Open main menu

America Fallen!/Chapter 14

 
 

XIV


SEEKING THE GERMAN FLEET


How it came about that I witnessed the greatest naval battle of all history from the fire-control platform of the flagship Oklahoma is readily explained. In the previous year I had offered for the consideration of the Navy Department a system of "director firing," which had been rejected on the ground that its mechanism was too delicate to stand the shock of battle.

The Department was developing a system of its own which gave great promise of success; and, in recognition of my interest in the subject, I had been invited to witness the final tests of the installation during the spring target practice of the Oklahoma.

There are moments in one's life which stand out with sharp definition amid the crowded and more or less blurred memories of the past. Among these I shall ever reckon the breakfast hour, on the morning of April 1st, in the wardroom of the Oklahoma, flagship of the United States North Atlantic fleet, which was at anchor, on that particular day, off Vera Cruz.

The Mexican situation had reached one of its ever-recurring crises, with the result that the army had moved down to the Mexican border and the fleet to this Mexican port.

The conversation in the wardroom mess had been drifting along in a desultory way, when an orderly entered with a request for the presence of the executive officer in the Admiral's cabin. In a few minutes Commander Burnley returned, holding in his hand a wireless message. There was that in his face which caused a sudden hush.

"I have here a radio message from Washington by way of Key West," he said, "which I will read: 'Germany has declared war on the United States. Have information German advance fleet is following southern course for Caribbean; second fleet on northern course for our Atlantic coast. Proceed full speed for Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to take on coal and supplies. Find and destroy weaker advance German fleet. Send injured ships to Hampton Roads and proceed to Canal Zone, Panama. Under cover of guns of fortifications, await arrival of Third and Fourth Divisions of Atlantic fleet from Pacific, and proceed north in full strength to engage second fleet of enemy.'"

The tidings that war had been declared on the United States was flashed through the fleet, and a hurry call was sent ashore for the return of the landing force of seamen and marines. Ships that were coaling cast off their colliers, and before noon the fleet had sailed.

Shortly before midnight of April 5th the Oklahoma led the way into Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The 6th was spent in coaling, taking aboard full supplies of stores and ammunition, and sending ashore the boats and all superfluous ship's furniture. On the 7th, shortly before dawn, the fleet, stripped for action, had sailed to the eastward, to "find and destroy the enemy."

Overnight, Admiral Willard, Commander-in-Chief of our fleet, had thrown out to the eastward a strong scouting force—such as it was—strong in numbers, but utterly inadequate for its purpose. It consisted of the three armored cruisers Washington, North Carolina, and Tennessee and four divisions of destroyers.

The cruisers were powerful ships carrying four 10-inch and sixteen 6-inch guns, and they were capable of breaking through any screen of the German light cruisers of the Karlsruhe type; but they would be utterly at the mercy of the 28-knot battle-cruisers possessed by Germany, their best speed being only a little over 22 knots.

The destroyers, twenty in all, should never have been dispatched on such service. Their place was with the main fleet. Had the recommendations of the General Board been followed, we would have possessed, on this disastrous day, a dozen 27-knot scouts, and our main fleet, the first line of defence of the United States against invasion, would not have been left exposed on both flanks to the destroyer attacks of the enemy.

By the courtesy of the executive officer I found myself on the forward fire-control platform of the Oklahoma. As we cleared the entrance to Guantanamo Bay and swung around to the eastward, from my station, 120 feet above the sea, I gazed with no little pride at the two divisions of dreadnoughts strung out astern, ship beyond ship at 500-yard intervals, in a stately column which covered some three miles of water.

Below me was the flagship, fresh from the builders' hands. Seen from above, she looked wonderfully like those deck-plan drawings which I had studied in the naval annuals. Forward was the new type of 3-gun turret, with its long, lean 14-inch guns looking for all the world like Brobdingnagian lead pencils. Abaft of it was turret No. 2, with its pair of guns reaching clear across the roof of turret No. 1. Astern I looked down into the yawning mouth of our huge single smokestack. Not so much as a wraith of tell-tale smoke drifted from its edge; merely the shimmer of heated gases—and I remembered that the boilers below were oil burners. Immediately abaft the mainmast, another pair of those beauties—the 14-inch—showed from No. 3 turret, with their muzzles poised a few feet above turret No. 4, from which protruded three 14's. Truly a noble ship, her powers of offence, represented by ten 14's and twenty-two 5's, being matched by the massive armor, 13½ to 18 inches in thickness, the like of which was to be found in no other navy of the world.

Five hundred yards astern, with a white feather of foam curling from her shapely stem, was the Nevada, twin sister to the flagship. Astern of her, at the same interval, were the New York and Texas, carrying each a battery of ten 14's and twenty-one 5's.

A wonderful piece, that 14—the pet and pride of the officers and men. Down at Indian Head, it had passed its proving tests triumphantly. Fifty-four feet long, 63 tons in weight, it had fired its 1,400-pound shell with a velocity of 2,600 feet a second and an energy of 65,000 foot-tons. At a distance of 10,000 yards, the projectiles were capable of passing clean through 16 inches of Krupp armor. Elevated to its limit of 15 degrees, the gun could place a shell on a ship twelve miles distant.

And there were forty of these guns that could speak at once, and twice a minute each, in the first four ships of our line.

Astern of the Texas, I saw those stately ships, the Arkansas and Wyoming, mounting, each, twelve 12-inch guns in its six turrets, with a battery of twenty-one 5-inch rapid-firers to repel torpedo attack.

Seventh and eighth in line were the twin sisters, Utah and Florida, each carrying ten 12-inch guns and sixteen 5-inch. Last in the line were the Delaware and North Dakota, our earliest dreadnoughts, mounting ten 12's and fourteen 5's.

In displacement the ships varied from the 20,000 tons of the Delaware to the 27,500 tons of the Oklahoma. The belt armor was from 11 inches to 13½ inches in thickness, and the maximum speed of the fleet was 21 knots.

Every ship could fire its whole broadside on either beam, and in every minute of the coming engagement we would be able to hurl at the enemy 110 tons of projectiles, every one of which, if it landed squarely, would pass entirely through the belt armor of the enemy and burst in the interior of the ship.

Ship for ship and gun for gun, we knew that we could crush that German fleet, which, the radio had told us, was approaching somewhere to the eastward.

But where was the enemy? In what strength was he? And, most important question of all, how did he shoot?

Before that sun, which I noted was just showing the golden edge of his rim above the horizon, had set, those questions had received their answer amid the fruitless heroism, the cataclysmic destruction, of the greatest sea fight in naval history.