NPR — along with seven public radio stations around the country — is chronicling the lives of America’s troops where they live. We’re calling the project “Back at Base.”
It was the spark that led to America’s first overseas war. After an explosion sank the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor in 1898, the cry rose up in the U.S. to “Remember the Maine.”
The event was commemorated across the country — sometimes in unexpected places — like the city of East Chicago, Ind.
The sights and sounds of industry still fill East Chicago. Trains pass by City Hall every few minutes, some carrying coal for local steel mills whose furnaces continue to burn brightly along the southern shores of Lake Michigan. On the other side of the building, in the park, there is an often overlooked monument to a pivotal time in U.S. history — the sinking of the USS Maine.
“I don’t know of any, anywhere else where they have a whole plaque like this, made from the Maine itself, so no, this is unique, this is unique I’ve got to admit,” says Richard Lytle, a local historian.
He says there are very few local reminders of this conflict. Even he hadn’t noticed this plaque next to city hall.
“At the very bottom to the left you can see where it says USS Maine, destroyed Havana Harbor, and a little bit of a picture of the ship sinking.”
How did a monument dedicated to such a faraway event turn up in East Chicago — at a time when the city had fewer than 4,000 people? Turns out, as tiny as it was, the city — with the help of nearby communities — was large enough to raise a company of soldiers to fight in the Spanish-American War.
“These guys were definitely independent. They were out to save the world,” Lytle says.
A little history lesson: In 1898, the American public was sympathetic to the Cubans, who were rebelling against Spanish rule. The U.S. sent the battleship USS Maine, into Havana Harbor. On Feb. 15, an explosion killed 260 people on board. It may have been an accident, but, at the time it was attributed to a Spanish mine.
“It’s like the Firing on Fort Sumter, the Attack on Pearl Harbor. It’s all of that rolled into one. Patriotic fervor sweeps the entire country, everyone is like – we have got to avenge the Maine,” says Ken Robison, head of the Sons of Spanish American War Veterans.
Regiments from Indiana didn’t arrive in Havana until after the shooting was over. When they came back, they became active politically. The first veterans groups formed almost immediately.
“So when it came time for the Span-Am vets to start lobbying for pension and widows benefits and all that, they had such a political machine in place that the Civil War bets started complaining that the Span-Am vets didn’t see as hard a service, but were getting better benefits than the Civil War veterans,” Robison says.
That political clout is what landed the plaque in East Chicago.
It’s one of hundreds made from the wreckage of the USS Maine, after it was raised in Havana Harbor. The design, by sculptor Charles Keck, shows Lady Liberty, head bowed, arm outstretched over the ship. The plaques were distributed by the federal government starting in 1913.
“And the United Spanish American War Veterans laid claim to a lot of these. If you go around you’ll find them. Some of them are still right where they put them. Some have been moved,” Robison says. I think we’ve found three on ebay. One of our New York camps were able to convince a guy to take it down and donate it.”
They ended up everywhere from Central Park in New York City to Orange County, Calif.
The plaque in East Chicago didn’t find a home next to city hall until 1938 — the 40th anniversary of the sinking of the Maine. By then, many of the local vets were near the end of their careers, but still influential. Their chapter of the United Spanish American War Vets hung on until 1960, after the last local member died.