War in the Jungle
The First Marine Battalion boarded the Panther on June 7th for the 3-day voyage to Guantanamo Bay. While they were en-route, Commander Bowman McCalla took three Navy warships into the bay on a reconnaissance mission. On the morning of June 10th McCalla assembled a force of 40 Marines from the U.S.S. Oregon and the U.S.S. Marblehead and sent them ashore to scout the area. This advance reconnaissance element made contact with local Cuban freedom fighters, scouted the proposed base area, and gathered important intelligence information. Upon returning they reported that Spanish General Felix Pareja had 7,000 troops inland, and all around Guantanamo Bay.
As the morning turned into afternoon, the Panther arrived with its 623 Marines. Even with the knowledge that they would be outnumbered 10 to 1, Lieutenant Colonel Huntington's leathernecks fixed bayonets and waded into the waters to make their amphibious landing. As they landed they faced their first foe on these foreign shores--but it was not the Spanish. It was the skipper of their transport ship, Commander Reiter.
As the Marines began establishing positions above the bay, their commander noted their lack of supplies. Returning to the beach he found his Marines performing stevedore duties, their landing slowing as they were required to unload their own cargo while the crew of the Panther simply watched in amusement. When he confronted Commander Reiter, the skipper of the Panther once again showed his complete disdain for the men of the Marine corps. To further infuriate Lieutenant Colonel Huntington, Reiter informed him that he had chosen to keep most of the small-arms ammunition of the First Marine Battalion aboard his ship to provide ballast.
Huntington did his best to maintain his military bearing, and immediately headed for the Marblehead to appeal his case to Commander McCalla. A month earlier McCalla had watched as Marines from the Marblehead and Nashville had entered Cienfuegos Harbor in small boats, braving rough seas, mines and point-blank enemy fire to cover the cable cutting mission. Having seen these young Marines in action, he had gained an appreciation for their courage and ability to fight.
McCalla went directly to Commander Reiter with orders that left no questions. "Sir," he bellowed to the skipper of the Panther, "break out immediately and land with the crew of the Panther, 50,000 rounds of 6-mm ammunition. In the future, do not require Colonel Huntington to break out or land his stores with members of his command. Use your own officers and men for this purpose, and supply the Commanding Officer of Marines promptly with anything he may desire."
The inter-service rivalry firmly settled by Commander McCalla, Lieutenant Colonel Huntington, his officers and 623 enlisted Marines directed all their efforts to securing their positions. The unopposed landing went well and by late afternoon the leathernecks had set up their camp. Color Sergeant Richard Silvery from C Company was the first to raise the American flag over Cuba during the war, and Huntington displayed his own respect for the commander of the Marblehead by naming what would be the first permanent American base on foreign shores, Camp McCalla.
As afternoon gave way to evening, outposts were established to protect the camp. It was an inevitability that the enemy that had been a no-show for the landing, would not long ignore the American presence on the island, and Huntington wanted his leathernecks well prepared. Commander McCalla promised the commander of the First Marine Battalion that, when that time came, his Marines could count on the support of Naval gunfire from his fleet. McCalla further demonstrated his respect for Huntington by telling him, "If you're killed, I'll come and get your dead body."
The Marines had 24 hours of unmolested opportunity to establish their presence on foreign shores, and then the enemy came. On June 11th, Company D was attacked by a Spanish force. Under the leadership of their company commander, Lieutenant Wendell C. Neville (who's heroism sixteen years later at Vera Cruz, Mexico would earn him the Medal of Honor), the leathernecks did their best to repulse the initial probe. The first shots attracted the attention of all the Marines, as well as the bevy of reporters who had followed them into Guantanamo Bay to write stories for the newspapers back home. One of them wrote, "Up from the sea came a line of naked men, grabbing their carbines and falling into place as Lieutenant Colonel R. W. Huntington issued his orders getting a formation in a semicircle behind the brow of the hill, and waiting to see how much force would develop against them." The untested leathernecks of the First Marine Battalion responded to their training. Most had spent the day stripped to underwear in the tropical heat and, with the first sounds of gunfire, rallied to meet the enemy. The same correspondent continued, "There was no fun in this for naked men, but they held their places and charged with the others."
Much of the history of the Splendid Little War was preserved for future generations because of the competition among newspapers and magazines back in the United States for readers. Throughout the war, seldom did a force move without a large contingent of correspondents. Indeed, as Naval ships moved from place to place, even while landing troops, movements were often hampered by the criss-crossing of smaller boats carrying the eager reporters. The media presence included some of the best-known names in American publishing, including the combat art of famed western artist Frederick Remington. Joining the Marines at Guantanamo Bay was the now famous young author of The Red Badge of Courage, Stephen Crane. Crane was reporting for McClure's Magazine while nearby, Moby Dick author Herman Melville also was observing the leatherneck's operation and filing dispatches for the news at home.
That first battle was brief, a quick hit-and-run of the American defenses. The prompt response by the Marines and shelling from the Marblehead soon caused the Dons, as the Spanish were called, to pull back. In the quiet that followed, the Marines assessed their casualties and found two, Privates William Dumphey and James McColgan of Company D. Huntington quickly ordered Captain George Elliot and Company C to pursue and find the enemy. Meanwhile, Huntington himself led another patrol along with Captain Charles McCawley and Sergeant Major Henry Good.
The patrols fought their way through the tropical foliage, quickly learning the nuances of jungle warfare. Before Elliot's leathernecks could locate the enemy, the enemy found them. The Dons had used the foliage to their advantage, hiding their presence until the patrol was almost upon them, then springing their ambush. Fortunately the same heavy jungle that provided camouflage, also made accurate fire difficult, and none of Elliot's Marines were seriously wounded.
At dawn on Tuesday, June 14th, the Marines of Companies C and D moved out of Camp McCalla towards Cuzco. The 150-man assault force was reinforced by 50 Cuban rebels and, as they began their trek eastward, the U.S.S. Dolphin (PG-24) began a slow steam parallel the men along the coast line. Under the command of Captain W.F. Spicer, the 3-mile trek was doubled as the Marines slowly wound their way along the jungle trails and over the hills.
Stephen Crane accompanied the men on their mission, watching events unfold around him with a reporter's eye and later transcribing them with the same colorful language that had made his second novel The Red Badge of Courage such powerful reading. "The Marines made their strong faces businesslike and soldierly," he reported. "Contrary to the Cubans, the bronze faces of the Americans were not stolid at all. One could note the prevalence of a curious expression--something dreamy, the symbol of minds striving to tear aside the screen of the future and perhaps expose the ambush of death. It was not fear in the least. It was simply a moment in the lives of men who have staked themselves and come to wonder which wins--red or black."
The men of the First Marine Battalion were making history which, when subsequently reported in the flowery language of Crane and Melville, would make the exploits of these leathernecks the precursor of the Marine Corps of the future. Their amphibious assault, the first combat troops in hostile territory, and now an offensive against the enemy, would provide heroes for the reading public at home and inspirations to thousands of future Marines on foreign shores.
Three days of sleepless nights and constant danger began taking its toll on the Americans, and the hot sun combined with the arduous trek began to quickly sap any remaining strength. Nearly half-way to Cuzco, these factors began to take its toll on the force. Several Marines began to suffer heat stroke. Faces flushed, minds becoming numbed and disoriented, and cramps setting in, several had reached the limit of their endurance. Among those to fall victim was the commander, Captain Spicer.
Half-way to their destination, Company C's commander Captain George Elliott assumed command of the force from the ailing Captain Spicer. In the distance the Dolphin cruised just off shore, and a stretcher party was mounted to moved down to the beach with the casualties of the heat and jungle conditions. (As yet there had been no contact with the enemy, hence no casualties to wounds received in combat.) Then the assault force continued its march to Cuzco.
A little over two miles from their destination, Elliott commanded First Lieutenant L.C. Lucas to take his platoon along with half of the Cuban rebels, and flank the advancing men of the main assault force. Lucas' men moved out with the intention of surprising any enemy pickets between the assault force and Cuzco, and cutting them off from the fortifications about to come under attack. Hot, sweaty, tired, and moving forward under sheer guts and determination, sound discipline began to falter as the leathernecks forsook the painstaking, slow movement through the jungle. As they stumbled ever forward, the enemy outposts quickly noted their presence and withdrew to the protections at Cuzco. By the time Captain Elliott's main assault force reached its destination, the element of surprise was gone and the Spanish garrison was armed and awaiting the Americans arrival.
Six companies of riflemen of the Sixth Barcelona Regiment manned the gun ports at Cuzco as the Marines arrived. Elliott's quick recon revealed a large, horseshoe-shaped hill nearly a thousand yards from the enemy. The high ground dominated the landscape and provided the Marines with a tactical advantage should they be able to reach it. Elliott gave the command and his Marines began the frantic rush to its crest. Enemy gunfire erupted as the weary leathernecks ignored their exhaustion and the heat to force their bodies beyond reason. Even at that great distance, the heavy Mausers of the enemy were unable to unleash a lethal torrent of fire. Their rounds "sang in the air until one thought that a good hand with a lacrosse stick could have bagged many," wrote Stephen Crane.
Marine Private Frank Keeler was less flowery but more succinct when he penned his observations in his diary. "Up the hill we charged in the face of fire, but we drove them back in disarray."
As the leathernecks scrambled for the heights, they paused only long enough to return fire. First Lieutenant Neville began to shout orders across the hilltop as he rallied his men. The boom of his voice became one of the most memorable events of the day, leading to his Marines bequeathing him a nickname. It was a moniker he would carry with him in the years to follow. From his actions 16 years later in Mexico that earned him the Medal of Honor, to his years as Commandant of the Marine Corps, he would be facetiously but affectionately remembered as "Whispering Buck".
The sounds of the battle at Cuzco could be heard all the way back to Camp McCalla, and Lieutenant Colonel Harrington quickly dispatched Second Lieutenant Louis Magill and 50 men from Company C to cut off any Spanish withdrawal. A second contingent under First Lieutenant J. E. Mahoney was also dispatched to reinforce Captain Elliott's assault force.
Meanwhile, Captain Elliott requested heavy fire support from the port guns of the U.S.S. Dolphin, still pacing the Marines just off the Cuban beaches. On the high ridge, the leathernecks whooped with glee as one of the warship's big shells slammed into a blockhouse below, sending frantic Spanish soldiers fleeing in all directions. The accurate long-range fire of the Marines, combined with the heavy shells from the Dolphin, had a devastating effect on the enemy. Quickly the battle began turning into a rout. Amid the cheers of the Marines however, disaster loomed.
A short distance away Lieutenant Magill's 50-man force was furiously engaging the retreating Dons, as the shells from the Dolphin mopped up the action. Suddenly, as the shells fell on the Spanish, they also began raining deadly missiles on Magill's leathernecks. From the heights, Captain Elliott's Marines were about to helplessly witness the annihilation of their comrades...to errant friendly fire.
Sergeant John Quick grabbed his blue polka-dot bandanna and quickly fastened it to a stick. From the high hill he could see the Dolphin in the distance, and surely in his exposed position they could see him. So too, could the Dons. "I watched his face, and it was grave and severe as a man writing in his library" Crane wrote in his own account of what happened next. "I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion. As he swung the clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it caught on a cactus pillar. He looked annoyed."
The only way to effectively signal the American ship was to insure that they could see him. As the enemy rounds whistled through the air all around him, he bent to his task. "He spelled out his message with extreme care amid the whistling snarl of Spanish bullets all round him," Crane continued. "His back turned toward the enemy in apparent contempt for whatever they would do. He was magnificent."
Sergeant Quick's use of the flag to advise the Dolphin via Morse Code, resulted in the immediate end to the deadly rain of Naval gunfire. Lieutenant Magill and his 50 Marines were spared death by the quick thinking and intrepid action of a lone, leatherneck sergeant.
Within an hour it was all over, the Spanish soldiers who survived the battle at Cuzco pulling back into the jungle and retreating. Elements of Captain Elliott's strike force gave pursuit, while others entered Cuzco. Shortly after three in the afternoon they destroyed the well.
Casualties for the Marines had been light, one wounded and twenty heat casualties. Two of the Cuban insurgents were killed and two others wounded. Losses for the Spanish were much higher, though hard to estimate. Eighteen enemy soldiers were captured, perhaps as many as sixty killed, and as many as one-hundred fifty wounded. Thirty enemy Mausers were captured as well.
At home Senator Henry Cabot Lodge wrote of the Marine triumph at Cuzco, "The Marines had done their work most admirably and fought with the steadiness and marksmanship of experienced brush fighters." For his heroism at Cuzco, Sergeant John Quick was awarded the Medal of Honor, as was the young Marine Private John Fitzgerald. Of the 39 Medals of Honor yet to be earned in the Splendid Little War, only one more would go to a Marine. Lieutenant Colonel Harrington's First Marine Battalion had done their job so well, and fought so fiercely, they gave the enemy cause to thereafter avoid them. Not only had their battle at Cuzco well destroyed the enemy's water supply, it had robbed them of their will to fight.
While Harrington returned his valiant Marine force, now grown to nearly half of the full 647-man battalion, to Camp McCalla, Spanish survivors straggled back to the city of Guantanamo to advise General Pareja they'd been attacked by 10,000 Americans. The disturbing news caused the enemy general to halt all attacks at Camp McCalla. With the exception of those Marines stationed aboard Navy vessels, the Spanish-American war was a brief but bitter 4-day affair that rewrote Marine Corps History.
A Splendid Little War
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