Historic Event: Part 2. Opinions on Sinking of Battleship MAINE

By: Mickey Gussow (Waterford)

At 9:40 PM on the night of Feb. 15, 1898, the American battleship USS MAINE exploded and sank quickly in the harbor of Havana, Cuba. The sunken ship was standing upright on the bottom. Its stern superstructure was above the water with the mainmast nearly vertical; amidships was a twisted wreck; and the forward part, about one third of the ship’s length, was completely below the water.

There were 2 possible explanations for the disaster: the ship had been sunk by an accident or by a de-liberate act. If it were an accident, the commanding officer CaptainSigsbee had to explain how it occurred on board since he was responsible for the safety of the ship. If it were a deliberate act performed by the crew, Sigsbee was still responsible. However, if the act had been carried out by the Spanish authorities in Cuba, by dissident Spaniards acting against their government, or by Cuban insurgents, Spain then was at fault because she was responsible for the safety of the ship in the harbor provided the ship obeyed port regulations.

If the explosion originated inside the ship, then the sinking was probably accidental and Spain was guiltless. If the explosion originated outside the ship, then it probably was deliberate and Spain was to blame. Given the strained relations between the U.S. and Spain, determining the cause of the disaster was a very serious matter.

Politics became rampant as to what sunk the MAINE. The Spanish Minister of Colonies cabled “…it would be advisable for Your Excellency to gather every fact you can to prove the MAINE catas-trophe cannot be attributed to us.” Captain Sigsbee cabled Secretary of the Navy, John Long: “Probably the MAINE destroyed by mine, perhaps by acci-dent. I surmise that the berth [moored to a buoy] was planned previous to her arrival, perhaps long ago. I can only surmise this.”

In Washington, people were taking positions even when there were no technical facts upon which to base a conclusion. Some who felt the U.S. should stay out of Cuba were certain that the MAINE was destroyed by an accidental explosion. Their view was that the Spanish did not have an opportunity to sink the ship. And others who believed the U.S. should intervene were convinced that the Spanish had destroyed the ship. They were confident that adequate precautions were taken by the Navy to make an accident impossible. With no knowledge of technology, Secretary Long was inclined that the cause was an accident because he viewed that a modern warship with explosives was liable to sudden destruction.

Popular opinion was fanned by inflammatory articles blaming Spain printed in the “Yellow Press” by William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer. The phrase, “Remember the MAINE, to Hell with Spain,” became the rallying cry for action. Yellow Press is considered unprofessional journalism by presenting little or no legitimate well-researched news and instead using eye-catching, sensational headlines to sell more newspapers.

The sinking of the MAINE was the dominant topic of discussion in the Navy bureaus. Possibility of an accident seemed to have the most adherents. Lieutenant Frank Fletcher on duty at the Bureau of Ordnance wrote that “…Everybody is gradually set-tling down to the belief that the disaster was due to the position of the [ammunition] magazines next to the coal bunker in which there must have been spon-taneous combustion.” Engineer-in-Chief George Melville suspected a magazine explosion.

Phillip Alger, the Navy’s leading ordnance expert, in an interview published in the Washington Evening Star on Feb., said: “When it comes to seeking the cause of the explosions of the MAINE’s magazine, …the most common cause of these is through fire in the bunkers…I shall again emphasize the fact that no torpedo to our knowledge can produce an explosion of a magazine within.” He also pointed out that a fire on board the CINCINNATI’s coal bunker actually set fire to the fittings and wooden boxes within her magazine. He predicted that if the fire had not been discovered in time, the result would have been an explosion similar to one on the MAINE.

Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, was upset. He was convinced that there had been no accident. Roosevelt, therefore, considered Alger’s comments very disturbing because he was taking the “Spanish side.”

Roosevelt was concerned that such views would weaken the Navy’s standing before Congress. He was shocked to hear some Republican congressional leaders state that the MAINE disaster demonstrated the U.S. must stop building battleships. Roosevelt argued that the advanced naval powers also had accidents and that the loss was the price the U.S. paid in its role as a great naval power.

Note: Primary reference is HOW THE BATTLE-SHIP MAINE WAS DESTROYED by Admiral Hyman G. Rickover, 1976.


By: George Spiro (Ashford)

In 1943, at age19, I enlisted in the Army Sig-nal Corps and at Ft. Monmouth, NJ, trained on the maintenance of radio receivers and transmitters. I shipped out to England in Jan. 1944, 6 months be-fore D-day. I was assigned to Patton’s Third Army (3rd) which was deployed on the south coast of Eng-land preparing for the assault on German-occupied Europe. The 3rd was 100% mechanized with heavy tanks and support elements; the infantry rode. The Normandy Beach landings included water drop-offs so the 3rd had to depend on dry landings. The French ports of LeHavre and Brest were sabotaged by the Germans with sunken ships and mines. D-day was June 6, 1944, my 21st birthday. The 3rd was delayed a month while barges were floated in and attached to form a pier anchored at Omaha Beach at Avranches. The 3rd landed dry. Remnants of the pier can still be seen. I was assigned to a Signal Service Company and a section for maintaining its radio receivers and transmitters and portable power generators. The mis-sion of the Company was to monitor radio transmissions to identify and locate enemy units. The moni tors were fluent with most European languages and Japanese. The Germans were expected to use foreign talkers the way the U.S. Army used Native Americans. But the Germans spoke in clear voice. The 3rd moved rapidly across France liberating villages, towns, and cities bypassing Paris, leaving that honor to the French Army. Many times the 3rd had to halt and wait for supplies. By Nov. 1944, the 3rd reached Nancy, France on the Alsace/German border. The 3rd was ordered to head North to relieve troops trapped in Bastogne during the Battle of the Bulge. The 3rd then proceeded through Germany to arrive in Pilsen, Czechoslavakia on May 7, 1945. This was the fur-thest penetration east of any U.S. troops. The next day, May 8,1945, was declared VE-day. The Russians were coming to occupy so the 3rd was ordered to move to Bavaria, Germany for occupation duty. General Patton was appointed Governor of Bavaria and he died there after an automobile “accident.” I was recently awarded a medal and title of Chevalier of the French Legion of Honor for my role in the liberation of France. I was discharged from the Army in Jan. 1946. I took advantage of the G.I. Bill to achieve 2 engineering degrees, attending NYU at night. I worked for the Bell Telephone System for 40 years; 12 at NY Tel, 22 at Bell Labs, and 6 at Western Electric and AT&T. I retired in 1985 and moved to Florida with my wife, Lillian, and on to Aberdeen in 1990.

Historic Event: U-2 Incident and the Proximity Fuze

On May 1, 1960, Francis Gary Powers piloted a U-2 spy plane on a mission planned by the Central Intelligence Agency to assess Soviet military strength before an east-west summit conference scheduled to be held in Paris. The 9-hour flight plan had Powers taking off from Peshawar, Pakistan, to Bodo, Norway, which included a 2,900 mile incursion into Soviet airspace. Russian ground radar system began tracking the U-2 15 miles before it even reached the Soviet border with Afghanistan. Thirteen MIG-19 Russian fighters were scrambled to intercept the U-2, but they were unable to come close in altitude because it was flying 70,500 feet above the Ural Mountains.

A salvo of 3 surface-to-air missiles fired from the ground battery produced a fiery display that prompted cheers from the ground crew. One missile had exploded just behind Power’s plane. The wings ripped off the plane causing it to spin out of control. Powers bailed out and was captured. He confessed and was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In his prison journal, Powers wrote: “A tremendous orange flash lit the cockpit and the sky. I remember saying to myself, maybe aloud, I don’t know, Good Lord, I’ve had it now.”

What was the secret that enabled the Soviets to down a 13-mile high U-2 “spy-in-the-sky”? The secret was a device within the missile that contained a tiny radio transmitter and receiver that allowed the missile to explode in the proximity of the target rather than requiring the direct hit. The device is called proximity fuze. A fuze is a device used to detonate an explosive charge in an artillery shell, a missile, or projectile.  The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (JHU/APL) invented the concept of the proximity fuze, designed  it, constructed prototypes, and field test them. The design proposal faced many technical challenges: one was that the fuze components had to be ultra-rugged enough to withstand the crushing acceleration force of being fired from a gun. The laboratory integrated the technical efforts of many contractors during its production and gave guidance to the Navy, Army, and England for its deployment.

The first successful use of the proximity fuze in combat occurred on January 5, 1943 just south of Guadalcanal, when two Japanese dive bombers attacked the light cruiser USS HELENA (CL-50). Both were shot do by 5-inch (diameter) projectiles armed with the proximity fuze. Notable achievement of the fuze included (1) defense from Japanese kamikaze attacks in the South Pacific (2) neutralizing the German V-1 buzz bomb attack on England, and (3) killing Germans on the ground during the Battle of the Bulge in Dec. 1944. General George Patton remarked: “The new shell with the funny fuze is devastating.

How did the secret of the proximity fuze get into the hands of the Russians? American spy Julius Rosenberg, better known for his theft of the atomic bomb secrets, cleverly smuggled it out of the Emerson Electronics plant where he worked as an inspector for the Army Signal Corps. Emerson was contracted by JHU/ APL for manufacturing the fuze. Rosenberg handed the proximity fuze in a package over to his Russian contact, Aleksandr Feklisov, as a Christmas present in 1944. Feklisov, in turn, handed Rosenberg a package containing an Omega stainless steel watch for him, a crocodile handbag for his wife, Ethel, and a teddy bear for their only son at the time, Michael.

The U-2 incident and capture of Powers was a propaganda coup for the Soviets. At first the U.S. government tried to cover up the plane’s mission. However, it was forced to admit its military nature when the Soviets revealed the U-2’s intact remains and the captured pilot as well as photos of military bases in Russia taken by the U-2. The result was that the summit meeting was canceled between Soviet Premier Krushchev and President Eisenhower.

In 1962, two years after the U-2 was downed, Powers was released in a prisoner exchange for Colonel Abel, a Soviet spy, on the Glenicke Bridge in Berlin. This episode was dramatized in Steven Spielberg’s movie “Bridge of Spies.”

Unlike radar and the atomic bomb, the proximity fuze was truly the number one secret weapon of World War II. The story of the proximity fuze is one of the great classic achievements of America. It was placed in combat in less than one year from the time APL was tasked to develop it. The fact that the fuze was perfected and available by the time it was needed was the crowning achievement of APL’s contribution. [I retired as Principal Staff from the Laboratory after 25 years of service, but the work on the proximity fuze predated my stay.]

Yet, after the information on the proximity fuze became declassified, few people ever heard of it. Generals, politicians, and historians have described World War II in profuse detail but hardly mentioning the proximity fuze.

The ironic backlash to the success of the American secret proximity fuze is that it led to the destruction of the U-2 spy plane by the Russians in 1960, an event that occurred 17 years after the first successful combat use of the fuze in 1943.

Note: Major source of information is an article, A “Bridge of Spies Back Story,” appearing in the New York Times, Nov. 26, 2015.