Fighting in Cuban Waters/Chapter 25

CHAPTER XXV


THE BOMBARDMENT OF THE SANTIAGO BATTERIES


When Walter returned to his friends he was immediately surrounded and asked what had happened in the cabin. "Did the commodore slap you on the back and call you a bully boy?" queried Si.

"Well, hardly," answered Walter, with a quiet smile. "They plied me with questions and said I had had some remarkable adventures; that's all."

"Didn't praise you?" queried Caleb.

"No."

"Didn't rush up and shake hands even?" put in Paul.

"Not at all. I saluted and toed the mark, and kept toeing it until I left."

At this Paul's face fell. "Why, I thought you would be right in it, Walter," he said.

"I guess you've been reading some dime and half-dime colored-cover novels, Paul. I imagine that is the way they do in such books."

"That's it. Why, I've got a story about 'Dewey's Boy Bodyguard.' The hero in that overheard a plot against Dewey, and Dewey clasped him to his breast and made him a captain of marines."

"Indeed! And you believe such a yarn?"

"Dewey couldn't make the boy a captain of marines, not if he was an admiral twice over," put in Caleb. "Those yarns are pure trash. Paul, you had better study some good book on gunnery, and try to become a gun captain."

"I thought the story was slightly overdrawn," said Paul, growing red in the face. "There is another about the 'Boy Hero of Havana,' who saves General Lee's life at the time the Americans are getting out of Havana. I suppose that is untrue, too."

"To be sure, Paul. General Lee was in no great danger at that time. Of course some of the sensational papers had to make the most of it, and they reported that he was travelling around with a six-shooter in his pocket, and a detective dogging his footsteps. As a matter of fact he walked around with nothing but a white cotton umbrella, to keep the sun off."

"I'll burn the whole batch of colored stuff up," cried the apprentice; and he did, at the big galley fire. No one on board ever caught him reading dime and half-dime novels again.

Although the marines had established themselves fairly well at and near Guantanamo, the Spaniards were determined to drive them off, and to hold this landing and a number of others, several of the warships were kept busy bombarding the enemy's strongholds and in firing with Gatling guns at the Spanish soldiers whenever they put into appearance along the coast.

The day after Walter came on board the Brooklyn, which remained on the blockade off Santiago Bay, the Texas, Marblehead, and Suwanee ran into Guantanamo Bay and attacked the fort at Caimanera, a small village not far from Guantanamo. The attack began at two o'clock in the afternoon, and in less than two hours the fort was in ruins and those who had garrisoned it were fleeing inland for their lives.

Caimanera was thus taken, but to hold it was as difficult as it was to hold Guantanamo. Many of the people were in sympathy with the Spanish government, and some went so far as to soak the streets and some of the houses with coal oil, that the town might be burned down at a minute's notice.

While this was going on, Admiral Sampson determined to make another attack on the outer defences of Santiago Harbor, only sparing Morro Castle, in which it was understood that Lieutenant Hobson and his men were confined. It was weary waiting for the transports to arrive with the army, and something must be done to tear down the numerous fortifications the Spaniards were constructing.

The orders for the bombardment were issued on Wednesday evening; and at once a subdued but excited talk took place among the various crews of the blockading squadrons, which now numbered the following ships, along with a few others of lesser importance:—

First squadron, under the direct command of Admiral Sampson, the flagship New York, battleships Iowa and Oregon, protected cruiser New Orleans, gunboat Mayflower, torpedo boat Porter, and the sprightly Scorpion. The second squadron, under Commodore Schley, embraced the flagship Brooklyn, battleships Massachusetts and Texas, and the Marblehead and Vixen. Other vessels, such as the Indiana, Dolphin, and Suwanee, were kept busy plying between the blockading fleet and Guantanamo Bay and surroundings.

It was half-past three in the morning when the men were called up and served with coffee. Among the first on hand was Walter. "Now for a first real use of our gun," he said to Si. "I've been aching for this ever since I enlisted."

Before four o'clock came the call to quarters, and the men ran to their various stations, and stripped for action, most of them wearing little more than an undershirt and a pair of trousers. The weather was frightfully hot, and the interior of the cruiser was little better than a bake-oven. Possibly this was one reason why the thoughtful admiral planned the attack for so early in the day.

Silently the warships steamed for the mouth of the harbor, and took up their various positions in a grand semicircle, the heavy fighting ships in the centre, and the torpedo boats on the ends, ready to take care of any infantry fire, should the Spaniards hurry their soldiers to the shore. The big ships kept at a distance of three thousand yards—not quite two miles.

"We're a long way off," observed Walter, as he assisted in loading the "Polly," as Caleb had named his gun.

"Twenty-nine hundred yards!" came the report from the range-finder; and the crew went to work to elevate the gun accordingly. In the meantime, the magazines had been opened, the ammunition hoists set in motion, and powder, shot, and shell were delivered everywhere from barbette to fighting-top.

"We're near enough to blow 'em sky-high if we strike 'em right," muttered the old gunner, who, with the smell of powder in the air, was in his element. "How about that hose, Stuben?" he went on to the hoseman.

"Dot hose it's all right alretty," answered Carl Stuben, a round-faced German, who was an American citizen, even though he did speak the language but brokenly. Heretofore Walter had had but little to do with the man, yet they got along very well together.

It was too dark to begin firing, and for half an hour the ships lay quiet, every man ready to obey a command the instant it was given. This was a nerve-trying test for Walter, who wondered how the thing would sound when all of the ships began firing.

Slowly it grew lighter, and the men became more anxious. The guns were trained on the shore batteries to the west of the harbor entrance, while other ships covered the batteries on the east.

Boom! It was a broadside from the New York, directed against the battery below El Morro. Instantly every other warship present responded in a deafening crash and a shock to be heard many miles away. At once the air became filled with the smoke, and on shore the dirt and masonry of the batteries were seen to fly in all directions.

"Oh, my!" gasped Walter, as the gun before him belched forth its mass of flame and smoke. "What a noise! Did—did we hit anything?"

"I hope we did," answered Steve Colton, the second gun captain, laconically; and then came the order to unlock the breech of the gun. As the breech fell back a cloud of smoke swirled into the sponson hood, impregnated with the odor of saltpetre, which caused Walter and several of the others to cough violently. "Never mind; you'll get used to it before you die," went on Colton.

The gun being opened, Carl Stuben caught up his hose-pipe, turned on the nozzle and sent a stream of cold water through the gun, to both clean and cool the interior. By the time this was accomplished the hoist had another shell ready, and this was shoved in by the mechanical rammer. Brown prismatic powder followed, with a small quantity of black prismatic powder behind it, as a primer. Then the breech-block was swung into position and locked again, and the electrical connections were adjusted.

All this had been done almost in the time it takes to tell it, but the next shot was not discharged at once, since the various gunners had strict orders to take their time and make every discharge count. It was not like a pitched battle where every moment counted.

But though the gunners took their time, there were so many ships and so many guns that the firing was continuous—a spiteful cracking of rapidfiring guns, mingled with the thunder-claps of the gigantic thirteen-inch guns and the solid banging of the eight-inch and eight and ten pounders.

"This is war and no mistake," remarked Walter. In ten minutes his undershirt had become as black as a stove-cloth, and he himself looked almost like a negro. In the meantime the perspiration was streaming from every pore of his body.

"War!" shouted Caleb. "Why, lad, this is nothing. If only Cervera would come out, then you would see some fun."

The order had been passed to lessen the charges in the big guns and elevate them more, in order to secure a plunging fire. The effect of this change in tactics was soon apparent, as shot and shell began to drop directly into the Spanish strongholds or behind them. Soon one of the batteries was completely silenced, and a cheer went up from the warship nearest to it.

It must not be imagined that the Spaniards took this attack quietly. No sooner had the American warships opened than they returned the fire with equal fierceness. But although at an elevation, and using guns which were stationary, their aim was wild, and only a few of their shots took effect.

As one battery after another was silenced, several of the warships elevated their guns still more and put in large charges of powder, and, as a result, one shell was carried far up the harbor to where the Vizcaya lay and burst directly over her deck, doing considerable damage and injuring several sailors and an under-officer.

Presently a terrific explosion rent the air. One of the shots from the Texas had landed in a powder magazine and sent it skyward. The spectacle thus caused was magnificent, and for a moment all in the squadrons watched the timbers, rocks, and dirt as they sailed through the air, some coming down inland and some falling with loud splashes into the sea.

"That's a shot worth making!" cried Caleb. "Hurrah for the man as trained that gun!"

And the cheer was given with a will.