Read CHAPTER XVII - In God's Country of A Gunner Aboard the "Yankee", free online book, by Russell Doubleday, on

The “Yankee’s” stay in Key West was marked by one of the most melancholy incidents of the cruise. Thomas Clinton LeValley, one of the first of the New York Naval Reserves to respond to the call for volunteers, died from appendicitis in the hospital ashore, to which he had been removed for treatment. “Tom,” as he was familiarly called by his shipmates, was on board the “Yankee” during the five engagements of that vessel, and proved himself loyal and steadfast on every occasion. He was well liked by the officers and men of the crew, and his death was deeply regretted by all. It was his fate to be the one member of the New York Naval Reserves to lose his life in the service of his country.

When a big barge heaped high with coal came alongside and was made fast, we began to doubt the assurances given us, that the coal would be put in by outside labor. A tug hove in sight shortly afterward that caused our gloomy faces to light up with gladness, for it carried a gang of negroes. The tug made fast to the barge, and its living cargo was soon hard at work filling the ship’s bunkers.

All that afternoon we “lingered in the lap of luxury,” as “Bill” put it. At six o’clock our dusky (doubly dusky) coal heavers went ashore, their labor over for the day. Though the workmen had left, the work was still to continue. The crew coaled till twelve o’clock, working in quarter watches. The following day another barge came alongside and part of the crew had to turn to and help the hired shovellers.

“So much,” said “Stump,” snapping his fingers, “for the officers’ assurances.”

Up to this time we did not know where we were going. Of course the “Rumor Committee” were ready with news of destinations galore. We were to return to our patrol duty, to join the Flying Squadron and threaten the coast towns of Spain, to join the blockading squadron off Havana. We were to do a dozen or more things just as probable or just as improbable.

A coal barge still lay alongside the starboard side of the ship, when a lighter appeared and made fast to the port side, loaded with express packages, parts of machinery, pipes, and bags of mail for every ship on the Santiago blockade.

“Now we will get those eight bags of mail,” said a forecastle man, exultantly. And from that moment we knew we were going back to Cuba.

But like a good many people who think they know it all we didn’t.

Bunkers, holds almost every available space, in fact, was filled with coal.

Then began the much dreaded job of painting. Stages were hung over the side, each manned by two men, and with much reluctance we began to daub the old “Yankee” with gray paint.

The men were unaccustomed to such work, though some could handle the brushes sold in “artist’s materials” shops well enough, and they spattered gray paint all over themselves. It was thought easier to wash skins than jumpers, so many were decorated in wonderful fashion.

“You would make a ‘professor of tattooing’ wild with envy,” said Greene to “Steve,” as the latter appeared over the rail.

“Well, I don’t know,” retorted “Steve,” “I am thinking of reporting you for misappropriating government property. You’ve got more paint on yourself than you put on the ship.”

After a day and a half of dreary work we had the satisfaction of seeing the vessel’s sides one uniform color from stem to stern. It was a big job for such a short time and our arms ached at the very thought of it.

The sides painted, our attention was given to the decks. They were swabbed thoroughly, first with a damp swab, and after they were entirely dry the spar deck was covered with red shellac, this being applied with a wide varnish brush. The gun deck was then taken in hand and treated in the same way.

By Saturday night the ship was as fine as a “brand new jumping-jack before the baby sucked the paint off.”

Some of the men still suffered from black-and-blue spots, which, however, a little turpentine liniment would have banished.

Rumors were rife that we would be bound for New York shortly, but few believed them; the circulators themselves certainly did not, of that we felt sure.

“The idea!” said “Mourner,” who, though ready to swallow most rumoristic pills, could not manage this one. “Go to New York with eighty bags of mail for the Santiago fleet! I can see us doing it.”

“Taps” sounded at nine o’clock, and we were glad enough to turn in.

When all hands were called, I rubbed my eyes in astonishment, for as I glanced out of the deadlight near which my hammock swung, I saw that we were under way and well out to sea. I put on my togs in a hurry, and after lashing and stowing my “dream bag,” rushed on deck.

Yes, sure enough, we were at sea.

“Stump” came and grabbed me round the waist he could hardly reach higher. “We’re bound for New York,” said he. “We met the ‘St. Paul’ going in and the signal boys say we signalled, ’We have urgent orders to proceed to New York.’ What do you think of that?” he added, breathlessly.

“With eighty bags of mail for the Santiago fleet,” said I, thinking of the poor fellows who were longing with all their hearts for those same bags.

“Regular navy style,” added “Stump.”

Though it was hard on our friends off Santiago we could not be cast down, and the near prospect of liberty of an opportunity to see home and friends, of again setting foot on shore transformed the entire crew.

Everywhere could be seen smiling faces. Laughter and merry chatter filled the air, and the rollicking songs written by “Steve” and others were more in evidence than ever. The daily routine of work seemed lighter. There was no grumbling, no fault finding; even the interminable task of shifting coal was carried on with actual cheerfulness. Grimy hands and blackened faces and tired bodies were forgotten.

“There’s a mighty good dinner waiting for me in the dear old house,” exclaimed “Stump,” unctuously. “I can sniff it afar. And say, fellows, won’t we forget for a few hours at least that such things as reveille and scrub and wash clothes and coal humping and salt-horse exist on earth?”

“Oh, good Mr. Captain, how long will it be before we hear the welcome call, ‘Shift into clean blue, the liberty party!’ and find ourselves piling over the side,” groaned “Hay.”

“You will be glad enough to come back to your Uncle Samuel,” grinned “Steve.” “When your time is up you will be waiting for the boat.”

“No doubt,” replied Flagg. “We will be ready to complete our time of service, but there are some, if rumor speaks the truth ”

He finished with a significant wink.

He referred to the many threats of “French leave” made by certain members of the crew threats which did not materialize except in a very few cases. The disgruntled members of the “Yankee’s” crew were composed mainly of the “outside” men men not of the Naval Reserves. Among the latter, despite the unaccustomed hardships to which they were subjected, a firm determination existed to remain until lawfully mustered out.

The trip from Key West to New York was marked by only one important incident the celebration of the Fourth of July. It was unlike that familiar to the majority of the crew. There were no fireworks, no parades, nor bands playing the national anthem. The day opened squally, and sharp gusts of rain swept the decks. The usual routine of work was proceeded with, and it was not until eight bells (noon) that we fully realized the date. At exactly midday a salute of twenty-one guns was fired, and those of us who were super-patriotic, took off our caps in honor of the flag. That ended the ceremony.

“Never mind,” said Tommy, when one of the boys bewailed the meagre celebration, “never mind, shipmate. There’s a good time coming when we can whoop ’er up for Old Glory as much as we please. Then we’ll make up for to-day. We can’t expect to do much under these conditions, you know.”

The day following (a fine, cool, bright one, and how we did appreciate it!) was spent by all hands in getting the ship spick and span for the inspection of visitors, who were sure to be on hand to welcome us.

The semi-weekly ceremony of airing hammocks and bedding was indulged in. The bugler blew “hammocks,” whereupon all hands lined up to receive them from the stowers. They were then unlashed on the gun deck, and inspected by the officers of the different divisions, who ordered that they should be taken up to the spar deck. The blankets and mattresses were spread wherever sun and breeze could get at them. The rail, as well as the boats, was covered with them. Red blankets flaunted in the breeze from the rigging till we resembled an anarchist emigrant ship.

The marines aired their hammocks on the forecastle deck in the neighborhood of their guns.

After an hour or two, the word was passed to “stow hammocks,” and soon all was shipshape again.

This duty was performed once or twice a week, the frequency depending on weather and circumstances.

Wednesday, July 6th, we passed Sandy Hook and entered New York harbor, just thirty-six days since we left it.

As we made our way up the channel, a pilot boat hailed us and told us of Sampson and Schley’s glorious victory over Cervera.

Though our joy was great and our enthusiasm intense, we were greatly disappointed that we were not in at the death. We felt sure that if we had been there our skipper would have worked the old craft in near enough to have given us a shot.

We steamed on up the bay and through the Narrows, the happiest lot of Jackies afloat. The captain of every vessel we met pulled his whistle cord until the steam gave out, and the passengers cheered and waved their handkerchiefs, or whatever came handy.

The health officer passed us in a jiffy, and before eight bells struck we were safely at anchor off Tompkinsville.

It transpired that we had been sent North on account of a yellow fever scare. The health officer proved that the fear was groundless. Again we set to work cleaning, scrubbing, polishing, and painting, so by the time our friends came crowding aboard, the ship was as neat as a new pin.

The visitors how glad we were to see them! Only one who has looked danger in the face and realized that there might never be a home-coming in this world, could understand our feelings as our relatives and friends bless them came aboard.

Fathers, mothers, brothers, sisters, and other fellows’ sisters crowded up the gangway to greet us.

And all were welcome.

The second day after we anchored, the port watch was given shore leave of twenty-four hours. So we donned our clean blues, and for the first time since May 9th, set foot on solid ground.

As the port watch came over the side the following day, after its liberty ashore, they were met with the order “Shift into working clothes at once and get those shells below.” The red ammunition flag was flying at the foremast head, and all thoughts must be given up of the good times ashore.

The starboard watch then went on liberty ashore and the port watch tackled the ammunition.

From noon till after ten, we were kept busy storing thirteen-inch shells for the biggest guns in the navy. They weigh 1,100 pounds apiece and are dangerous things to handle, not only on account of their weight, but because of the charge of powder each carries. We also loaded eight, six, and five-inch shells into the after hold. We turned in at eleven o’clock, and were roused at 3:30 next morning to begin the same heavy work. When the starboard watch returned the following noon, we were still at it, and they, too, had to pitch in and help as soon as they could get into working clothes.

Saturday, Sunday, and Monday were spent in the same way stowing food for Uncle Sam’s mighty guns.

The thirteen-inch shells were crated in heavy planks, bound with iron; slings of rope were placed around them and they were lowered slowly into the hold. The eight, six, and five-inch shells had a lashing of tarred rope and a loop by which they might be lifted and handled.

Charges of smokeless powder for thirteen, eight, and six-inch guns, in copper canisters, were also taken aboard.

When all was stowed, we carried enough explosives to blow the water out of the bay. At half-past two on July 12th, the anchor was raised, the cat falls manned, and we bade New York good-by once more. A brisk northeast breeze was blowing, kicking up an uncomfortable sea, and when Sandy Hook was passed it became necessary to close all ports and batten down hatches.

The rolling and pitching of the ship soon began to make things interesting on the gun deck. Immense green seas, shipped at intervals on the upper deck, sent little streams of water trickling down through openings as yet unprotected.

At evening quarters it was all we could do to stand upright. A number of men left their stations suddenly without permission, and seemed to take great interest in the sea just over the rail.

As the sun sank, the wind rose, and with it came rain rain in sheets the “wettest” kind of rain.

When the port watch was relieved at eight o’clock, even the veriest landsman among us could tell that the situation was becoming serious. We turned in at once, determining to get all the sleep possible in that pandemonium of sound.

The value of hammocks in a heavy sea was proved beyond all peradventure, for once we got into them and closed our eyes, we hardly realized that the ship was almost on her beam ends much of the time.

From time to time we were wakened by the crash of a mess chest, as it broke from its lashings and careened around the deck. The mess pans and pots banged and thumped. At intervals the lurching of the vessel caused a mess table with the accompanying benches to slide to the deck with a crash.

At twelve, we of the port watch were wakened from our much-interrupted rest and ordered on deck for muster.

As we slid from our hammocks we realized for the first time the fury of the storm. It was impossible to stand upright.

The old hooker rolled so, that it was impossible to keep from sliding even when one lay prone on the deck. The men on lookout had all they could do to hang on. One moment the end of the bridge would rise high in air and the next almost bury itself in the seething waters.

The wind roared, the lightning flashed, and the thunder rolled.

The dense fog hung like a curtain round the ship, so the whistle was blown incessantly.

The boatswain’s mate ordered me to go forward and stand an hour’s watch on the bridge. I obeyed, creeping on all fours most of the time, till I reached the opening between the deck houses. I escaped, by a hair’s breadth, a sea which came over the side like a solid green wall.

The man on the port end of the bridge whom I relieved, shouted in my ear he could not be heard otherwise “You want to get a good hold or you’ll be fired overboard in a jiffy.” Then he left me.

It was the kind of a night one felt the need of companionship. I spent a lonely hour on the bridge, eyes and ears strained for signs of other vessels, face and hands stung by the pelting rain. Underlying all other thoughts was the consciousness that we carried several hundred tons of deadly explosive that might shift any moment or be ignited by a spark from a lamp and explode.

The sandbags stored about the steering gear broke loose and were heaped in picturesque confusion. The scene aft was indescribable. A quantity of debris of varying nature slid across the smooth surface of the gun deck with a rush at every roll, making navigation a difficult, if not perilous, task. Later, to add to the tumult, one man’s hammock was cut down by a falling mess table, but he escaped serious injury.

It was not until the following morning that the seas subsided, but the day proved pleasant, and the mishaps of the preceding afternoon were forgotten in the excitement of reaching Norfolk, which port was reached by the “Yankee” shortly before dark. Later in the evening the ship was taken to the navy yard.

“Which means that we are going to hustle more ammunition,” observed Tommy, as we made fast to a dock.

“And more stores,” added “Dye.”

“And coal,” chimed in “Stump,” with a grimace. “I am glad of it, too.”

“Glad of it?” echoed “Dye,” in surprise. “That’s queer.”

“Not at all, dear boy,” was the second loader’s calm reply. “D’ye see, I am in training for the billet of chief deck hand on a tramp canal boat, and this experience is just in my line.”

Four days later the mooring hawsers were cast off and the “Yankee” steamed out between the capes en route to Santiago. From the hour we left Norfolk until the sighting of the Cuban coast, our time was taken up with drills of every description. The following extract from the log for July 18th, will suffice for an example:

“Cleared ship for action at three bells along with general quarters. General quarters again half an hour after turn to at noon. Fire drill and abandon ship at three bells in the afternoon. General quarters again at two bells (9 p.m.).”

Under date of July 19th, one of the crew states in his private diary: “Clear ship for action again. This is a very pretty drill, and is much liked by the boys, as it includes sending all the mess gear and provisions below, where most of them are usually ‘pinched.’ Clear ship for action always means an exchange of undesirable mess gear, such as broken benches, tables, etc. General quarters at 1:30; fired two shots at an invisible target with smokeless powder. Great success, this new powder. If we had only been provided with it before, every living Spaniard would have trembled at the word ’Yankee’!”

“What are we doing all this clear ship, general quarters, fire drill, and such business for?” said a forecastle man to Craven, who, besides being on a deck gun, from which all that was occurring on the bridge could be seen, was a messenger.

“Why, don’t you know?” said the latter. “We have a war artist aboard, and all this extra drilling is being done for his special benefit, so he can work it up for his paper, I suppose.”

“Well, if we ever get that artist aboard the old ‘New Hampshire’ we will teach him a few things, so he can describe them from actual experience,” said “Hod” the husky. “He’ll be able to describe scrub and wash clothes, sweeping decks, washing dishes, and all the rest, most vividly,” he continued, vindictively. “We’ll show him how we get under the hose in the morning. Oh, we’ll have a bully time with him, and I’ll wager that when we’re through the honors of naval battles will seem too trivial for him to draw!”