Wednesday, April 25, 2018

Prelude to the Battle of Manila Bay -- Late April, 1898

Dewey's flagship Olympia in Hong Kong, painted gray and ready for battle.
This week less 120 years, the protected cruiser USS Olympia was in Hong Kong. The crew was on tenterhooks waiting for word that war had been declared between the United States and Spain. Once that happened, England, China and Japan would become neutral, thus denying Olympia and her squadron a friendly port nearer than San Francisco.

As it happened, when war was declared, Olympia would sail for an unfriendly port -- Manila in the Philippines -- which for nearly 400 years had been a colony of Spain. While waiting in Hong Kong, Commodore Dewey wasted no time preparing his ships for the expected order to sail in battle array.

Following is an excerpt from the memoir Three Years Behind the Guns, which gives the sailor's point of view of the impending clash:
The little commodore has kept us jumping, and we are ready for whatever may come, and already the men are shouting, "Remember the Maine!"

One morning I saw the ship s painter come out from the commodore s cabin, carrying a long, three-inch wide board painted in various shades of neutral greens or grays. When I asked him what they were for, his answer was both unsatisfactory and inelegant, but the following morning at breakfast the uniform announced throughout the squadron was "old working clothes" and then the boatswain piped, "A-l-1 h-a-n-d-s paint ship."

That was on the morning of April 19. By noon ships, masts, boats, launches, guns, and everything, had been treated to a coat of "war paint," which, in the United States navy, is dark gray. Unless one has witnessed the painting of a man-of-war it is difficult to imagine how quickly it can be done. There are barrels of paint all mixed and ready before the order is given, and in ten minutes after, the ship is literally manned with painters. The last painting has transformed our beautiful squadron which had gathered together like a flock of white swans wearing red favors, into a flock of ugly ducklings sulking upon the water; everything save our spirits and our flags were the color of lead.

As soon as the Baltimore reaches Yokohama she will hear the news and hasten to us, and then?

She came in early one morning, was rushed through coaling and painting, and at the request of the governor of Hong-Kong, all hands together sailed away while the men on England's war-ships cheered us as we passed them.

We are cut off from everybody, aliens in a foreign country, but it can't last long. There is going to be something doing.

It was past noon on the twenty-seventh [of April] when our fleet, nine ships all in battle array, was sailing to sea under sealed orders, and with nine crews bursting with expectancy. At five o clock the Olympia's crew was piped to quarters, where we listened to the reading of the following:


Proceed at once to Manila; engage and destroy the Spanish fleet, when and where you find them.

WM. McKINLEY, President, United States of America.

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We went mad with joy. The news was signaled from ship to ship, and before we turned in that night a new battle-flag was begun and finished. The placing of the stars proved that we had a representative from each State in the Union. I wrote California and my name on the back of one and sewed it on.

But there was more to do than just the making of flags. Next morning the order: "Clear for action" was given in earnest, and things we never thought we could exist without went over board.

From the Chinese-Japanese war we learned that more men were killed by splinters than by shell, and it was rumored the diddy-box must go, but the little Commodore, with the fate of a nation fluttering in his hand, came to our rescue. He said it would be an outrage to take from a man the only thing the Navy allowed him to hold sacred, and he asked that we be permitted to stow them below the protective decks so, here you go! Good-by, Diddy, until until we meet again.
What happened thereafter may be read here: "Open with all guns!" The Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898. If you would prefer a reading of John Tisdale's account from Three Years Behind the Guns, check out this video:

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