- Historic Sites
The Second Sinking Of The ‘Maine’
Giving the men who died aboard America’s first battleship a decent funeral took fourteen years, three-quarters of a million dollars, and some hair-raising engineering. But in the end, they did it right.
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
In February 1912 the commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet ordered two of his proudest battleships, the North Carolina and the Birmingham , to steam to Havana so that “a suitable force of men under arms” could transfer the bones retrieved from the wreckage. The two vessels would then escort the Maine to her resting place amid twenty-one-gun salutes and white-uniformed splendor.
The Navy meticulously orchestrated the event. It was important that the Maine perform well, but there was no guarantee she would sink gracefully. She might capsize, air pockets could make her wallow and refuse to go down, and it all would be recorded in photographs and moving pictures. As a precaution the Army wired the hull with dynamite so that if the ship needed to be blown up again, the job would not have to be done with American guns.
The dynamite was unnecessary. The uneventful trip from the harbor to international waters took two hours. At five o’clock a gun on board the North Carolina signaled the opening of the Maine’s sea valves, and a military band began playing a funeral march. Her deck covered with flowers and her jury mast flying a huge American flag, the Maine began to ship water. For ten minutes the hull pitched heavily on the rolling seas, with no apparent change. Gradually, the forward end began to dip; the stern rose until the ship was almost vertical. There was a flash of spray and color as the American flag slid under the surface, snapping briskly until it hit the water. ‘The Maine then quickly disappeared to her last rest,” said a witness, “leaving no trace, save flowers on the surface of the sea.”
The escorting battleships fired three volleys from their big guns; a lone bugler played taps. The radiogram from the captain of the North Carolina to the Secretary of the Navy read simply: “MAINE sank 5:23 P.M. Whole function successful and impressive.” And in his final report the captain specified that the ship went down “forward end first,” while onshore a “wonderful crowd” of about one hundred thousand people stood silently along the waterfront and on balconies and housetops.
The elaborate funeral in the Florida Straits was followed by an even grander one in Washington, D.C., on March 23, 1912. Thousands turned out in the bitter March rain to stand bareheaded as a procession of thirty-four horse-drawn caissons moved past and headed into Arlington National Cemetery. There President Taft read the eulogy paying a nation’s belated tribute. The lost crew of the Maine was no longer a side-show attraction in alien waters.
In the 1970s engineers found that the ship had been killed by spontaneous combustion in a coal bunker.
But had the men whom Taft called “martyred defenders” of the Republic indeed been the victims of an enemy attack? Questions about the cause of the explosion that had killed them lingered on for three-quarters of a century, until in the 1970s Adm. Hyman Rickover stepped in. Rickover enlisted a team of engineers who conducted a thorough scientific investigation of the cause of the Maine’s explosion. The group had access to the Navy’s 1898 and 1911 investigations, as well as the benefit of modern knowledge of marine explosions and, of course, Captain Ferguson’s detailed photographs. Rickover’s study disproved the Navy’s earlier findings; in all probability the explosion that destroyed the Maine had come from deep inside the ship.
All the evidence indicated that combustible fumes in one of the coal bunkers spontaneously ignited, setting off a chain of explosions in adjacent magazines that sent the Maine to the bottom. It was not an enemy’s “infernal machine” but an unlucky and probably avoidable mishap that propelled America’s foreign policy into the twentieth century.