A young sailor from Lykens wrote home to describe his first action in the Spanish-American War

Clarence D. Holland ran from wardroom to wardroom through the narrow passageways deep inside the ship he’d called home for more than a year. It was 3 o’clock in the morning, May 12, 1898, and the 16-year-old naval apprentice from Lykens, Pennsylvania had the task of waking the officers of the U.S.S. Iowa (BB-4) on this momentous day. 

The crew ate a breakfast on deck before dawn and the ship’s guns were readied for action. The Iowa was preparing for action against the Spanish harbor defenses at San Juan, Puerto Rico. And a young, bright-eyed naval apprentice from the Pennsylvania Coal Region had a front row seat for one of the earliest battles of the Spanish-American War.

USS Iowa
U.S.S. Iowa (BB-4) (U.S. Navy)

In the morning hours of May 12, American naval forces moved to attack the defenses around the important Spanish-controlled port at San Juan. These defenses included numerous shore batteries. In high winds and heavy seas, the U.S. fleet bombarded San Juan for three hours. 

Iowa Bombardment
An artist’s rendering of the U.S.S. Iowa in action on May 12, 1898 at San Juan.

Apprentice Holland wrote home to his hometown newspaper, The Lykens Register, and gave readers a rousing view of events from aboard the Iowa. It was published on May 26, 1898. *Warning: the letter uses derogatory language about Spanish soldiers/sailors.*

Special War Letter

Mr. Editor. – Well, I guess you know more about the Battle of San Juan by this time than I do myself. On the morning of the battle I had the midwatch, from 12 to 4 o’clock. A 3 a.m. I woke all the officers, and all hands were called. Breakfast was served on deck and the final touches made for the engagement. We expected to meet the fleet all the time. Four boxes of ammunition for each gun were gotten up.

I’ll tell the battle as I took it from the ship’s logbook and tell my own views afterward:

Clear and pleasant. Moonlight. Light airs and breeze from east. Fleet standing in for San Juan, Porto Rico. Lights on the eastern side of entrance in sight. Light in the lighthouse extinguished. Fleet in column of vessels heading S.S.E. (magnetic) this ship leading with the Detroit on port bow and Wompatuck on starboard bow as scouts, and to sound as the fleet approached the land. Running slow, about 25 turns of the engines. As we closed in with the land about daylight off Cabras Island, the Detroit turned to eastward and stood over to the Morro, and the Wompatuck anchored a boat with red flag about one mile off Cabras Island, the west end of the island and Fort Camillo in range. The fleet in column of vessels then turned to the eastward, passing close to above mentioned range boat, this vessel leading, heading E. by S. The Indiana, New York, Amphithrite and Terror following in order named. At 5:17 this vessel opened fire with 6 pounders, on the Morro, from starboard side of bridge, followed by 8 inch guns in forward starboard turret, and the firing became general. Each vessel opened fire on the Morro and adjacent batteries as the guns were brought to bear. The Montgomery lay to the westward of Cabras.

After crossing the entrance we increased our speed to 60 revolutions – about 7 knots – until next turn to E. by S., when slowed to 30 revolutions – about 4 knots – and again engaged shore batteries as the guns were brought to bear. At the first turn the turret guns were used only. In this way the fleet passed Cabras Island and the shore batteries three times. After passing the Morro for the third time this vessel stood off to the N. and N.W. We ceased fire about 7:25 and secured battery at 7:55. The enemy returned the fire from the fleet about 5 minutes after the engagement began. Guns from Morro and from batteries situated immediately to the southward of the Morro, as well as from heavy battery to the eastward of the fort.

The fire of the enemy at this ship was incessant while she was heading out preparatory to repassing the entrance to the port and ceased or nearly so while this ship was actually engaged. The shooting of the enemy was generally poor. Smoke from our guns and those of the enemy interfered somewhat with the firing, the wind being light from the eastward and the smoke hanging over the water to the westward of Morro as far as the west end of Cabras Island. As this ship was heading N.W. after passing the batteries for the second time, a heavy shell raked her, knocking the elbow out of a marine, cutting a 16 in gash in a seaman’s breast, reaching around under his arm and taking out a piece of rib, also wounding an apprentice. The shell came in on our port quarter of the superstructure under the stern of the second whale boat, carrying away this boat’s afterport cradle, the whole of the middle cradle, a large part of the keel, passing through the forward skid beam, and bursting under the stern of the sailing launch. A large fragment of the shell passed up through the launch and one cut a 6 inch stanchion in half, then going through an arms chest, through a battlehatch and from there going down to the fireroom.

Ventilators, chests, deck, and stanchions on superstructure dock were badly damaged. The port splinter netting caught on fire, also the deck was burnt slightly. Fragments of the shell struck the cage stand of the starboard afterbridge and smashed the portbridge ladder. Another shell from the enemy burst apparently off the starboard end of flying bridge. Vessels present; U.S. Ships Iowa, Indiana, New York, Amphithrite, Terror, Detroit, Montgomery, Porter, Wompatuck, and Niagara. The tug Dauntless and yacht Kanapaha were present with representatives of the newspaper press.

The following accidents occurred to the battery: A 12 inch rammer broken, stage clamp knocked off of No. 217 on forward bridge. Ammunition expended: 19 12 inch full charges, 19 12 semi A.P. shell, 18 8 inch full charges, 18 8 inch common shell, 46 4 inch steel shell, 51 6 pounds steel shell, 7 1 pound steel shell.

That part was in the log. Now for my say. It was not much of a battle, and yet it was, too, as we had blood spilt on our decks and were burned with our own powder.

I don’t believe one was afraid after we made our first round. We were all in a bunch on the fo’castle watching the shells strike in the water alongside. You could hear them coming. They made a whizzing noise and the mortars sounded like flocks of birds.

Say, if the dagoes could have seen us scrapping for the pieces of the shell that struck us, they would have gotten disgusted and stopped firing. I have some of it, you bet, but if I’ll get them home or not I don’t know. Anyhow, they’ll be found in my ditty box.*

We are bound now for Key West for coal, and I expect a big mail when we get there. It seems a year since we sent or received any.

Say, maybe we didn’t play reveille for those dagoes on the morning of the 12th, I tell you though, it will be hot stuff when we meet that Spanish fleet – if we ever do. It would have done your heart good to see Old Glory on our foremast and after smokestack that morning.

Clarence D. Holland,

Naval Apprentice,

U.S.S. Iowa

Off S.E. End of Cuba, May 17

Clarence Holland left home to join the United States Navy in 1896 at the age of 14. The teenager was stationed aboard the battleship Iowa leading up to the Spanish-American War. On board this impressive vessel, he faced combat for the first time as a 16-year-old. His adventures in the Navy were often relayed to his hometown newspapers and subsequently published, providing fascinating insights into the actions of the U.S. Navy during the conflict through the eyes of a young crewman.

And Holland and the crew of the Iowa did eventually meet the Spanish fleet in a cataclysmic battle in the summer of 1898.

Young Crewmen
Crew members aboard the USS Iowa. In this undated, early photograph of the battleship, we see a line of teenagers seated atop the ship’s main guns. It is very likely that Clarence Holland is among them, but at this time remains unidentified. (U.S. Navy)

Wynning History will continue to share the story of Clarence Holland and his naval adventures in the summer of 1898.


Featured Image: The bombardment of San Juan, Puerto Rico on May 12, 1898

*Ditty box is a naval trunk 

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