The Spanish-American War was about to experience one of its most dramatic events. The date was July 1, 1898. Future President Theodore Roosevelt and his Rough Riders were positioned at the bottom of Kettle Hill in Cuba. The Spanish were at the top of the hill, attempting to hold their position.
Captain William Owen “Bucky” O’Neill earned his nickname for his reputation for “bucking the tiger” or playing and living contrary to the odds. He was living up to his reputation on this day as he strolled nonchalantly in front of his men, despite the heavy fire from the Spanish Mauser rifles.
Roosevelt remembered the fateful moment that the odds caught up with O’Neill. He wrote:
“The most serious loss that I and the regiment could have suffered befell just before we charged. O’Neill was strolling up and down in front of his men, smoking his cigarette, for he was inveterately addicted to the habit. He had a theory that an officer ought never to take cover—a theory which was, of course, wrong, though in a volunteer organization the officers should certainly expose themselves very fully, simply for the effect on the men; our regimental toast on the transport running, ‘The officers; may the war last until each is killed, wounded, or promoted.’ As O’Neill moved to and fro, his men begged him to lie down, and one of the sergeants said, ‘Captain, a bullet is sure to hit you.’ O’Neill took his cigarette out of his mouth, and blowing out a cloud of smoke laughed and said, ‘Sergeant, the Spanish bullet isn’t made that will kill me.’ A little later he discussed for a moment with one of the regular officers the direction from which the Spanish fire was coming. As he turned on his heel a bullet struck him in the mouth and came out at the back of his head; so that even before he fell his wild and gallant soul had gone out into the darkness.”