Journal of Midshipman William D. Leahy
On the 16th of February 1898, the ship was moved out of dry dock and we settled down to wait impatiently for coal and for orders to proceed to San Francisco, where we all wanted to go and where most of us seemed to think we had a right to go after months of comparative isolation at Bremerton.
At about this time rumors began to arrive indicating the probability of our being sent to the Atlantic because of the possibility of war with Spain over the Maine disaster and the revolution in Cuba.
None of us except the Chief Engineer, R.W. Milligan believed that there was any possibility of war and all of the Junior officers anyway wanted to go to San Francisco and did not want to go to the Atlantic.
We chafed at delay until March 6th, when orders came to take no more coal and to proceed at once to San Francisco.
Everybody was happy with the prospect of another long visit with our friends in the metropolis of California, and after a stormy three day passage the ship anchored in her old berth off Folsom Street. Somebody suggested the necessity for care to avoid running aground on an accumulation of bottles from the last visit.
We started to adjust ourselves to the usual port routine, but only started, because on March 11th orders came to prepare immediately for a long cruise.
Officers and crew were busy day and night getting on board a full supply of coal, stores, and ammunition, and there was much speculation about our destination. Some thought we would go to Asia, some to the Atlantic, and everybody so far as I know hoped we would stay in San Francisco.
Shortly before sailing, Captain McCormick, who was sick, was relieved by Captain C. E. Clark, and on the 19th of March we sailed out through the Golden Gate with orders to proceed directly to Callao, Peru, where we would receive further directions from the Navy Department.
We steamed steadily southward through beautiful quiet seas at a speed of about eleven knots, the voyage seeming more like a yachting trip than anything else until our supply of fresh food was exhausted, at just about the time we passed into the tropical climate south of the lower end of Lower California.
My double state room then remained generally at temperature of 108 to 110 which made it necessary to sleep out on the deck whenever space could be found.
Sleeping on deck in the tropics is pleasant except for the rain squalls which here seemed to come at least once each night, and except for the necessity of getting up early when the crew washes down decks at 5:30 a.m.
Those of us who were new to the tropics and unaccustomed to excessive heat suffered acutely, and the mess decided that officers detailed to the tropics should be thin ones like Kempff and Magill, because they present less surface to heat.
In the afternoon of March 30th, in accordance with an old sea custom, the ship was hailed through the hawse pipe by a representative of Neptune, Monarch of the Seas, who informed us that his royal master would on the following day pay our ship an official visit, and with his numerous followers initiate any members of the crew who had not before entered the exclusive domains of Neptune.
A custom older than our Navy, the origin of which I do not know, ordains that ships which cross the Equator may be visited by Neptune and his suite, and that all members of the ships company who have not before had the honor of meeting him shall be initiated and enrolled as loyal subjects of the Sea God.
Certificates over the Royal Seal are issued to the new subjects, and as can be seen from this one of mine, their worth justifies the care with which they are treasured by sailor men.
At about 8:30 a.m., March 31st, the Sea King came on board over the bow accompanied by his Queen “Amphitrite” and numerous courtiers. Neptune is a noble looking old sea dog, with long hair and beard which looked very much like rope that had been untwisted.
Amphitrite also had this peculiar hair and as the two walked onto the quarter deck to pay an official visit to the Captain, they made a very distinguished appearance, as indeed should all kings and queens.
After the Captain had asked and received permission to bring his command within the sacred domains, he turned the ship over to the sea king, who immediately struck the deck three times with his great three pronged spear, and ordered his slaves to prepare the initiation platform.
This was at once done and when finished presented a sight that well might make the land lubber tremble.
The platform consisted of a chair placed on the fore and aft bridge, and so hinged that when tripped it would throw its occupant down a slide into a canvas water tank, twenty feet below.
When I arrived on the bridge the chair was attended by a clerk, a doctor, a barber, and his assistant; all of Neptune’s household. The clerk was calling a roll, and as each lubber answered his name, and they all did, willing or unwilling, he was put into the chair and thoroughly covered with a lather which the barber’s assistant had made of flour, molasses, salt water and oil, which he dexterously applied with a large paint brush. When the lather was applied and thoroughly rubbed in, the barber with a three foot wooden razor shaved his victim, after which the doctor administered a pill as large as a pigeons egg and as noxious as possible.
Then, when the poor land lubber was trying to think of what they might next do to him, the chair was tripped and he shot down a slide into a tank guarded by mermaids who held him under water and beat him with pieces of rubber hose until another victim arrived to claim their attention.
It was an amusing sight to see nearly all of our crew thus permitted to join the great following of the sea. As the King’s Steward had neglected to bring any liquid refreshments, the officers were permitted to purchase immunity by paying a large ransom in beer.
Upon the completion of the initiations and after drinking his royal share of the beer, the King came aft to make a speech. At least we were informed that he was going to make a speech of welcome to so goodly a ships company, but as he was accustomed to drinking salt water, the beer got to his head and the promised speech consisted of several repetitions of “I am satisfied”. We were all pleased to hear it, and after he was so informed the King with all his followers wandered forward and disappeared apparently very well satisfied.
I was informed by one of the Ward Room Officers who has travelled much, that we cross the Equator at exactly noon on the thirty-first of March, and that it was the first time he had ever crossed the Equator at exactly noon.
In the southern hemisphere we steamed steadily SE by S at a speed of about eleven knots, sighting land on the 2nd and 3rd of April.
In the afternoon of April 4th we steamed into the open roadstead of Callao, Peru, finding loaded coal lighters waiting for us before we dropped the anchor.
Delivery of coal had been arranged for by the USS Marietta, which was a week ahead of us and already departed for Valparaiso.
We were naturally very anxious for war news and a little surprised to learn that war had not been declared. There were no orders waiting for us, but we immediately started taking coal, working night and day. . . .
. . . On the sixth of April we finished coaling, having taken on an additional deck load of two hundred tons and the next morning in accordance with cabled instructions from Washington, sailed for Rio de Janiero, where further orders would be waiting for us.
After leaving Callao we all knew that the Oregon was wanted on the East Coast to take part in a war that now seemed certain to come, and everybody became interested in making the best speed possible in order to arrive on time. From Callao on the cruise was a race against time.
The weather now turned cool with an almost cold wind from the south and I move back to the stateroom which had been abandoned in the tropics when it reached a uniform temperature of more than 100.
On the 15th of April when nearing the entrance the Magellan’s straits we met a freezing southerly gale that piled up mountainous seas on the path of the ship.
In the evening shortly before it was time for the sun to set, I spent two hours on the bridge watching a storm picture which will remain in memory a long time. On our port bow and perhaps a mile distant rose out of the heaving sea two ink black rocky projections, upon the perpendicular sides of which the great waves broke into snaky spray that was thrown half way to the pinnacles of their pointed tops. The crashing of the seas and the boiling mass of spray, at first held all the observers attention, but seen through the driving mist a mile or so beyond was a still more awesome picture made by a rocky black and threatening shore line upon which stretched as far as one could see a long line of curling white breakers.
Well might all sailors beware of that white line that would crush like an egg shell the staunchest ship afloat.
Our ship was driving head on into the sea at a speed of 13 knots, not riding up on a wave and then sliding down as do smaller vessels, but actually driving through the mass of water. At times I saw fully fifteen feet of blue water rush on the forecastle, break with a crash on the forward turret, and throw white spray nearly the entire length of the ship.
Under the onslaught of these gigantic seas the ship dove, trembled, shook them off, and dove again, while her great engines with rhythmic beat drove ten thousand tons of steel forward at a uniform speed.
We said she smelled the Spanish Fleet.
Just at dark we turned into the sheltered water of the Straits of Magellan and anchored for the night in a cove that was protected from the southerly gale. From this anchorage I saw the Southern Cross apparently directly overhead, and at midnight experienced one of the sudden gales that drive with icy fierceness down the mountain sides and as suddenly disappear.
On this day, the 16th of April, Naval Cadet Giles became very ill with what is diagnosed as tuberculosis. He will be sent to the hospital at the first opportunity and will take with him the regard of all of us as he is a good shipmate and a deserving officer.
In the early morning of April 17th we started through the straits to PuentaArenas, running with assisted draft at 15 knots for ten hours.
Scenery in the Straits of Magellan is magnificent beyond any of that I have seen before. Rocky shores beautifully rise in places like stone walls. Over many of the almost vertical faces run narrow streams of sparkling water that look in the distance like silver bands set in the dark colored rocks. In Many places glaciers come down to the waters edge, glistening in the sunlight and reaching back into the mountains as far as the eye can see.
Passing our most southerly point, Cape Forward, Lat. 53-54 S at about noon, we fired a gun in celebration of the event and continued on our way, which will now bear always to the northward until we reach a home port.
Land on the south side of the Straits is named Tierra del Fuego, and is inhabited by a stunted race of Indians, who until recently, are said to have been cannibals.
These natives are not often seen except when a ship is wrecked in the treacherous channel when they are said to collect by hundreds in answer to signal fires. Not yet having learned the use of fire arms, they are not very dangerous in battle, and wrecked sailors have little difficulty in driving them away so long as the ship holds together.
A few years ago wrecks, brought much wealth to the native inhabitants, and even now one or two ships are lost in the straits each year. Most of the known reefs are in our sailing direction noted “marked by wreck”.
The performance of Magellan in successfully taking his little squadron through the Straits was almost a miracle.
On the north side is Patagonia, where the native inhabitants are far superior to the Fuegians physically, but they are reported to be quite as savage as their stunted relatives across the water.
At Puenta Arenas we were told that some days before our arrival a representative of the Chilian Government who went with two companions into Patagonia did not return when expected, and that a relief expedition found the three men killed about a half mile from where they landed.
The story further told us that the relief party retaliated by destroying the first native settlement it could find.
The wearing apparel of the Patagonian native consists of a robe made from the skin of the Guanaca, a kind of a deer, and long boots which look like horse hide with the hair not removed.
Our arrival at Puenta Arenas just after dark with searchlights playing on the shipping, and all gun crews at battle stations made a really warlike picture. We had heard rumors in Callao that a Spanish torpedo boat, the “Temerario” had been sent to meet us, and while we had no information that a state of war existed, the Captain took every possible precaution against a surprise attack.
We started coaling at once from the hulk anchored in the harbor, and the coal merchant took advantage of our necessity by charging four times the usual price.
On April 18th, the Marietta, which had taken shelter from a storm somewhere in the Straits, steamed in to our anchorage. . .
. . . The weather in April is exactly like our September weather at home, cool, bracing, and refreshing after a trip through the tropics in a steel ship.
We left mail to be sent home when a steamer happened along, and on the twenty-first of April, sailed for Rio de Janiero. Progress was very much retarded by being in company with the Marietta and many expressions of disapproval of that little craft were heard in the junior mess.
In the morning of April 30th, Captain Clark signaled the Marietta to make the best of her way to Rio de Janiero and then we made a forced draft run at 16 knots, passing the forts at the entrance to Rio at about five o’clock in the evening.
Just inside the entrance a little schooner yacht, flying the American [flag] was anchored and as we passed, the officer of the deck hailed it through a megaphone, asking “Is there peace or war in the United States”.
We all stood on tiptoe to get the reply, but none came, and the disappointed crew had to wait until the Harbor Master came on board and told us that war had existed since the 21st of April.
It was a sight to see the sailors show their approval of this news. The Band broke into popular music, the ships quartette sang “America,” the “Star Spangled Banner”, and “The Oregon”, while everybody showed their joy in the noisiest way they could think of.
Nobody was permitted to go on shore because of the prevalence of yellow fever, no water was taken from the bay, even to wash decks, and special precautions were taken to prevent the introduction on board of the dread disease.13
Coal having been provided in advance by the Navy Department, we started taking it on board at once.
Every practicable assistance seemed to be provided by the Brazilian officials and during our entire stay a torpedo boat patrol was maintained about the Oregon by the Brazilian Navy to protect us against attack by the Temerario.
It was here that we received news of the resignation of Assistant Secretary Roosevelt, which every officer in the ship regretted very much. He seems in the opinion of older officers to be an ideal man to guide the activities of the Navy through a war.
He is said to have resigned in order to take some “Rough Riders” to Cuba, but nobody here knows his reasons and everybody appears to be sorry.
Before departing from Rio, the Captain received a dispatch from Washington, telling him that a Spanish fleet, consisting of “four cruisers, heavy and fast, and three torpedo boats, deep sea class” had sailed from the Canaries to the westward, destination unknown, and that we were to avoid them if practicable and make the best of our way to the United States or the west Indies.
The Marietta and the Nicteroy, an old Brazilian auxiliary cruiser, which had been purchased, were to be under the orders of Captain Clark.
On May 4th, the Oregon and Marietta steamed out of Rio harbor and waited outside until the next day when the Nicteroy joined us. We now all expected to be held back to nine knots by our slow consorts for the remainder of the trip, but Captain Clark solved that problem by directing the Marietta and Nicteroy to proceed to Bahia and ask the Navy Department for further orders.
The Captain also decided to go to Bahia with the Oregon to get late news, and in the early morning of May 8th we steamed into that beautiful harbor.
During the day advantage was taken of an opportunity to paint the ship and the beautiful white ship was in a few hours changed to a dull grey “war color” that is supposed to be more difficult to see.
A newspaper came on board containing an account of Commodore Dewey’s wonderful victory at Manila. At first the news was hardly credited, but upon looking up the Spanish vessels we decided that their complete destruction by Dewey’s ships without loss on our side was possible if improbable.
Upon the receipt of this news, Captain Clark had the crew mustered aft, and read his message, received in Rio, about the four cruisers and three torpedo boats that were supposed to be searching for us, adding his own comment to the effect that if we should meet the Spanish fleet he hoped to impair its fighting efficiency.
The news brought forth from the crew cheers for the Captain and for the ship, and a great show of enthusiasm.
For days thereafter about the decks the sailors were heard repeating “Four cruisers, heavy and fast, three torpedo boats, deep sea class”, we could tow a couple of them home with us.
Our sailors think the superiority in number of the Spanish ships is a joke and have the utmost confidence that this ship can defeat the whole collection.
In the evening a reply to our cipher dispatch to Washington was received and at about midnight of May 8th we left Bahia and continued on our way north at thirteen knots.
On this part of the trip we knew there was a danger of an attack by superior force and every precaution was taken to prevent surprise. The ship showed no lights at night and the guns were ready for action at all times.
On one night at about nine o’clock when it was perfectly dark four lights were sighted which might have been the Spanish cruisers, and all preparations were made to go into night action. Whatever the lights were we slipped though without being seen.
After passing Cape Saint Roque we felt that there was less chance of being intercepted.
The weather was very hot during this entire part of our journey and pretty nearly all the officers abandoned their staterooms for the open deck. After a ten days trip we anchored in the harbor of Bridgetown, Barbados, on the seventeenth of May, finding in the harbor two Italian Cruisers.
We were quarantined by the health officials but were permitted to send mail ashore.
Many people came out in boats, to see the ship and while none were permitted to come on board, we talked to them and got such news as they had. They told us that the Spanish Fleet was at Martinique and that two Spanish torpedo boats had been seen off the harbor the day before we entered.
After obtaining a sufficient amount of coal to take us to Key West, the nearest home port, we steamed out after dark in the evening of the 18th of May and with all lights showing headed to the westward.
As soon as land was out of sight, in order to avoid attack by the enemy torpedo boats, all lights were extinguished the course was changed to south, and at full speed the ship passed to the southward and eastward of the Island before again taking her northerly course. After a run of six days in which we kept well to the eastward of the windward islands the ship anchored after dark on the 24th of May off the light at Jupiter Inlet, Florida, U.S.A.
Our first sight of the home country after leaving San Francisco was not very attractive as the only thing visible were a bright white light and the long low Florida coast vanishing in the darkness on either bow.
As soon as the anchor was down a boat in charge of Ensign R. Z. Johnson was sent ashore with official and private despatches. After much difficulty in making a landing and after tramping miles through swamps, the boat party found a telegraph office where it waited until daylight for a reply from Washington.
Ensign Johnson told us that the natives were very hospitable but that they lived too far from civilization to have any news. Immediately upon receipt of despatch orders from Washington, the Captain got underway and proceeded to Key West, arriving at an anchorage about six miles from the town in the early morning of May 26th.
We immediately began taking on coal and stores preparatory to joining the Fleet. Newspaper boats came out as soon as they learned of our arrival and in return for news of the happenings since we left civilization, we gave them a story of our trip, which monotonous and uninteresting as it was to us, seemed to have attracted much attention at home.