Responding to my colleague Dick’s post on George Charrette, here’s an excerpt from my work-in-progress called “The War Place,” which is an extended meditation and commentary on the war experience in America seen through the personal lens of someone trying to make sense of this piece of the national experience.—PM
In Dana Point, Calif., I’d buy the L.A. Times and read it at an overlook above a Pacific bay like silver-blue Labrelotte in St. Lucia in the Caribbean, which I visited eight times. En route to St. Lucia, the plane carrying my family always landed in San Juan, Puerto Rico, for transfer to a small aircraft. The February air at mid-day was usually warm and breezy. But it was always touch down, wait, and take off again. We never left the airport. At home, my university has the Charles Allen House, a small mansion once owned by a local business whiz, politico, even congressman, later a bigwig at American Sugar, whose oil paintings hang in the city’s art museum. He was the first civilian governor of Puerto Rico. As a kid I would lie on my stomach on our living room carpet flipping through pages of an oversized, rectangular, illustrated book about the Spanish-American War (maroon cloth cover with gold letters) that my parents had bought when they began to build a family library—the vivid color plates of naval battles and the Rough Riders, Teddy Roosevelt’s brigade, all boots, cowboy hats, and blue cavalry garb. I never lingered over the text, always rushed to the next picture, a slow motion version of an exotic war movie. Cuba. Puerto Rico. The Philippines.
At times I heard of a distant relative, George Charrette, who’d earned the Medal of Honor for his actions in the straits of Santiago de Cuba in 1898—so notable that one of Lowell’s French Canadian-American composers wrote “Charrette’s March” and sold the sheet music widely. With seven other volunteers, including Lt. Richard Hobson, Charrette helped sink the coal ship USS Merrimac. Admirals had ordered the vessel scuttled at the harbor mouth to trap enemy ships. The doomed ship was loaded with 2,000 tons of coal and “ten improvised torpedoes” wired to explode. One military historian wrote that “four thousand sailors begged to be allowed the privilege of dying for their country, for no sane person believed it to be otherwise.” Shore guns blasted and stopped the ship before it reached its mark. The U.S. sailors jumped into the sea; they survived the night and were captured. When the Spanish fleet was defeated a month later, Charrette was freed. In 1943, the U.S. Navy christened a destroyer the USS Charrette.
The big maroon war book sits on my desk as I write this. On page 121, there’s a black-and-white illustration, “Lieutenant Hobson Sinking the Merrimac in the Channel of Santiago Harbor,” and effusive description of Charrette’s adventure. Another Charrette relative of mine taught music for years at the university in a building near the restored Allen House, which serves as the Chancellor’s Office. Allen’s landscapes, including a view of “The Fort at Puerto Rico,” brighten a wood-paneled gallery. In 1950, Puerto Rican nationalists tried to kill President Harry Truman in Washington, D.C., and a few years later more nationalists shot four congressmen on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives. The issue of statehood or independence for the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico remains unresolved and contentious. For decades the university library held a Spanish flag recovered by American troops in Puerto Rico during the brief war and then presented to Allen. The university Chancellor in 2009 returned the fragile flag to Puerto Rico where it was received with pride and honor by elements of the national park service and island’s government. Teddy Roosevelt always praised “the man in the arena.”
—Paul Marion (c) 2009