- Historic Sites
How We Got Guantanamo
The Cuban situation was confused, but the Marines were ready. They landed, and our first overseas base was soon well in hand
February 1962 | Volume 13, Issue 2
Sir: Break out immediately and land with the crew of the Panther 50,000 rounds of 6mm ammunition.
In future do not require Colonel Huntington to break out or land his stores or ammunition with members of his command.
Use your own officers and crew for this purpose and supply the commanding officer of Marines promptly with anything he may require.
Very soon afterward, Colonel Huntington named his new outpost Camp McCalla. Nothing was named for Reiter.
Manifestly, if Guantanamo Bay were to become a true “harbor of rest,” there would have to be a showdown with the Spaniards at Cuzco. To drive them out and destroy their well became the day’s business soon after reveille on June 14. With fifty Cuban scouts under Lieutenant Colonel Tomas to guide and flank the advance, Companies C and D of the Marine battalion were to move south, skirting the base of the hills, then east along the coral cliffs facing the Caribbean until Cuzco came in sight. While the two companies, led by Captain G. F. Elliott, followed their circuitous approach, a platoon under Lieutenant Louis J. Magill would strike out southward, across the mountains, so as to hit the Spaniards from inland and be in position to cut their line of retreat. From the seaward side the gunboat Dolphin would steam out of the bay and lie off Cuzco’s open-ended valley, prepared to support the Marines once battle was joined.
An hour before noon the trap was set. Elliott’s column worked its way into position, and Magill was virtually across the mountains. Then, with one gaunt, razor-backed ridge still remaining between the Marines and Cuzco Valley, a Spanish outpost caught sight of the attackers. Men of both sides raced pell-mell through the thorn bushes and cactus to reach the top of the ridge. With the fifty-two-year-old Elliott in the lead, a platoon of Marines got there first, flung themselves out along the crest, and commenced firing down into the Spaniards.
Down in the valley, from the cover of thickets of sea-grape trees, the Spaniards fired back as best they could. Then Magill’s platoon toiled up, caution forgotten, winded but full of fight. From the crest of another dominating ridge on Elliott’s left, at the very inland end of the horseshoe-shaped valley, Magill joined the battle. At this moment, the Dolphin’s guns, pointing straight across Elliott’s front and into Magill’s line, began to shell the green clusters of sea grape, and four-inch “overs” whistled up among Magill’s Marines with a crack and a clump that drove them to ground.
To check the deadly naval gunfire, there was only one expedient. Choosing a spot on the crest line, where every Spanish rifleman could see him, but also where the Dolphin ’s gun-pointers could not mistake the signal, Sergeant John H. Quick improvised a semaphore flag out of a stick and a large bandanna, stood very straight—he was a tall, slim man—and commenced signaling the gunboat in Navy wigwag. Under a hail of rifle fire from less than two hundred yards away and with the Dolphin ’s shell fragments whistling about him, Quick completed his message, punctiliously got it receipted for by the Navy signalman on the opposite end, and dropped to the ground unscratched, not knowing that he had just won a Medal of Honor. “I watched his face,” Crane afterward wrote,
and it was as grave and serene as a man writing in his own library … I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion. As he swung his clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it once caught on a cactus pillar, and he looked over his shoulder to see what had it. He gave the flag an impatient jerk. He looked annoyed.
Caught in the cross fire from the Marines and flayed by the gunboat’s corrected shelling, the Spaniards began to give way, exposing themselves as they broke cover from among the sea grapes. At each open patch in the brush their dirty white uniforms, ill-suited for field service in Oriente, showed up as targets for the Marine riflemen, who, in Captain Elliott’s words, “fired as coolly as at target practice.” To harry the retreating enemy, Elliott sent on Tomas’ guerrillas, who darted forward to complete the disorganization while the Marines mopped up Cuzco Valley, filled in the well, burned the Spanish comandancia, and took over a heliograph with which the Cuzco detachment had been reporting doings at Guantanamo Bay to General Pareja. One officer and seventeen Spanish enlisted men, some wounded, were captured; sixty more Spaniards were killed; and 150 others were reportedly wounded—all this at the cost of two Cubans killed and three Marines and two Cubans wounded (one the victim of an unintended discharge of Colonel Laborde’s pistol at the height of battle). Heat stroke felled many more Americans than Spanish Mausers did.