Reason For The Sinking Of The USS Memphis

Official Report, US Navy

In 1916 US Marines landed in the Dominican Republic to protect US financial interest in the country on orders from president Woodrow Wilson. The Dominicans considered it an invasion and fought back, and while this was never officially acknowledged by the American government, as far as the Dominicans were concerned, the US and the Dominican Republic were effectively at war.

The United States And Dominican Republic At War


While the occupation had positive effects on the DR economy and other areas, most Dominicans resented the foreign invaders and fought a fierce guerilla war against the occupying forces. But the US had a new weapon that made things difficult for the guerillas: the airplane. Aerial bombardments and strafing runs assured that the US maintained its military superiority for 8 years until president Warren G. Harding called for a full retreat. The war was one of the last wars that pitted airplanes against men on horses.

Armored Cruiser


One of the ships sent by Wilson was the USS Memphis (original designation USS Tennessee), an armored cruiser and lead ship in its class with about 1000 in crew and enough firepower to wipe out an entire city. She was anchored in the harbor of Santo Domingo as a show of force, ready to bombard the city at any given moment.

But in the afternoon of August 29 of 1916 the crew noted a heavy swell developing in the harbor. It got worse, when suddenly the outlook spotted a 75foot wave approaching from the horizon. The swell in the harbor was already so strong, water was getting into her funnels, extinguishing the steam engines. Considering that the funnels were themselves 75 foot high, that was quite some swell. For about an hour the crew tried to get the ship under way and into safety, but couldn’t start the engines as the screws had also struck the shallow bottom of the harbor.


Then the massive wave arrived. It smashed into the side of the ship, almost entirely submerging it, washing sailors and equipment overboard. Reports say that the massive wave consisted of three consecutive waves that eventually beached the ship on the harbor rocks.

Tsunami? What Tsunami?


For many years the explanation was that a Tsunami had stuck the the ship, and that was also the official Navy report. More recent studies however suggest that it was a storm surge from a hurricane, since it took the wave nearly an hour to arrive, while Tsunamis travel the same distance in minutes.

Over 40 sailors died that day. However, over the next few hours, rescue operations managed to save the rest of the crew. Many of those involved in the rescue were Dominicans, who decided to lay down their grudge and help rescue the shipwrecked American sailors.

Most notably of these Dominicans was the fisherman Emeterio Sanchez, who risked his life multiple times to rescue several American sailors from the sea. Unlike the US Navy personnel involved, the Dominicans involved in the rescue did not receive any decorations or pensions (as was falsely reported in Dominican news outlets), with only US ambassador Charles Manatt expressing his thanks to the Dominican people. Much of the lack of recognition may be due to the fact that the two countries were at war at the time. However, it is also reported that a few days after the incident, three US Navy officials visited Sanchez at his humble home to thank him personally. 

The Memphis was written off as a complete loss, and over the next years scrapped. But her hull remained visible off the Santo Domingo malecon for another 20 years.