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America Fallen!/Chapter 15

 
 

XV


THE BATTLE OF THE CARIBBEAN


I remember it was while six bells were striking that there came the following radio call from one of our scouts, the armored cruiser Washington: "Approaching St. Nicholas," it said, "fog lifted, disclosing screen of five battle-cruisers of the enemy, steaming abreast, distance 20,000 yards, covering a column of ten ships, apparently battleships. All are heading west. Am returning full speed, 22½ knots." At 7:15 A.M. came another message: "Enemy, in chase, has opened fire at 18,000 yards and is coming up fast." And then the story came in quick sequence. At 7:30: "Enemy at 15,000 yards is using forward 12- and 11-inch guns on all five ships. Am replying with two after 10-inch." At 7:40: "Received two shells, raking starboard battery." At 7:45: "Shell in boiler-room and two funnels gone. Speed 15 knots." At 7:55: "Steering gear gone—after turret disabled—heavy casualties—am shot to pieces—going down by stern, colors flying—sorry cannot give details battleship fleet—our position is lat.——!"

A wireless call was sent for our destroyers to rejoin the fleet at full speed, and the speed of the fleet was raised to 17 knots.

And then we saw them—on the starboard bow. First the masts, with the flutter of the battle-flags discernible; then the smokestacks, the turrets, the hulls, and, yes! the five battle-cruisers, which only a brief hour before had sent the Washington with her gallant company to the bottom.

And then, up over the horizon, silhouetted sharply against the eastern sky, there came, a mile or more astern, the van of the battleship line—one—two—three—eight in all: the German dreadnoughts. And now the battle-cruisers began to swing around, at full speed, in a wide turn to port, following in the wake of their flagship, Derfflinger, until they had made a turn of 16 points, and were heading to the east. Simultaneously, each ship of the two battleship divisions swung around, with helm hard over, until it had turned 16 points. When the maneuver was completed, the Germans were heading east in two parallel columns, the battleship column abreast of us at a distance of 16,000 yards, and the battle-cruisers some 5,000 yards off their starboard bow and 21,000 yards from our line.

In order to secure more of an offing from the Cuban coast, and obtain ample room for maneuvering, our Admiral signaled for every ship to turn four points to starboard; a maneuver which was instantly followed by the Germans.

"Ha, ha," laughed an ensign, who, with his eye at the range-finder, was calling the distances into a telephone mouthpiece, "they don't want to come too close to our 14-inch guns; and as for the battle-cruisers, they are going to stay out of the scrap altogether; for at over 20,000 yards their 11's can never reach us."

"You are wrong there," said Lieutenant Carlisle, the spotter; "the German batteries can elevate to 30 degrees, which is just twice as much as we can. Their 11's have the advantage in range, carrying up to 26,000 yards, as a matter of fact. See that? They are trying a ranging shot at 21,000 yards."

And, sure enough, there was a flash from the forward turret of the Derfflinger, and thirty-five seconds later, with a deep moaning roar, a shell passed over our heads and dropped into the sea, five hundred yards beyond the ship.

And now Admiral Willard, having obtained sufficient offing, brought his fleet back into column again, ready for the great trial of strength.

There was another flash from the Derfflinger, and half a minute later the shell struck 300 yards to starboard of the Oklahoma.

"Good shooting," said the ensign, "now for the salvo."

But it did not come—not yet. Instead, the leading ship of the German dreadnought column tried for range. The shell struck 400 yards short. The next was 600 yards over. And then came the salvos. From both ships there burst a flash of flame, from the battle-cruiser first and, a few seconds later, from the dreadnought—and the Oklahoma was the target of each.

With a crash that seemed to rend the heavens, those twenty 12-inch shells "straddled" our ship, one making a square hit on our belt and the others striking the sea on either beam, and sending up vast columns of water that rose some 250 feet in the air, and fell like broken waterspouts upon our decks. We on the fire-control platform were drenched and found ourselves standing over our boottops in water.

But what of the Oklahoma? Had her guns been silent? Far from it.

As soon as the German columns straightened out after their turn to the eastward, Ensign Brown at the range-finder began to telephone the range to the fire-control station below decks. "Sixteen thousand five hundred yards; 16,200; 16,000; 15,500; 15,000" And looking over the rail, I noted that the center gun in No. 1 turret was lifting its muzzle. Then came a snapping crash, a burst of flame, a drift of light-brown smoke, and the 1,400-pound shell was away on its flight. Twenty seconds later a beautiful snow-white column rose a little short of the German flagship and slightly astern. The "spotter," his eyes glued to his glasses, called into the mouthpiece of his telephone: "Up 300; left 6."

Down to the central station below the water-line went the message. The necessary corrections in the elevation of the gun were there figured out and telephoned to the sight-setter at the gun. Again a shell sped to the mark. This time the splash was beyond the ship and ahead. "Down 200; right 3," called the spotter. And now the necessary corrections being made on every gun in the ship's battery, the fire-control officer, holding the cross-hairs of his telescope on the German flagship, pressed a button and all the 14-inch guns in our battery let go together, and the ten 1,400-pound shells soared into the heavens, visible for a few seconds to the eye. There was a magnificent burst of water at the German flagship, and, as it fell away, through my glasses I could see that her after smokestack was gone. The ragged outline of her deck, moreover, showed where the shells had burst inboard, lifting the deck, and apparently jamming the after turret.

And when the flagship had spoken, every ship down our line burst forth in flame and fury. The Germans fired with greater frequency and the storm of their shells, striking the water, raised such a mass of broken spray that, at times, I could see no farther than the second ship astern.

The American ships fired with greater deliberation, and, evidently, with greater accuracy. Moreover, against a combined broadside for the enemy dreadnoughts of thirty-two 12's and thirty-two 11's, we opposed a total broadside of forty 14's and sixty-four 12's. The fire of the German battle-cruisers at 20,000 yards was too inaccurate to be much more than annoying, although some deck hits were made.

After ten minutes of furious fighting, superior weight of metal began to tell. The flagship Thuringen, with one smokestack gone and the after turret out of action, began to slow down; finally dropping to the rear, leaving the Helgoland to lead the line. Later, she picked up and took station at the rear of the German column. Then the Oldenburg, second in line, took a sudden shear, and began to circle, finally coming back on her own line and cutting in between the Thuringen (last in line) and the Posen. A 14-inch shell striking fair on the conning tower had wrecked it and jammed her steering wheel. Ultimately, she straightened out, 1,500 yards astern of the column, which slowed down to cover her until she closed up.

The first ship to be put out of action was the Nassau, which succumbed to the concentrated salvos of the four leading ships of our line. Under the impact of their 14-inch shells, it looked through our glasses as though a whole section of her side armor was driven bodily into the ship. She dropped out of line mortally hurt, and, heeling rapidly, capsized and sank, fifteen minutes after the action opened.

Our leading ships then concentrated on the Helgoland and Ostfriesland, first and second in line; and in order to cover them the battle-cruisers, risking the penetration of their belts by our 14's, drew ahead clear of the dreadnought line and closing in to 15,000 yards began to plant their salvos on the Oklahoma and Nevada.

Their shells, falling at a steep angle, were dropping on our decks; and it was one of these that pierced the protective deck of the Nevada, smashed her low pressure turbines, and threw this fine ship out of the line. She stopped and drifted astern. When I last saw her, she was blazing away with her 5-inch batteries at a swarm of German destroyers, which had rushed in, like a crowd of angry terriers, to get her with the torpedo.

The fight had now been on for half an hour and we were asserting our superiority. The battle-cruiser Von der Tann had been badly hit and was settling by the stern. The fire from the German dreadnoughts had perceptibly slackened, and the Thuringen, at the tail of the column, was again in trouble with her steering-gear and had fallen behind. Although our ships had been badly knocked about in their upper works and some of the turrets had been disabled, the water line was intact on every ship. Victory was in sight, and we on the fire-control platform were jubilantly slapping each other on the back, when, happening to look landwards (we were now clearing Cape Maysi, the extreme easterly point of Cuba), I saw the leading ships of a column of warships moving past the point and bearing down diagonally upon our port bow.

I touched the spotter on the shoulder: "Carlisle, look at that; what is it?"

He swung his glasses upon the fleet (it was clear of the point by now). "That, my dear sir, is the other and stronger half of the German fleet, four Koenigs and the five Kaisers."

"Good Heavens! Then we are in for it."

 
America Fallen! p171.png

SKETCH (NOT TO SCALE) SHOWING RELATIVE POSITION OF THE FLEETS IN THE BATTLE OF THE CARIBBEAN.

 

"In for a licking" my dear boy, "if they can do as good shooting as our friends over there," with a wave of the hand to the starboard.

"But the radio from Key West told us that this fleet was a thousand miles north from here."

Carlisle was silent for a moment. "Did you not think it strange that we should have been able to communicate only with Key West radio station—not a word from Colon or Arlington?"

"Yes, I had thought of that."

"Well, that second fleet coming out from under the lee of Cuba has made everything as clear as day to me. The Germans have raided our coasts (why,—we may never live to know), seized Key West, and, using our secret code (which their confounded Intelligence Service has undoubtedly gotten hold of), have led us, in their own good time, and with true German precision, into this trap. Just look at that! They are going to tee us."

And there we saw the four battle-cruisers, going 28 knots, forge ahead of the German column, and draw in, diagonally, across our path.

By the time the second fleet of the enemy had closed in to 12,000 yards and opened fire, the cruiser division was zigzagging across our course, 10,000 yards ahead, and delivering a raking fire right down our line, first letting fly to starboard, then to port.

A hurricane of fire and steel smote the head of the American line. By preconcerted plan, every ship of the enemy, from starboard, from port, and from dead ahead, concentrated on the Oklahoma. Never had such a fury of shells stormed upon ship or fortress as found and searched out the American flagship. In those brief minutes before she sank, all semblance of a ship had gone out of her. The roar of bursting shells was continuous. From side to side and from end to end they tore through her quivering frame and laughed at her dying agony.

And I am told that what happened to her happened at the head of the surviving line, until the last ship had gone,—the column melting away before that concentrated fire like a bar of sealing wax before a blowpipe.

I remember, as the noble ship keeled swiftly over, how the fire-control platform described a mighty arc through the air, and flung us into the shell-lashed waters. My last recollection of that holocaust is of seeing the Arkansas, flashing from stem to stern with the burst of high-explosive shell as she swept by. Then a shell fragment grazed my head.

· · · · · · ·

The water, or I know not what, brought me to. Far in the distance the flash and smoke and roar of battle marked where the last American ship was being done to death, the dear old flag flaunting its "no surrender" message to the bitter end. And then, as the sad vision and all vision began to fade away, I heard sharp words of command, and the swish of backing propellers, and something jerked me violently by the collar, and I was lying upon my back, and a familiar voice was saying: "Bless my soul, if it isn't Watson! What in the name of the unexpected and impossible are you doing here?"

And I had been fished out of the water by a boat hook and landed on the deck of the U. S. destroyer Patterson; and there was Commander Judson, whose guest I had been on this very boat, during a never-to-be-forgotten week of the summer maneuvers last year.

"I came down to witness director firing on the Oklahoma and—well—I saw it.—And you, what are you going to do?"

"Beat it for Hampton Roads, or any other point where I can get in to tell the good people of the United States, and their good representatives in the halls of Congress, to what a pretty mess they have brought their navy, as the result of interference, parsimony, and neglect!"