How We Got Guantanamo

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At length all was ready. The Spanish minister had been handed his passports on April 20; two days later, Huntington’s battalion paraded behind a band through Brooklyn’s cheering crowds and embarked on the Panther, the first American troops to leave for the war. In her holds was a carefully selected assortment of campaign equipment, reported by the quartermaster to include:”… mosquito netting, woolen and linen clothing, heavy and light weight underwear, three months’ supply of provisions, wheelbarrows, push carts, pickaxes, shovels, barbed-wire cutters, wall and shelter tents, and a full supply of medical stores …” Whereas Army troops, slowly mobilizing for Cuba, were issued long Krags and black-powder Springfields, the rifle the Marines carried was the Navy’s Lee. It was a thoroughly modern weapon which used smokeless powder; if its caliber, 6 mm. or .236 inches, was dainty, its velocity was high. “Campaign suits of brown linen”—the very first in the armed forces—were the Marines’ uniform (”comfortable, businesslike,” announced the quartermaster), while “felt campaign hats,” these an Army innovation, were on order.

But Cuba was not the first stop: all through May the Marines lay in Key West, sweating aboard ship for four weeks, then taking field training ashore under Huntington’s eye. Reports told them of Dewey’s victory at Manila; of the gallant action off Cienfuegos, when Navy launches grappled and cut some of the cables under fire from Spanish batteries; of the U.S.S. St. Louis ’s failure to cut Guantanamo’s cables on May 19; of the Oregon ’s dash from the Pacific around the Horn to join the war. And still the Marines stayed at Key West, and still they trained.

“Excellent Sir,” began General Pareja’s letter to his commander at Santiago:

The 7th day at dawn brought seven ships before the port of Caimanera. They fired grapeshot and all kinds of projectiles on the Playa del Este and Cayo Toro until they set fire to the fort on Playa del Este, and burning the house of the pilots … The American squadron in possession of the outer bay has taken it as if for a harbor of rest, they being anchored as if in one of their own ports …

Although the unhappy General’s count of ships was inaccurate (there were but three, the U.S.S. Marblehead and the Yankee, and the auxiliary cruiser St. Louis), the U.S. Navy had indeed arrived at Guantanamo Bay on June 7, chasing the Spanish gunboat Sandoval, which had only seven rounds of ammunition left, to shelter behind the mine fields in the upper bay. The commander of the naval force was the captain of the Marblehead, Bowman H. McCalla, a stern, walrus-mustached “sundowner”* of the old Navy and central figure in the “Old Blood-Tub” courts-martial which had followed the desertion of a third of his crew during a single cruise in 1889.

As soon as McCalla’s ships were seen to have disposed of the forts and the unfortunate Sandoval, two Cuban guerrilla officers made their way out to the Marblehead to announce that they held the western side of the bay. These officers brought word from General Calixto Garcia, of “A Message to Garcia” fame, that his forces were at the disposal of the Americans, and prayed for them to land.

On the same day that Commander McCalla anchored in Guantanamo Bay “as if for a harbor of rest,” the Marines at Key West received telegraphic orders to break camp and re-embark. Late at night two days later, on June 9, the Panther hove to off Santiago, where it received Admiral Sampson’s orders to proceed to Guantanamo Bay and land Marines immediately. To screen the landing and protect the proposed position on Fisherman’s Point, a group of forty Marines from the battleship Oregon and twenty from McCalla’s Marblehead, commanded by Captain M. C. Goodrell, would act as a covering force while Huntington disembarked his battalion from the Panther. Early on the bright morning of June 10, these sixty Marines landed on a bit of beach, Playa del Este, just south of Fisherman’s Point, which defines the eastern side of the entrance to Guantanamo Bay. A bluejacket diarist, Seaman Cross of the Oregon, captured the moment:

June 10. we went down to Guantanamo Bay to put some coal on and landed Marines in the Morning, we wer the first to put foot on Cuban soil in this war. The 9th the Marblehead and Dolphin Bombarded the place and made them look like Munkys; they ran away and left every thing behind them.