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How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed

by H.G. Rickover

1976 Department of the Navy

(excerpts)


At 9:40 p.m., Tuesday, February 15, 1898, the American battleship Maine exploded in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. Out of a complement of 354 officers and men, 266 lost their lives. The tragedy was one of a series of events that led the United States into the Spanish-American War and a new age....

The Maine was one of the causes of the first war of the United States with a foreign power since the conflict with Mexico half a century earlier. Congress declared war on April 25. Between the declaration and the signing of an armistice, 110 days elapsed. Within that brief time, the Americans were strikingly triumphant. In the Caribbean, Cuba assumed independence under the close scrutiny of Washington, while Puerto Rico became an American possession. In the Pacific, the United States annexed the Hawaiian Islands - a byproduct of the war, since they were, technically at least, an independent republic. From Spain, the Americans acquired the island of Guam and the Philippine archipelago. The territorial changes in the Caribbean were the logical outgrowth of a long trend toward American domination. It was the acquisitions in the Far East which were astonishing. The American flag flying over Manila signaled the sudden emergence of the United States as a new power. For so short a struggle, the consequences were long-lasting....

The Navy had procedures for investigating accidents. Chapter XL of Regulations for the Government of the Navy of the United States, the latest edition of which was published in 1896, set forth rules on courts of inquiry. They were fact-finding bodies, established to deal with important cases where evidence was not clear, where crime or criminal acts were suspected, or where serious blame existed but without certainty of where the culpability should be assigned. From the findings of the court, the convening authority - the President of the United States, the Secretary of the Navy, or the commander of a fleet or squadron - would decide if further action was necessary. The court was to be composed of not more than three officers; a fourth, who served as judge advocate, summoned witnesses, recorded proceedings, and assisted in laying the conclusions before the convening authority. If the conduct or character of an officer was under investigation, the three members of the court were, if possible, not to be inferior in rank. For his own defense the officer could call witnesses and conduct cross examinations....

The American court of inquiry held its first meeting on February 21, on board the Mangrove... The court had one fact from which to begin. There was no doubt that an explosion occurred in one or more of the forward magazines. What caused the explosion was another matter. Logically there were four possibilities: an internal accident, an internal deliberate act, an external accident, or an external deliberate act. If the origin of the explosion was external, the force from outside the ship had to be sufficient to detonate a part of the magazines.

[Commander] Sigsbee and his officers disposed of the internal causes to the court's satisfaction. His officers corroborated Sigsbee on the routine of taking the temperatures of the magazines and bunkers, and on carrying out the proper procedures for disposing of ashes and wastes and stowing paints. Discipline was excellent and there was no reason to believe that anyone on board had deliberately destroyed the ship. Furthermore, divers had recovered the keys to the magazines: they were where they should have been in Sigsbee's cabin. To the court this meant that no one was in the magazines after they had been properly secured. As for armed torpedoes the matter which had concerned O'Neil, Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance - Sigsbee had not entered Havana with the torpedoes armed and in the tubes. The detonators were stowed aft and had played no part in the disaster.

If the court accepted tile testimony of Sigsbee and his officers, only an external force could have set off the magazines. For this cause the wreck itself offered the best evidence, provided the damage could be analyzed. The difficulties in examining the ship were formidable. Diving conditions were poor: visibility was bad; the water was filthy and nearly opaque; soft ooze, some feet thick, hampered walking on the harbor bottom; and pieces of twisted (and torn wreckage were not only difficult to identify, but were dangerous to life lines and air hoses....

As the days passed the major characteristics of the damage were revealed. The explosion shattered the ship forward of the second stack. Part of the forward deck was hurled up and thrown back upon itself. Fittings which remained attached to that portion of the deck were now upside down; a forward 6-pounder gun, for example, was now inverted. The forward 10-inch turret, with armor protection 8-inches thick, had vanished. On the port side the armor belt plating had been blown out. Although a large part of the bottom, particularly on the port side of the keel, had disappeared, the bow was still connected to the stern. The most baffling problem was the condition of the ship near frame 18. Frames - the ribs of a ship - were numbered from fore to aft. In the Maine, frames were three to four feet apart. In the vicinity of frame 18, about 59 feet from the bow, there had been a massive upheaval. One piece of bottom plating - still attached to the ship- was about four feet above the surface, even though the ship was resting on the bottom in about 36 feet of water. The keel had been driven upward so that it resembled a V, but inverted so that the acute angle was at the top. Frame 18 was just forward of the magazines which had exploded.

As it heard testimony from the divers and a description of the wreckage from Powelson, the court confronted a crucial question. Could a magazine explosion alone have caused the peculiar damage to the keel? On the other hand, could a mine at frame 18 have detonated the magazines? The court turned increasingly toward the theory that a mine had set off the magazines. Sampson, on February 26, speculated about a mine; its possible explosive force and probable location, and even whether more than one mine was necessary to account for the particular characteristics of the damage. He raised these thoughts in Powelson's presence, although the ensign was not a member of the court, and even though he was directing and reporting on the activities of the divers....

The McKinley administration, Congress, and the nation waited for the findings of the court of inquiry. McKinley had an impatient Congress to contend with; one which, as far as Cuba was concerned, was more venturesome than he. The Republicans had a majority in both Houses (202 to 150 in the House of Representatives and 46 to 40 in the Senate), but the party was split on Cuba. McKinley could count on the support of Thomas B. Reed, Speaker of the House and a skilled parliamentarian, against intervention and war. In the Senate, McKinley had the backing of such leaders as Marcus A. Hanna, Eugene Hale, and Henry Cabot Lodge. Nonetheless, the President was in a precarious position....

The members of the court signed the findings on March 21.... It had taken only few pages for the court to write up its conclusions. They stated that the Maine had arrived at Havana on January 25, 1898, and was taken to buoy number 4 by the regular government pilot. The United States consul general at Havana had notified the Spanish authorities of the impending visit the previous evening. Discipline aboard the ship was excellent and all orders and regulations in regard to the care and safety of the ship were strictly enforced. In several brief paragraphs the court described the precautions taken to assure the safety of magazines, bunkers, torpedo warheads, dry guncotton primers and detonators, and the proper stowage of varnishes, alcohol, and other combustibles. On the night of the explosion everything had been reported secure for the night at 8 o'clock. At the time of the disaster the ship was quiet and therefore least liable to accident. The court found there had been two explosions. The first had sounded like a gunshot; it lifted the forward part of the ship and forced the keel into the inverted V and some of the bottom plates upward. In the court's opinion these conditions could only have been caused by "the explosion of a mine situated under the bottom of the ship at about frame 18 and somewhat on the port side of the ship." The second explosion had folded back the protective and main decks. It was caused by the magazine. The court as Lee's cable to Washington on February 28 had foreshadowed - was unable to find any evidence fixing the responsibility for the destruction of the Maine on any person or persons....

Doubts about the cause of the destruction of the Maine continued during and after the war....

Eventually something would have to be done about the wreck. It was occupying valuable harbor space and the buildup of silt around the hull promised to create a shoal. Further pressure came from various patriotic groups, many of which wanted souvenirs of the ship. Finally responding to public opinion, Congress in March 1910, June 1910, and March 1911, appropriated a total of $650,000 to remove the Maine, recover an estimated 70 bodies still in the ship, and transport them and the mast to Arlington Cemetery....

On February 13, 1912, the cofferdam was flooded and the Maine floated. On March 16, escorted by United States Navy ships and gunboats of the Republic of Cuba, the hulk was towed to sea. Short and stubby, the concrete and wooden bulkhead clearly evident, and the conning tower lashed upside down on the starboard side as a counterbalance, the hulk moved uneasily through the sea. Four miles off the coast of Cuba, the Maine was sunk with great ceremony in about 600 fathoms of water....

The Vreeland board found that the general condition of the wreck was not very different from that described by the Sampson court. The damage was, however, more severe than expected.... [T]he Vreeland board believed that a magazine explosion could account for the upraised keel and planting in the vicinity of frame 18 - the damage which had baffled the Sampson court. On the other hand, the force from the exploding magazine could not have damaged the plating further aft. The board found no other way to account for this damage except by a mine....

Subsequent to the investigations of the court of inquiry of 1898 and the board of inspection of 1911, a great deal of experience has been gained in analyzing the ships damaged by external and internal explosions. It seemed to me that a new examination of the evidence in the light of present information might help to solve the question of the destruction of the Maine.... Mr. Ib S. Hansen of the David W. Taylor Naval Ship Research and Development Center and Mr. Robert S. Price of the Naval Surface Weapons Center volunteered to look at the evidence....

The Hansen-Price analysis shows that the characteristics of the damage are consistent with a large internal explosion. The analysis concludes that the primary source of the explosion was centered in the 6-inch reserve magazine which caused a partial detonation of the other forward magazines. In this area, the explosion blew out the sides and ruptured the decks. The bottom was driven downwards, although its displacement, because it was supported by water, was less than that of the sides and decks. The forward section was separated from the after section except where it was attached by the keel and adjacent bottom plating, mostly on the starboard side. As the forward section turned on its starboard side, the keel at frame 18 was raised upward. At the same time the after section was flooding, inclining downward at that part through which the water was pouring. The movement of the two sections led to the inverted V configuration which so troubled the court of 1898. The Hansen-Price analysis does not support the finding of the 1911 board. That area which attracted the attention of the board showed no evidence of a rupture or deformation which would have resulted from a contact or near contact mine. There is no doubt that in one relatively small area the bottom plating was folded inward. But there are several plausible explanations for its cause other than an external explosion.

What did happen? Probably a fire in bunker A16. Fires of this kind had happened before. Instances had occurred in which bituminous coal of the type carried in the Maine bunkers had ignited through spontaneous combustion. Such fires were difficult to detect. Often they smoldered deep below the exposed surface of the coal, giving off no smoke or flames, or raising the temperature in the vicinity of the alarm. The bunker on the Maine had not been inspected for nearly 12 hours before the explosion; a period which experience had shown was ample time for a bunker fire to begin, heat bulkheads and set fire to contents in adjacent compartments.

In conclusion: There is no evidence that a mine destroyed the Maine.