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The Wreck of the USS Memphis in the Dominican Republic  

Eric Paul Roorda

On August 29, 1916, the USS Memphis wrecked on the coast of Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. A series of enormous waves drove the heavy armored cruiser ashore, killing forty-five sailors. The fact that the death toll was not much higher is owed to the heroic efforts of Dominicans to rescue the survivors of the shipwreck. This was despite the fact that the US Marine Corps had invaded their country three months before, initiating an occupation with unwonted violence. The US Marine occupation of the Dominican Republic would last for eight years, compiling a record of brutality inflicted on the civilian population that Senate hearings documented in excruciating detail. In the aftermath of the traumatic occupation, the shipwreck of the USS Memphis itself, rusting away in plain sight along the seaside boulevard in the Dominican capital city, became symbolic of US imperialism. The dictator Rafael Trujillo, a Marine protégé who seized power in 1930, pointed to the wreck as a relic of the days before US domination, contrasting it with the happy days after national sovereignty had been attained under his own strong rule. In order to implement the Good Neighbor Policy, an effort to expunge the negative legacy of the era of intervention and occupation known as “Gunboat Diplomacy,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the removal of the wreck of the Memphis after taking office in 1933. The wreck’s removal finally took place in 1937.