Contributed by Thomas Wildenberg
Click here to read the biography of Asst. Engineer Joseph Mason Reeves
The following are the letters written home by Joseph Mason Reeves who served aboard the Battleship OREGON during the cruise of the U.S.S. OREGON sround South America and during the Battle of Santiago.
The letters all provide interesting sidelights into life below decks
aboard the OREGON. The letter concerning
Santiago is interesting for some items it does not reveal. Unbeknown to
Reeves, the water he found pouring into the CRISTOBAL
COLON was not all from battle wounds. In fact, the ship had very
little battle damage. The water was mainly from the opening of the
seacocks by the Spanish crew when they abandoned the ship. They
purposely were flooding the ship so that she would be scuttled rather
than captured as a naval prize. In this effort they were successful.
Apparently, this possibility never dawned on Reeves and his companions
as they worked to close water tight doors, etc. to try to save the
April 4, 1898
Just 16 days ago less an hour we left San Francisco and the engines are now stopped for the first time. But in a few days we will probably be going again. 1300 tons of coal had been bought here before we came in and 800 was on lighters waiting for us. In less than two hours after one anchor was down we were coaling ship and we will coal day & night till it is on board.
The trip down was a long one but I think we have a loner [longer] one ahead of us. Our orders at present (which were waiting for us) are to coal with the utmost dispatch. We only need 900 tons and we can put that on in about three days. The chief has asked for 8 days to overhaul the machinery and I think it is not necessary. The chances now are we will get around too late for the whole business. The news her is that a definite reply has been required from Spain by today. I wish we were a month farther around the Horn. The captain of a Peruvian man of war who called this forenoon said a [Spanish] torpedo [boat] had left Montevideo and no one knew where it had gone & rumor said it was looking for us probably waiting for us in Smiths Strait at the Horn ----
Mon. night. By jove, but it is work! I was on duty midnight till 4 this morning -- turned out at 7 & have been working from 8 a.m. to now 8:30 p.m. except an hour at noon.
We will finish coaling Wednesday night -- we are not to coal all night -- even if we should finish tomorrow night we couldn't leave because of the chief. I have to get up again at 4 in the morning and I will be working all day without a stop and perhaps all night tomorrow night but I think we will not leave before Thursday.
Captain Clark is a good one. I called on him one evening on the run down & he is pleasant & firm and a good officer I think. He is not going to have the OREGON a second MAINE that is sure -- not if he can prevent it. We are in a Spanish hot bed you know -- there are lots of Spaniards here. This afternoon the captain got information indirectly from five or six different sources that the Spaniards here had said they were going to blow up the OREGON if she came here -- or to Valparaiso. Tonight the main guard on deck is doubled & they are all under arms & supplied with plenty of ammunition. Our two steam launches are spending the night as patrol boats. each with an armed force aboard and a cadet in charge and all sentries & guards are under orders to shoot to kill the first object that doesn't not answer or stop at the first hail. It is great. it is all getting war-like even now.
The MARETTA, [MARIETTA] a U.S. gunboat was in here a few days ago -- came in in the a.m. & left for Valparaiso the same afternoon. She may take possession so our orders say, if a Chilian cruiser which we are trying to buy. If so she will take some officers & men from this ship very likely. I wish we could hurry up. It would be pretty tame to come storming into Havana after everything was over. Our government is doing the proper thing -- the only thing is the OREGON is a month too slow.
Just think we are a little east of Key West & just due south of where our fleet is lying (almost).
In regard to Eleanor …[comments about Eleanor's move from the West Coast to the east coast have been omitted. Eleanor was his wife]
…There can be no doubt of the result but if the OREGON is only in time certainty will be doubly sure. Mail is doubtful from here but I will write again if time is given me. Give my love to all the relations. With my best love.
Your loving devoted son,
"Pimta Arenas", Chile
April, 18, 1898
This is our half way stop from Callao to Rio. It is the southern most city in the world, is about half way through the Straits of Magellan and belongs to Chile. More than this I cannot tell you much. I have not been off the ship since this morning. I have not been off the ship since we left San Francisco. Last night I did not turn in until 5:30 this morning. I had a pump broken and valves carried away in my engine room but I fixed it. The MARIETTA which was to go ahead of us through the Straits came in her last night after we did. Night before last we anchored at Tamar Island just inside the Straights. It is 165 miles from here. We ran today 155 miles in 10 hours or at the rate of 15 1/2 knots an hour. No other battle ship in our navy can do this. The captain wanted to run forced draft but the chief objected like an old as so he gave an order (the chief did) we could not use forced draft. I had the 8 - 12 a.m. watch and I put the forced draft on. Now the chief is tickled we went so fast but he doesn't know I disobeyed his order. The captain complimented the chief and the engineers on our fine run.
Jenson, (cadet engineer) and I asked to double our watches on the run -- he took the fire rooms and I the engines and we whooped her up. I had tow or three hot bearings but when the chief came down and asked how things were running I told him fine! & chucked him out. We came thro' the Straits with our guns loaded and looking for a Spanish torpedo boat. In port it is nothing but work! It keeps us on the go to keep the machinery ready for a 5000 mile run when all the time we have is two days out of 20 or 30.
The mail cannot leave from here and I will finish this letter when I have more sleep & time.
Goodnight & love to all.
Rio De Janeiro, Brazil
May, 18 '98
I am writing probably for the last time before we sail which will be I hope either this afternoon or tomorrow morning.
Before you can possibly get this I think you will hear of us again and I hope the world will also.
Three dispatches were received yesterday from the Dept. Two of these I know -- the other & vital one of 66 words I do not know only as I have guessed it but I have done that so correctly that I practically know our orders. I think the Oregon, the flower of our navy will soon be known.
The victory in Asia will be in the shade. I would to write except I know you will hear of us before this can possibly reach you.
Within two weeks I think the Oregon, single handed will sink or capture two of Spain's heaviest armored vessels. The Dept. at one time viz 9 a.m. May 2nd hesitated about us but later the same day showed her confidence in us & has called upon us to meet at lest a Spanish fleet of 4 vessels. The Oregon need not & does not fear any 4 ships in the Spanish navy. The boasted Vizcaya, Peleye [Pelayo], Ogumdo [Almirante Oquendo] & Don Carlas are vessels we are going to see. Here are our orders as I have guessed them & I have been given to understand by the only person on board outside the Capt. that my guess is startling correct. In fact Johnston, the Capt's. clerk who translates our cipher despatches [sig] says I startled him by quoting parts in the depts. own words.
The Dept. has for some time lost sight of the part of the Spanish fleet. At last two of her heaviest armored cruisers together with 2 or 3 others & several aux. motor torpedo boats have sailed from the Cape Verde Islands ( date I don't know) "Destination unknown" but probably to intercept the Oregon. The Minneapolis & several of our fast vessels & I think 2 or more torpedo destroyers are steaming to join us at the utmost speed. We are ordered to sail as soon as possible in company with the Marietta & the Nictheroy (loaded with coal) steam north & be prepared to meet either the Spanish or American fleet. I think we are bound for Timas, a seaport on the south side of Cuba & I think the orders also directed us to avoid any French possessions. I think France has gone back on us.
I know you are worrying yourself grey [sig] over this affair and I wouldn't write a word only I feel sure your first news will not be this letter.
I am on duty -- always on duty these days. I live in my engine room clothes. The heat below is terrific. It has been 125 degrees in the engine rooms & 100 in the fire rooms. Engine rooms are now down to 110. The Capt. has written a special letter to the Dept. commending in the highest terms the Engineer, officers & men on the ship. The voluntary services done by Engr. officers mentioned in this letter was done by Jenson (naval cadet) & myself -- the extra duty performed by the rest was in obedience to an order from the chief after Jenson & I had asked to be allowed to double up the duty. The Capt's. reference to the men was called out by these who were carried from the fire rooms insensible in our last forced draft spurt to reach this port before dark Saturday. Then restored to consciousness these men insisted on returning to the fire rooms.
Last evening the good news of success in the east reached us and was received with cheers. On board played Yankee Doodle & Hail Columbia while every head was bare & was wildly cheered. The crew was wild & happy & cheered the Asiatic Squadron, the officers of the Oregon, our commanding officer & the Oregon and there were loud shouts of "Remember the Maine!" the navy's battle cry of this war and one that will most surely make a Yankee sailor's blood boil and make him more anxious to die than to ever strike our flag to any Spaniard man of war. There was a heated discussion in our mess last night some saying to hoist down the flag if we were being done up was the proper thing & others of us maintained that rather than to strike our flag to any Spaniard we wold rather go down with our ship fighting our only gun to the last & with the Stars & Stripes at the mast head when they went under the water. If our captain is alive I know we can trust him. the married officers sent a telegram to San Francisco in which I was included I think the telegram was sent yesterday in cipher saying we had arrived safely all well & had a pleasant voyage. If Eleanor gets the telegram she will very likely write you. I wish I could get one letter from her and from you before we sail but in a few weeks we should get some mail surely. The coaling is gong on night & day but it is slow work for some reason. Our guns are loaded from 13" down & we are all ready to move or fight at anchor. We trust to no one but our own guns although Brazil is doing well. Our war paint is ready to go on and I think will be put on before we leave. I wish they would tear down the pilot house and strip the ship bear. We may. Cogswell our executive offices is no good. I must look our for the morning work now. Give my love to all the relatives and don't worry at any news you may hear. don't go back on the Oregon. Tell Ed to stay at home. No troops are needed to decide this war. They are needed but the Navy will decide it. Goodby with all my Love.
Your affectionate son,
Off Santiago de Cuba
July 7, 1898
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 accurate as my eye 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 Eleanor 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 business air that had not marked out previous preparations for the several bombardments and which stirred one's book 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 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 cannonade 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 [sic], shriek over head. The result of ours we have since learned was too terrible to relate. The ALMIRANTE and the VIZCAYA 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. The OREGON 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 thing 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 know 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 out, not to fight, but to escape and the OREGON was to overhaul them. In three minutes after the first alarm was sounded gun #17, our S. for'd 6 pdr. on the bridge opened fire. She was ordered to fire "Immediately" by Capt. Clark "to attract the attention of the fleet." Fighting Bob [Evans, of the IOWA] claims the honor of firing the first gun as well as many other things that he does not deserve. Our signal quartermaster Johnson 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 black bows of the MARIA THERESA 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.
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 not of the direction in which the enemy was going to turn. there were several [engine room] signals, "slow ahead," and "half speed" before the final signal I knew coming -- "full 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's 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. 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 meet Jenson also on the run for the fire rooms. Together we went to Offley and told him the blowers were not in (we could not find the Chief) 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 forced draft. I mention this because it is a fact and what I consider an important one. 1st. It was not the duty of Jensen 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 ther, and 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 know ship and we are only 15," he said. I wanted to tie him in a knot and throw him in a storeroom. 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 captain 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. About a mile farther west the MARIA THERESA went ashore. The Spanish fleet hugged the coast and as the OREGON was about abreast 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 the 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 two 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 of it. I saw her when she turned in to stem for the beach. I came on deck a few minutes later and I 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 blanked, 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, the only one of the lot left, but she was putting up a game run and things did not look to sure. Away ahead in the 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 have been caught anyway 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. 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. Jeson 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 the CARLOS V [editor's note: this turned out to be an Austrian vessel which showed up at a bad time] which the RESOLUTE had come up and reported. We were to be forced draft and the Chief [Engineer] 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 could not arrange it so we would 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 the 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. [Flagship NEW YORK] 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 any way a long with officers in clean white and one by one we clambered up the side of our Spanish prize [CRISTOBAL COLON]. 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 full with filth made worse, of course, by things being strewn around. Jenson and I went forward. On her forecastle were here wounded. Now I have seen something of the horrors of war. One poor fellow with his leg 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. Having found candles Jenson and I with two machinists started for the engine room. Here everything was flooded. Wadding ankle deep trough the water on the upper gratings we went through an upper passage that led to the fire rooms. On the upper gratings there 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 dynamoes [sic] 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. [watertight] doors over the E.R. [engine room] and F.R. [fire room] compts. We closed every w.t. hatch we could find and from drawings I bought 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 Yarnell brought over some thing 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 so she drifted around till her P. quarter struck with her bows to seaward. With her P. quarter aground she began to fill and heal 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 Cogswell (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 out 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 Jesnson 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 a least to prepare to act. Jenson was in favor of trying it through the serf [sic] 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 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 further up on the beach. The result was immediate - be began to turn over. The Admiral 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 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 nor I had a mouthful to eat except a cup of cocoa in the morning and a crust of bread which we broke and shared 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 of the 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 1730, and the dead about 600. Our loss you know, one killed and two wounded on the BROOKLYN. A 6 pdr 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. Hobson is on the NEW YORK and his men. Dewy [Dewey] 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.
With all my love, your affectionate son,
A prize crew heading toward the CRISTOBAL COLON
(As a service to our readers, clicking on titles in red will take you to that book on Amazon.com)
Transcripts of letters were composed by Reeves' brother in 1924. They
were donated to the Navy Department library by Donna Reeves, wife of
J. M. Reeves grandson.
Naval Historical Center - Photo of prize crew..