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Stephen Crane

Excerpt from "Marines Signalling Under Fire At Guantánamo,"
McClure's Magazine, February 1899.

Reprinted in The War Dispatches of Stephen Crane
Edited by R. W. Stallman and E. R. Hagemann

Published in 1964

"With a thousand rifles rattling; with the field-guns booming in your ears; with…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 anyone who was there will be able to forget it easily."

Writer Stephen Crane (1871-1900) was a war journalist during the Spanish-American War (April-August 1898). Crane had achieved international popularity in 1895 with the publication of his novel The Red Badge of Courage, a fictional tale of a soldier's journey from fear to courage during an unnamed battle of the American Civil War (1861-65). While reporting the Spanish-American War from Cuba, Crane got to see, hear, feel, and smell the fear and death he had described so well in his novel.

Crane had tried to reach war-torn Cuba in January 1897, before the United States had entered the conflict. Cuban rebels had been fighting to win their independence from Spain since February 1895. When the boat carrying Crane to Cuba sank, he and four other men crowded into a small dinghy and navigated a return voyage in choppy waters for over thirty hours before reaching shore in Florida. Crane later turned the ordeal into one of his most famous short stories, "The Open Boat."

In April 1898, fifteen months after his failed attempt to visit Cuba, Crane was in London, England, when the United States declared war on Spain. America wanted to help the rebels win the Cuban revolution, which had been hurting American business interests on the island and causing great suffering for Cuban civilians. When he heard the news, Crane headed for New York to arrange to report the war for Blackwood's Magazine and the New York World. World owner Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911) was engaged in a battle for greater readership with William Randolph Hearst (1863-1951; see entry in Biographies section) and the New York Journal. Crane preferred writing fiction to reporting news, however, so he did not turn out as much material as Pulitzer wanted.

From a boat called The Three Friends, Crane saw the U.S. Marines land at Guantánamo Bay, on the southeastern end of the island, on June 10, 1898. The United States set up a coaling station there for the U.S. Navy, which had bottled up the Spanish navy in a bay at nearby Santiago. Once ashore, Crane joined the Marines, some of whom were bathing naked, when Spanish soldiers fired from the jungles. Bullets whizzed through the air for two days and nights, which Crane spent in a trench alongside Marines who signaled messages to their ships with lanterns. Crane described the ordeal in an article that was first published in McClure's Magazine in February 1899.

Things to remember while reading "Marines Signalling Under Fire At Guantánamo"

Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916; see entry in Biographies section) was another popular and respected journalist who covered the Spanish-American War in Cuba. Writing in Stephen Crane: A Bibliography, author Ames W. Williams says Davis considered Crane's story "one of the finest examples of descriptive writing of the war."

"Marines Signalling Under Fire At Guantánamo"

They were four Guantánamo 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 theMarblehead 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 anyone 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 in shreds.…

The signal squad had an old cracker-box placed on top of the trench. When not signalling 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!…

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 might not fall on me. But the squad came off scatheless, despite the best efforts of the most formidable corps in the Spanish Army—the Escuadra de Guantánamo.…

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.…

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 down, sir?"

"Why, I guess not," said the grey old veteran in his slow, sad, always gentle way. "I am 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. Coffee!

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.

What happened next…

Once the Marines secured the base at Guantánamo, the theatre of battle moved up the coast of Cuba to the area around Santiago. During this time, Crane displayed such a disinterest in reporting that he lost his freelance job with the World. At the U.S. Army's first major battle at Las Guásimas on June 24, Crane stayed in the rear while most reporters marched to the front lines with Theodore Roosevelt (1858-1919; see entry in Biographies section) and his Rough Riders cavalry regiment. Nervous and fearful, Crane even stayed behind during the famous battle at San Juan Heights on July 1, which led to a Spanish surrender at Santiago weeks later.

After that battle, however, Crane described the pain and misery he had seen at "Bloody Bend," a place in the San Juan River where dead bodies clogged the murky red water. According to Linda H. Davis in Badge of Courage, Crane described himself as feeling like "a mere corpse. My limbs were of dough and my spinal cord burned within me as if it were a red-hot wire."

Did you know…

• Crane caught malarial fever, a tropical disease, while reporting from Cuba. Because of his illness, he returned to the United States on July 8. After recovering, Crane was fired by the World and hired by the Journal to report on the fighting in Puerto Rico in August. When the war ended on August 12, soon after Crane had arrived, he traveled to Havana, Cuba, where he spent months in exile (voluntary absence from one's own country) writing about lost love and the Cuban war in poems and short stories. Crane died two years later, on June 5, 1900, from tuberculosis, an infectious disease, complicated by the malarial fever he had caught during the war.

For More Information

Davis, Linda H. Badge of Courage: The Life of Stephen Crane. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1998.

Foner, Philip S. The Spanish-Cuban-American War and the Birth of American Imperialism. New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972.

Golay, Michael. The Spanish-American War. New York: Facts on File, 1995.

Musicant, Ivan. Empire by Default: The Spanish-American War and the Dawn of the American Century. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1998.

Stallman, R. W., and E. R. Hagemann, eds. The War Dispatches of Stephen Crane. New York: New York University Press, 1964.

Wertheim, Stanley, and Paul Sorrentino, eds. The Correspondence of Stephen Crane. New York: Columbia University Press, 1988.

Williams, Ames W., and Vincent Starrett. Stephen Crane: A Bibliography. Glendale, CA: J. Valentine, 1948.

Stephen Crane

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