SUBMARINES IN WAR AND PEACE
During the early part of the Spanish-American war a fleet of vessels patrolled the Atlantic coast from Florida to Maine. The Spanish Admiral Cervera had left the home waters with his fleet of cruisers and torpedo-boats and no one knew where they were. The lookouts on all the vessels were ordered to keep a sharp watch for strange ships, and especially for those having a warlike appearance. All the newspapers and letters received on board the different cruisers of the patrol fleet told of the anxiety felt in the coast towns and of the fear that the Spanish ships would appear suddenly and begin a bombardment. To add to the excitement and expectation, especially of the green crews, the men were frequently called out of their comfortable hammocks in the middle of the night, and sent to their stations at guns and ammunition magazines, just as if a battle was imminent; all this was for the purpose of familiarising the crews with their duties under war conditions, though no enlisted man knew whether he was called to quarters to fight or for drill.
These were the conditions, then, when one bright Sunday the crew of an auxiliary cruiser were very busy cleaning ship—a very thorough and absorbing business. While the men were in the thick of the scrubbing, one of the crew stood up to straighten his back, and looked out through an open port in the vessel's side. As he looked he caught a glimpse of a low, black craft, hardly five hundred yards off, coming straight for the cruiser. The water foamed at her bows and the black smoke poured out of her funnels, streaking behind her a long, sinister cloud. It was one of those venomous little torpedo-boats, and she was apparently rushing in at top speed to get within easy range of the large warship.
“A torpedo-boat is headed straight for us,” cried the man at the port, and at the same moment came the call for general quarters.
As the men ran to their stations the word was passed from one to the other, “A Spanish torpedo-boat is headed for us.”
With haste born of desperation the crew worked to get ready for action, and when all was ready, each man in his place, guns loaded, firing lanyards in hand, gun-trainers at the wheels, all was still—no command to fire was given.
From the signal-boys to the firemen in the stokehole—for news travels fast aboard ship—all were expecting the muffled report and the rending, tearing explosion of a torpedo under the ship's bottom. The terrible power of the torpedo was known to all, and the dread that filled the hearts of that waiting crew could not be put into words.
Of course it was a false alarm. The torpedo-boat flew the Stars and Stripes, but the heavy smoke concealed it, and the officers, perceiving the opportunities for testing the men, let it be believed that a boat belonging to the enemy was bearing down on them.
The crews of vessels engaged in future wars will have, not only swifter, surer torpedo-boats to menace them, but even more dreadful foes.
The conning towers of the submarines show but a foot or two above the surface—a sinister black spot on the water, like the dorsal fin of a shark, that suggests but does not reveal the cruel power below; for an instant the knob lingers above the surface while the steersman gets his bearings, and then it sinks in a swirling eddy, leaving no mark showing in what direction it has travelled. Then the crew of the exposed warship wait and wonder with a sickening cold fear in their hearts how soon the crash will come, and pray that the deadly submarine torpedo will miss its mark.
Submarine torpedo-boats are actual, practical working vessels to-day, and already they have to be considered in the naval plans for attack and defense.
Though the importance of submarines in warfare, and especially as a weapon of defense, is beginning to be thoroughly recognised, it took a long time to arouse the interest of naval men and the public generally sufficient to give the inventors the support they needed.
Americans once had within their grasp the means to blow some of their enemies' ships out of the water, but they did not realise it, as will be shown in the following, and for a hundred years the progress in this direction was hindered.
It was during the American Revolution that a man went below the surface of the waters of New York Harbour in a submarine boat just big enough to hold him, and in the darkness and gloom of the under-water world propelled his turtle-like craft toward the British ships anchored in mid-stream. On the outside shell of the craft rested a magazine with a heavy charge of gunpowder which the submarine navigator intended to screw fast to the bottom of a fifty-gun British man-of-war, and which was to be exploded by a time-fuse after he had got well out of harm's way.