When the North Carolina sank the Maine

“In February 1912 the commander in chief of the Atlantic fleet ordered two of his proudest battleships, the North Carolina and the Birmingham, to steam to Havana so that ‘a suitable force of men under arms’ could transfer the bones retrieved from the wreckage. The two vessels would then escort the Maine to her resting place amid 21-gun salutes and white-uniformed splendor.

“The Navy meticulously orchestrated the event. It was important that the Maine perform well, but there was no guarantee she would sink gracefully. She might capsize, air pockets could make her wallow and refuse to go down, and it all would be recorded in photographs and moving pictures. As a precaution the Army wired the hull with dynamite so that if the ship needed to be blown up again, the job would not have to be done with American guns.

“The dynamite was unnecessary. The uneventful trip from the harbor to international waters took two hours. At five o’clock a gun on board the North Carolina signaled the opening of the Maine’s sea valves, and a military band began playing a funeral march. Her deck covered with flowers and her jury mast flying a huge American flag, the Maine began to ship water. For 10 minutes the hull pitched heavily on the rolling seas, with no apparent change. Gradually, the forward end began to dip; the stern rose until the ship was almost vertical. There was a flash of spray and color as the American flag slid under the surface, snapping briskly until it hit the water. ‘The Maine then quickly disappeared to her last rest,’ said a witness, ‘leaving no trace, save flowers on the surface of the sea.’

“The escorting battleships fired three volleys from their big guns; a lone bugler played taps. The radiogram from the captain of the North Carolina to the Secretary of the Navy read simply: ‘MAINE sank 5:23 P.M. Whole function successful and impressive.’ And in his final report the captain specified that…  a ‘wonderful crowd’ of about 100,000 people stood silently along the waterfront and on balconies and housetops.”

— From “The Second Sinking Of The ‘Maine’ ” by Carmine Prioli in American Heritage (December 1990)