Saturday, February 15, 2014
On February 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba -- killing most of its approximately 350 crew.
The USS Maine was one of several new battleships and other warships built by the United States Navy after 1884 to modernize the fleet. The Maine was launched on November 18, 1889, and commissioned on September 17, 1895. She was part of the North Atlantic Squadron for nearly all of her career.
On January 24, 1898, the Maine was sent from Key West, Florida, to Havana, Cuba, to protect American citizens and interests during the Cuban War of Independence. She arrived the following day.
At 9:40 p.m. local time on February 15, an explosion on board Maine destroyed and sank the ship. More than five tons of powder charges in the ship's ammunitions magazine detonated, instantly destroying about 100 feet (or one-third) of the bow of the ship. The keel twisted, the sides exploded outward, and the upper deck flew into the air, went upside down, and landed on the central third of the vessel. The central third of the ship remained somewhat more intact, but was severely damaged and lacked structural integrity. The last third of the ship at the stern remained completely intact. The burning Maine rapidly sank. Most of the Maine's crew (none of them officers) were sleeping or resting in the enlisted quarters in the forward part of the ship. Eight others died later from their injuries. Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee and all but two of the officers survived (as they were in the rear of the ship).
Official figures for crew and dead are difficult to determine, and even government sources disagree. The majority of sources say the ship carried 354 crew. But crew numbers cited by sources vary from as low as 327 to as high as 375. The number of dead is also difficult to determine. Most sources claim 266, although figures go as low as 252 and others as high as 274. The number of dead is complicated by the fact that several members of the crew died after the initial explosion. But even these figures vary. Some sources say just 6 later died of their injuries, while others claim 8 did so.
On March 19, a U.S. Navy board of inquiry lead by Captain William T. Sampson concluded that Maine was destroyed by the explosion of its ammunition magazines. But the board of inquiry was unable to determine what set off the ammunition. Nonetheless, the press and most members of Congress concluded that the Maine struck a naval mine laid by the Spanish (the colonial rules of Cuba). Resolutions declaring war on Spain were introduced in Congress on March 28 and passed on April 20, initiating the Spanish-American War.
Subsequent investigations have suggested that the cause of the explosion was the ignition of coal dust in the fuel bunker or a fire in the coal bunker, although some studies still conclude that the cause was a mine.
Many of the dead simply disintegrated in the blast. Bodies, partial bodies, and minor remains (hands, feet, portions of limbs, etc.) were found in the water. Bodies and remains continued to wash ashore for the next two weeks. All told, authorities believed they recovered the remains of 166 different bodies, which were placed in 147 graves in Colon Cemetery in Havana. Almost none were identifiable. A few bodies were transported to and interred in Key West. It's not clear how many bodies are there; perhaps as few as 19, and as many as 27.
The shallow harbor meant that some of the superstructure of the USS Main remained above the waterline for the next two decades.
In 1899, with the Spanish-American War at an end, the bodies at Colon Cemetery were retrieved and reburied in a field at Arlington National Cemetery. President McKinley, the entire Cabinet, the entire Supreme Court, and nearly all members of Congress attended the reburial.
A temporary memorial to the Maine dead was constructed in the first six months of 1900. Two Spanish mortars — taken by Admiral George Dewey from Cavite Arsenal in Manila, The Philippines, at the end of the Spanish-American War — were placed on brick piers on either side of a concrete base. In the center of the concrete pad was an anchor. The anchor was manufactured specifically for the site. The two-ton anchor was hand-welded using rough iron to give it a unique look. A slightly worm-eaten wooden crossbar was inserted into the top of the anchor. The crossbar was painted black to protect it, and a brass tablet was riveted to the crossbar.
In 1910, Congress authorized funds to raise the Maine, retrieve the bodies on the ship, and sink the hulk at sea. It took three years to build a caisson around the Maine, remove the water, and retrieve the bodies. On March 16, 1913, the tugboat USS Osceola towed what remained of the USS Maine three miles out to sea, where her seacocks were opened and she sank. (Tons of additional debris had been removed and sunk at sea during the previous three years.)
On March 20, 1912, the last of the USS Maine's dead were buried in the field at Arlington before President William Howard Taft, the Cabinet, and Congress. Estimates of the number of dead in the burial field around the monument include 229, 230, and 232.
On May 30, 1915, the USS Maine Mast Memorial was dedicated at Arlington. It was designed by local architect Nathan C. Wyeth, who designed the Russell Senate Office Building in 1903 and the West Wing of the White House in 1909. The round structure was designed to look like a ship's gun turret. The main mast of the shiip projects from the top of the memorial, while the exterior is adorned with the names of the dead. The ship's bell, which was found in the mud of Havana Harbor on July 22, 1911, was placed on the door of the memorial. (It had been split in half by the explosion.)
In 1962, a terrace was constructed for the anchor and mortars. The terrace is paved with bluestone flagstones, which also replaced the concrete pad on which the anchor rested.
The USS Maine Mast Memorial underwent a partial restoration in 2010, and a complete restoration in 2013.
I have a bunch of pictures of the USS Maine Mast Memorial here.