The Gunboat USS Nashville and the Cruiser USS Marblehead were given a very specific task in May of 1898. They were to steam to the area of the port at Cienfuegos, locate two seperate underground cables, haul them up onto workboats and chop a large piece out of each. Thus accomplished, the island could not make any contact with the outside world... especially Spain to seek help. The navy had already blockaded all around the island to prevent entry in or escape out via water, but all that remained was to destroy these cables.
Both war ships were to provide 2 vessels each... 2 steam launches and 2 sailing launches. The steam launches would be required to tow the sailing launches in close enough that the men onboard could row close enough to the shore, find and haul up the cable and chop a piece out of each. The steamers would then back off and take a position were the sharpshooters on board from the Marines could provide the cover necessary for the rest to do their jobs.
The night before the operation started, volunteers were called for, and more than could be used stepped forward. Many spent their time loading up on supplies for the next day, ensuring their cartridge belts were fully loaded and even sat down to write wills and letters to their parents back home.
The mission was incredibly dangerous for several reasons. The water was very choppy and tides were strong, the coastline was most rocky and scrapping a boat on the outcrops of rocks would instantly sink her. The waters were also shark infested and had been mined. The boats would be operating very close to the shores, in fact at one point close enought that one of the Miller brothers would later comment that if he had thrown stones he could have hit some of the enemy seen in the bushes.
When the first cable was located, about 20 feet below the surface, several attempts at grabbing it finally succeeded and after quite an effort it was hauled to the surface and drapped across the bow of the two sailing launches. The men had to then decide how to cut it. After several tries with various tools it was decided to hacksaw throught the cable. This would take about one half hour... per end... as the cable was as thick as a man's wrist. It was so tiring that they had to constantly relieve the fellow doing the sawing with another sailor.
And of course as all this was going on the enemy in rifles pits, and through outcroppings of rock all along the shore where taking their pot shots at the boats. The Nashville and the Marblehead had bombarded the area before the attack began but with all the additional enemy brought in to support those left after the bombardment, the ships had to then start firing their shells again. But this time it was right over the heads of their own men in the smaller craft. More than one would have comments about this after the event. Still the enemy shots were poking so many holes in the workboats that some reported having to take bullets out of their cartridge belts and stick them into the holes just to keep afloat.
After the first cable was cut and some 150 feet coiled up in the boat, the two vessels moved even closer to shore to get at a second cable line. They were successful and about 100 feet of that one was chopped out also.
Shown here is a piece of the cable that was cut. There are some references that suggest that most if not all the men involved were given a piece of it as a souvenir.
After action reports suggest that as many as 200 enemy were killed. But the US losses were limited to 1 killed, 1 mortally wounded, and 6 severely wounded.
In August of 1889 a very special parade was held onboard the USS Nashville were 20 sailors and marines were awarded Medals of Honor. Others not available from the Nashville would later get their's as well as an equal amount from the Marblehead. There were 52 medals awarded for this battle, and it is one of the highest number of medals for one event in the medal's history.
At the presentation ceremony the commander noted that... "this was one of the most gallant points of the war. The men remained under constant and hot fire for over three and one half hours, yet did not desist for a moment until their purpose was accomplished. Their conduct was not only most credible to themselves and this ship, but to the United States Navy and its honor and glory. I cannot praise too highly, either, the conduct of the officers or men of the ship."
At the conclusion of his comments the commander had each man march to his front and pinned the Medal of Honor on the man's chest. Each is enscribed with the man's name and the statement.... "For heroism and gallantry under fire of enemy cutting cable at Cienfuegos May 11 1898. The final two recipients on that parade stood up in their best white sailor's outfits with caps in hand and got an instant round of applause. They were brothers Willard and Harry Miller of Nava Scotia Canada. The Commander paid them both a special compliment and then the Marine band played The Star Spangled Banner. All saluted and the ceremony came to an end. The Miller brothers were the only set of brothers in this war to be awarded the MOH. In history there were only about ten sets to be so awarded.
Four Medals of Honor were awarded to Canadians for service, in the cabble cutting incident. Two each to the Nashville and Marblehead. Another four would also come to Canadians serving on various other ships during the Spanish American War.
Harry Miller died in 1968 while living in Costa Rica and is buried there. For many years the legion operated a club named in his honor. His brother Willard died on 19 Feb., 1959 and is buried at Arlington, and was one of the graves the Ambassador to Canada visited a few years back at my request, and noted elsewhere on this site.
Harry's death was 54 years ago today.