Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Assistant Engineer Joseph M. Reeves to His Mother, Frances B. Reeves

U.S.S. OREGON     

Off Santiago de Cuba   

July 7, 1898.     

Dear Mother:-

     Time has been short and the need for sleep greater than usual since the third of July or I would have given you the story of that day before this. Now I will try to give you a longer one to make up for the delay. Also every thing I will write will be as accurate as my eyes could see or as accurate as I have been able to learn. The call for Sunday quarters had just sounded and I had laid aside a letter I was writing to Eleanor1 and buckled on my sword when the alarm for general quarters sounded. This was something unusual in the day time, and everyone stopped for a moment in surprise: the next moment every one knew as surely as if he had seen with his own eyes - the Spanish fleet was coming out. There was an eagerness and a business air that had not marked out previous preparations for the several bombardments and which stirred ones blook [i.e. blood] to feel. Here at last was the one chance we had been wishing for so long here was the OREGON to try her true strength her speed and her gun power. What she showed herself to be the world will hesitate to believe for in twenty minutes she blew more dust on the Dagoes than the battles of the last century had yet dreamed about. An officer from the Texas says it was a magnificent sight to see the OREGON go into action. She picked up her head and snorted and then she went in with a dash and a thunder and a roar belching fire and smoke, and in two minutes there was nothing to be seen but belching clouds of smoke, a dark hulk, and a stream of foam. I never dreamed of such a terrific canonnade as the first few minutes of that scrap, and the beauty of it was there was a scrap on the other side and the best man was to lick. The rapid fire guns of the Spanish fleet were going fast enough but, great guns they were going screatch, shriek over head. The result of ours we have since learned was too terrible to relate. The Almirante and the Vizcaya2 are simply torn and ripped to pieces: The Vizcaya the OREGON destroyed almost alone and she did it most mercilessly. A 13” shell tore through her bows, she turned and ran for the beach and then 13”, 8”, 6”, and 6pdr tore her from stem to stern. She was afire in a dozen places a guns crew could not stand up at her guns, three of her magazines blew up, a torpedo exploded in the tube, she was afire forward and aft: her loss of life must have been frightful, and the OREGON never once stopped nor turned she kept straight on for there was another ahead and there were others of our fleet behind. I send you an extract from the ship’s log of that date which is correct in regard to the general details.3 The ORGEON will be accused of trying to take others glory, but there are others trying to take the glory from her, and it was surely the OREGON’S day, you may read some things of the truth in the papers, but what I write are facts and details unpainted and plain.

     I lost no time getting below when the alarm was sounded for I knew full well the day would call for the best the engineers of the fastest battleship in our Navy could put forth. I found the men pouring below full of strength and confidence, knowing as well as I where the most important part of the battle was to be fought. The world famed flying fleet of Spain was coming but, not to fight, but to escape, and the OREGON was to overhaul them. In three minutes after the first alarm sounded gun #17, our S, for’d 6 pdr.4 on the bridge opened fire. She was ordered to fire “Immediately” by Capt. Clark5 to attract the attention of the fleet,” Fighting Bob6 claims the honor of firing the first gun as well as many other things that he does not deserve. Our signal quartermaster Johnson7 reported the fleet was coming out five minutes before and was laughed at around the deck. He saw the smoke moving along behind the hills of the harbor. Presently the block bows of the Maria Theresa8 appeared above the turn in the harbor and before she had gotten clear our 6 pdr. splashed in the water a few yards ahead of her bows 4800 yards the sight was set.9

I have made a sketch of the relative positions of our fleet. I am not sure of the order in which the Spanish fleet came out. We did not steam in immediately at full speed but took note of the difection in which the enemy was going to turn. There were several signals, “slow ahead”, and “half speed” before the final signal I knew was coming - “full speed”. My first thought when I went below was speed. In preparation I ordered the oiler to increase the oil feed on all the journals to a stream and the machinist to run the cut off blocks down to full steam opening. Steam was only 140 lbs., I called Lyon’s10 attention to it and he went out to prod it up. (His station is in the fire rooms) In a few minutes came the signal which meant so much “full speed ahead” I opened the P.11 main throttle wide and ran through the fire rooms to see if the blowers were on. They were not and I could not find Lyon. I ran back - it was not time to walk - and I met Jenson12 also on the run for the fire rooms. Together we went to Offly13 and told him the blowers were not on (we could not find the Chief)14 and we also told him we were going to start them. Jenson and I went out and started all the fire room blowers and put on forced draft. I mentioned this because it is a fact and what I consider an important one. 1st it was not the duty of Jenson nor myself to start the blowers, it was Lyon’s sole duty, 2nd, They should have been started before, or at least turning over slowly, 3rd, No order was ever received from deck to put on forced draft although they knew we were chasing 20 knot cruisers. With the blowers on, steam came up and I opened the Port auxiliary throttle, everything on the P engine and she was tearing away at her topmost speed, while I noticed the S. engine was dropping away behind. I went over and found Offley’s throttle half open. I told him I had everything wide open on the P. engine: Oh all right he said. Again I came around to the S. side and asked him why he did not open his throttle. He gave me some short answer and I spoke to the Chief who was there, Ah the Chief did not know they wanted to run “full power”. I pointed to the engine room telegraph. “There is your signal Sir, and in action I consider that means only one thing. The Port main engine is wide open.” He told Offley to telephone up to the bridge and ask them. A few minutes later I came around and asked Offley what they said - they wanted to make all the speed they could. We were chasing the Dagos. I lost my temper and cussed straight at Mr. O. and asked him what he meant. Oh they are a twenty knot ship and we are only 15”, he said. I wanted to tie him up in a knot in throw him and a store room. Instead I said he was pretty tired and he mustn’t play out, he had better go on deck and get some fresh air and I would look out for a while. He was rattled and nearly exhausted and he went on deck while I fixed things. I opened his throttle and ran his cut off blocks down and had her going before he got back. I tell you this because it is another fact and because it and the blowers together cost us in my opinion at least a mile at the start.

     Now I will tell you what I have been able to find out about the scrap on deck and what I saw of it myself, for we ran up for short minutes during the chase.

     The torpedo boats were the first to fall. They followed the fleet out and there was a regular hail of shot and shell around them. The Capt. of one of them said he never once thought of trying to fire his torpedoes, the rain of shot was so thick. One of our 6” shells struck one of them and when it cleared away the old torpedo boat was a sinking wreck. The other torpedo boat went ashore about four miles west of the entrance to the harbor.15 About a mile farther west the Maria Theresa went ashore. The Spanish fleet hugged the coast and as the OREGON was about abrest of them they in turn steamed in on the beach as our log says. The first two, the Maria Theresa and the Almirante Oquendo, were under fire from our whole fleet. OREGON, IOWA, Texas, and BROOKLYN and the Almirante Oquendo was pretty badly knocked out. On deck they say we went by the IOWA as if she had been at anchor. We were in the lead when the first two went on the beach and we were still in the lead when the last went on. You may ask why the Spanish fleet was not headed off by some of our fleet to the westward, you will have to ask some one besides me. We never slackened our speed when the first of the fleet went under but left them smoking wrecks on the beach. Away on our Starboard bow were two black ships that looked like hunted rats, and one of them was to meet a fate worse than the Almirante Oquendo. I have no idea how long the Vizcaya ran before she gave up the sponge, but she made a good run for it. I saw her when she turned in to steam for the beach. I came on deck a few minutes later and saw her on the beach smoking from stem to stern, I saw the terrible explosion that went up from her, and I saw the Texas, the nearest of our fleet at least three miles astern. The BROOKLYN was on our port beam and we had her fire banked, we were alongside of her between her and the Vizcaya. This was noticed from the Texas and they thought we were passing the BROOKLYN as we were and they were glad of it although they could not understand it. The OREGON’S path was still straight on after the Colon,16 the only one of the lot left, but she was putting up a game run and things did not look too sure. Away ahead in the dim distance was a spot we looked forward to with hope. She as I have said kept close inshore, the OREGON was a little outside of her and the BROOKLYN away out. This point of land for that is what we were watching was to be the doom of the Colon, she would been caught any way but this made it more certain. One of our fire room blowers melted the white metal in its brasses but it was started again without any white metal.17 About 12:30 Jenson and I went on deck, for some time we had been gaining very slowly the point of land was coming nearer, Jenson and I thought we had better go back in the fire rooms. Steam was only 110 lbs. Jenson took the two forward boilers and I took the two after ones. Lyon was on deck. In 15 minutes steam was 140 lbs. I went back in the engine room to send for a man and Offley said: My but we are spieling. I did not stop to explain why we were spieling. Jenson and I both worked the fires like firemen, we had had experience before. Our vessel and the BROOKLYN both opened fire, we knew the end was coming. Presently there was tremendous shouting on deck, and the order came out to stop the blowers, the fight was ended, then there was shouting below.  The OREGON got orders first to go back with the BROOKLYN to look up Carlos V18 which the Resolute had come up and reported. We were to go forced draft and the Chief gave orders to double up the watches. By the natural order of things Jenson would be on with Lyon so he asked me to see if I would not arrange it so we could be on together. I would come off at four after being on from 9:30 that morning but I went up and told the Chief that I would stay on the 4-8 so Jenson and I could stand together. He said the forced draft would be about over after that watch. I told him so much the more reason why I wanted to go on. So on we went. It was while we were on the 4-8 that I was selected for the Chief Engineer of the prize crew, and got Jenson along too. The N.Y.19 changed our orders and told us not to go east but to take charge of our prize. Jenson and I simply ran up from the engine room, black as you ever saw a nigger and jumped in the boat. Well over we went anyway along with officers in clean white and one by one we clambered up the side of our Spanish prize. On her quarter deck was a sight. Some of the officers and men had been removed but there were a lot still left. Officers in their frock coats with their trunks packed ready to move: the crew under no control looting their own ship. Outside the vessel was pretty clean but inside she was a sight. She was foul with filth made worse of course by things being strewn around. Jenson and I went forward. On her forecastle were her wounded. Now I have seen something of the horrors of war. One poor fellow with his legs broken in two different places. Another with his face an awful sight blown full of powder apparently from a premature explosion and his whole chest and arms, but his face, it was terrible. On the forecastle was one dead man that we had to bury. In another place was a mattress simply soaked full of blood. There were only 15 or 18 wounded altogether and on the other ships hundreds killed and wounded. They say tonight that the captain of the Almirante Oquendo when he turned and ran his ship on the beach gave the order “Starboard your helm” then drew his revolver and shot himself.20 Having found candles Jenson and I with two machinists started for the engine room. Here everything was flooded. Wading ankle deep through water on the upper gratings we went through an upper passage that lead to the fire rooms. On the upper gratings here were several oil lamps. Taking one I started down the ladder but my second step plunged me into cold water - her fire rooms were also flooded. There was nothing for it but to shut Water Tight doors. Before we got out of this narrow passage the water was pouring into it from the S. engine room. You must remember the dynamos were shut down and every thing was dark below. We were knee deep in water before we got out. Next we turned our attention to the W.T. doors over the E.R. and F.R. compts.21 We closed every w.t. hatch we could find and from drawings I brought back I think we found them all. We worked at this for two or three hours and all the time I was suffering from thirst. Late in the evening Yarnel22 brought over some things for Jenson and me to eat. We ate it in the admiral’s cabin, where we found some water. Things began to look blue for the ship, she was settling fast and heeling to Starboard. As she sank aft she lifted for’d and after one or two shocks that shook her from stem to stern she floated clear. The S. anchor was let go she drifted around till her P. quarter struck with her bows to seaward. With her P. quarter aground she began to fill and heel to Starboard more dangerously. An 8” shot had struck and gone clear through her aft near the water line and the opening on the S. side was now taking water in torrents. We told Cogswell23 (J and I) the ship would certainly turn over if this was not plugged up. He would do nothing so we tried but it was too late, the water took mattresses and pillows and hammocks through. The muzzles of the 6” guns on the S side were under water and the 6” gun ports all leaked. This would flood the gun deck and our work on the W.T. hatches below was for nothing. The result was a matter of time. Jenson and I went up on the quarter deck sat down on a hatch and talked the matter over. Our skins were whole but would we float. Here was a $3,000,000 ship going down under our feet but that was not the most disturbing part. It was dark, late in the evening all our vessels from half a mile to a mile out to sea, and we with no means of signaling. Between us and the beach was a long stretch of bad water and breakers rolling in on rocks at the end. Already it was difficult to stand on the deck of the ship. As we sat there and looked up at the high black hills of the Cuban coast we wondered if this was to be the end of our glorious day. For some time we both sat silent while others shouted about the deck. I don’t know what Jenson thought, but I know he wasn’t afraid. As for me my thoughts were not on the ship, I didn’t see the ship, nor the water, nor the foam lined rocks of the coast, nor the black spots so far out at sea. By and by we spoke, I don’t know who spoke first, but we began to act again or at least to prepare to act. Jenson was in favor of trying it through the serf but I thought there were too many rocks and was in favor of the ships and their boats: the darkness was against us here but there were the search lights. We began to look for something to float on. Never before to our eyes did a man of war present so much iron and steel and so little wood. There was not a loose board or plank large enough to support a man. Suddenly the whole fleet seemed to be aware of our danger for in they came. The New York came up on our S. side and poked us with her prow and shoved us father up on the beach. The result was immediate - we began to turn over. The Admiral24 became very much alarmed for us and gave orders that every soul should leave the wreck. Boats were along side and we left without any funny business. As I clambered down the Port ladder the Starboard rail of the quarterdeck was lapping in the water. Soon after I reached the OREGON the officer of the deck reported that the Colon had turned over and was lying on her beams ends with her port guns sticking out of the water. It was after eleven when we got aboard the good old OREGON. Since dinner the night before neither Jenson not I had had a mouthful to eat except a cup of cocoa in the morning and a crust of bread which we broke and share on the Colon with hands as black as coal and dirt could make them. But I was not hungry, I could not eat, but I was dying of thirst. It took me till half past one to get myself clean and after I turned in I lived the hours on the Colon over and over. I hardly recognized myself in the mirror the next morning. I looked a wreck. The next morning we steamed back to Santiago and passed the wrecks of the vessels of the proud fleet of Spain. I did not get up in time to see the wreck of the Vizcaya, but I saw the wrecks of the others and in the water as we steamed by I saw more horrors of war. Nothing of importance has happened in the Naval line since. The official bulletin of the 4th says the prisoners wounded and all is about 1750, and dead about 600. Our loss you know, one killed and two wounded on the BROOKLYN. A 6pdr shot struck one of the turrets of the OREGON, otherwise she has borne a charmed life. We are now on our way to Guantanamo to prepare for the trip to Europe I think. Must turn in now for I have the morning watch. Have had only time to tell you the details of the scrap. Hobson25 is on the New York and his men. Dewey26 is in the shade. One old army colonel told us today that he saw the scrap from the hills back of Santiago and he could not believe his eyes. He knew we could steam from the way we came around but now he knew we could do something else. Goodnight with love to all. How does Old Glory look? Every battle flag was up on the third.27

     With all my love, your affectionate son,

Mason R.          

Source Note: Cy, DN-HC, Joseph M. Reeves Folder.

Footnote 1: Reeves’s wife, Eleanor Reeves.

Footnote 2: That is, Almirante Oquendo.

Footnote 3: Copy of the Oregon Log was not attached to the letter. For a copy of the log entry for 3 July, see, DNA, RG 24, Entry 118, Vol. 8. 

Footnote 4: Starboard forward six pound gun.

Footnote 5: Capt. Charles E. Clark.

Footnote 6: Capt. Robly D. Evans.

Footnote 7: En. Rufus Z. Johnston.

Footnote 8: That is, Infanta Maria Teresa.

Footnote 9: Reeves sketched a diagram of the Oregon’s position and movements during the opening moments of the battle. See: Reeve’s Diagram.

Footnote 10: Asst. Eng. Frank Lyon.

Footnote 11: Reeves uses “P,” for port, and “S,” for starboard.

Footnote 12: Cadet Henry N. Jenson.

Footnote 13: Asst. Eng. Clelan N. Offley.

Footnote 14: Chief Eng. Robert W. Milligan.

Footnote 15: The Spanish torpedo boat Plutón beached itself, while Furor sank. Trask, War with Spain, 263.

Footnote 16: That is, Cristóbal Colón.

Footnote 17: Reeves drew a diagram of the position of Oregon and Brooklyn relative to Cristóbal Colón and the shore. See: Reeve’s Diagram of the Blockade.

Footnote 18: Carlos V was not in the Caribbean at the time. Resolute mistook the Austrian cruiser Kaiserin Maria Teresa for a Spanish vessel. See: Captain Henry C. Taylor to Sampson, 6 July 1898.

Footnote 19: Armored cruiser New York.

Footnote 20: Capt. Juan B. Lazaga y Garay actually died of a heart attack shortly after the battle. Trask, War with Spain, 265.

Footnote 21: Engine Room Compartments.

Footnote 22: Cadet Harry E. Yarnell.

Footnote 23: Lt. Cmdr. James K. Cogswell.

Footnote 24: RAdm. William T. Sampson, Commander, North Atlantic Fleet.

Footnote 25: Naval Constructor Richmond P. Hobson, captured when his crew attempted to sink Merrimac in Santiago Harbor on 3 June 1898. For more information, see: Scuttling the Merrimac.

Footnote 26: Commo. George Dewey, Commander, Asiatic Squadron.

Footnote 27: Oregon’s performance and particularly her speed in the battle was widely commended and Reeves was advanced four number in rank for his service in the port engine room.  Mark J. Denger and Norman S. Marshall, “Californians and the Military: Admiral Joseph Mason ‘Bull’ Reeves, USN (1872-1948),” California Military Museum, accessed on 3 April 2015, http://californiamilitaryhistory.org/Reeves.html

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