The Taking of Guantanamo

Contributed and annotated by Larry Daley


The taking of Guantanamo, and the actions of the U.S. Marines was an important action in the Spanish American War as it gave the navy a secure harbor in which to coal its ships, a vital operation. It was also a watershed event for the Marines, and would foreshadow the Corps' future major use.

The paratheses below include the comments of Larry Daley.


While General Shafter was struggling to get troops and supplies aboard transports in Tampa, at Key West a battalion of 650 marines on twenty-four hours' notice quietly embarked on the auxiliary cruiser Panther on an expedition that was to engage in the first serious land fighting of the war (This is not exactly so numerous large and small encounters had been going on for about three years between the Cubans and the Spanish, see for instance Funston's description of the battle of Desmayo and perhaps 300,000 civilians had died).  Preparations for putting the troops ashore had been made by Admiral Sampson (contact between the US Navy and the Cuban insurgent forces dates at least from May 2nd when the tug Leyden, protected by the gunboat Wilmington, landed six Cubans and fifty thousand rounds of small arms ammunition between Mariel and Havana. Contact between US forces and Cuban insurgents was started well before the landings) when he dispached two ships, the Marblehead an Yankee, to Guantanamo Bay, a fine harbor about forty miles east of Santiago, on June 6 to clear the outer part of the harbor.  It proved to be easy.  The harbor was protected only by a battery of smoothbore guns in an ancient fort and a small gunboat, the Sandoval.

The guard at the fort was quickly driven off and the Sandoval retreated into the inner harbor to the town of Caimanera.  Sailors cut the telegraph cable and made contact with the Cuban insurgents (note Cuban insurgent forces were already there) to obtain their aid in landing the marines expected from Key West. Sampson's plan was to use Guantanamo Bay as a base for fueling and servicing ships.

Carlton T. Chapman, of Harper's Weekly, from the press boat Kanapaha described the south coast of Cuba in Santiago Province as consisting of "one succession of desolate hills, rising smoothly from the sea in most places but dropping off now and then in steep cliffs of limestone or granite rock." "With the exception of tiny coves where small boats might land," he wrote "there are no harbors that offer protection to vessels of any size, save two only - one where the hills sweep northward around the plateau in which is set the snug landlocked harbor of Santiago de Cuba, and the other the beautiful Bahia de Guantanamo" (The landings were in hurricane season, however a hurricane, so hope for by the Spanish, never materialized see previous posts on Escario's March).  The Kanapaha followed closely behind the Panther when she, with the U.S.S. Yosemite, reached Guantanamo on June 10.  Chapman related the correspondents found the Marblehead on guard and the smaller cruiser Vixen coaling from the Sterling.  "Over the point of land the Spanish flag waved above the fort," he wrote, "but the Stars and Stripes flew in the harbor and had come to stay."

"Ralf D. Paine wrote that the marines, after being cooped up in the Panther in the passage from Key West, were eager to get ashore. He and other World correspondents looked on from the Three Friends (a fast gun running seagoing tug previously often used by the insurgents for landing guns and ammunition) while the warships raked the wooded hills and valleys to drive back any Spanish forces.  Then the marines filled the whaleboats and cutters from the ships and were towed to the beach by steam launches. (These launches were considered essential for fast landings where there were strong currents and tides.) "It was done with order and precision, (order was a matter apparently of great concern to both Spanish and U.S. Regular forces, see previous posts on Escario's March) Paine reported. "Within an hour the battalion was disembarked with its tents and supplies."  Chapman wrote that the cable station, a one-story corrugated iron building, was left standing, though shot full of holes.  The marines burned the shanties and the remains of the blockhouse for fear of contagion.  (At that time Dr. Carlos Finlay's discovery that mosquitoes were the vectors for that most feared disease Yellow fever was published but not accepted by U.S. and Spanish medical officers.  Guantanamo, which is quite dry, and thus does not readily provide stagnant water for mosquitoes to breed, was much safer from this disease than the area around Santiago.  Most Cubans had acquired immunity to Yellow fever in childhood; however, U.S. troops would soon lose perhaps ten times as many men to yellow fever than from bullets and the Spanish many, many, more.  The marines were much luckier to have been based in dry Guantanamo.  Marine medical and other officers took credit for "saving" the marines from yellow fever anyway, but then most regular officers tend to "hog" credit. "Taking possession of the hill to," he (Chapman) wrote, "they immediately began clearing away the wreckage, throwing up entrenchments, and setting up tens and camp equipage at the foot of the hill, among the palms and bushes."

The Chicago Tribune's H.J. Whigham, a passenger on the New York Herald's boat Sommers N. Smith, wrote that the correspondents worked alongside marines in setting up Camp McCalla, named after the commanding officer of the Marblehead. "We found the marines so weary that we all turned in to help carry supplies to the camp and improve the entrenchment, which was not any too safe, " Whigham said. "We also helped to get two three-inch field guns to the top of the hill."

 The first night after the landing and the next day passed without incident.  Then late in the afternoon, according to Chapman's account, two pickets posted two miles away from the camp where shot to death eating supper.  At 7 p.m. the Spaniards began firing from all sides and at close quarters.  "From the hills and black shadows of the trees came the sharp crack of the rifles." Chapman wrote, "the bullets thudding on the ground, whirring through the air, chipping off branches and leaves of trees, and falling in a hail in the water."  A New York Journal correspondent reported that the attack caught the marines by surprise, most of them busy with their tents and baggage and a number bathing in the bay about a quarter of a mile from the camp.  When the "pack!, pack! pack!" of rifle fire came from the dense tropical brush, the correspondent wrote, the men dashed to take positions on a hill commanding the barranca (a cliff or embankment). "Up from the sea came running a line of naked men, grabbing their carbines and falling into place as Lieutenant Colonel R. W. Huntington issue his orders, getting a formation below the brow of the hill (the military summit), and waiting to see how much forces would develop against him, " the report continued.  The men banged away at waving bushes or where the sounds seemed to indicate the presence of enemy soldiers, but where there was no answering fire.  After a while a charge was ordered down the hill, "There was no fun in this for naked men (xerophitic, dry climate, vegetation is almost always thorny, and in Cuba even the tree trunks are thorny in dry areas)," the story said, "but they held their places and charged with the others. ... Before the wood was reached, however, it was evident the Spaniards had fled, and the swimmers were sent back to dress."

 From that night on marines and correspondents got little rest. Concealed in the chaparral, the Spaniard regularly fired upon the encampment.  The ships' guns could drive them off for a time, but they were back when the bombardment stopped.  During the first two night after the landing Stephen Crane spent the time conversing with a young assistant surgeon, John Blair Gibbs, the other correspondents on the Three Friends, according to Pain having gone to Port Antonio, Jamaica to cable their stories (the Three Friends was a fast ship).  Crane recalled in his "War Memories" that the first night, when there was not firing, he and Gibbs thought the situation rather comic; the next night, when there was an attack, it was no longer so.    "On the third night the alarm came early," Crane related; " I went in search of Gibbs, but I soon gave over in active search for the more congenial occupation of lying flat and feeling the hot hiss of the bullets trying to cut my hair.  For the moment I was no longer a cynic. I was a child who, in a fit of ignorance, had jumped into the vat of war."

"The shock of recognition came with Gibb's death."  I heard somebody dying near me," Crane wrote, "He was dying hard. Hard. It took him a long time to die.  He breathed as all the noble machinery breaths when it is making its gallant strike against breaking, breaking.  But he was going to break, He was going to break... Every wave, vibration, of his anguish beat on my senses. he was long past groaning.  There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out into the night in a clear penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence in which I held my own breath in the common unconscious aspiration to die.  Ultimately he died.  At the moment the adjutant came bustling along erect among the spitting bullets.  I knew him by his voice.  "Where's the doctor?  There's some wounded men over there. Where's the doctor?' A man answered briskly: "Just died this minute, sir!" It was as if he has said: 'just gone around the corner this minute, sir."

The death of Gibbs was an intensely felt personal experience for Crane. To Chapman and Thomas W. Steep, correspondent for the Scripps-McRae League and Leslie's, it was worth a paragraph in the accounts of the fighting. Steep wrote that Gibbs was shot in the forehead while standing in the door of the hospital tent.  His account continue:

"Companions report as follows: 'Dr. Gibbs had just risen from his camp chair, and walking to the door of his tent and stretching his arms, said: "Well, I don't want to die in this place." These were the last words he spoke. When the doctor was gasping his last, a private with a bleeding hand ran up crying, "Where's the doctor? Where's the doctor? The doctor must have heard it.    When the Sommers N. Smith returned to the bay from a trip to cable news dispatches two days after the shooting had begun, Whighham reported the appearance of Camp McCalla: "As we steamed into the bay on Sunday morning and saw the white tents of the marines on the little hill to the west ...  it occurred to our uninstructed minds on board the Sommers N. Smith that there could be no enemy in neighborhood or else our brave marines were in a nasty situation.  The bald summit of the little eminence was surrounded on all sides by the dense brush of Cuba, called in the native tongue (Taino?) manigua, which afforded perfect cover for the enemy's skirmishers.  The camp itself at that time was not even entrenched and made a perfect target for a good marksman lying at ease in the higher half circle of hills.  In other words, our men were simply sitting there to be shot at without a chance of seeing the enemy."
The situation if not quite so bad as Whigham described it was certainly bad enough.  To guard against attacks from six thousand regulars believed to be at Caimanera fifteen miles away, the marine commander withdrew his men from the eastern slope of the hill and posted them on the crest and upper part of the western slope, where they would be nearer the fleet and better protected by its guns and where the dug trenches and erected barricades.

Crane, musing on the meaning of war, especially the psychology of cowardice and bravery -the theme of his novel The Red Badge of Courage-soon encountered a spectacular instance of courage.  Paine reported that Crane was filled with the topic when the Three Friends returned from a trip to Port Antonio.  "Stephen Crane came down to the beach and waved his hat in token of his desire to be taken aboard the Three Friends, " Pine wrote," He was dirty and heavy-eyed and enormously hungry and thirsty. It was all he could do to drag himself into the ship's galley where he gulped down food and black coffee.  When he sprawled on deck, rolling cigarettes and talking in a slow, unemotional manner as was his wont, but the thin pallid face kindled and the somber, weary young eye brightened when he told us how it had fared with the battalion of marines.  And as he went on, he used words as though they were colors to be laid on a canvas with a vigorous and daring brush."

Crane's impressions were recorded in an article for McClure's Magazine, "Marines Signalling Under Fire at Guantanamo." "It was my good fortune-at that time I considered it my bad fortune, indeed- to be with them on two of the nights when a wild storm of fighting was pealing about the hill," Crane wrote; "and, of all the actions of the war, none were so hard on the nerves, none stained the courage so near the panic point, as those swift nights in Camp McCalla.  With a thousand rifles rattling; with thefield guns booming in our ears; with the diabolic Colt automatics (machine guns) clacking; with the roar of the Marblehead coming from the bay, and, last, with Mauser bullets sneering always in the air a few inches over one's head, and with this enduring from dusk to dawn, it is so extremely doubtful if any one who was there will be able to forget it easily...."

Crane described how the signal squad kept a cracker-box placed on top of the trench in which to hide their lanterns when not signaling.  When they had a message to send, one of them stood up to expose the lights. One lantern was left stationary on top of the box and the other was moved either to the left or right as called for in the wigwag code. Crane wrote:

" How, in the name of wonders, those four men at Camp McCalla were not riddled from head to foot and sent home more as repositories of Spanish ammunition than as marines is beyond all comprehension.  To make a confession -when one of these men stood to wave his lantern, I lying in the trench, invariably rolled a little to the right or left, in order that, when he was shot, he would not fall on me. ...

Whenever the adjutant, Lieutenant Draper, came plunging along throughout the darkness with an order -such as: "Ask the Marblehead to please shell the woods to the left"- my heart would come in to my mouth for I knew then that one of my pals was going to stand up behind the lanterns and have all of Spain shoot at him.

The answer was always upon the instant:

"Yes, sir." Then the bullets began to snap, snap, snap, at his head while all the woods began to crackle like burning straw.  I could lie near and watch the face of the signalman, illuminated as it was by the yellow shine of lantern light, and the absence if excitement fright, or any emotion at all on his countenance, was something to astonish all theories out of one's mind.  The face was in every instance merely that of a man intent upon his business, the business of wigwagging into the gulf of night where a light on the Marble head was seen to move slowly."

 Paine, in one of his typical acts of young irresponsibility, engaged in an escapade that, while it did not make a newspaper story, provided material for a sketch Crane wrote for McClure's Magazine, "The Lone Charge of William B. Perkins."  While Crane was aboard the Three friends being pressured to get some copy written for the World, Paine went ashore with a bottle of whiskey to pass among the heroic marines.  He was on the hill talking and sharing the bottle with two lieutenants when the Spanish began a sniping attack.  Paine or Perkins of the Minnesota Herald as he was called in Crane's story, became inspired to borrow a rifle and hunt down a sharpshooter concealed in the bush some five hundred yards away.  He set out alone, soon finding, himself the object of the attention of the Spaniards.  "Racked, enfiladed, flanked, surrounded, and overwhelmed, what hope was there for William B. Perkins of the Minnesota Herald?" Crane wrote.  But protection, incredibly, was at hand: It was an old, rusty steam boiler into which Perkins-Paine dived. "Then ensconced in his boiler. Perkins comfortable listened to the ring of a fight which seemed to be in the air above him," (does anybody know if a Mauser bullet would penetrate boiler plate at 500 yards, if not perpendicular to the boiler plate).  "Sometimes bullets struck their strong, swift blow against the boilers sides, but none entered to interfere with Perkins' rest." At last the shooting stopped.  The marines were settling down again when, to their astonishment, the apparition of Perkins-Paine emerged from the bush.  His story that he had found shelter in a boiler was unbelievable, and the marines did not believe it.  Shortly afterwards Perkins-Paine, "wearing a countenance of poignant thoughtfulness," reboarded the newspaper tug. Crane had another opportunity to admire the bravery of marine signalmen underfire.  On June 14, the fourth day of the battle, Lieutenant Colonel RAW. Huntington decided to take offensive action -to rout the Spaniards from a hill, called Cuzco or Cusco in the news accounts, five or six miles back of the camp.  Captain G. F. Elliot was given a detachment of two hundred marines and Cubans to drive off the enemy. Crane described the skirmish in one of his major dispatches of the war, published June 30 in the World under the heading, "The Red Badge of Courage Was His Wigwag Flag."


 "Crane related that the two companies of marines formed for the start of the foray immediately after breakfast.  The Cubans gathered for the expedition numbered about fifty.  "Most of the latter were dressed in them white duck clothes of the American jack-tar,..." Crane wrote, "which had been dealt out to them from the stores of the fleet.  Some had shoes on their feet and some had shoes slung around their necks with a string all according to taste.  They were a hard-bitten, undersized lot, and with the stoop and the curious gate of men who had one time labored at the soil. They (the Cubans) were, in short, peasants -hardy, tireless, uncomplaining peasants- and they viewed in utter calm these early morning preparations for battle."

The Americans, undergoing inspection, were in sharp contrast: "Their linen suits and black corded accoutrements made their strong figures very businesslike and soldiery.  Contrary to the Cubans, the bronze faces of the Americans were not stolid at all.  One could note the prevalence of a curious expression -something dreamy, the symbol of minds striving to tear aside the screen of the future and perhaps expose the ambush of death.  It was not fear in the least.  It was simply a moment in the lives of men who have staked themselves and have come to wonder which wins- red or black.

 The march began -along a narrow path through the bushes, up a chalky cliff, then into a tangled mass of vegetation that hid the camp and the ships at anchor.  After about an hour they came upon clearer country- "tall, gaunt ridges covered with chaparral and cactus" shouldering down to the sea and in the valleys "palms and dry yellow grass."  (Note the yellow grass it means that it had not rained recently.  The rains in Cuba vary with location and time of year, also describes the time of the hurricanes that never came that year. Rainfall in Guantanamo is low perhaps 16 inches a year and thus the spread of the mosquito vector Yellow fever, which lays its eggs in stagnant water also low). Cuban scouts reported that the enemy were over the next ridge.  The troops were deployed and moved carefully forward. Then the firing broke out.

Crane described the sound of gunshots and flying bullets: "it needs little practice to tell the difference in sound between the Lee.  The Lee says 'Prut!' it is a fine note , not very metallic.  The Mauser says 'Pop!' -plainly and rankly pop, like a soda water (Seltzer) bottle being opened close to the ear. (Note that Crane describes rifle shots differently in different places. This may well be because rifles shots sound different depending where they are fired, due to the sound reflecting and sound absorbing surfaces of the area). We could hear both sounds now in great plenty,
Prut-prut-pr-r-r-rut-pr-rut!  Pop-pop-peppetty-pop!

Reaching the crest of the hill, the marines and Cubans encountered a barrage of Mauser bullets from the Spaniards in the valley below.  "The sky was speckless," Crane wrote; "the sun blazed out of it as if it would melt the earth.  Far away on one side were the white waters of Guantanamo Bay; on the other a vast expanse of blue sea was rippling in millions of wee waves. The surrounding country was nothing but miles upon miles of gaunt, brown ridges.  It would have been a fine view if one had had time".

   "The toiling, sweating marines, the shrill, jumping Cubans, the shouts of the officers, crashing rifles -to Crane the razor-back hill seemed to reel. But in the clamor and confusion he says "a spruce young sergeant of marines, erect, his back to the showering bullets, solemnly and intently wigwagging to the distant Dolphin (a warship)."  "It was necessary that this man should stand at the very top of the ridge in order that his flag might appear in relief against the sky," Crane wrote, "and the Spaniards must have concentrated a fire of at least twenty rifles upon him. His society was at that moment sought by none.  We gave him a wide berth."

 In the frantic din and simmering heat one of the Cubans was shot, toppling over with no outcry "as if he were senseless before he fell," and under a bush a marine private lay wounded in the ankle, his face wearing an expression more of weariness than of pain.  Soon the rifle noises were joined by the crashing roar of the Dolphin's guns.  "Along our line therifle locks were clicking incessantly, as if some giant loom was runningwildly," Crane continued, "and on the ground among the stones and weeds came a dropping, dropping rain of rolling brass shells. (It would seem that the Lee rifles could fire rapidly).  And what was two hundred yards down the hill? No grim array, nor serried ranks.  Two hundred yards down the hill there was an -a thicket, a thicket whose predominant bush wore large, oily, green leaves (This perhaps was an association called Coccolobetea uvifera, in which the sea grape, uva calleta, scientific name Coccoloba uvifera, is the predominant species. The tree or bush C. uvifera in low rainfall areas such as here), as a tortured bush, which would be maturing fruit at this time. In military terms this means that although the bushes obscured the Spanish, neither the bullets nor shell fragments were stopped by thick tree trunks like in a forest.) It was about an acre (4,047 square meters) in extent and on level ground, so that is whole expanse was plain from the hills.  This thicket was alive with loud popping of Mausers.  From end to end and from side to side it was alive. ..." Then the quality of the battle suddenly changed with the shout of : Theere they go! See 'em! See'em! Unable to withstand the pelting bullets longer, the Spaniards broke from the cover of the manigua (bush) and began running.  To Crane the battle became a "most extraordinary game --of trapshooting-- and coveys of guerrillas got up in bunches of five or six and flew frantically up the opposite hillside."

Howbert Billman, reported the battle for the Chicago Record and said about seventy Spaniards were probably killed and 150 wounded.  The American loss was two Cubans killed and several Cubans and marineswounded..."


 "Howbert Billman, reporting the battle for the Chicago Record, said aboutseventy Spaniards were probably killed and 150 wounded.  The American losswas two Cubans killed and several Cubans and marines (lower case as  written by author) wounded.  Visiting the scene five days later, He (Billman) reported that "it bore vivid and not altogether pleasant testimony of the conflict." "The air was heavy with the stench of decaying carrion," he wrote, "and buzzards (Aura tiqosa) soared back and forth from hillsideto valley, suggesting at a distance the silent, fugative shades of the dead.  In the gulch the train of the dead extended all the way from the knob, where Captain Elliot's fire first checked the enemy's advance, up to the head of the gulch.  But the remains were decomposed beyond recognition.  The desicating heat and those revolting scavengers of warm countries, the buzzards, had united to destroy these emaciated frames within a few days until nothing remained of them but a disjointed pile of blackened bones."

Both Crane and Billman were impressed with the qualities of the Cubans as fighting men. Crane viewed them as excitable and unpredictable under fire in contrast to the marines, who were well disciplined and efficient.  He (Crane) said that they used their rifles as if they were squirt guns and that the function of the lieutenant who commanded them was to "stand back of the line, frenziedly beat his machete through the air, and with incredible rapidity how: 'Fuego!, fuego! fuego! fuego! fuego!'". Crane respected their daring: "They paid no heed whatever to the Spaniards volleys, but simply lashed themselves into a delirium that disdained everything." (This may have been the most effective tactic because sea grape bushes hid the Spanish guerrillas) the Billman praised the way the Americans and Cubans cooperated, although saying they would "no more assimilate than Irishmen and Italians." "Cubans are absolutely necessary to the arm as guides," he wrote, and there are not lacking indications that the Spanish soldier has a whole dread of them in the field."

The five-hour battle for Cusco Hill was the turning point in the action to take control of Guantanamo Bay.  It dislodged the Spaniards from the spot where they could best harry the marine encampment.  Their (the Spanish) resistance practically collapsed the next day when the Texas, Marblehead, and Suwanee went in and shelled Caimanera.  Chapman, on the Kanapaha, had a good view: "The Texas opened fire at forty-five minutes past one, and her shots followed one after the other with great deliberation and accuracy.  Cheers burst frequently from the men watching as a shell from the twelve-inch gun struck the fort, sending up a great cloud of yellow dust (another indication of lack of rain), followed by a tremendous roar of the big gun.  The flash of the discharge and the effect of the exploding shell seemed to be instantaneous, the eye cannot follow the difference; then comes smoke rolling and swelling out in a vast cloud, and the chock of explosion reverberating and ringing in your ears."

 The bombardment did not wipe our all opposition, however, for sharpshooters still remained to snipe from the underbrush at marines on land or at the ship's boats when they came near the shore.  Harry L. Beach described for the Associated Press a night expedition of some three hundred marines and Cubans to drive Spaniards from a small neck of land not far from Caimanera. The move was made from the east shore to the west shore, a distance of one and one-half miles, at 2 a.m.  The crossing was made in twenty landing boats in strings of four towed by five steam launches.  To ensure a surprise attack, maintenance of utter silence was ordered, but it was shattered when one of the steam launches developed engine trouble. Beach was appalled. "It rattled worse than buckshot in a tin pan," he wrote; "it wheezed worse than a wind-broken horse at the summit of a long hill, and it was the possessor of asthmatic cough that
could be heard two miles." Then, when the boats were out in the bay, came more trouble: in passing the warships the strings of boats were noisily hailed by watchmen who had not been told of the expedition.   Finally, all effort to maintain silence and invisibility was given up  witht he placing in the lead boat of a signalman with a lighted lantern to  wigwag the ships of the nature of the expedition.  Fortunately for the marines, there were not Spaniards at the landing place.

 But the taking of Guantanamo Bay, covered by only a handful of correspondents, was a sideshow of in the big circus of war.  The main attraction was Santiago..."


Charles H. Brown . The Correspondents' War.  New York: Charles Scriber's Sons, 1967) New York Library of Congress catalog number 67-14167, pages 279-289

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