THEY were four Guantanamo marines, officially known for the time as
signalmen, and it was their duty to lie in the trenches of Camp McCalla,
that faced the water, and, by day, signal the "Marblehead" with a flag and, by night, signal the "Marblehead" with lanterns. It was my good fortune -- at that time I considered it my bad fortune, indeed -- to be with them on two of the nights when a wild storm of fighting was pealing about the hill; and, of all the actions of the war, none were so hard on the nerves, none strained courage so near the panic point, as those swift nights in Camp McCalla. With a thousand rifles rattling; with the field-guns booming in your ears; with the diabolic Colt automatics clacking; with the roar of the "Marblehead" coming from the bay, and, last, with Mauser bullets sneering always in the air a few inches over one's head, and with this enduring from dusk to dawn, it is extremely doubtful if any one who was there will be able to forget it easily. The noise; the impenetrable darkness; the knowledge from the sound of the bullets that the enemy was on three sides of the camp; the infrequent bloody stumbling and death of some man with whom, perhaps,
one had messed two hours previous; the weariness
of the body, and the more terrible weariness of the mind, at the
endlessness of the thing, made it wonderful that at least some
of the men did not come out of it with their nerves hopelessly
But, as this interesting ceremony proceeded in the darkness, it was
necessary for the signal squad to coolly take and send messages. Captain
McCalla always participated in the defense
of the camp by raking the woods on two of its sides with the guns
of the "Marblehead." Moreover, he was the senior officer
present, and he wanted to know what was happening. All night long
the crews of the ships in the bay would stare sleeplessly into
the blackness toward the roaring hill.
The signal squad had an old cracker-box
placed on top of the trench. When not signaling, they hid the
lanterns in this box; but as soon as an order to send a message
was received, it became necessary for one of the men to stand
up and expose the lights. And then -- oh, my eye -- how the guerrillas
hidden in the gulf of night would turn loose at those yellow gleams!
Signaling in this way is done by letting one lantern remain stationary -- on top of the cracker-box, in this case -- and moving the other over it to the left and right and so on in the regular gestures of the wig-wagging
code. It is a very simple system of night communication, but one can see
that it presents rare possibilities when used in front of an enemy who, a
few hundred yards away, is overjoyed at sighting
so definite a mark.
How, in the name of wonders, those four men at Camp McCalla were not riddled from head to foot and sent home more as repositories of Spanish ammunition than as marines is beyond all comprehension. To make a confession -- when one of these men stood up to wave his lantern, I, lying in the trench, invariably rolled a little to the right or left, in order that, when he was shot, he would not
fall on me. But the squad came off scathless, despite the best efforts of
the most formidable corps in the Spanish
army -- the Escuadra de Guantanamo. That it was the most formidable
corps in the Spanish army of occupation has been told me by many
Spanish officers and also by General Menocal and other insurgent
officers. General Menocal was Garcia's chief-of-staff when the
latter was operating busily in Santiago province. The regiment
was composed solely of practicos, or guides, who knew every shrub
and tree on the ground over which they moved.
Whenever the adjutant, Lieutenant Draper,
came plunging along through the darkness with an order -- such
as: "Ask the 'Marblehead' to please shell the woods to the
left" -- my heart would come into my mouth, for I knew then
that one of my pals was going to stand up behind the lanterns
and have all Spain shoot at him.
The answer was always upon the instant: "Yes, sir." Then the bullets
began to snap, snap, snap, at his head while
all the woods began to crackle like burning straw. I could lie
near and watch the face of the signalman, illumed as it was by
the yellow shine of lantern light, and the absence of excitement,
fright, or any emotion at all, on his countenance, was something
to astonish all theories out of one's mind. The face was in every
instance merely that of a man intent upon his business, the business
of wig-wagging into the gulf of night where a light on the "Marblehead"
was seen to move slowly.
These times on the hill resembled, in
some days, those terrible scenes on the stage -- scenes of intense
gloom, blinding lightning, with a cloaked devil or assassin or
other appropriate character muttering deeply amid the awful roll
of the thunder-drums. It was theatric beyond words; one felt like
a leaf in this booming chaos, this prolonged tragedy of the night.
Amid it all one could see from time to time the yellow light on
the face of apreoccupied signalman.
Possibly no man who was there ever before
understood the true eloquence of the breaking of the day. We would
lie staring into the east, fairly ravenous for the dawn. Utterly
worn to rags, with our nerves standing on end like so many bristles,
we lay and watched the east -- the unspeakably obdurate and slow
east. It was a wonder that the eyes of some of us did not turn
to glass balls from the fixity of our gaze.
Then there would come into the sky a patch of faint blue light. It was
like a piece of moonshine. Some would say
it was the beginning of daybreak; others would declare it was
nothing of the kind. Men would get very disgusted with each other
in these low-toned arguments held in the trenches. For my part,
this development in the eastern sky destroyed many of my ideas
and theories concerning the dawning of the day; but then I had
never before had occasion to give it such solemn attention.
This patch widened and whitened in about the speed of a man's
accomplishment if he should be in the way
of painting Madison Square Garden with a camel's hair brush. The
guerrillas always set out to whoop it up about this time, because
they knew the occasion was approaching when it would be expedient
for them to elope. I, at least, always grew furious with this
wretched sunrise. I thought I could have walked around the world
in the time required for the old thing to get up above the horizon.
One midnight, when an important message was to be sent to the
"Marblehead," Colonel Huntington came himself to the signal place with
Adjutant Draper and Captain McCauley, the
quartermaster. When the man stood up to signal, the colonel stood
beside him. At sight of the lights, the Spaniards performed as
usual. They drove enough bullets into that immediate vicinity
to kill all the marines in the corps.
Lieutenant Draper was agitated for his chief. "Colonel, won't you step
"Why, I guess not," said the gray old veteran in his slow, sad,
always-gentle way. "I'm in no more danger
than the man."
"But, sir -- " began the adjutant.
"Oh, it's all right, Draper."
So the colonel and the private stood side
to side and took the heavy fire without either moving a muscle.
Day was always obliged to come at last,
punctuated by a final exchange of scattering shots. And the light
shone on the marines, the dumb guns, the flag. Grimy yellow face
looked into grimy yellow face, and grinned with weary satisfaction.
Usually it was impossible for many of
the men to sleep at once. It always took me, for instance, some
hours to get my nerves combed down. But then it was great joy
to lie in the trench with the four signalmen, and understand thoroughly
that that night was fully over at last, and that, although the
future might have in store other bad nights, that one could never
escape from the prison-house which we call the past.
At the wild little fight at Cusco there were some splendid exhibitions of
wig-wagging under fire. Action began when
an advance detachment of marines under Lieutenant Lucas with the
Cuban guides had reached the summit of a ridge overlooking a small
valley where there was a house, a well, and a thicket of some
kind of shrub with great broad, oily leaves. This thicket, which
was perhaps an acre in extent, contained the guerrillas. The valley
was open to the sea. The distance from the top of the ridge to
the thicket was barely two hundred yards.
The "Dolphin" had sailed up the coast in line with the marine advance,
ready with her guns to assist in any action.
Captain Elliott, who commanded the two hundred marines in this
fight, suddenly called out for a signalman. He wanted a man to
tell the "Dolphin" to open fire on the house and the
thicket. It was a blazing, bitter hot day on top of the ridge
with its shriveled chaparral and its straight, tall cactus plants.
The sky was bare and blue, and hurt like brass. In two minutes
the prostrate marines were red and sweating like so many hull-buried
stokers in the tropics.
Captain Elliott called out:
"Where's a signalman? Who's a signalman
A red-headed "mick" -- I think his name was Clancy -- at any rate, it
will do to call him Clancy -- twisted his head from where he lay on his
stomach pumping his Lee, and, saluting, said
that he was a signalman.
There was no regulation flag with the expedition, so Clancy was obliged
to tie his blue polka-dot neckerchief on the end of his rifle. It did not
make a very good flag. At first Clancy moved a ways down the safe side of
the ridge and wig-wagged there very busily. But what with the flag being so poor for the purpose, and the background of ridge being so dark, those on the "Dolphin" did not see it. So Clancy had to return to the top of the
ridge and outline himself and his flag against
The usual thing happened. As soon as the Spaniards caught sight of this silhouette, they let go like mad at it. To make things more comfortable for
Clancy, the situation demanded that he face
the sea and turn his back to the Spanish bullets. This was a hard
game, mark you -- to stand with the small of your back to volley
firing. Clancy thought so. Everybody thought so. We all cleared
out of his neighborhood. If he wanted sole possession of any particular
spot on that hill, he could have it for all we would interfere
It cannot be denied that Clancy was in a hurry. I watched him. He was so occupied with the bullets that snarled close to his ears that he was obliged to repeat the letters of his message softly to himself. It seemed an
intolerable time before the "Dolphin"
answered the little signal. Meanwhile, we gazed at him, marveling
every second that he had not yet pitched headlong. He swore at
Finally the "Dolphin" replied to his frantic gesticulation, and he
delivered his message. As his part of the transaction was
quite finished -- whoop! -- he dropped like a brick into the firing line and began to shoot; began to get "hunky" with all those people who had been plugging at him. The blue polka-dot neckerchief still fluttered from the barrel of his rifle. I am quite certain that he let it remain there until
the end of the fight.
The shells of the "Dolphin" began to plow up the thicket, kicking the
bushes, stones, and soil into the air as
if somebody was blasting there.
Meanwhile, this force of two hundred marines
and fifty Cubans and the force of -- probably -- six companies
of Spanish guerrillas were making such an awful din that the distant
Camp McCalla was all alive with excitement. Colonel Huntington
sent out strong parties to critical points on the road to facilitate,
if necessary, a safe retreat, and also sent forty men under Lieutenant
Magill to come up on the left flank of the two companies in action
under Captain Elliott. Lieutenant Magill and his men had crowned
a hill which covered entirely the flank of the fighting companies,
but when the "Dolphin" opened fire, it happened that
Magill was in the line of the shots. It became necessary to stop
the "Dolphin" at once. Captain Elliott was not near
Clancy at this time, and he called hurriedly for another signalman.
Sergeant Quick arose, and announced that
he was a signalman. He produced from somewhere a blue polka-dot
neckerchief as large as a quilt. He tied it on a long, crooked
stick. Then he went to the top of the ridge, and turning his back
to the Spanish fire, began to signal to the "Dolphin."
Again we gave a man sole possession of a particular part of the
ridge. We didn't want it. He could have it and welcome. If the
young sergeant had had the smallpox, the cholera, and the yellow
fever, we could not have slid out with more celerity.
As men have said often, it seemed as if there was in this war a God of
Battles who held His mighty hand before the Americans. As I looked at
Sergeant Quick wig-wagging there against
the sky, I would not have given a tin tobacco-tag for his life.
Escape for him seemed impossible. It seemed absurd to hope that
he would not be hit; I only hoped that he would be hit just a
little, little, in the arm, the shoulder, or the leg.
I watched his face, and it was as grave and serene as that of a man
writing in his own library. He was the very embodiment of tranquillity in
occupation. He stood there amid the animal-like babble of the Cubans, the crack of rifles, and the whistling snarl of the bullets, and wig-wagged
whatever he had to wig-wag without heeding
anything but his business. There was not a single trace of nervousness
To say the least, a fight at close range is absorbing as a spectacle. No
man wants to take his eyes from it until that time comes when he makes up his mind to run away. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle is in itself hard work. To deliberately stand up and turn your back to a battle and hear immediate evidences of the boundless enthusiasm with which a large company of the enemy shoot at you from an adjacent thicket is, to my mind at least, a very great feat. One need not dwell upon the detail of keeping the mind carefully upon a slow spelling of an important code
I saw Quick betray only one sign of emotion. As he swung his clumsy flag to and fro, an end of it once caught on a cactus pillar, and he looked
sharply over his shoulder to see what had it. He gave the flag an impatient jerk. He looked annoyed.