How We Got Guantanamo

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That afternoon under the guns of the Oregon, the Marblehead, and the monitor Yosemite (like many officers present, also a Civil War veteran), Huntington’s Marine battalion landed in cutters towed by the steam launches from the ships. Tents were put up on what appeared to be the most appropriate site: the slopes of the hill overlooking the bay, atop which Pareja’s blockhouse had stood. As a supposed precaution against yellow fever, the Marines set fire to a handful of adjacent shacks. All the while ships’ bands played ragtime, and sweating Marines unloaded the gear and manhandled it ashore. The first United States troops to invade Cuba were on the beach in good order. Not a shot had been fired. “There was an enthusiastic demonstration,” said a contemporary account, “as the Stars and Stripes were raised over the first American camp on Cuban soil.” To record the event, the Marines even had a combat correspondent, none other than Stephen Crane, author of The Red Badge of Courage, now representing the New York Herald. Despite the realism of his famous war novel, Crane had yet to receive his baptism of fire.

Save for the usual starts and alarms of a first night ashore, the battalion was unmolested, and next day continued work on the camp. Progress was excellent, according to Seaman Cross: “they expect to have the cable work soon and the Harbor well under Hand … the latest report is that the Cubans are flocking in to Huntington’s camp.”

True enough, Colonel Huntington’s first visitor that afternoon was a guerrilla leader, Laborde, styling himself colonel in the Army of Cuba. Laborde, who had helped McCalla with pilotage, brought news of the Spaniards. Several hundred, he reported, were concentrated at Cuzco Hill, near which was a well, the only one in the region, some two miles southeast of the Marine camp.

Laborde might have saved his breath. While he and Huntington were conferring, the Spaniards announced themselves. In a swift ambush, they poured a volley at close range into a two-man outpost in the thickets, killing both sentinels, whose bodies bore more than eight wounds. Two Marine privates, William Dumphy and Charles McColgan, thereby became the first American soldiers to die in Cuba. The attackers melted away, and all the pursuing patrols found were tracks and spent cartridge cases from the Spaniards’ Mausers.

Soon after sundown, snipers fired into the camp, where the Marines lay on their arms. Four times thereafter, each time from a different direction, the enemy Mausers cracked, while the Marines replied with their Lees. “It needs little practice,” noted Stephen Crane in his detached way, “to tell the difference in sound between the Lee and the Mauser. The Lee says ‘Prut!’ … The Mauser says ‘Pop!’—plainly and frankly pop, like a soda-water bottle being opened close to the ear …”

After midnight the Spaniards formed for a night attack. Firing intensified from the ridges and ravines to the south and southeast. Manning battle stations, Marines answered with all their weapons, while the five-inch rapid-fire guns of the Marblehead hammered the mountain ridge a half-mile behind the camp. Roused by the din, Crane hugged the ground with”… a thousand rifles rattling; with the field guns booming in your ears; with the diabolic Colt automatic clacking; with the roar of the Marblehead coming from the bay, and, last, with Mauser bullets sneering always in the air a few inches over one’s head.”

Whatever their original intentions, the Spaniards found this burst of fire enough to dissuade them from closing with the Marines, and, as day approached, the fire slackened and died. For all the sound and fury, there were but six American casualties: two Marines dead, three others wounded; and the assistant surgeon, Dr. John B. Gibbs of the Navy, fatally shot through a lung. “He was dying hard,” said Crane. “Hard. He was long past groaning. There was only the bitter strife for air which pulsed out into the night in a clear, penetrating whistle with intervals of terrible silence in which I held my own breath in the common unconscious aspiration to help…”

On the two succeeding nights it was the same. Again, in Huntington’s words, the same “persistent and trifling attacks” out of the rocky, cactus-lined gullies, murdering sleep and burning up ammunition.

These attacks on the camp proved its location to be greatly exposed to enemy approaches through the thick brush. Consequently Huntington moved the camp toward lower ground, and the hill was made the main defensive position. But there was another problem: Commander Reiter, out in the bay aboard the Panther, found that his ship rode poorly after the Marines’ equipment was unloaded. Thereupon he had the reserves of rifle ammunition judiciously distributed below as ballast, a measure which greatly increased his comfort. When Colonel Huntington sent for more ammunition, word came back that it was needed for ballast, and besides, if the Marines wanted any of their gear, they had better send working parties back to the ship to unload it. When Commander McCalla heard what Reiter had done, he sent off a sizzling order calculated to endear him to any Marine: