Read CHAPTER XV - Coaling in the tropics of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

The well-directed fire of the forts at the entrance to Cienfuegos was rapidly making the “Yankee’s” position untenable, and it soon became apparent that we would have to give way before overwhelming odds. Fifteen minutes after the battle began between the Spanish gunboat and the “Yankee,” the former beat a hasty retreat, steaming back into the harbor.

It was plainly evident, however, that she had been badly hulled, as she yawed wildly while passing from sight behind the headlands. This of itself was victory enough for the present, and at the end of twenty minutes’ firing, we withdrew out of range.

Our object in the first place was, as we ascertained from forward during the day, to intercept a Spanish blockade runner, the “Purissima Concepcion”; so we laid off the harbor and waited for the coming of the ship, which was supposed to have left Jamaica for Cienfuegos. The day was spent in cleaning up after our brief but lively battle, and when night came, we were again shipshape.

Shortly after daybreak the following morning, the lookout aloft reported that a steamer, evidently a man-of-war, was emerging from the harbor. The crew were called to “general quarters” at once, and every preparation made to give the stranger a lively reception. She proved, however, to be the German warship “Geier” bound for Santiago.

“In time of peace prepare for war” is a good adage, but the reverse is also true. Peaceful pursuits are of a necessity carried out even in the face of the enemy.

At “evening quarters” new hammocks were doled out, and all hands were instructed to scrub the old ones next morning and turn them in.

By this time we had become quite expert laundrymen, but we had never tackled a stiff canvas hammock, and the prospect was far from pleasant; the following morning, however, we learned how to perform this final feat of cleansing; after which we felt qualified to wash anything from a handkerchief to a circus tent.

As “Hay” said, “I feel equal to applying for the position of general housework man, if I lose my job. I can sew you ought to see the elegant patch I put on the seat of my old blues I can ‘scrub and wash’ clothes, I can sweep beautifully, I can make a bed with neatness and despatch. And I have been known to get on my knees and scrub the deck.”

“You’re not the only one,” growled Bill. “Why, even ‘Dirty Greene’ escapes the aforetime customary ‘calling down.’”

Greene was a clever fellow, a student at Harvard, the owner of a yacht, and a good sailor, but his college education did not help him to get his clothes clean. That was a study that had been left out of his university curriculum. The consequence was that he, with a good many others, was “called down” at every inspection.

“Greene is getting it in the neck now,” said his friend “Steve”; “but I think he will get even some day with his cousin, the lieutenant of his division.”

“How’s that?” we chorused.

“Why, you see he owns a schooner yacht. And his cousin, the lieutenant, is very fond of sailing and never fails to accept an invitation to go cruising on her. Some day when the lieutenant is aboard, Greene will look him over and discover that his shoes are not polished, that his hair has not been combed properly, or his white duck trousers are not immaculate. He will then be sent below in disgrace to repair these faults, and our friend Greene will have the merry Ha! Ha! on him. ’He who laughs last, laughs best.’”

We one and all wished we owned yachts and could invite some of the other officers “Cutlets” in particular.

Blockading duty is monotonous work, though the strain on the lookouts is intense. During the day, a bright lookout must be kept for the lightest tinge of smoke on the horizon, and at night for the faintest glimmer of light, or a deeper shadow on the rim of the ocean that would betray a ship.

It was Tuesday night, and time hung heavy on our hands. Eight bells had not sounded, and, though hammocks had been given out, neither watch could turn in. It was with particular glee, therefore, that we welcomed the news that “Steve” had composed an up-to-date verse to his “Tommy Atkins” song. After some persuasion for he is a modest chap he consented to sing it for us.

“The first two verses of this song were writ
Before we sailed away for Cuba’s Isle;
And since that time the Spaniards we have fit,
And chased their gunboats many a weary mile.
We’ve heard the bullets whistling overhead.
We’ve heard the shells fly by and called it sport,
And down at Cienfuegos
We proved ourselves courageous
By tackling both a gunboat and a fort.

Chorus “Now we’d like to run a ferry,
All along the Jersey shore;
Fighting Spaniards, it is very
Nice, but we don’t want no more.
We would give our bottom dollar,
And of that you need not fear,
Just to hear the masthead holler
Brooklyn navy yard is here.”

“That’s very good, ‘Steve,’” said Greene, “but I can’t quite agree to that line: ’Fighting Spaniards it is very nice, but we don’t want no more.’ I’d like to have a few more raps at ’em.”

“You are such a bloodthirsty chap,” said Flagg, “you slam the charges into your old Number Seven as if you would like to wipe out the whole enemy with one fell swoop.”

“Well,” replied Greene, thoughtfully, “a man does get awfully excited when the guns begin to bark.”

And every one of us knew exactly how he felt.

We maintained a close vigil until the sixteenth of June two days later then sailed for Santiago. Shortly after entering port we were informed that the Spanish gunboat with which we had been engaged off Cienfuegos had sunk, sent to the bottom by our fire; a bit of news highly appreciated.

Our stay in Santiago was short, the “Yankee” leaving for Guantanamo the next day at eleven o’clock. On reaching the latter port we found evidences of a considerable change in the condition of affairs. On our former visit, as the reader will remember, we had engaged in an interesting argument with a gunboat, a blockhouse, and a fort, driving the boat back into the harbor and silencing the fort. The good work done that day had borne fruit.

On entering the bay we found several of our vessels quietly riding at anchor the “Oregon,” “Marblehead,” “Dolphin” (of railway-train fame), the ambulance ship “Solace,” the “Panther,” “Suwanee,” and three or four colliers and despatch boats.

But that which attracted our instant attention and brought an involuntary cheer from us, was the sight of Old Glory, flaunting proudly from a tall flagstaff erected on the site of the former Spanish blockhouse.

“Hurray!” shouted “Stump,” “it’s the first American flag to fly over Cuba. And we dug the hole to plant it.”

“That’s right,” assented “Dye.” “We are the people.”

“What’s that camp on top of the hill?” queried Flagg, indicating a number of tents gleaming in dots of white against the background of green foliage.

“It is the marine camp,” explained “Hay.” “Didn’t you hear about it in Santiago? Why, man, it’s the talk of the fleet. The marine corps has been adding to its laurels again. The other day eight hundred of them landed from the ‘Panther’ and fairly swept the place of Spaniards, fighting against three times their number. It was great.”

“The marines have a fine record,” put in Tommy. “I’ve been shipmates with them for years, and I am free to confess that they always do their duty.”

“And are always faithful,” remarked “Dye.”

“That’s their motto, ‘Semper fidelis.’ They have lived up to it in every war. They antedate the navy, you know.”

“How’s that?” asked the “Kid,” who was willing to absorb knowledge at times.

Tommy produced an ancient book from his ditty box, and proceeded to read an extract in a loud, sonorous voice. It was as follows:

“Resolved, That two battalions of marines be raised, consisting of one colonel, two lieutenant-colonels, two majors, and other officers, as usual in other regiments; that they consist of an equal number of privates with other battalions; that particular care be taken that no persons be appointed to offices or enlisted into said battalions but such as are good seamen, or so acquainted with maritime affairs as to be able to serve to advantage on sea when required, that they be enlisted and commissioned to serve for and during the present war with Great Britain and the colonies, unless dismissed by order of Congress, that they be distinguished by the names of the First and Second Battalions of Marines.”

“The date of that resolution,” added Tommy, with the air of a schoolmaster impressing a particular point, “is November 10, 1775, which was before any naval vessel had been sent to sea by the Continental Congress. So you see the marines can claim priority in point of service.”

“And priority in point of landing in Cuba,” added “Hod.” “Here’s to them.”

Our discussion on the subject of marines was cut short by a summons to coal ship, a task which had come to form the greatest thorn in the flesh of all on board the “Yankee.” The ship was run alongside the collier “Sterling,” and the port watch was set to work at once.

From four to six and from eight to twelve p.m., and from four to eight the next morning the port watch shovelled, hoisted, and carried coal.

Coaling in the tropics is a very different thing from similar work in northern latitudes. The exertion of shovelling, or lifting the heavy baskets, added to the intense heat of the weather, makes of it a task extremely trying even to those of the strongest physique. During the time thus spent in Guantanamo two of the “Yankee’s” crew were overcome by heat and exhaustion, and compelled to ask for medical attendance.

Our appearance beggared description. The exertion brought out a profuse perspiration on our half-naked bodies, to which the coal-dust stuck, thick and black. The black rubbed off in spots, showing the white skin beneath, the result being a most ludicrous mottled effect. A dime museum manager would make a fortune if he could have exhibited some of us as the piebald wild men from Guantanamo. It was not till afterward, however, that we could appreciate the humor of our looks. During the thick of the work we were too busy to note the funny side of things; in fact, we felt quite sure that there was nothing funny about it. It is impossible to awaken the sense of humor in a man who is plying a heavy shovel in the hold of a collier, or lugging a weighty basket, while the temperature is soaring to unknown altitudes.

The ship had to be supplied with fuel, however, and as the crew had neglected to ingratiate themselves with a good-natured fairy to wish it aboard for them, they had to do the work with the best grace possible.

During a “spell” of resting, “Hay,” who was a bit of a philosopher in his way, glanced about decks at the groups of panting, perspiring men, and remarked:

“It would be an object lesson to some of our friends in New York if they were to see us now. Just look at those fellows. Not one had ever before been compelled by ill-fortune to soil his hands with toil, yet when war threatened, and it was necessary to man ships in their country’s service, they cheerfully took upon themselves the labor’s of a common sailor, and not only fought for the flag, but worked hard for it in menial tasks.”

“Menial tasks is good,” said “Dye,” ruefully eyeing the baskets piled high with coal.

“Self-laudation is bad form,” spoke up Flagg, “but I think the Naval Reserves who are manning the different auxiliary cruisers the ‘Yosemite,’ ‘Prairie,’ ‘Dixie,’ ‘Badger,’ ‘Yankee,’ and the monitors as well as those serving on board the regular ships, should be given credit for their patriotism.”

“The boys will get it when the time comes,” remarked “Stump,” confidently. “And while we are waiting we’ll just carry a little more coal. Get in line there.”

Kennedy, all this time, was bearing up under his trouble splendidly, and when the launch of the hospital ship “Solace” came alongside to take him away, we could hardly repress a cheer. He was lowered over the side in a chair. As the launch steamed away, carrying Kennedy and two other shipmates who had been overcome by heat, there was a lump in many a throat.

It was not until almost dark the next day that the bunkers were filled. At three bells (half-past five o’clock) we dropped the collier and steamed to sea en route down the coast. Shortly after ten the “Yankee” passed the fleet off Santiago. The electric searchlights in use on the ships nearer shore made a particularly brilliant display. The rays were turned directly upon the entrance to the harbor, and it was plainly evident that not even a small boat could emerge without being discovered.

All day Sunday we steamed out of sight of land, our course being to the westward and our speed a good fourteen knots.

For four hours in the morning we scrubbed the gun deck, washed the white paint work with fresh water and soap, scrubbed the deck with stiff “kiyi” brushes, and polished off the bright work. By noon the deck had its pristine immaculate look. We were in the midst of the sloppy job when “forecastle Murray” (one of the Murray twins they looked so much alike that the invariable greeting in the morning was “How are you, Murray or are you your brother?”) came aft for a bucket of fresh water.

“What do you think of this?” he inquired pugnaciously. “Here we are scrubbing this blooming gun deck to beat the band, cleaning up the dirt of a two day’s coaling, and now, forsooth, we are ploughing through the water at a fourteen or fifteen knot gait and burning up that coal almost as fast as we put it in.”

He disappeared up the galley ladder, grumbling as he went.

“Another county heard from,” said “Stump.” “It does seem rather tough, but here goes” he gave a vicious jerk to the hose he was handling and the stream caught “Hay” full in the neck, whereupon “Hay” saw to it that “Stump” had a salt-water bath.

By the time “mess gear” was piped, the ship was very clean, so during the afternoon we were left largely to our own devices. Some wrote letters, though the possibility of sending them or of receiving answers was very remote. Others gathered in little knots and read or sewed, and still others took advantage of the time to “caulk off” and make up some lost sleep.

And so passed another Sunday. Though we might not have a religious service we were certainly cleanly, and, therefore, at the worst, not far from godly.

Nothing of interest occurred until early Monday morning. Several minutes before “mess gear” was due, a lookout at the masthead reported smoke in sight off the starboard bow. The engine room was signalled for full steam, and the “Yankee” sped away in chase.

“It’s our day for scrapping,” said “Stump.” “We’ve had more fighting on Monday than on any other day of the week. I wonder if it’s a Spanish cruiser?”

“It is heading for Trinidad, whatever it is,” remarked “Hay.” “Do you see that sloping hill just ahead? It marks the entrance to the little port of Trinidad. If I am not mistaken we’ll find a gunboat or two in the harbor.”

“Hay” proved to be a prophet.

An hour later, on rounding a point of land, we came upon a small, armed launch steaming about near an old-time roofed-in gunboat which was riding at anchor in the harbor. As soon as we hove in sight the gunboat and launch opened fire. It was at long range, however, and the projectiles merely stirred up the water a mile away.

As the “Yankee’s” guns replied, a two-masted steamer made her appearance from within the harbor and vanished behind the keys. The fusillade was lively, we firing fully one hundred rounds, but there was little damage done. After a time, the launch retreated, and we went outside for the night.

“It’s the last of that scrap,” remarked Tommy, the boatswain’s mate, as he piped down. “We haven’t any time to devote to such small fry.”