The Lost Fleet of Santiago de Cuba
In February 1898, Cuba’s three-year struggle for independence from Spain and fears for American lives and property in Cuba convinced President William McKinley to send the battleship USS Maine to “show the flag”. When Maine mysteriously exploded in Havana Harbor, suspicions of Spanish treachery led to war. As troops trained and assembled to sail to Cuba, the US Navy dispatched a squadron of ships. Spain also rushed its navy to Cuban waters.
The Spanish fleet lay out of reach of the American ships inside the harbor of Santiago de Cuba, protected by 16th century forts at its narrow entrance. To keep the Spaniards bottled up, the Navy sent the collier Merrimac, under heavy Spanish fire, into the narrow channel, where the crew scuttled it. Merrimac was the first ship lost in the Spanish American War.
Ironically, the Spaniards ultimately sent their own block ship Reina Mercedes, to close off the channel and keep the Americans out. The attempt failed when the Spanish ship drifted out of the channel and sank in the shallows. Ultimately, the Spanish Admiral, forced by his superiors to steam out of the harbor, ran past a gauntlet of US Navy ships standing off and waiting for his desperate sortie.
In a running battle along 80 miles of the Cuban coast, the Spanish ships sank, often at point blank range as the US Navy’s Squadron pursued them. The Battle of Santiago, the first naval victory of the war, opened the way into Santiago. Not long after the naval victory, American troops ashore overwhelmed Spanish forces protecting the city – notably at the Battle of San Juan Hill, and ended the war.
The wrecks of the Spanish fleet lie in shallow water along the coast, - many never explored by divers. The wreck of Merrimac, cleared from the channel, may have left traces, even pieces of the ship. The Sea Hunters, working from historical accounts and using high-tech equipment, search for Merrimac, while also exploring the sunken Spanish torpedo destroyers, cruisers and battleships. Their detailed look at a forgotten naval battle that secured and American victory in Cuba – a highly controversial battle, even today, is also a detailed look at the scenes of the war, including rare footage (particularly for American viewers) not only of the wrecks, but of the forts, the sites of battle and the monuments of the battles, all left untouched by Revolutionary Cuba.