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   Chapter 11 A PERILOUS MOMENT.

A Gunner Aboard the Yankee"" By Russell Doubleday Characters: 17047

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


The scene on the gun deck of the "Yankee" at that moment would have made an eloquent subject for the brush of a Meissonier. It was the deck of a warship in battle, and the spectacle enacted was accompanied, by an orchestra of the mighty guns of a fleet in action.

Imagine a compartment of steel, a compartment filled with smoke that surged and eddied as the ship lunged forward or rolled upon a heavy swell.

Imagine scattered about in this pungent vapor many groups of men, men half-naked, perspiring; their glistening bodies smeared and stained with the grime of conflict.

Imagine in the centre of one of these groups a wicked, menacing gun-a five-inch breechloader, its long, lean barrel raised shoulder-high upon the apex of a conical gun-mount, near the base of which are significant wooden cases, some empty and others filled with elongated, formidable cartridges; and pails of black, dirty water ascum with powder; and other objects each significant of war.

Imagine these things, and then understand that this gun, made to be turned against an enemy, has now turned against its workers. In the bore, pent in by the polished breechblock, is a cartridge which has failed in its duty. It is apparently defective.

The tide of battle is surging on; other ships of the bombarding fleet are still pouring their shot and shell upon the grim array of forts ashore; other guns of this ship are pursuing their duty with savage energy. But this gun is silent.

The men wax impatient. It is the height of the conflict. Many shots have been fired, and many more will yet be required to subdue the enemy. To be "out of action" will mean passiveness in the face of the enemy. Anything but that.

There is a rivalry between the guns' crews. It is a rivalry as to which shall make the best shots and create the most damage. The members of Number Eight-the after gun on the port side-are proud of their record. Their second captain-he whom they call "Hay"-has received the public commendation of the captain himself, sent down from the bridge in the midst of the battle. It is a mark of distinction not given freely, and Number Eight is eager for more honors.

But the men have not forgotten a similar case, occurring on the voyage down the coast, when another cartridge failed, and on being extracted from the breech chamber, exploded, killing a marine corporal and wounding others.

The men of Number Eight have not forgotten that tragedy, and that is why their gun is now to them a menacing creature of steel, whose breath may be the breath of death. They stand in groups, they eye it, they speculate, and they feel that a desperate and perilous duty is before them.

The risk must be taken. The cartridge must be extracted. It is a fortune of war which all who enlist must expect. But it is one thing to fall before an enemy's blow, and another to lose your life at the stroke of your own weapon.

The officer of the division steps forward.

"We will see if we can't take it out without much danger," he says, briefly. "Bring a rope."

One is hastily procured, and the first captain-a great, brawny, good-natured fellow, who has spent years at sea-deftly fastens the bight of the rope to the handle of the breechblock. He then retreats a short distance and signifies his readiness.

"When I give the word," calls out the officer, "pull handsomely. Ready-pull away!"

From out the smoke-filled compartment men lean forward, eagerly-anxiously. They instinctively shrink back as the breech plug slowly moves. Then, when it finally opens, revealing the brass head of the cartridge inside the firing chamber, a sigh of relief comes from all.

But the danger is not yet over.

The defective projectile must be taken out and tossed into the sea. The second loader steps forward at a signal from the gun captain. This second loader is "Stump." He shows no fear, but draws out the heavy cartridge, handling it as he would a harmless dummy, and passes it to another man and myself. Carrying it between us-and carrying it gingerly-we hasten to the side, and with a powerful swing, launch the hundred-pound projectile through the open port.

It barely clears the port sill, coming so close to it, in fact, that for one breathless second we think that it will strike. As the shell passes from view, another sigh of relief comes from the spectators. "Hay" passes a grimy towel over his perspiring face.

"Whew! that was a ticklish moment," he said, solemnly. "I'd just as soon not handle any more defective shells."

Which exactly represented our sentiments.

Three minutes later Number Eight was barking away at the forts ashore, and the episode of the cartridge that missed fire was a thing of the past.

The bombardment of Santiago had now lasted over an hour. As yet not one of the American vessels had been reached by a shell, nor had the forts suffered any perceptible damage. The fleet, roaring and thundering, was swinging back and forth through the great semicircle, the smoke from the guns was banking along the beach, and from Morro Castle and its attending batteries came sharp, defiant answers to the interminable volleys fired by our squadron.

"It's a good thing Uncle Sam's shot locker is pretty capacious," remarked Flagg, as we shoved another cartridge into the yawning breech of our five-inch gun. "If we haven't fired over three hundred rounds since seven o'clock I can't count."

"It'll be double that before we get through," grunted "Long Tommy," as we stepped back from the loaded gun. "Steady, there. Stand by!"

A motion to "Hay," who held the firing lanyard, and almost instantly came the sharp, vicious report of the breechloader. Each man sprang back to his station, and the process of reloading went on without delay. The battle smoke from Number Six, which had filled our port for some time, cleared away just then, enabling us to see "Hay's" last shot strike squarely upon the outer line of earthworks of the Punta Gorda battery.

"Splendid shot, 'Hay'!" exclaimed our division officer, briefly.

"Bully, that's what it is-bully!" cried "Stump," patting the second captain upon the back.

"Hurray! it's knocked out a gun," reported "Dye," from nearer the port. "I saw the piece keel over backward."

There was no time for further comment. When a gun's crew is firing at will, and the excitement of combat has taken possession of the individual members, the task in hand requires all one's attention. We of Number Eight had suffered one delay, and we really felt that the lost time must be made up.

Personal impressions in battle have been described in prose and poem until the subject is hackneyed, but it may be of interest to note that the impressions experienced by the novices in naval warfare manning the "Yankee," during the bombardment of Santiago, consisted mainly of one feeling. It was well-voiced by "Hod," who said many days later:

"I felt just as I did one time when I attended Barnum's circus in Madison Square Garden. They had three rings, two platforms, a lot of tight-ropes and trapezes and other things all going at the same time. Before I had been in the place three minutes I was wishing for a hundred eyes. And that is the way I felt at Santiago."

What we saw of the bombardment was limited to the range of our gun port, but that little was worth all the hardships and toil and discomforts of the whole cruise. The spectacle of the fleet itself was almost enough. To see the great ships ploughing through the water, each enveloped in a shroud of smoke, shot here and there with tinges of ruddy flame; to see that mighty line swinging and swaying in front of the enemy; to see the shells land and explode in fort and battery; to see the great gaps torn in cliff and earthworks; to see the geyser-like fountains of water spout up here and there as the Spanish shells struck the surface of the bay-to see all this, and to hear the accompanying thunder and booming of the guns, was payment in full for coal handling and standing watch and "Government straight." Not one of the "Yankee" boys would have missed the spectacle for anything earth could offer.

ON THE GUN DECK DURING THE BOMBARDMENT (page 152).

During the second hour of the attack we were enabled to observe the work being done by other vessels of the fleet. Near us was the gallant "New Orleans," the ship purchased from Brazil. Her foreign build made it easy to distinguish her, and, as she was the only craft using smokeless powder, she presented a promine

nt mark. The guns on board the "New Orleans" were being served rapidly and with precision, and we saw a number of shots strike well within the limits of the batteries.

At our end of the line the flagship "New York," the "Iowa," and the "Oregon" were pouring an appalling fire into some new earthworks near Morro Castle. It was seen that but very few shots were sent in the direction of the latter, and it transpired that Admiral Sampson had issued strict orders to the fleet to avoid endangering Lieutenant Hobson and his brave companions, who were supposed to be imprisoned in old Morro. Before the end of the second hour the "New York" and the "New Orleans" had succeeded in completely silencing Cayo Battery, dismantling the guns and wrecking the outer fortifications.

At the other end of the line Admiral Schley's division was doing splendid work. We could see the "Massachusetts," "Brooklyn," and "Texas" move in toward shore and open fire at close range. It was a stirring sight, this mighty duel between warships and forts. As compared with the cliffs and hills of the land, the ships seemed veritable pigmies, but in this strife the pigmies were all powerful.

The guns of the fleet were working havoc in the forts ashore, and we could see the Spanish artillerymen abandon battery after battery. Cayo, Punta Gorda, Estrella, and Catalena were rapidly being vacated. The former was entirely out of the fight, and the others were replying only at intervals. Presently the "Massachusetts" and "Marblehead" advanced within two thousand yards of the Estrella fortification and began such a terrific firing that within a few minutes a great cloud of smoke appeared above the works. The Spanish guns became quiet at once, and a rousing cheer went up from the fleet.

"Hay," in his exuberance, wanted to send a five-inch shell from our gun at the burning fort, but the distance was too great and he was compelled to be content with a couple of well-aimed shots at the nearest battery.

"I wish we had thirteen-inch guns and the range was about ten feet," grumbled "Stump." "I'd like to smash the whole outfit in a pair of minutes. By Cricky! we have poured enough good old American steel into those forts to build a bridge across the Atlantic, but the dagoes are still giving us guff."

"It won't last much longer," said Tommy reassuringly. "From the looks of those batteries they haven't much fight left. I'll bet a hardtack against a prune we haul off at four bells."

"Licked?" queried Flagg.

"Nope."

"Will the Spaniards give up?" asked "Dye."

Tommy hesitated before replying. It was a brief lull and we were resting at the gun. The crew, grimy, dirty, battle-stained and tired, was glad to lean against the side of the deck or a convenient stanchion. Tommy's long service in the regular navy as apprentice and seaman made his opinions official, and we were always glad to listen to his explanations.

"Will the Spaniards give up?" repeated "Dye."

"Yes, and no," replied the first captain thoughtfully. "You see, it's this way. Those dagoes are not fools by any means. They have selected good places for their batteries, and they know earthworks are hard to destroy. They aren't like the old-style stone forts that could be knocked to pieces in no time. When a shell, even a thirteen-incher, hits a mound of earth it tears up the dirt and spoils the look of the parapet, but it really doesn't do much harm. To completely ruin an earthwork battery, you must dismantle every gun in it. And that's pretty hard to do. Mark my words, those fellows will give us a shot of defiance after we quit."

"What's the idea of all this bombarding then?" asked "Stump." "We'd be much better 'caulking off,' seems to me."

"And think what it costs the Government," I suggested. "The cost of the projectiles and the wear and tear to guns and ships must be something enormous."

Tommy's answer was drowned in the thundering roar of the "New York's" battery, which opened fire just then a short distance away, but it was evident he agreed with me. A moment later Number Eight went into action once more, and we worked the breechloader without cessation until the conclusion of the bombardment, which came a half hour later.

The fortifications ashore had entirely ceased firing, and at ten o'clock a signal to stop bombarding appeared on the flagship. It was obeyed with reluctance, and it was evident the crews of the various ships were anxious and eager to continue. As the fleet drew off there was a puff of smoke in one corner of Punta Gorda battery and a shell whizzed over the "Massachusetts." A second shot came from one of the earthworks, and still another from Punta Gorda; then the firing ceased again.

"Didn't I tell you so?" quietly remarked Tommy. "The beggars ain't licked yet."

"But they got a taste of Uncle Sam's strength," said Flagg.

"And I'll bet anything they haven't enough whole guns left to equip one small fort," added "Stump."

"I heard the skipper say the destruction of life must be enormous," spoke up the "Kid," stopping on his way aft to deliver a message. "He watched the whole thing with his glass. He told 'Mother Hubbub' the moral effect was worth all the trouble."

"That's an expert opinion," observed "Hay," wiping off the breech of the gun. "Now you've had your little say, youngster, so just trot along."

The fleet presently reached its former station several miles off shore, and the bombardment of Santiago was at an end.

No attempt was made to clean ship until late in the afternoon. The men were permitted to lie around decks and rest, smoke, and discuss the fight, which they did with exceeding interest. When dinner was piped at noon, the shrill call of the boatswain's whistle was welcome music. A sea battle is a good appetizer.

About four o'clock in the afternoon the fleet was treated to a spectacle both novel and humorous. The little "Dolphin," a gunboat of not fifteen hundred tons displacement, which was keeping guard close in shore, began to use her guns. A battery near the channel returned the fire, but the plucky little craft maintained her position, and from the series of rapid reports coming from her four-inch breechloaders and six-pounders, it was evident she had something important on hand.

The "Yankee" was signalled to run in to her assistance, but before we could reach a position, the "Dolphin" had accomplished her task. It was not until then that we discovered what she had been doing.

"May I never see home again if the gunboat hasn't corralled a railway train in a cut!" exclaimed "Patt." "Just look there, fellows. See that ridge of earth on the other side of the channel? Just under it is a track running into a cut and-"

"The 'Dolphin' has closed up both ends," interrupted "Stump," with a laugh. "She's knocked down a pile of earth and débris on the track and the, train can't get out. What a bully trick."

Flagg produced a glass, and after a careful scrutiny reported that he could see part of the train lying on its side at the eastern end of the cut. He could also distinguish a number of bodies, and it was plain that the Spanish loss had been heavy. It was not until later that we learned the details, which were as follows:

After the bombardment the "Dolphin" remained at her station, firing occasionally at the batteries ashore. She was directly opposite a cut in the cliff, through which runs a little railway connecting the iron mines with the dock in Santiago harbor. During the bombardment, a train loaded with Spanish troops remained in the cut, and at its conclusion attempted to leave. It was espied by the "Dolphin" and driven back. It tried the other end with like results, and for an hour this game of hide-and-seek was kept up, to the discomfiture of the train. While waiting for the train to appear at either end, the gallant little gunboat shelled a small blockhouse, and in time disabled it. Then she steamed back to the fleet and reported that she had "wrecked a trainload of troops and dismantled a blockhouse." When she left for her station again she was applauded by the whole squadron. We learned later that one hundred and fifty men were killed on the train.

Shortly after supper the "Yankee's" whaleboat was called away and sent to the flagship, returning an hour later with sealed orders from the admiral.

At midnight we quietly steamed from our station and passed out to sea, our destination being unknown to all save the commanding officer.

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