Monday, August 29, 2016

100 Years Ago: One Ship, 43 Dead, Three Medals of Honor, One Court Martial, and Few Answers

USS Tennessee, after the installation of a cage mast and before her renaming as USS Memphis in May 1916. (Detroit Publishing Company Collection/ Library of Congress) 
By all accounts, the morning of Tuesday, August 29, 1916 was uneventful for the roughly 1,000 men assigned to the armored cruiser Memphis (CA-10) as they went about their normal duties while anchored in roughly 45 feet of water half a mile off Santo Domingo, capital of the Dominican Republic. According to the deck log of the gunboat Castine (PG-6), anchored nearby, the day opened with blue skies, light winds, and barometer readings hovering around 30 inches.

That afternoon, however, swells began coming in from the south and Captain Edward Latimer Beach, commanding officer of the Memphis, ordered that preparations be made for leaving the harbor. Only two of her 16 boilers were lighted at the time the order was passed, so the expected time for getting underway would have been approximately 4:35 pm.  By 4:20, however, waves were breaking completely over the decks of the 502 foot-long vessel, water began pouring through her ventilators into the engineering spaces, and she began dragging her anchor as ever larger waves drove her inexorably closer to the rocky shore.  At 4:23, her keel began striking bottom in the troughs of waves that at their peak reached between 70 and 80 feet high.  

Huge waves dwarf the 212 foot-long gunboat Castine as she makes her escape from Santo Domingo.  From the album of Francis Sargent, courtesy of Cmdr. John Condon, 1986.  (Naval History and Heritage Command Image via Navsource)
As the largest of the waves swept over the cruiser, seawater began pouring directly down her four funnels, 70 feet above her waterline. The boilers that had been lit began exploding, filling the engineering spaces with deadly steam just as seawater rapidly poured in from the ventilation tubes above and welled up from the crumpled bottom of the ship below.  Chief Machinist’s Mate George W. Rudd died at his post in the cruiser’s port engine room, while Lieutenant (later rear admiral upper-half) Claud A. Jones and Machinist Charles Willey were also awarded the nation’s highest honor for their heroic actions that day.  During all this, a motor launch that had been dispatched from Memphis to the port to pick up crew members who had finished playing a baseball game ashore was also swept away.  All aboard were lost, among the 43 Sailors lost that day.  Over 200 were injured.  Despite suffering heavy damage, the gunboat Castine had managed to get underway just after 4 pm.

USS Memphis (CA-10) on the rocks at Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.  She lost more than three-dozen crewmen as she was driven ashore by a succession of huge waves and was battered beyond reasonable prospect of repair.  Left where she lay, the wreck of USS Memphis was sold in 1922, but was not actually broken up until 1938. (Naval History and Heritage Command image via Flickr)
Then and now, many descriptions of the event still describe a tsunami as being what wrecked USS Memphis that day. This is in large part due to the efforts of Captain Edward L. Beach, Jr., the celebrated author of Run Silent, Run Deep, one of the best-selling memoirs of World War II.  His book about the loss of the Memphis, published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of the catastrophe in 1966, made it abundantly clear that his father could not have affected the outcome of the loss for which he was court martialed. Beach’s book and other articles he wrote about the event not only kept the memory of the ship’s loss and the sacrifices and heroics of her crew alive, but it kept that memory framed in a specific way.

In 1993, he wrote in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings:

On the afternoon of 29 August 1916 she was riding quietly at anchor in Santo Domingo Harbor in the Dominican Republic. Some of her crew were ashore playing baseball, and a motor launch had just been sent to the recreation field to return them to the ship. At that moment, somewhere on the floor of the Caribbean Sea, there occurred a far-distant earthquake. Without the slightest warning, a tsunami rose abruptly from the peaceful sea. Heavy rollers began heading shoreward.

Later in the same article, Beach added:

The loss of his ship and 43 members of his crew was intensely personal to Dad. He had simply been unable to get up enough steam to get out of Santo Domingo Harbor. A week earlier, when a tropical storm blew up, he had got extra boilers on the line, and the ship under way, in 45 minutes—excellent time from a standing start for a coal-burning warship. But on 29 August he did not have 45 minutes; nor was it a tropical storm.

Following this line of reasoning, the court of inquiry that convened in September 1916 should have arrived at the conclusion that Capt. Beach could have not foreseen this calamity and could not have ordered measures that could have saved the 14,000-ton vessel. Instead, he was convicted at a general court martial in December of, among other things, being “culpably inefficient in the performance of his duty,” and was sentenced to lose 20 places in the captains’ seniority list.  Despite this, the prevailing sense among the higher echelons of the Navy Department's leadership must have been that the loss of the Memphis and the deaths of 43 Sailors was something that could not have been prevented, because Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels overruled the sentence handed down by the tribunal, reducing Beach’s place in line for flag rank to only five places behind where he had been before the incident.

Then, as now, earthquakes were pretty common in the Caribbean, and assuming that one had caused the loss of the Memphis and heavy damage to the Castine would have been reasonable in the immediate wake of the incident.  Nevertheless, the court of inquiry considered this as only one in a range of possible sources for the devastating waves, including tropical storms.  A report on a devastating 1918 earthquake and tsunami in Puerto Rico given by the United States Earthquake Investigation Commission to the House of Representatives in 1919 divulged that monitors in Puerto Rico recorded earthquakes originating in the vicinity of Santo Domingo on April 24 and November 29, 1916, but none during August.  Moreover, seismic monitors in Puerto Rico recorded nothing across the Caribbean between August 11 and October 2 of that year.

Despite sources that continue to suggest that an earthquake caused the waves that destroyed the Memphis, the past is not set in stone, and researchers have come forward since that time to make a persuasive case that the confluence of two passing hurricanes created a series of rogue waves that battered the southern coastline of Hispaniola and doomed USS Memphis. House Resolution 306, passed on June 15, 2015 in preparation for the centennial of the ship's loss, listed its cause as "a highly unusual 75-foot wave event that threw the ship upon the shore of Santo Domingo, resulting in its total destruction…"

Aside from the tragedy itself, which most accounts cast as a 90-minute catastrophe emerging literally from out of the blue, why were the Memphis and Castine at Santo Domingo on that fateful afternoon to begin with? As it turns out, they were ordered to the Dominican Republic on a mission deeply intertwined in a man-made political storm a decade in the making.  With a lead time stretching over months, if not years, the destructive waves of armed conflict breaking out across the country during the summer of 1916 were nearly as unanticipated as the massive waves that broke upon the country’s southern shore the afternoon of August 29.

The public jubilation over the short, successful Spanish-American War in 1898 had by 1902 muted considerably, particularly in the wake of the Philippine insurrection against American rule. As a result, an anti-imperialist coalition in Congress virtually ensured that President Theodore Roosevelt would never secure sufficient support for the establishment of more “protectorates” such as Cuba and Panama, which were bound by treaty obligations to be protected by the United States from internal and external threats. Nevertheless, European powers were threatening to mount punitive expeditions against other countries in close proximity to America that had defaulted on loans.

The Venezuelan Crisis of 1902-03, during which British and German warships blockaded the country, resulting in a showdown with the American fleet, prompted Roosevelt to establish his Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine, which dictated that the United States would act as an “international police power” in the event that European powers once again threatened military intervention to extract concessions over outstanding debt.  Seeking to preserve American hegemony over the hemisphere, Roosevelt undertook a novel approach that would accomplish his political objectives without running afoul of the Congress. The Dominican Republic became the Roosevelt Administration’s first big test case.

In her book Financial Missionaries to the World (2003), Emily S. Rosenberg wrote, “The Dominican model became the first major effort to forge the kind of partnership that would continue to be at the heart of dollar diplomacy: a triangular relationship among financial advisors wishing to practice their new profession of fiscal rehabilitation of foreign countries; investment bankers seeking higher interest rates in foreign markets; and activist governmental officials eager to assert international influence.”

From 1904 to 1907, diplomats worked with bankers and financial advisors, mainly bureaucrats with experience in colonial administration, to forge an agreement of administrative supervision over the Dominican economy, primarily through control over customs collection, in exchange for American loans. Although the rationale for such an arrangement was explicitly nonmilitary in nature, Commander Albert C. Dillingham (who as a rear admiral would take on the task of establishing Naval Station Norfolk in 1917) also served as a prominent liaison between Secretary of State John Hay and the Dominican government as an agreement began to take shape.

Despite objections from senators who chafed at President Roosevelt’s unilateral declaration of a “fiscal protectorate” in the Dominican Republic, the Roosevelt and Taft administrations declared victory and plunged headlong into establishing similar contractual arrangements with Nicaragua, Haiti, and Liberia.  American investment banks, with the support of the American government, were dealing with bankrupt nations the way they had once dealt with failing businesses.  The shortcomings of this approach, however, invariably committed the U.S. Military to stabilizing the situation, sooner or later.  

As the customs receivership in the Dominican Republic matured, the relationship between the American and Dominican governments under the administration of Woodrow Wilson began to resemble an older colonial model. “President Roosevelt entered the Dominican relationship with the idea that a receivership would prevent, not be a prelude to, military involvement there,” wrote Rosenberg. “If the receivership was threatened by debt or disorder, so much prestige was at stake that policymakers had little choice but to bite off more and more of the country’s sovereignty, intervening in ever broader ways to address the problems.”  This erosion of the Dominican government’s sovereignty to American advisors, investment bankers and government officials eroded the legitimacy of President Ramon Caceres’ administration in the minds of many Dominicans.  After his assassination in November 1911, years of political instability followed, and, as would also happen in Haiti and Nicaragua, U.S. Marines were brought in to reestablish order, and, ultimately, new governments, with the support of vessels such as USS Memphis and Castine.

USS Memphis, sent to the Dominican Republic to help quell a political storm far away from the government officials and investment bankers who helped create it, and wrecked by waves generated by hurricanes far over the horizon, was not only one of the largest commissioned vessels our Navy ever lost to natural causes.  For decades, her forlorn, battered hull remained a fixture of Santo Domingo’s oceanfront, a dramatic symbol of the American intervention in the Dominican Republic, outlasting the era of the American foreign policy approach that sent her there.

A sunset view of Santo Domingo taken in 1924.  (Republica Dominicana via Flickr)

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