How We Got Guantanamo

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By May 28, 1898, the uncertainty was over. Admiral Cervera’s fleet had been run to ground in the cliff-ringed harbor of Santiago de Cuba. “There can be no doubt,” cabled Admiral William T. Sampson to the Navy Department, “of presence of Spanish squadron at Santiago.”

After weeks of war nerves, punctuated by rumors of Spanish cruisers off every port on the Atlantic coast and by much backing and filling off Cuba, Commodore Winfield Scott Schley’s Flying Squadron had finally spotted the enemy ships at Santiago. The blockade of the Spanish fleet had begun. By urgent cable to the American consul at Kingston, and thence by fast steamer to the coast of Cuba, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long sent Schley his orders: “Unless it is unsafe for your squadron, Department wishes you to remain off Santiago”; then another phrase, whose consequences would bear heavily on American foreign policy six decades later— “Can not you take possession of Guantanamo, occupy as a coaling station?”

Secretary Long was not the first to visualize Guantanamo Bay as a potential advance base. It offered a sheltered anchorage covering some fifteen square miles of water. One hundred and fifty-seven years before, while his country was at war with Spain, British Admiral Edward Vernon dropped anchor with sixty-one sail on July 13, 1741, in Walthenham Bay, as the place was then known. Vernon renamed it Cumberland Harbor and occupied it as a base of operations against “St. Jago de Cuba,” forty miles westward. Aboard one of Vernon’s ships was the novelist Tobias Smollett, later to record the landings at Walthenham Bay in The Adventures of Roderick Random; an officer in Vernon’s regiment of American marines was Lawrence Washington, half-brother of George, who would give the Admiral’s name to his estate beside the Potomac River.

Still earlier, this “large and secure haven,” as Guantanamo was described in 1779, had been the lair of pirates plying the Windward Passage. And Columbus, who anchored in the bay on his second voyage, in April, 1494, was so struck with its expanse that he entitled it Puerto Grande.

Protected by dust-brown, scrub-covered mountains against observation or bombardment by sea, and sheltered from the force of hurricanes, Guantanamo Bay was indeed a prize. Moreover, despite its strategic position and a French cable station which linked Cuba with Haiti and thence Europe, the Spanish defenses of Guantanamo in 1898 were unimpressive. True, a brigade of some 7,000 men under General Felix Pareja held the town of Guantanamo, fourteen miles inland from the bay. But in 1898, as it would be again for Fidel Castro, Oriente Province was a cradle of revolution, and General Pareja was hard-pressed to hold his base and the weed-grown railroad that connected it with Caimanera, the fever-ridden, dirty sugar port near the head of the inner bay. All he could spare to defend Guantanamo Bay were the gunboat Sandoval, a handful of mines, and a few hundred soldiers occupying the region of Playa del Este (Windward Point) and a fort on Cayo del Toro, guarding the channel which joins the inner to the outer bay. “I continue serving out half rations of everything,” Pareja gloomily reported in early June, 1898, “and in that way I expect to reach only the end of the month, above all in bread, as I have no flour of any kind, as I said, and no way of getting any …”

Exactly six weeks before the thought of occupying Guantanamo Bay had entered the minds of Secretary Long and his Naval War Board—in fact five days before war was even declared on Spain—the Navy Department had ordered the Marine Corps to organize a battalion for service in Cuba. This battalion, to be composed of “young, strong, and healthy men,” was to include five rifle companies (each with its own drummer and fifer) and an artillery company armed with three-inch rapid-fire guns and the latest thing in automatic weapons—the 1895 Colt machine gun, called by the troops, because of its peculiar downward recoil, “Colt’s potato-digger.”

To command the battalion, whose twenty-four officers and 623 enlisted men included more than one fifth of the entire Corps, Marine headquarters had chosen Lieutenant Colonel Robert W. Huntington, one of the toughest and most demanding officers in the Corps, whose career dated back to the first Bull Run. In the 1870’s, finding even the life of a Marine insufficiently challenging, he had sought assignment with the cavalry in order to fight Indians on the frontier. Junior officers and enlisted men still remembered the merciless field problems Huntington set as a major, when he pushed skirmishers back and forth all day through terrain alive with chiggers and infested with poison oak.

With somewhat greater foresight than the Army, Navy planners had early realized that getting troops to Cuba to fight the Spaniards would require transports. Consequently, while Huntington’s men were arriving at the Marine barracks in Brooklyn from posts throughout the East, the Navy Yard was working double shifts to convert the S.S. Venezuela, a dingy merchantman, into a suitable expeditionary vessel. Command of this ship, renamed the U.S.S. Panther, was entrusted to another Civil War veteran, Commander G. C. Reiter.