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Sunday, February 16, 2014


Popular newspaper depiction of the explosion that sank the USS Maine in Havana Cuba
TWO SIDES OF HISTORY— On February 15, 1898, an explosion ripped through the American battleship Maine, anchored in Havana Harbor, sinking the ship and killing 260 sailors. Americans responded with outrage, assuming that Spain, which controlled Cuba as a colony, had sunk the ship.

Adm. Hyman G. Rickover
Two weeks prior to the beginning of the Spanish-American war President William McKinley received the results of an investigation he had ordered into the sinking of the USS Maine. Conducted in Havana by the Navy Department over four week period, the Court of Inquiry—despite all surrounding hysteria—“could not definitively assign blame to Spain for the explosion in Havana harbor.”

Nonetheless, American newspapers at the height of its yellow journalism era whipped American public opinion into a war frenzy.  During the pre-war investigation Captain Sigbie, who survived the explosion strongly suggested in one of the first telegrams he sent to Washington DC: “public opinion should be suspended until further report.”

The slogan “Remember the Maine” rang in U.S. ears and soon America was at war.

In 1976, American naval hero Admiral Hyman Rickover published his book, “How the Battleship Maine was Destroyed.”  The man who was considered the father of modern U.S. nuclear navy wondered if the application of modern scientific knowledge could determine the cause. He called on two experts on explosions and their effects on ship hulls. Using documentation gathered from the two official inquiries, as well as information on the construction and ammunition of Maine, the experts concluded that the damage caused to the ship was inconsistent with the external explosion of a mine. The most likely cause, they speculated, was spontaneous combustion of coal in the bunker next to the magazine, a problem that afflicted other ships of the period.

This was not necessarily steel shattering news.  All Rickover had to do was read the findings of another US. Inquiry, held in 1911, as to the probable sinking.  “ascribed by the court of inquiry of 1898 to the direct effect of an explosion exterior to the ship” was not caused by a mine. In the 1911 board’s words: ". . . the condition of the wreckage . . . [in the area of frame 18] can be accounted for by the action of gases of low explosives such as the black and brown powders with which the forward magazines were stored. The protective deck and hull of the ship formed a closed chamber in which the gases were generated and partially expanded before rupture. With these two sentences out of an 11-page report the board negated and overturned the key evidence upon which the 1898 court based its finding that the Maine was destroyed by a mine.

Department of the Navy—Naval History and Heritage Command

History Matters—George Mason University

USS Maine enters harbor Havana, Cuba, 1898
Photos from the Library of Congress

Wreck of the USS Maine, 1898 in Havana, Cuba

Funeral procession in Havana for the 260 American sailors killed aboard the USS Maine

USS Maine Circa 1895

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