Clive “pops” Cussler has done it again. Havana Storm is a fantastic Dirk Pitt novel. As usual he has woven a maritime mystery into the plot. This time it was the explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898.
I was taught the incident triggered the start of the Spanish-American War. It was never proven if it was an accident or sabotage. Between the novel and some online research of my own I learned a lot about the incident and the history of the USS Maine.
A Wikipedia article explains that the ship’s design was cutting edge when the project was started but delays during construction made the ship obsolete by the time it entered service. One of the things that made the ship obsolete is gun placements and design. Wikipedia explains,
“The two main gun turrets were sponsoned out over the sides of the ship and echeloned to allow both to fire fore and aft. This met the demand at the time of Maine’s design for heavy end-on fire in a ship–to–ship encounter, tactics for which involved ramming the enemy vessel. When approaching the enemy on a ramming course, having all guns trained, end–on, would theoretically allow the maximum firepower to be brought to bear and thus the potential for inflicting the greatest amount of damage. The wisdom of this tactic was purely theoretical, at the time it was implemented.”
The Wikipedia article tells us, “Sent to protect U.S. interests during the Cuban revolt against Spain” and that “she exploded suddenly without warning and sank quickly, killing nearly three-quarters of her crew.”
“The cause and responsibility for her sinking remained unclear after a board of inquiry. Nevertheless, popular opinion in the U.S., fanned by inflammatory articles printed in the “Yellow Press” by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer, blamed Spain.”
There were several investigations into the incident. Each one coming to a slightly different conclusion.
“On 21 March, the US Naval Court of Inquiry, in Key West, declared that a naval mine caused the explosion. “
It’s possible the sinking was an accident since the explosion happened in the forward ammo magazine.
It’s possible that Spanish forces did it since the court declared it was a naval mine. It’s remotely conceivable that the US sabotaged and sacrificed the ship to use as an excuse to go to war with Spain and grab more territory. The thought had also occurred to one the Wikipedia authors. The Wikipedia article tells us,
“It has been suggested by some that the sinking was a false flag operation conducted by the U.S. This is the official view in Cuba. Cuban officials argue that the U.S. may have deliberately sunk the ship to create a pretext for military action against Spain. The wording on the Maine monument in Havana describes Maine ’s sailors as “victims sacrificed to the imperialist greed in its fervor to seize control of Cuba”, which “alludes to the theory that U.S. agents deliberately blew up their own ship to create a pretext for declaring war on Spain”.
Although I an not usually one to believer in conspiracy theories, there are several things which cause me to wonder.
- I would say the US had an agenda in Cuba. As mentioned in Wikipedia, “Spanish–American War (Spanish: Guerra hispano-estadounidense) was a conflict in 1898 between Spain and the United States, the result of American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence.”
- If you had to sacrifice a ship you might as well pick one that is obsolete.
- Newspapers covering the event used a tactic later became known as “yellow journalism.”
The investigations into the incident could be it’s own Blog article. Wikipedia lists six major investigations have been completed since the incident. There were two done immediately after the incident in 1898. There was one done in 1911 by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover. In 1998 National Geographic did one (What took them so long.) Finally in 2002 the History Channel did one.
In 1898 the Spanish inquiry concluded the explosion was caused by spontaneous combustion in the coal bunker. The 1898 joint Spanish and American inquiry said it was a mine.
In 1911 the Rickover investigation was able to examine the wreckage as the Army Corps of Engineers were moving it out of Havana Harbor. They also said an external explosion (like from a mine) occurred.
The 1998 National Geographic investigation did not come out with a definitive conclusion, other than to say the evidence was not “definitive in proving that a mine was the cause of the sinking” although it did “strengthen the case.”
The 2002 History Channel investigation concluded, “that a coal bunker fire caused the explosion, and a weakness or gap was identified in the bulkhead separating the coal and powder bunkers, which allowed the fire to spread from the coal bunker to the powder bunker.
The story of the ship did not end with the sinking. It turns out the ship was raised from Havana harbor, moved and re-sunk outside the harbor in deeper water.
The Army Corps of Engineers did the job. They built a coffer dam around the wreck. Pumped the water out, sealed off the damaged bow from the stern and cut away the damaged bow. They filled the coffer dam and floated the ship up to be towed out to sea where it could be sunk away from the shipping traffic. I would say that’s a pretty clever solution!
Cussler did a fantastic job with this novel. He used a maritime mystery where the cause was different over several investigations and wove it into his story in a very clever way. As with many Cussler novels (he is my favorite author) I give this one five stars!