Read CHAPTER VII - We enter the “Theatre of war” of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

The shrill pipe of the bosun’s whistle, followed by the order “All hands to muster,” reached our ears a day or two out from New York. We were enjoying an hour of well-earned leisure, so it was with reluctance that we obeyed and went aft on the gun deck. All hands are seldom called to muster, so we knew that something of importance was in the wind.

After the three-sided hollow square had been formed, the captain appeared. The small men stood on tip-toe, and the tall men craned their necks.

“We are about to enter the theatre of war,” said the captain, in his sharp, decisive way, “and I expect every man to do his duty, to redouble his efforts to preserve discipline, to perfect drills. Drills will, of a necessity, be frequent and hard. I would have you understand that our best protection is the fire from our own guns. The more rapid and accurate our fire, the safer we shall be. Pipe down.”

After we had been dismissed, the men formed little groups and discussed the captain’s speech.

“I like the ‘old man’s’ talk,” said the “Kid,” condescendingly; “it’s to the point and short. But how in the name of common sense are we going to find time to drill with more frequency? Three times a day and once or more at night, allows us just about time enough to eat and do the necessary routine work, to say nothing about sleeping. Clear ship, general quarters, and fire drill during the day, and general quarters after ten last night. That’s already somewhat frequent, methinks,” he concluded, suppressing a yawn.

“Well, if we are to have any scraps,” said “Bill,” “we certainly must know how to work the ship and the guns. For, as the skipper said, ’our own fire is our best protection.’”

We bowled along at a good fifteen-knot gait, day after day and night after night. The weather was magnificent and the climate delightful. It was full moon, and such a moon as few of us had seen before so bright that letters could be and were written by her silvery light.

Though drills of all sorts were of constant occurrence, there were times after mess when we could “caulk off” and enjoy the glorious weather. Our experience of bad weather along the coast of New Jersey and Long Island had given us keen zest for the good conditions we were now enjoying. We were sailing along in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream the Gulf weed peculiar to that current slipping by as we forged through it. “Stump,” “Dye,” of Number Eight’s gun crew, a witty chap and a good singer, “Hay,” and I were leaning over the taffrail, looking into the swirling water made by the propeller’s thrust, when “Dye” remarked: “This is the queerest water I ever saw in all my days; it looks like the bluing water our laundress used to make, with the suds mixed in.”

The smooth sea was dark and clear as could be, but where churned by the propeller it turned to the color of turquoise.

“I really believe,” said “Bill,” as he joined the group, “that we could use it to turn our whites blue.”

It was a delight and marvel to us all; we would have liked nothing better than to have spent hours gazing at these wonderful colors.

As we stood absorbed in the sight before us, we were interrupted by the short, sharp ringing of the ship’s bell a dozen or more strokes given in quick succession followed, after a short pause, by two more strokes.

Some one shouted “Fire, boys!” and all hands rushed for their stations some to the hose-reel, some below to the gun deck to close the ports, and some to the berth deck to receive the hose when it came down. We did not know whether it was drill or actual fire, but the skipper’s talk of the night before gave us unusual energy, and the preparations were made in record time. The canvas hose was pulled along the deck with a swish, the nozzle grasped by the waiting hands below and carried with a run away aft on the berth deck. The fire was supposed to be raging at this point, as was indicated by the two last strokes of the alarm signal.

While the hose was being led out, sturdy arms tugged at the port lanyards and pulled them to. Others battened down the hatches, to keep the draught from adding fury to the flames.

All this was done in less time than it takes to tell it, and the men stood at their posts, perspiring and panting from the quick work.

We had hardly time to catch our breath when the order “Abandon ship” was heard. Immediately there was a scurry of feet, and a rush for the upper deck; but some stayed below to carry ship’s bread and canned meats to the boats two cases of bread and two cases of meat for the large boats, and one case of each for the smaller. The crews and passengers of each boat gathered near it. Every man had been assigned to a boat either as crew or passenger, and when the order “abandon ship” was given, every one knew instantly where to go for refuge.

Though we had already gone through this “fire drill” and “abandon ship” (one always followed the other), it had then been done in peaceful waters and in a perfunctory way. Now that we were entering “the theatre of war,” we felt the seriousness of it all, and realized that what was now a mere drill might become a stern reality.

The order “Secure” was given; the hose was reeled up, the ports opened, and the provisions returned to their places in hold and store room. The men went to their quarters, and so stood till the bugler blew “retreat.”

The time not devoted to drills was taken up in getting the ship ready for the serious work she was to undertake.

All woodwork on the gun deck not in actual use was carried below or thrown overboard, and the great cargo booms were either taken down and stowed safely away, where the splinters would not be dangerous, or were covered with, canvas.

These preparations had a sinister look that made us realize, if we had not done so before, that this was real war that we were about to engage in no sham battle or manoeuvres.

The men went about their work more quietly and thoughtfully, for one and all now understood their responsibilities. If the ship made a record for herself, the crew would get a large share of the credit; and if she failed to do the work cut out for her, on the crew would be laid the blame. If the men behind the guns and the men running the engines did not do their work rapidly and well, disaster and disgrace would follow.

As we neared the scene of conflict, the discipline grew more and more strict. Before a man realized that he had done anything wrong, his name would be called by the master-at-arms and he would be hauled “up to the mast” for trial.

“You ought to see the gang up at the mast,” said “Stump,” one bright afternoon. “‘Mac’ and ‘Hod Marsh’ have gathered enough extra duty men to do all the dirty work for a month.”

“What were you doing up there?” asked a bystander.

“Why, I thought I heard my name called, and as discretion is the better part of valor, I lined up with the rest, and I was glad I did, too, for it was good sport.”

“Maybe you thought it was sport, but how about the chaps that were ‘pinched’? Who was up before the skipper, anyhow?”

“Oh, there was a big gang up there I can’t remember them all; ’Lucky Bag Kennedy’ was there, for being late at general quarters the other day. When the captain looked at him in that fierce way of his and asked what he had to say for himself, ‘Lucky Bag’ said he didn’t realize the time. The skipper could hardly keep his face straight. ‘Four hours,’ he said, and that was all there was to it.”

“Poor ‘Lucky Bag,’” came from all sides as “Stump” paused to take breath.

“Then there was ‘Big Bill,’ the water tender,” continued “Stump.” “He was hauled up for appearing on the spar deck without a uniform. When the skipper asked him what he had to say for himself, ‘Big Bill’ cleared his throat with a woof you know how it sounds: the ship shakes and trembles when he does it and the ‘old man’ fairly tottered under the blast. ‘Big Bill’ explained that he could not get a uniform big enough for him, because the paymaster could not fit him out. The captain almost grinned when he heard the excuse, and ’Big Bill’ well, he enjoyed the situation, I’ll bet a month’s pay.”

There was a little pause here, and we heard a great voice rumbling from below. Then we knew that “Big Bill” was telling his intimates all about it, embellishing the story as only he could do.

We laughed sympathetically as the shouts of glee rose to our ears. We had all enjoyed his good-humored Irish wit.

“Well, who else was in trouble this afternoon, ’Stump’?” said “Mourner,” the inquisitive.

“Oh, a lot of unfortunate duffers. Several who were put on the report for being slow in lashing up their hammocks got a couple of hours extra duty each. One or two were there because they had clothes in the ’lucky bag’ they had left them round the decks somewhere, and the master-at-arms had grabbed them. The owners had to go on the report to get the clothes out. It cost them a couple of hours each.”

“Well, how did you get out of it?” said I, when “Stump” paused to breathe.

“I was nearly scared to death,” he continued, after a minute or two. “My name was not called, and the rank thinned out till there were only a few of us left. I began to think that some special punishment was being reserved for me, and that the captain was waiting so he could think it over. What my offence was I could not imagine; my conscience was clear, I vow. As I stood there in the sun I thought over the last few days, and made a confession to myself, but couldn’t think of anything very wicked. Had I unintentionally blocked a marine sentry’s way and thus interfered with him in the performance of his duty? I had visions at this point of myself in the ‘brig,’ existing on bread and water. Had I inadvertently gone into ‘Cutlet’s’ pet after wheel-house? I was in a brown study, conjuring up imaginary misdeeds, when a voice sounded in my ear: ’Here, my man; what do you want?’ I looked around, dazed, at the captain, who stood by, the closed report book in his hand. Then I realized that my being there was a mistake, so I saluted and said, ‘Nothing, sir.’”

“That’s a very nice tale,” said “Dye.” “We’ll have to get ‘Mac’ to verify it.”

“It’s straight,” protested “Stump.” “Ask the skipper himself if you want to.”

The old boat ploughed her way through the blue waters of the Gulf Stream at the rate of from fourteen to fifteen knots an hour. The skies were clear and the sun warm and bright cool breeze tempered its heat and made life bearable. The ship rolled lazily in the long swell and the turquoise wake boiled astern. We steamed for days without sighting a sail or a light; we were “alone on a wide, wide sea.” At times schools of dolphins would race and shoot up out of the water alongside, much to our glee. All the beauties of these tropical waters were new to us. Every school of flying fish and flock of Mother Carey’s chickens brought crowds to the rail. The sunsets were glorious, though all too short, and the sunrises, if less appreciated, just as fine.

At night the guns’ crews of the “watch on deck” slept round their loaded guns, one man of each crew always standing guard. The men of the powder divisions manned the lookout posts.

All hands were in good spirits, calmed somewhat, however, by the thought that soon we might be in the thick of battle, the outcome of which no man could tell.

It was during this voyage that friendships, begun on the Block Island-Barnegat cruise, were cemented. The life aboard ship tended to “show up” a man as he really was. His good and bad qualities appeared so that all might see. Was he good-natured, even-tempered, thoughtful, his mates knew it at once and liked him. Was he quick-tempered, selfish, uncompanionable, it was quite as evident, and he had few friends. Sterling and unsuspected qualities were brought out in many of the men.

Every man felt that we must and would stand together, and with a will do our work, be it peaceful or warlike.

Where were we bound? Were we to join the Havana blockading fleet? Were we destined for despatch and scout duty? Or were we to take part in actual conflict?

It was while we were settling these questions to our own satisfaction on the morning of June 2d, that a hail came from the lookout at the masthead forward.

“Land O!” he shouted, waving his cap. “Hurray! it’s Cuba!”

The navigator, whose rightful surname had been converted by the facetious Naval Reserves into “Cutlets,” for reasons of their own, lost no time in rebuking the too enthusiastic lookout.

“Aloft, there, you measly lubber! What in thunder do you mean? Have you sighted land?”

“Ye-es, sir-r,” quavered the lookout.

“Then why don’t you say so without adding any conjectures of your own?” commented the irascible Lieutenant “Cutlets,” severely.

The rest of the crew were too deeply interested in the vague streak of color on the horizon to pay any attention to the “wigging” of the man at the masthead. We knew that the dun-hued streak rising from the blue shadows of the ocean was Cuba, and we could think or talk of nothing else.

Somewhere beyond that towering mountain was Santiago, the port in which the flea-like squadron of Admiral Cervera was bottled up, and there was a deadly fear in our hearts that the wily Spaniard would sally forth to battle before we could join our fleet.

We pictured to ourselves the gray mountain massed high about the narrow entrance of Santiago Bay, the picturesque Morro Castle, squatting like a grim giant above the strait, and outside, tossing and bobbing upon the swell of a restless sea, the mighty semicircle of drab ships waiting, yearning for the outcoming of the Dons. We of the “Yankee,” I repeat, were in an agony of dread that we would arrive too late.

Cape Maysi, the scene of many an adventurous filibustering expedition, was passed at high noon, and at eight bells in the evening the anchor was dropped off Mole St. Nicholas, a convenient port in the island of Hayti. As we steamed into the harbor we passed close to the auxiliary cruiser “St. Louis.”

The anchor was scarcely on the bottom when the gig was called away. We awaited the return of Captain Brownson with impatience. The news he brought was reassuring, however. Nothing of moment had occurred since our departure from New York. Within an hour we were again out at sea, this time en route to Santiago.

There was little sleep on board that night, and when morning dawned, every man who could escape from below was on deck watching, waiting for the first glimpse of Admiral Sampson’s fleet. Shortly after daylight, the squadron was sighted. The scene was picturesque in the extreme.

The gray of early dawn was just giving way before the first rays of a tropical sun. Almost hidden in the mist hovering about the coast were a number of vague spots seemingly arranged in a semicircle, the base of which was the green-covered tableland fronting Santiago. The spots were tossing idly upon a restless sea, and, as the sun rose higher, each gradually assumed the shape of a marine engine of war. Beyond them was a stretch of sandy, surf-beaten coast, and directly fronting the centre ship could be seen a narrow cleft in the hill the gateway leading to the ancient city of Santiago de Cuba.

As we steamed in closer to the fleet we saw indications that something of importance had occurred or was about to occur. Steam launches and torpedo boats were dashing about between the ships, strings of parti-colored bunting flaunted from the signal halliards of the flagship “New York,” and nearer shore could be seen one of the smaller cruisers evidently making a reconnaissance.

“We are just in time, Russ,” exclaimed “Stump,” jubilantly. “The fleet is getting ready for a scrap. And we’ll be right in it.”

I edged toward the bridge. The first news would come from that quarter. Several minutes later, Captain Brownson, who had been watching the signals with a powerful glass, closed the instrument with a snap, and cried out to the executive officer:

“Hubbard, you will never believe it.”

“What’s happened?”

The reply was given so low that I could catch only a few words, but it was enough to send me scurrying aft at the top of my speed. The news was startling indeed.