5: A Century of Peace
<< 4: Civil War || Bibliography
The Evolution of the Naval Squadron
Before the 1891 Civil War, the squadron had already been organized into a heavy
division, formed by the ironclads, and a "lighter" division made up of the
cruiser Esmeralda and the corvettes. Once the Civil War was over the
cruisers being built for Chile in France were delivered. These were the Errazuriz
and the Pinto. In 1894 the Esmeralda was sold to Japan.
Under the name Idzumi she would have the honor of being the first ship to
sight the Russian Squadron at battle of Tsu-Shima in May 1905. It was replaced by a new Esmeralda
which arrived in Chile in 1898. The new ship served as flagship for a cruiser group that
was designated as the "Squadron of Evolutions", the first all cruiser squadron
in the Southern Hemisphere. It was made up by a powerful array of ships:
Cruisers of the Squadron of Evolutions
The heavy division soon became a coastal defense squadron. It was composed of the Huascar,
Cochrane, and by the new battleship Prat. This ship was
actually the second ship to bear the name of Iquique's hero. The first Prat
could not be delivered to Chile because it was finished before the War of the Pacific was
over and was, therefore, sold to Japan where it was re-named Itsukutchi.
The second ship was finished in 1890 and was armed with four 9.4 inch guns, mounted in
turrets with electric controls and protected by a 12 inch armor belt. It was rated at 18
knots speed but could not keep up with the cruisers.
A third division was composed of the torpedo chasers and destroyers led by the very
fast Thompson, capable of 30 knots, built by Yarrow. In the Straits of
Magellan served a small torpedo boat flotilla, supported by tenders and auxiliary craft.
The entire squadron had 4,425 officers and men, with an additional 1,100 personnel in
training. Another 530 men were working on surveying projects deep in the southern
This new dimension required a new administrative structure. Captain Montt, now promoted
to rear admiral, was elected President of Chile after the Civil War. When his term expired
he returned to the Navy and assumed command of all naval forces, under the title of
Director General. Under Montt the Navy established a solid basis upon which future growth
could rest. Schools of Artillery and Engineering were created and the school ship Baquedano
was purchased in England to train the men. Soon, Chilean midshipmen and apprentice seamen
were sailing the seven seas and visiting the five continents. The ship was rigged as a
corvette with an auxiliary steam plant and engine. The combination made her a slow and
difficult sailer, which unintentionally gave the Chilean crews the best training they
could possible get.
The expansion plans of the Navy were curtailed by the May Treaties signed with
Argentina in 1902. Although the disarmament pact allowed for delivery of the cruiser Chacabuco
and three destroyers, it was necessary to sell two powerful battleships destined to
replace the ironclads. These were the Constitucion and Libertad,
splendid ships of 12,000 tons, 10 inch guns and capable of 19 knots which were being
completed by Yarrow. They became HMS Triumph and HMS Swiftsure.
In February 1907, Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet arrived in Punta Arenas under the
command of Robley D. Evans. He was received enthusiastically and entertained at banquets
and balls. Evans was hesitant to take Chilean pilots for the final leg of the passage with
his 16 battleships, so he had them follow the Chacabuco whose orders were
passed with speed and accuracy. By night fall the whole fleet was in sight of the open
seas. Although Evans' orders did not include a visit to Valparaíso he decided to alter
course at least, to come into sight of the port and reciprocate in part, for the piloting
services of the Chacabuco. The gun salvos of the fleet reverberated
against the hills of Valparaíso in a salute that the city would never receive again. On
the heights 2000 Chilean sailors spelled the word "Welcome".
In 1910 the Chilean Congress passed on law which, in commemoration of the First
Centenary of Chile's Independence, ordered the construction of two battleships, six
destroyers and two submarines. But the outbreak of World War I in 1914 delayed the
delivery of these ships. The two battleships, still under construction, were purchased by
the British Navy . One battleship was almost finished and it became HMS Canada.
She was the only 14 inch gun battleship at Jutland. She was eventually returned to Chile
and as the Latorre served as flagship of the squadron. The other ship,
whose original name was Cochrane, was commissioned as the aircraft
carrier HMS Eagle she ended her days as the victim of a German torpedo
during WWII. Only two of the destroyers were delivered. The other four served in the
British Navy and the GoZi under the name Tipperary was
sunk by German gunfire at Jutland. The two submarines under construction in Seattle,
Washington, were sold to Canada.
In part payment for retention of Chilean ships in British shipyards, England ceded to
Chile six submarines which were being built in the United States. These were "H"
type boats, only 335 tons each and designed for coastal defense rather than the open seas.
Chilean crews took them over in Boston and after a short training period sailed them to
Valparaíso. This long cruise served to prove the capabilities of submarines for extended
patrols. Until then, submarine raids had been limited in length; this trip without
difficulties by inexperienced crews dissipated doubts about their endurance and ability to
sustain the crews for long periods of time.
On November 1, 1914, the German Pacific Cruiser squadron met the British off Coronel,
within 50 miles of the Chilean coast. Under the capable direction of Admiral Von Spee, the
Germans sank the flagship Good Hope and the cruiser Monmouth
before the British retired under cover of darkness. Von Spee made a triumphal entrance in
Valparaíso with his five ship squadron but, when he tried to enter the Atlantic, he was
defeated by a British squadron off the Falkland Islands. Only one ship escaped, the
cruiser Dresden. The Dresden took refuge in the Juan
Fernández Islands but there she was found by the protected cruiser Glasgow
which opened fire at close range disregarding Chilean neutrality. The Dresden's
Captain ordered the crew to scuttle the ship.
In 1919 one of the H submarines, the Rucumilla sank in Talcahuano Bay.
Thanks to very intelligent action by her Captain, Commander Aristides del Solar, quick
reaction by Commander Enrique Errazuriz, Captain of the tender Contreras,
and the skill of the Talcahuano shipyard workers, it was possible to save her entire crew.
Errazuriz, a submariner himself, thought that the boat had not dived properly and when he
observed bubbles coming to the surface, he ordered the spot to be marked with a buoy and
simultaneously signalled the command post that something was wrong. These events took
place at 0900 hours. A 180 ton floating crane was towed to the site; divers from the
Torpedo school located the submarine, connected a telephone buoy; and passed chains under
the keel of the sunken sub. In the meantime Commander Del Solar ordered his whole crew
into the central compartment of the submarine. Realizing he could not surface, he
conserved the air in the tanks, which he bled periodically into the submarine, thus saving
his crew. One of the tugs towing the crane accidentally cut the telephone line and it
proved impossible to connect it again. At about 1300 the bow of the submarine surfaced but
at that critical moment one of the chains broke and it was necessary to lower the sub to
the bottom. The boat was under 16 meters of water, with the forward and rear compartments
full of water which added another 300 tons to its original weight. The divers went back to
work and this time steel cables were passed to reinforce the chains. During the second
effort one of the wires in the steel cables parted. Just then a volunteer appeared and he
climbed through the crane structure, knowing that if the rest of the cable gave out he
would be crushed. Hanging precariously from the chains and cables, the man did a perfect
repair job. Thanks to his effort it was possible to continue lifting and at 1700 the deck
of the Rucumilla was above water and the crew was able to breathe fresh
air. The volunteer turned out to be a Navy deserter, Eucarpio Muñoz, who decided that was
how he would try to make up for his breach of discipline. Much has been written about this
incident, but above all, mention should be made that the crew of the Rucumilla
remained under control at all times; they showed bravery, patience and discipline; they
never uttered a curse or a complaint during eight hours of almost total darkness, cold
water up to their knees; breathing nauseating gases from the batteries. Knowledgeable
foreign authors without exception consider the salvage of the Rucumilla
one of the most successful submarine salvages in history.
These small submarines served for many years and later the submarine service was
augmented by three large "O" type units built in England and also a submarine
tender, the Araucano. In 1961 the Navy received two "Balao"
class submarines, Thomson and Simpson, from the United
States. A submarine school provides rigorous training for the underwater service, while
the shipyard at Talcahuano has developed the capability to make major repairs to its Oberon
class and "Type-209" submarines.
In 1929 the Latorre returned from England where it underwent a thorough overhaul and
modernization. As part of the renovating program several auxiliaries, three large type
"O" submarines and six Serrano class destroyers were acquired.
These ships had first-rate sea conditions, they all exceeded their rated speeds during
trials, and gave excellent service for many years. All these units purchased before 1930
were adequate for the period naval service of the country and defense of maritime
communications. But the severe measures taken during the 1930's to alleviate the crisis of
the Great Depression prevented the Navy from renovating this valuable materiel, until
after the Second World War. One exception was the sailing vessel Priwall,
a beautiful ship of the German "P" Line which was donated to the Navy during
WWII and became a schoolship replacing the old Baquedano, under the name Lautaro.
The Lautaro was reconditioned at Alameda Navy Yard in California
during the Second World War and returned to Chile where she became a valuable training
unit. On February 28,1945, this ship was sailing off the coast of Peru, en route to Mexico
with a cargo of nitrate. In midmorning a small fire suddenly ignited her cargo. Two of the
four masts came down in thunderous explosions and in a few hours, the Lautaro
had been reduced to a smoking hulk in which 21 of her crew perished, including her second
in command, Lieutenant Commander Enrique García, several officers and the ship's bosum.
Luckily a distress signal had been sent and received and it was possible to rescue the
rest of the crew though the ship sunk while under tow.
After the war the squadron was augmented by the Brooklyn class
cruisers Prat (ex Nashville) and O'Higgins,
(ex Brooklyn), six antisubmarine vessels and several landing craft. Three
transports were also acquired. But it would not be until 1960, before the first warship
expressly built for Chile in 30 years would arrive. The destroyer Williams
was soon joined by her sister ship Riveros. The old Serrano
class destroyers were decommissioned and replaced by two "Fletcher" class ships
which bore the names Blanco Encalada and Cochrane. The
old Latorre was sold as scrap to Japan and the squadron was greatly
reduced in tonnage although its armament was modernized. Two larget destroyers were
acquired from the United States, the "Sumner" class, destroyers Zenteno
and Portales. Continuing the torpedo boat tradition, four
"Jaguar" type fast boats were acquired in 1964 and a new Latorre
joined the squadron in 1972. She was the former Swedish cruiser Gota Lejon.
Chile's naval squadron has been incremented with four "County" class guided
missile cruisers, renamed Prat, Cochrane, Blaco Encalada and Latorre;
and four "Leander " class frigates, Lynch, Baquedano, Zenteno
and Condell. In addition two "Reshev" class guided missiles
patrol boats, several landings crafts, and approximately thirty auxiliary vessels make up
the Chilean Navy in 1993.
Naval aviation in Chile is as old as military aviation. The first naval pilots
completed their courses at the Army Air Base, El Bosque, in 1916. In 1916 England
delivered ten planes for the Navy as part of the compensation for keeping the Chilean
ships. These first ten planes became the Fleet Air Arm. In 1921 a naval/air base was
established in Valparaíso but a year later it was moved to Quintero under the command of
Lieutenant Commander Edgardo von Schroeders. Two bases were established later, one in
Chamiza near Puerto Montt and the other at Bahia Catalina, near Punta Arenas. In 1930
these units were unified to form the Chilean Air Force. The Navy turned over a small but
efficient, enthusiastic, and disciplined force with well established bases.
But the Navy never abandoned the basic and fundamental principles of naval aviation and
Navy personnel continued to be trained as pilots, mechanics and maintenance personnel and
some were sent to study at US Navy installations. The Navy was able to maintain the idea
that a naval air force with it own materiel and personnel was an absolute requirement for
an efficient and capable naval force.
In 1953 the naval air arm was re-established and helicopters, transports and training
planes were acquired. A naval air base was set up at El Belloto and a training program in
anti-submarine warfare (ASW) was carried out, while at the same time an air photography
service was set up to assist in updating nautical charts of territorial waters.
The Chilean Marine Corps is an institution whose history starts with the Navy's. In
fact when the Aguila put out to sea on her first trip, on O'Higgins'
orders, twenty -five well armed infantrymen were on board. These were Chile's first
marines. During the War of Independence, landing forces, organized as marines and under
the command of British trained marine officers, served in all ships of the squadron and
made landings on the coast of the Americas from Chiloe to California. Men such as
J.M.Charles, William Miller, Jorge Beaucheff, George Campbell and Richard L. Vowell, led
the marines on their road to glory at Pisco, Valdivia, Arica, Ancud, and San José del
During the Chilean expansion period the marines did not have a separate or permanent
organization. The artillery for example, operated under command of the Army with Army
officers. Under that label, we find them at the capture of Santa Cruz' squadron, at
Callao, at Casma, in the construction of Fort Bulnes and at Abtao. Since their mission was
to cover the garrisons of the coastal fortifications they served in forts at Valparaíso,
Talcahuano, Lota, Coronel, and Ancud.
This powerful arm did not participate in strength during the War of the Pacific. The
strength of the naval artillery was increased to 1200 men and divided into two battalions
with four companies each under Army officers. These soldiers were distributed among the
squadron's ships and served throughout the war. At Iquique, Marine Sargent Aldea boarded
the Huascar with Captain Arturo Prat, and in the landing at Pisagua a 670
men Army battalion led the way up the cliff.
Once the war was over, the previous weak organization returned and the name was even
limited to Coast Artillery. But the Corps acquire great importance with the installation
of powerful fortifications at Valparaíso and Talcahuano. The most select troops of the
Army were sent to cover the garrisons. In 1903 these troops were placed under Navy command
as Marine Artillery; and until 1938, they were concentrated in two regiments of one each
at Valparaíso and Talcahuano.
New developments in artillery, specially fire control techniques using radar,
anti-aircraft missiles, and abandonment of coast artillery, forced a reorganization of the
Corps. In 1964 it was officially named Cuerpo de Infanteria de Marina,
(Marine Infantry Corps). Four battalions were created, one each stationed at Iquique,
Valparaíso, Talcahuano and Punta Arenas. The Marine School, located at Fort Vergara in
Viña del Mar, was created in 1897.
In spite of its somewhat fragmented history, the Chilean Marine Corps has developed a
tradition of loyalty, devotion to duty and patriotism, which received a very interested
backhanded in 1973. In one of the secret documents of the Marxists, the following note was
" It must be kept in mind that the marine infantry does not have any of our
elements within their forces, for this reason her forces must be neutralized as soon as
possible by units loyal to the plan. " (9)
At present the Chilean squadron maintains an active fire support and antisubmarine
warfare group, a small submarine flotilla, and a squadron of torpedo and missile boats. It
is going through a modernization stage that looks at the future, searching for the best
available materiel and highest training of its personnel in order to serve Chile better.
THE NAVAL MUTINY OF 1931
In 1931 the Great Depression was having its effects on Chile. The country was suffering
from a serious economic and political crisis of a magnitude that the nation had never
experienced before. Two presidents had resigned and the executive power was resting
temporarily on the President of the Supreme Court.
As usual, the squadron had sailed north for the winter where a rigorous training
program was scheduled. During this period, the squadron was divided into two divisions,
the "Active Squadron" and the "Instruction Squadron". On board the Latorre,
flagship of the Instruction Squadron , were 21 men who had been given the temporary rank
of "corporals" in the Supply Branch. These men had not gone through the
traditional naval training that started at age fifteen, but had been hired so that they
could be trained on accounting methods and eventually become "accounting
assistants" to regular supply officers. Some of these men were experienced union
organizers or political agitators who had managed to hide their past and had achieved high
scores in the competitive examinations.
The difficult economic situation affected the naval personnel in a way that the rest of
the country could not possibly know. Their families had been left behind in Valparaíso
and Talcahuano and their small salaries did little to comfort the prolonged absence from
their homes. The government in Santiago had announced a 30% reduction in salaries to all
government employees, including the Armed Forces.
The supply corporals, led by one Manuel Astica suggested that the crews present the
Squadron's commodore with a List of Petitions, a standard practice in Chilean factories,
mines and nitrate works. When Captain Alberto Hozven learned that these demands were
circulating among the crew, he ordered that a delegation from each ship in the squadron
attend a formation on the decks of his flagship. There, in a hard and authoritarian way,
he informed them that this type of polticking was anti-patriotic and contrary to navy
traditions and regulations. He also stated very clearly what procedures the navy used in
case the crew wanted to make a request.
The speech by the commodore did not calm the crews. It fell instead, like a bad seed,
on the well prepared minds of the petty officers who had been lectured by Astica and his
associate Agustin Zagal. The majority of the sargents wanted to forget the list of
demands, but Astica and Zagal insisted on the crew's right to make demands. The petty
officers of the battleship met, and after an passionate speech by Astica, decided to take
over the ships.
That night, 1 September 1931, the officers on duty in the flagships O'Higgins
and Latorre were captured and all officers locked in their cabins.
Similar actions took place in all the ships anchored in Coquimbo. The petty officers in
the flagship assumed control of the squadron appointing themselves "General Staff of
the Crews" (Estado Mayor de las Tripulaciones). Astica played an important role in
all this and was elected "Secretary " of the governing body.
The government took contradictory measures. On the one side, it decided to deal with
the crews by sending Rear Admiral Edgardo Von Schroeders to Coquimbo. On the other hand ,
it rejected the temporary agreements that the Admiral had reached with the leaders of the
rebellion. The navy was not allowed to solve what was began as an internal problem. The
solution proposed by the Admiral and which had been accepted by the majority of the petty
officers, who were, after all, career men with many years in the service, would have
solved the rebellion and identify the real leaders of the mutiny.
Unfortunately, political elements attempted to take advantage of the situation. This
situation deteriorated rapidly as the naval bases at Talcahuano, the Southern squadron ,
the Air Force base at Quintero and the Salinas naval complex, near Valparaíso, joined the
revolt. The rebels, now under the control of the "Estado Mayor de
Tripulaciones", changed their demands and called for, among other things, a social
revolution. Since no agreement could please the government, it was decided to put down the
revolt by force. The Talcahuano base was attacked by two army regiments and a company of
navy officers and was captured after a short fight. Salinas was similarly occupied by the
government forces without serious resistence. Finally, the squadron at Coquimbo was
attacked by the Chilean Air Force.
The air attack on the squadron, in spite of being carried out with bravery and daring,
was a military failure. However, it served to convince the crews that they had no support
in the rest of the country, which Astica and his cronies had convinced them they had. Next
morning the destroyers notified the Latorre that they would no longer
obey their orders. The officers were restored and ship after ship returned to the control
of their commanding officers. Aboard the Latorre , Astica's masterful
oratory went for naught. The crews demanded that their officers be restored and landed the
leaders at Tongoy.
The revolt ended with the surrender of the squadron at Coquimbo. The results could have
been tragic. Mistakes had been made by the navy: those untrained men should have never
been allowed on board a warship without a thorough screening. The government should have
allowed the navy to solve her own problems.
The results of this events were perplexing. Many officers were dismissed from the navy,
as well as all the ship captains who lost their commands. The true culprits, after a long
process, and a change in government, were pardoned and soon were out in the streets. Even,
Astica was not only set free, but in due course, the government paid its share towards his
retirement. It was a hard lesson, no doubt, for those who think that professional naval
forces can keep themselves totally isolated from politics.
In peacetime, the first responsibility of the Navy is to be prepared for war. Of these
the most important is training. Few Chilean institutions maintain so many educational
centers in proportion to their budget, as the Navy. All Navy personnel must go through
either of two basic schools:"Escuela de Grumetes" (Seamen's school) for enlisted
personnel and the "Escuela Naval" (Naval Academy) for officers.
The Escuela de Grumetes prepares enlisted personnel for the Navy through a two year
training program and several selection processes. Many Navy officers started their careers
there and received their commissions after further training at the Escuela Naval for
officer training. The school was founded in 1868 and for a while its development was
somewhat irregular, changing its location and varying the number of students until the
turn of the century when the sailing ship Majestic was purchased. On
board this vessel, re-named Lautaro, apprentice seamen learned valuable
lessons before going into the squadron. In 1921 the school was re-established on
Quiriquina Island, at the mouth of Concepcíon Bay six miles from Talcahuano. Today it
bears the name of Captain Alejandro Navarrete, the first 'sea officer' of the Navy, who
enlisted as a cabinboy in 1893 and "going through the hawse hole" earned his
commission retiring as captain in 1933.
The Escuela Naval, which bears the name of its most distinguished graduate, Commander
Arturo Prat, prepares executive officers for the Navy, Marines, Supply Corps, and Merchant
Marine. It enjoys an international reputation and its alumni include many foreign
A second stage of this basic education is taken the year after graduation, when the
graduating classes of the two schools form the crew of the training ship Esmeralda.
The midshipmen and apprentice seamen take a long cruise through either the Pacific or
Atlantic Ocean, visit different countries, learn about life at sea and above all operate a
sailing ship under different sea and weather conditions.(10)
The Navy maintains several schools where a second educational cycle is offered.
Usually, a Chilean mariner would complete his training cruise and serve for a two-year
period in a unit of the squadron or in the ships serving in the southern channels or
Antartica. Once this is completed, he may be selected to enter advanced schools, such as
Armaments, Engineering and Operations, which are located in Salinas Naval Base, just north
of Valparaíso. Other schools are Submarines, Supply and Services, Health, and a separate
school to which civilian students are admitted, Naval Artisans, which prepares the workers
for the Navy yards. The Navy also trains some of its personnel in other schools of the
Armed Forces, such as musicians. Chilean naval personnel have attended military as well as
civilian colleges and universities in the United States and Europe. An American writer,
already quoted, Robert Schiena, says:" The Chilean sailor is among the best trained
in the world."
The "Academia de Guerra Naval", Naval War College, is a prestigious
institution founded in 1911, making it the oldest War Academy in Latin America. The
motivating force behind its organization was Admiral Patricio Lynch who felt that a major
shortcoming of the War of the Pacific was the lack of officers qualified for General Staff
work. Lynch however, would not live to see his plans brought to reality. For the first few
years it was directed by Captain Charles Burns of the Royal Navy. It is located in
Together with the universities and the "liceos" (high schools), the Navy has
been one of the Chilean institutions that has helped breakdown social barriers. The two
basic schools admit students only on merit, without consideration of financial or social
status. All conditions being equal, preference is however given to candidates who are the
sons of Armed Forces personnel, without distinction as to rank or branch of the service.
The Navy also maintains an aggressive program to promote enlisted men to officer training
courses. Those selected enroll in special courses at the "Escuela Naval."
Many of the courses are offered at these service schools are not strictly limited to a
Navy career. Many of the artisans, electricians, engineers, accountants, mechanics, etc.,
after being educated at the Navy schools, enter private industry or government service.
Navy trained engineers, for example, can be found in the steel, petroleum, and mining
A second duty of the Chilean Navy, no less important than training, is the development
of the sparsely populated areas of the country. The Navy not only explored, charted, and
established posts in isolated and far way regions but, it assists, transports and supplies
homesteaders and pioneers in regions where the comforts of civilization are unavailable.
There are many small settlements in the Magellanic Channels that depend exclusively on the
Navy for their existence. The Navy maintains outposts in remote places such as the mouth
of the Baker River, in Yelcho, Palena, and elsewhere. These outposts have health
facilities, supply stores and radio stations. The Navy provides regular transport service
for supplies, fuel and mail, and it carries the products of the remote areas to commercial
centers for very modest prices.
At Navarino Island for example, the Navy founded Puerto Williams in 1959. The small
village with schools, hospital , and other facilities, soon attracted settlers and today,
besides serving the Navy as a supply depot for Antartic Operations, it is the southernmost
town in the World.
Easter Island is another example of Navy colonization. The island was discovered in
1722 by the Dutch navigator Roggoveen. Adventurer after adventurer tried to exploit the
natives in any which way possible, including selling off part of the male population as
slaves to the guano works of Peru. In 1866 the Abtao, with a midshipman
class on board, stopped at the Island. One of the instructors was Lieutenant Commander
Policarpo Toro, who took a special interest in the island, not for the ancient monuments
to be found there, but also because of the wretched condition of the inhabitants. Toro
wrote an extensive report to his superiors, suggesting that the island should be protected
by Chile's national flag. President Balmaceda took notice the report and ordered Toro to
investigate the possibility of annexing the Island. Toro travelled to Tahiti in a small
schooner, purchased the real estate on the island owned by Frenchmen then residing in
Tahiti, and on September 9, 1888, took possession of the Island for Chile. A small colony
of 12 Chileans was established.
Unfortunately the Civil War and other matters distracted the government's and Navy's
attention. Some of the payments were not paid when due and Commander Toro was sued by the
Island's former owners. Toro paid them by mortgaging his own salary and house, while the
government gave away the right to exploit the Island to a private company. Only in 1917
was the Island placed under the authority and government of the Navy. Although naval
administration proved to be effective, progressive, and just, commercial exploitation
continued under private companies. It was not until 1966 that the colony became an
integral part of Chile by being made a Department of the Province of Valparaíso. The Navy
had much to show for its administration: schools were created; a hospital established,
including a leper colony; water and electricity provided; roads built; a small pier
erected ; and in general, the same services were provided as for continental outposts.
The Navy stands ready to assist in case of natural disasters. In 1906, after the great
Valparaíso earthquake the squadron landed men and rapidly provided help for the victims.
Sailors acted as firemen, patrolled the streets and set up soup kitchens and first-aid
posts. The Navy even assumed temporary governmental authority. Similar services were
provided in the 1939 earthquake which destroyed Concepcíon, even though the Talcahuano
Naval base was also hard hit. In the great earthquake and tidal wave of 1960, the Navy
took on the mission of helping and moving the population of small coastal towns and
villages between Talcahuano and Chiloe. Ships were distributed along the coast and as soon
as they anchored, sanitary and construction parties were landed which provided not only
the most elementary help and assisted with hand labor but also re-established
communications, set up emergency water supplies, and even brought people on board to sleep
when no other shelter was available. For the first time Navy helicopters operated deep
inland assisting in rescue and salvage operations. Later, the Navy cooperated in
reconstruction work; but the tidal wave caused such profound changes in the hydrographic
configuration of the zone that it was necessary to confirm charts, as well as to replace
and add buoys, navigation beacons, and even light houses. In these tasks the helicopters
provided invaluable assistance. Similars tasks were performed after the March 1985
In many instances the Navy has had to provide the services normally assigned to the
merchant marine. Warships were used to transport food supplies, merchandise, and civilian
passengers after the 1960 earthquake and tidal wave which proved devastating to many of
the small shipping companies in the southern area.
In 1946 Chile took a big step in the Antartic. Although the country had asserted rights
in the continent that went as far back as colonial times, the limits of the Chilean
quadrant had not been defined until 1940 and no effort had been made to establish an
outpost in the area. In December 1945 the transport Angamos and the
frigate Iquique departed Punta Arenas in a mission similar to the one
which a century before had been given to Guillermos and the Ancud:
explore, chart, and establish an outpost that would physically confirm Chilean sovereignty
over the land. The Navy constructed a small base on Greenwich Island and a meteorological,
scientific, and observation station was set up. It was almost an entirely Navy operation.
In the following years other bases were built. Chile is a signer of the Antartic Treaty
and in strict observance of its terms, the Chilean Navy and the Armed Forces maintain only
peaceful activities in the frozen continent.
A traditional role of the Navy has been assistance to navigators. Coast guard type
activities are provided by the Navy under The General Directorate of the Maritime
Territory and Merchant Marine. These services have been in operation for more than a
century. A large percentage of Navy personnel is engaged in duties of this nature. The
Navy provides meterological services, radio stations and observation outposts, buoys,
beacons and light houses. In addition every Navy ship is ready to rescue, lend assistance
to shipwreck sailors or to help salvage vessels. Many ships have been lost in salvage
operations. The steamer María Isabel sank in 1857, after hitting a rock
during the rescue operation of the Sardinian ship San Giorgio in the
Straits. In 1905 the cruiser Pinto sank under similar conditions in the
Chiloe channels. The transport Valdivia ran aground and was lost while
attempting rescue operations in Taitao peninsula. The tender Janequeo
sank in 1965 with the loss of 53 men and her captain, while attempting to tow the Leucoton,
which had been driven aground by one of the worst storms ever to hit the coast of Chiloe.
During the salvage operations Seaman Mario Fuentealba rescued two drowning sailors and was
himself lost while attempting to rescue a third. A similarly heroic performance was that
of Corporal Leopoldo Odger, who though badly wounded in his face, managed to save three
lives before losing his own.
But the three most spectacular rescues performed by the Navy took place in Antartic
waters. In August 1916, Lieutenant Luis A. Pardo, commanding the tender Yelcho,
left Punta Arenas in an attempt to rescue the men of the Shackleton South Pole expedition,
which had been abandoned at Elephant Island. Shackleton had crossed the Drake Passage in a
small boat and had twice attempted to reach his companions. Pardo led his ship without
mishap through the Drake Passage in the mist a strong winter storm. He found the island
covered by fog but free from icebergs. Pardo decided to approach the island, confident of
his crew, relying on the echo he could hear from his own ship's siren and trusting his own
instinct. When the fog cleared the ship was found to be half a mile from the camp. That
very afternoon Shackleton's men were embarked and the ship started her return voyage to
Punta Arenas. Pardo's feat is the most spectacular rescue ever performed by the Chilean
Navy when one considers the limited resources at his disposal."These Chilans--wrote
Worsley, one of Shackleton's lieutenants--are by far the finest seamen in South America.
Probably they are the best Latin sailors in the world."
Twice the Navy has conducted rescue operations on Deception Island. On December 4,
1967, the ship Piloto Pardo was departing the island, when the land was
shaken by a violent volcanic explosion. From nine miles away the crew of the Pardo
observed an enormous column of smoke that rose to 2000 meters and covered one third of the
island where three bases are located. The Pardo returned immediately to
rescue the men at the Argentinian, British and Chilean bases. When the ship arrived at the
entrance of the inner bay the cloud was 10,000 meters high and completely covered the
island. The air was thick with ashes, flying rocks, smoke; and other thick gases; and it
was thought that no one had survived. But radio contact was established and the men from
the Chilean base were ordered to the British base from where a rescue would be attempted.
It was impossible to approach land. The interior of the bay was boiling, wind was blowing
at 40 miles an hour, and continuous explosions rained mud and stones on the sea.
That night the ship remained off the island under constant discharges of rocks and
ashes that soon covered the deck. The mushroom cloud over the island provoked an electric
storm that prevented radio communications, but at dawn a weak signal was received saying
that the Chileans were at the British base. At three in the morning orders were given to
proceed with the rescue operation. The only means of transportation were Naval Aviation
helicopters because the tides oscillated between two and three meters range. Unable to
maintain radio contact, the aircraft disappeared in the cloud and managed to rescue 42 men
who had almost given up any hope of being saved. The ship went around the island at full
speed to assist in the rescue of the Argentinians who had been unable to reach the
Two years later, in February, 1969 the Pardo again received a distress
call, this time from HMS Shackleton. The British base at Deception had
been destroyed again by volcanic eruptions and the men were walking towards the southern
tip of the island. The Pardo approached the island in heavy seas, strong
winds and thick smoke. Flying under very adverse conditions, such as smoke and flying mud
and rocks, the helicopters managed to land and rescue the men who were later transferred
to HMS Shackleton.
In 1972 a distress message was received from the tourist ship Lindbad Explorer
which had ran aground on King George Island. The Yelcho and Pardo
responded. Helicopters were launched and the Yelcho approached the
stranded ship with the intention of taking her under tow. The Pardo received
154 passengers but had to remain at anchor waiting for favorable weather before it could
sail to Punta Arenas.
The construction of lighthouses along the rugged coast of Chile is an enterprise that
deserves a better historical coverage. The Evangelistas lighthouse is located in a remote,
inaccessible island, always under difficult weather conditions. It was designed and built
by a civil engineer, Jorge Slight. This lighthouse, which marks the entrance to the
Straits of Magellan from the Pacific, is a masterpiece of Chilean engineering. In order to
carry the materials to the rock on which the tower was to be built it was necessary to
build some costly and difficult structures. The weather was so bad that the construction
were thought to be impossible. The place is lonely, whipped by strong winds and rarely
does calm weather last for more than a few hours at a time. The ships that resupply it
wait in a bay called Forty Days because that is how long a tender once had to wait before
it could approach the rock on a supply mission. Similar problems were found in the
construction of other light houses. Supplying or refueling these beacons is still not an
easy job, although the helicopter has proven to be a marvelous aid in this work.
No less important has been the enormous effort devoted to hydrography. For more than a
century the Navy has explored, investigated, charted, surveyed and resurveyed its charts.
Today the whole coast and a good portion of the Chilean Antartic area have been properly
covered. Chilean charts have a reputation for accuracy, clarity, and currency.
THE DEFENSE OF INTERNAL LAW AND ORDER
Ever since its founding the Navy had maintained a tradition of discipline that had
seldom been broken. The fact that it performed its duty away from political environments,
that its officers and men were highly trained, had given them a moral authority that was
generally accepted. During civic and political fights, naval officers always appeared as
moderators or impartial judges whose decisions were almost universally accepted.
Only once, at the request of Congress, had the commander of the squadron rebelled
against the President, that is the Civil War of 1891. When the war ended, Admiral Jorge
Montt was elected president; and when he later returned to the Navy, he refused to
participate in political activities of any sort.
During the parliamentary regime which followed the Civil War, the country was forced to
live in almost constant political upheaval. Political parties multiplied, cabinets changed
constantly, but the Navy remained unaltered so that its officers could keep a solid
reputation as men whom the citizens could trust. However, in 1924 a bill was presented in
Congress to increase the pay of senators and deputies. Passage of the proposed bill was
considered an insult to the Armed Forces because their salaries were being effectively
reduced every day by the deteriorating economic situation. Several politicians took
advantage of the unhappy climate created among the officers and tried to attract the
commanders of the Santiago and Valparaíso garrisons. When they contacted Admiral
Guillermo Soublette, he refused to listen to them, but after talking to the President of
the Republic, Arturo Alessandri, he decided to join the conspirators and establish some
contacts in the Navy.
On 5 september 1924 a "Junta Militar y Naval" presented President Arturo
Alessandri with a list of petitions. This Junta was formed by 33 Army officers and only
four Navy captains, although Admirals Soublette and Luis Gomez Carreño had been involved
with another group called TEA whose designated purpose was to force Alessandri to resign.
The President demanded that the Junta be dissolved, and when the officers refused, he
resigned leaving the Vice-President as Chief Executive. When the Vice-President resigned,
a Junta de Gobierno was installed in which the Commander in Chief of the Navy, Admiral
Francisco Neff, was a member.
Since the desires of the original conspirators were not satisfied, a new Junta took
over on January 23, 1925 and detained Admiral Neff and his Minister of Marine, Admiral
Luis Gomez Carreño. The reaction of the Navy in Valparaíso was swift. A meeting of all
the officers in Valparaíso was called and the Navy issued a proclamation stating that it
did not approve of the procedures in Santiago nor of the political aims of the movement.
The Santiago Junta attempted to contact the Valparaíso regiments but their officers
decided to side with the Navy. In fact, a cavalry regiment, the "Coraceros",
boarded the squadron which was at anchor at Valparaíso, ready for any emergency. Tension
ran high and many observers thought a civil war would erupt. But the Santiago Junta agreed
to the Navy demands and a new Junta was formed with Admiral Carlos Ward as one of its
Once the nation returned to political normalcy, the Navy did not get mixed up in
governmental affairs. When political movements and bloodless coups d'etat forced
government changes in Santiago, the Navy limited its activities to maintaining public
order in the ports.
In the years that followed the Navy was ready to support and assist the government when
its services were required. In 1927 President Carlos Ibañez appointed several Navy
officers to government posts and Captain Carlos Froedden even served as Minister of the
Interior. But as an American historian has pointed out: "(the Navy) still acted
within an institutionl framework, and, more significant, its chain of command, as well as
its discipline, remained intact."(11)
President Gabriel Gonzáes appointed Admiral Inmanuel Holger as Minister of the
Interior and other Navy officers served in civilian posts of the administration. The
election of Carlos Ibañez to a second term in 1952 placed many Navy officers in difficult
positions. Ibañez disregarded Navy traditions and forced the retirement of several senior
officers who had not shown political support for him. The Navy, however, remained loyal to
the President and the Constitution.
But the hardest test came with the Marxist regime which took over in 1970. Contrary to
what has been written, not only the Navy, but the Armed Forces of Chile, respected the
Constitution and the laws and actively cooperated with the Marxist government.
The first friction with the Navy occurred when the government tried to distract public
attention from the assasination of a former minister by altering Navy photographs in an
attempt to show contraband. The lower echelon officers who were aware of this
falsification were incensed, but somehow the whole affair was smoothed over. Moreover, the
President and the Marxist parties changed their attitude towards the Armed Forces. A bill
was sent to the Senate asking for a 49% increase in pay and the Navy was authorized to
purchase two Leander class frigates from English shipyards, as well as two Oberon class
submarines and the cruiser Gota Lejon from Sweden.
Admiral Raul Montero, Commander-In-Chief, was invited to visit the Soviet Union, but in
spite of a cordial atmosphere and the friendly relations established no material results
were produced. In the words of the Admiral: "The Soviets have nothing to offer. Their
strict discipline is in itself a contradiction to the system they pretend to enjoy".
The economy deteriorated badly during the second year of Marxist government and the
situation culminated in the trucker's strike of November 1972 which virtually paralyzed
the country. The political opposition would have liked nothing better than that the Armed
Forces to interfere, especially after the government parties sent mobs rampaging downtown
in Santiago and Valparaíso. The Armed Forces high command felt they should not interfere.
Navy intelligence was aware that a secret Marxist memorandum listed Admirals and senior
captains to be eliminated. Heading this list was Vice-Admiral José T. Merino, second in
seniority to Montero. While the political police kept a good eye on senior officers,
captains and colonels were able to file reports and take the political pulse of the
country. In October 1972 the secret monthly memorandum to the General Staff of National
While the civilians have complete liberty to pursue their roles, the military is
serving as a cushion between two antagonistic forces without getting any benefits and at
great sacrifices. They watch the country deteriorate, day after day, without being able to
participate in any decision... this can only mean that the armed forces are about to reach
the limit of obedience to their Constitutional obligation, and could, at any given moment,
be forced to take an unconstitutional stand.(12)
Two unrelated appointments in the Armed Forces were to bring two men into key
positions. The first was the appointment of General Augusto Pinochet to Chief of Staff of
the Army: the second, Admiral Patricio Carvajal to head of the General Staff for National
Defense. This committee was directly responsible to the three commanders-in-chiefs.
Carvajal proceeded to re-organize the emergency commands that Chileans have learned to
keep ready in the case of a national emergency, such as an earthquake, tidal wave, or an
internal revolt. The plan divides the country into differente commands, one for each Army
division and two Navy commands, one at Talcahuano at the other at Valparaíso. An Air
Command could be set up in Puerto Montt. It must be emphasized that these commands were to
act independently and immediately in case of emergencies, and all armed forces whithin
their area came under their authority, including the para-military police force, the
The trucker's strike forced the government to call on the military. This move was not
without precedent. Almost all Chilean Presidents since the time of Balmaceda had relied,
at one time or another, on the military. On November 2, 1972 a new cabinet was sworn and
Rear Admiral Ismael Huerta took over the largest ministry: Public Works. The military,
headed by General Carlos Prats of the Army, settled the strike after he promised to end
the truckers supply problems. It is interesting to note that a word from the military was
enough to satisfy the truckers.
In a few months however, disillusionment set in. The Army became suspicious of its man
in the government. Admiral Huerta was uncomfortable in his post but felt that his
patriotic duty was to do everything possible to support the government. His capabilities
as an engineer and administrator were wasted because of his inability to get his orders
obeyed. Day after day, his Undersecretary presented him with documents to be signed and
more than once Admiral Huerta found illegal orders and decrees slipped in among the
documents to be signed. When the government announced food rationing without consulting
him, he demanded to see General Prats. Unable to get a satisfactory answer, feeling
cheated, a puppet in a government with which he did not agree philosophically, Huerta
presented his resignation. It was the President's first trouble with the Navy. Admiral
Montero did not want to pull the Navy out of the government. He attempted to find a
replacement, but Admiral after Admiral turned him down. Finally he ordered Rear Admiral
Daniel Arellano, who had spent most of his career at sea and who had just returned from
the United States and who no doubt knew little of the internal situation, to take over the
Public Works Ministry.
Huerta, back in the Navy, reported on the internal conditions of the government to the
senior officers, and went back to his regular duties. His detailed exposition of the near
anarchy that reigned inside Chile's largest ministry deeply concerned the Navy.
The Armed Forces remained in the government until the scheduled Congressional elections
were held. Although military authorities guaranteed that law and order prevailed on
election day, the military could not prevent a fraud of enormous proportions which gave
the Unidad Popular a small victory at the polls.
Right after the aborted attempt of the Second Armored Regiment to stage a revolt on
June 29th, 1973, the senior officers set up a fifteen man committee, five general officers
from each of the services. After several meetings the generals agreed that the government
must be presented with a memorandum containing a bill of particulars or list of demands.
After all, the June revolt had been put down thanks to the loyalty of the Armed Forces,
whose commanders did not agree with the politics of the government but still obeyed it.
The memorandum contained 29 points and it was agreed that the three Commanders-in-Chief
would present it to the President in person. But when Admiral Montero and General Ruiz of
the Air Force went to La Moneda, they found that Prats had already presented the
unfinished memorandum. They felt betrayed but said nothing. Admiral Montero was willing to
go along with Prats, but the Navy as a body was unwilling to compromise. Admiral Merino
refused to accept Montero's explanation, and together with the Commandant of the Marines,
Admiral Huidobro demanded that Montero resign. A meeting with the President himself could
not solve the impasse.
On August 9, 1973 a conspiracy was discovered in the Navy. Although the plot was almost
immediately detected, it produced a serious effect on the general public. New strikes,
public disorders, anarchy, and chaos reigned in the capital. It was time again to call on
the military and a Cabinet of National Security was sworn in on August 9, 1973. Admiral
Montero became Minister of Finance, a post for which he had no previous preparation
whatsoever. The new Cabinet was unable to bring about the same results that the military
had achieved in November of 1972. Congress passed a resolution calling on the Armed Forces
to resign from the Cabinet. General Prats resigned and General Augusto Pinochet was
appointed Commander of the Army. In the Navy, Montero managed to hang on. The Marxists
were specially fearful of the Marines, who had resisted all attempts at infiltration from
the Left. Merino was known to have right-wing tendencies and although Montero enjoyed the
full support of the President the tension and the pressure mounted.
On August 24, Montero finally resigned his post in the ministry but accordance to the
President's wishes he returned to his post as Commander of the Navy. The Admirals resisted
all attempts to be appointed to the cabinet and demanded that Montero resign his Navy
commission. Finally, Admiral Arellano, who had already saved the situation six months
before, agreed to take over the Ministry of Finance.
Still, it was in the Navy that tension reached the boiling point. The investigation of
the conspiracy showed that Senator Carlos Altamirano, a leader of the Socialist Party, was
the head of the plot. The Navy demanded that he be turned over to be tried. The government
refused. The Admirals demanded en masse that Montero resign and he finally agreed. Merino
was called from Valparaíso and arrived by helicopter at the Presidential Palace, La
Moneda. But the President demanded that the Navy drop the charges against Altamirano if he
was to be confirmed as head of the Navy. After six hours no agreement could be reached.
Merino returned to Valparaíso and that same night decided that action must be taken and
called for a meeting of general officers. He knew that the Air Force and the Army were
ready to act, but didn't know when. Each service had developed its own plan of action and
no coordination had been agreed upon. He ordered Admiral Huidobro to Santiago with a slip
of paper. It read:
Gustavo and Augusto: On my word of honor, D-day is the 11th and H-hour is 0600. If
you cannot take part in this phase with all the forces you command in Santiago, explain on
the other side. Admiral Huidobro is authorized to bring and discuss any topic with you. I
greet you in the hope of understanding.
And a postscript:
Gustavo this is the last chance. J.T.
Augusto: If you can't commit your full force from the outset, we will not live to
see the future. Pepe.1(13)
General Pinochet, in his own Memoirs, states:
The brief lines sent by the Chief of the I Naval Zone were transcendental. If the
Army had not been ready to act on the 14th I believe that the action would have failed...
I realized that I had no choice but to accept the Navy's request and move up the action
from 14 september to the 11th because in doing so we would avoid the imminent danger of a
civil war. 1(14)
On the morning of September 10th the squadron, composed of the cruiser Prat,
destroyers Cochrane, Blanco Encalada and Orella, the
oiler Araucano and submarine Simpson, plus two Navy
tugs, left port to join up with an American Task Force off the coast of Chile. The purpose
was to participate in the annual UNITAS operation, an anti-submarine warfare training
exercise held every year by the two navies. At midnight some of the 3000 men crew noticed
that course had been changed and the ships were heading back to port. Each captain had
been given sealed orders to be opened at midnight. At 0500 the crews were awakened by a
call to General Quarters and then an announcement was made through the public address
system: the Armed Forces of Chile have united in a movement to overthrow the Marxist
government. The men responded with enthusiasm.
The US Navy UNITAS fleet of four ships was just outside Chilean territorial waters.
Although it was still three full days steaming from the nearest Chilean port, an urgent
message was sent by the US Navy mission in Chile asking to refrain from entering Chilean
waters. The ships turned around and steamed to their next destination, Argentina, via the
Panama Canal; a detour of 9000 miles.
That afternoon a Military Junta was installed and Admiral José Toribio Merino was
sworn in as one of its four members. The Admiral believed that he acted in behalf of law,
order, and internal peace.
Since 1973 Chilean Navy actively participated in the task of national reconstruction.
Navy officers occupied, at one time or another, practically every Ministry in the Cabinet,
represented their country abroad, presided over government corporations, served as
governors, mayors, and administrators of public utility companies. But they remained,
primarily and above all, officers in the Chilean Navy. No member of the Armed Forces of
Chile received any pay other than his regular Armed Forces salary.
After the plesbicite and election which returned Chile to full democractic government
in 1989, Admiral Merino resigned as Commander in Chief and retired to a quiet life. He
refused to publish his memories and remained outside political life. He died in 1997. The
new Commander in Chief, Admiral Jorge Martínez pledged his support and the navy's to the
civilian government presided by Patricio Aylwin. According to President Eduardo Frei, the
Armed Forces have been exemplary in their subordination to civilian power.
The Navy itself has continued its normal growth, increasing its assistance to
navigators and to the merchant marine. Its traditional role has not changed. Boundary
disputes with its neighbors have place great demands upon the Chilean Navy. The long
distances between the nation's northern and southern territories plus the long standing
naval tradition has sharpenned the abilities of the men in maintnance, training and
general seamanship to the point where the Chilean Navy is considered "one of the
finest small navies in the world."1(15)
6 Mason, Theodore, B.M.The War on the Pacific
Coast of South America, Washington: Government Printing Press, 1883, p. 34. The
author owns a copy of this book previously owned by Luis Uribe who changed only one word
in Mason's translation of Prat's well known speech. "Children" was changed to
7 Mason, op. cit. p. 31
8 Grau, Miguel, Diario a Bordo del
Hu&laacutecar, Buenos Aires: Aguirre, p. 138
9 Typewritten notes and instructions found in the
Presidential Palace, La Moneda, in September of 1973.
10 The author was privileged to participate in part of a
training cruise and had a chance to observe first hand, the rigorous exercises which
included, small boat handling in the open seas for a full day, on short rations; climbing
the rigging to the top of the mast in the early morning; plus lectures on nautical as as
well as academic subjects.
11 Sater, William F. "The Abortive Kronstadt: The Chilean Naval Mutiny
of 1931" Hispanic American Historical Review, 60(2), 1980. pp. 239-268
12 Quoted in, López, Carlos, Allende and the Military,
Washington: CIS, p.8
13 See, Whalen, James, Allende: Death of a Marxist Dream,
Westport: Arlington House, 1981, p. 24
14 Pinochet, Augusto, El Dia Decisivo, Santiago: Andres
Bello, 1980, p.121
15 Robert Scheina, "The Chilean Navy", U.S. Naval
Institute Proceedings, March, 1988, p. 32
<< 4: Civil War || Bibliography