Journal of Midshipman William D. Leahy
[Key West, Florida, 26-28 May 1898]1
My one visit ashore, made in a “World Herald” tug provided the first picture that looked like real war.2
The inner harbor contained many prizes taken by Sampson’s Fleet, the docks were occupied by business like looking little torpedo boats, and the streets of the town were thoroughly patrolled by armed Marines. At the Key West Hotel where I dined there was a great gathering of officers and newspaper correspondents and a great exchange of news, stories, and gossip.
Naval Cadet D. F. Boyd, who had taken Ensign Breckenridge’s place on board the “Cushing”, showed me about the torpedo fleet, where I saw the “Winslow” repairing damage suffered in the battle at Cardenas, where Ensign Bagley was killed.3 He also told me of his experience on the “Maine”.4
At about 9:00 p.m., after the crew of the Maine had turned in, and nearly all the officers had gone below, and while he and Merritt5 were sitting in the “steerage”, reading, the lights were suddenly extinguished and the ship was rocked by a violent explosion.
Loose articles flew about the compartment, some of them striking Boyd, who thinks Merritt was hurt, as he said nothing. They started together in darkness for the door, but as soon as they reached the steerage country a rush of water tore them apart and Merritt was never seen again.
Boyd crawled through the rushing water to where a ladder should have been, only to find it missing, and water came in so rapidly that he was soon swimming with his head striking the deck beams. He is an expert swimmer, but was almost exhausted when a light, which he thinks was a fire on the deck, showed him the hatchway.
Struggling through twisted wreckage, he gained the deck and swam off to a partly filled boat.
Others have told me that with his partly wrecked boat, Boyd picked up several people who would have drowned without his assistance.
G. W. Webber,6 another classmate related a story of being sent from the Fleet to Key West with a prize, of being retained there by the Commodore,7 who made him work in an office day and night, of having only the clothing which he wore, of having no money whatever, the while he occupied miserable quarters at the hotel at a rate of four dollars a day.
Stories coming from every part of the world made my visit too short and the time to return on board came quickly.
The first mail received by the Oregon in three months arrived in Key West. Most of it was old and had little news, except that our friends had been anxious about us during the voyage. My own people at home were in good health and had not been alarmed about my prospects, which was the most important news to me.
Having taken on a full load of coal, the Oregon in company with the New York,8 sailed on May 29th, fell in with some other vessels the same evening, and on 30 May proceeded to the vicinity of Santiago de Cuba, where the Spanish Fleet, commanded by Admiral Cervera9 had been located.
Source Note: TD, DLC-MSS, Papers of William D. Leahy.
Footnote 1: Leahy’s ship, the battleship Oregon, arrived at Key West Navy Base on 26 May and departed e on 29 May. See: Journal of Midshipman William D. Leahy, 16 February 1898; Sternlicht, McKinley’s Bulldog: The Battleship Oregon, 76.
Footnote 2: The New York World leased the tug Triton to serve as its dispatch boat while the New York Herald leased a different tug, Albert F. Dewey, to carry its dispatches. The Story of Our Wonderful Victories Told by Dewey, Schley, Wheeler, and Other Heroes (Philadelphia: American Book and Bible House, 1899), 276; Marine Review, vol. 19, no. 13 (March 39, 1899), 21-22.
Footnote 3: That is, Cadet David F. Boyd Jr., Ens. Joseph C. Breckenridge, and Ens. Worth Bagley. Bagley was killed in action of Cardenas on 11 May 1898. See: John B. Bernadou to John D. Long, 16 May 1898.
Footnote 4: For more on the destruction of the Maine, see: The Destruction of the Maine.
Footnote 5: Asst. Eng. Darwin R. Merritt.
Footnote 6: Cadet George Webber.
Footnote 7: Commo. George C. Remey, Commandant, Key West Naval Base.
Footnote 8: New York was the flagship of RAdm. William T. Sampson, commander, North Atlantic Fleet.
Footnote 9: RAdm. Pascual Cervera y Topete.