, the shells from the ships’ guns passed so close overhead that the crews instinctively ducked when the rounds passed. The shells could hardly have come closer to us without hitting the boats, Winslow said.
The close shelling was unnerving for friend and foe alike. We soon realized that we had to take the chance of an accidental hit from our ships or receive fire from the enemy at pistol range, Winslow wrote of the battle, and the men worked in disregard of both.
As if the location were not enough to contend with, the second cable proved to be even more difficult to snare than the first. The coral growth underwater made it hard for grappling hooks to reach the cable. Worse, rough water knocked the boats together and made it hard to see through the high waves.
Increasing fatigue also overtook the crews as they struggled to locate the second cable, which connected Cienfuegos with all-important Havana, and drag it to the surface. Nonetheless, the men persevered and eventually succeeded. As with the first cable, Marblehead’s men made the cut in the inshore end while Nashville’s men made the cut on the offshore end. A section of cable about 100 feet long was removed.
In lifting the second cable, Winslow and his party discovered a third, smaller telegraphic cable, too small to be an ocean cable. They assumed that it connected the cable house with the city of Cienfuegos, and before returning to the ships, Winslow and his men set about cutting it as well.
Under the intense naval bombardment that lasted throughout the morning, the Spanish small-arms fire from the shore had gradually faded. As the boat crews finished cutting the second cable, it almost seemed that the Spanish had given up the fight altogether. In response, the fire from the American warships had also nearly stopped.
The lag in Spanish gunfire, however, was only temporary. As work began on the third cable, the Spanish shore fire became stronger. By late morning, large numbers of Spanish reinforcements had made their way out from Cienfuegos and the surrounding area and taken up positions at Punta de la Colorados. Under cover of tall grass and bushes of the chaparral, the reinforcements were able to crawl unseen into the rifle pits and trenches, even into the lighthouse.
Locating and raising the third cable again took the boats perilously close to the Spanish positions. Both boats were within 100 feet of the shore and within 200 feet of the Spanish trenches. Because of the noise of sea and wind, the Americans at first did not notice the increase in fire. Moreover, the Spaniards’ Mauser rifles used smokeless gunpowder, so the men in the boats could not see the incoming fire. The only evidence of the gunfire for the men aboard the boats was the small splashes the bullets made as they struck the water.
Again the ships moved into position, firing their heavy guns upon the positions ashore in effort to quell the Spanish gunfire. And again the naval fire had its devastating effect. All along the ridge and down its sides our projectiles were falling, shattering the rocks, bursting, and sending fragments into the air, clouds of dust, Winslow later said.
Despite the shelling from the ships offshore, the Spanish fire remained concentrated on the launches and the cutters as their crewmen worked to destroy the enemy cable. The Spanish persistence led to the first American casualties of the Spanish-American War. Aboard Marblehead’s cutter, one of the Marines, Patrick Regan, was killed when struck in the head by a bullet. Another man, also struck by a bullet, fell in Nashville’s cutter as well. And in Winslow’s own boat, sailor Robert Volz was struck four times by Spanish bullets. Winslow himself was struck in the hand.
No longer using small arms only, the enemy now opened fire with a fieldpiece mounted in the vicinity of the lighthouse and with machine guns, as well. Clearly, the position of the men in the boats had become untenable. Winslow was forced to abandon the effort to destroy the third cable and ordered the boats back to the ships.
It was a fighting retreat. Some of the sailors took up their rifles to return the Spanish fire, while others bent over the oars. Ensign Magruder’s steam cutters quickly came up to take the launches in tow. They then all made their way back to the ships. Their ordeal, however, was far from over — the Spanish fire remained heavy. Especially hard hit were the boats from Marblehead, enveloped by shore fire as they passed in front of the lighthouse. Five of their men were badly wounded.
The heated Spanish fire also caused minor casualties aboard the gunboats. Spent bullets from the shore injured several men aboard Nashville. At one point during the action, a spent round struck a sailor, then hit Commander Maynard in the chest as he stood on the bridge of the gunboat. The impact was sufficient to put him out of action, and Nashville’s executive officer, Lieutenant A.C. Dillingham, was forced to assume command. The brief interruption in command, however, did little to disrupt the gunboat’s covering fire. We had to clear away very large numbers of Spanish troops, and you can tell [the volume] of our firing when I say we each [Marblehead and Nashville] fired 400 shells, an officer aboard the Nashville wrote home after the battle.
By 10:15 that morning, the boats had finally pulled alongside the ships after being under enemy fire for three hours. For about 30 minutes, the fire had been galling. Nevertheless, Americans casualties were amazingly light. One Marine had been killed, one sailor would later die of wounds, and several men had been seriously wounded. Winslow’s bullet had passed through his left hand.
About an hour later, the American ships got underway and put back out to sea. The raid on Cienfuegos was over.
The following men served in the cable-cutting party. Those with an asterisk (*) received the Medal of Honor:Is your crew ready?
From the NASHVILLE:
ERNEST KRAUSE, Coxswain. *
AUSTIN J. DURNEY, Blacksmith. *
JOHAN J. JOHANSSON, Ordinary Seaman*.
JOHN P. RILEY, Landsman. *
DAVID D. BARROW, Ordinary Seaman.*
BENJAMIN F. BAKER, Coxswain. *
LAURITZ NELSON, Sailmaker's Mate. *
HUDSON VAN ETTEN, Seaman. *
WILLARD MILLER, Seaman. *
ROBERT BLUME, Seaman. *
FRANK HILL, Private, U. S. M. C. *
JOSEPH H. FRANKLIN; Private, U. S. M. C.*
JOSEPH F. SCOTT, Private, U. S. M. C. *
THOMAS HOBAN, Coxswain.*
ROBERT VOLZ, Seaman. (severely wounded 4 times)*
ALBERT BEYER, Coxswain. *
GEORGE W. BRIGHT, Coal Passer. *
WILLIAM MEYER, Carpenter's Mate, 3d class.*
HARRY H. MILLER, Seaman. *
JOHN EGLIT, Seaman. *
MICHAEL GIBBON, Oiler. *
PHILIP GAUGHAN, Sergeant, U. S. M. C.*
POMEROY PARKER ,Private, U. S. M. C. *
OSCAR W. FIELD, Private, U. S. M. C. *
MICHAEL L. KEARNEY, Private, U. S. M. C. *
FROM THE MARBLEHEAD.
JAMES H. BENNETT, Chief Boatswains Mate. *
JOHN J. DORAN, Boatswains Mate, 2d class (shot through right buttock)*
FRANK WILLIAMS, Seaman. *
HARRY HENRICKSON,' Seaman (shot through liver, thought to be fatal)*
ALBERT BADAS, Seaman. *
AXEL SUNDQUIST, Chief Carpenter's Mate *
WILLIAM HART, Machinist, lst class. *
FRANZ KRAMER, Seaman. *
HENRY P. RUSSELL, Landsman. *
HERMAN W. KUCHMEISTER, Private, U. S. M. C. (shot through the jaw bone and neck; thought to be dead). *
WALTER S. WEST, Private, U. S. M. C.*
WILLIAM OAKLEY, G. M., 2d class. *
JULIUS A. R. WILKE, B. M., lst class.
JOSEPH E. CARTER, Boatswain. *
JOHN DAVIS, G. M., 3d class. (wound, right leg)*
WILLIAM, LEVERY, Apprentice, lst class. (wound, left leg, very slight)*
HERBERT L. FOSS, Seaman. *
NICK ERICKSON, Coxswain. *
FREEMAN GILL, Gunners Mate, 1st class. *
JOHN MAXWELL, Fireman, 2d class. *
LEONARD CHADWICK, Apprentice, lst class. *
JAMES MEREDITH, Private, U. S. M. C. *
EDWARD SULLIVAN, Private, U. S. M. C. *
DANIEL CAMPBELL, Private, U. S. M. C. *
PATRICK REGAN, Private, U.S.M.C. (fatally wounded)
E. SUNTZENICH, Apprentice, 1st Class
JULIUS A. R. WILKE, Boatswains mate, 1st Class*
Lt. Winslow was slightly wounded in the hand.
John at Argghhh!!! hit this too and has some good Mauser gun talk to go with it .... but I felt this needed a FbF treatment.
Hat tip Tim.