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Signal Corps Balloon


1898

Perhaps the Signal Corps' most famous (or infamous) incident in Cuba involved its use of the captive balloon during the battle of Santiago on 1 July. Because the jungle concealed both troop movements and terrain features, such as trails and streams, aerial reconnaissance could be of great advantage. The balloon saga began with its shipment in early April from Fort Logan to Fort Wadsworth in New York Harbor. There Greely intended it to be used to watch for the anticipated arrival of Cervera's squadron off the coast. The balloon became the responsibility of Lt. Joseph Maxfield, who had been relieved from duty as departmental signal officer in Chicago and transferred to New York. With his main task being the monitoring of international cable traffic into New York City, Maxfield had little time to spare for ballooning. When Greely finally received funds to purchase additional balloons and equipment after the war began, he directed Maxfield to procure them. As the Signal Corps had done in the past, Maxfield turned to French sources and purchased two balloons from the aeronaut A. Varicle. He was not able to complete them, however, in what proved to be the short time available. While Varicle labored, Maxfield shipped the old Fort Logan envelope and associated equipment to Tampa, where the V Corps awaited orders to embark. Maxfield, now a major in the Volunteer Signal Corps, arrived several days later and found his outfit scattered among various unmarked freight cars on sidings outside the city. Hastily locating the balloon and equipment, Maxfield and his recently organized detachment boarded ship just in time to sail with the V Corps. A second balloon detachment remained behind at Tampa.

 

Once in Cuba, the balloon remained aboard ship for a week waiting to be unloaded. In the steaming hold, the varnished sides of the sphere stuck together. When Shafter finally called for a balloon reconnaissance before attacking the Spanish defences outside Santiago, he denied Maxfield's request to unload the gas generator. Thus the balloon would have to depend on the gas brought along in storage cylinders-enough for only one inflation.

 

Maxfield made the first ascent on 30 June, during which he noted terrain features and observed Cervera's ships in Santiago harbor. When the battle opened the next morning, the balloon was ready for action. Maxfield, accompanied by Lt. Col. George F. Derby, Shafter's engineer officer, ascended about a quarter of a mile to the rear of the American position at El Pozo. Derby, however, wished to get closer to the fighting and ordered that the balloon be moved toward the front. Maxfield objected, but he obeyed the command of his superior officer, and the balloon detachment hauled the sphere forward. Maxfield's concerns soon proved justified. The balloon floating overhead not only marked the location of the American troops but also gave the Spaniards an excellent target. Disaster followed. In the hands of an inexperienced crew, the guide ropes became entangled in the brush, completely immobilizing the craft. When the Spanish opened fire at the balloon, shrapnel and bullets rained down upon the troops below, resulting in numerous casualties. Maxfield and Derby escaped injury, but one member of the detachment received a wound in the foot. The balloon, meanwhile, was torn apart. Even if the holes could have been repaired, the signal detachment had no reserve gas available for re-inflation.

 

Despite the damaged balloon, the aerial reconnaissance had not been a total failure. The officers had observed the Spanish entrenchments on San Juan Hill and found them to be heavily defended. They then passed this information to the commanding general, with a recommendation to reopen artillery fire upon them. More important, Derby discovered a previously unknown trail through the woods that helped to speed the deployment of troops toward San Juan Hill.

 

Find out more in "Getting the Message Through" at http://www.history.army.mil/books/30-17/Front.htm#toc

 

 


 





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