Monday, May 01, 2017

"Open with all guns." The Battle of Manila Bay, May 1, 1898

USS Olympia leading the way at Manila Bay.
Almost completely forgotten by average Americans today, Commodore Dewey's smashing victory at the Battle of Manila Bay was, for a short time, a sensation which commanded the attention of the entire nation. It transformed Dewey from an unknown naval officer into one of the all-time American heroes, elevating to legendary status his famous command, "You may fire when ready, Gridley."

On the anniversary of this first battle of the Spanish-American War, I offer the following account from an unnamed eye-witness which was cabled to America about a week after the action. Though modern historians are quick to dismiss the Battle of Manila Bay as a very one-sided, almost pre-determined affair, it is well to remember that Dewey could very easily have lost the day if his handling of the fleet had been less than expert or if luck had not been with him...
Not one Spanish flag flies in Manila Bay to-day. Not one Spanish war-ship floats as our prize.
More than two hundred Spanish dead and five hundred to seven hundred wounded attest to the accuracy of the American fire. 
Commodore Dewey attacked the Spanish position at Cavite this morning. He swept five times along the line and scored one of the most brilliant successes in modern warfare.
That our loss is trifling adds to the pleasure of victory without detracting from its value. The number of hits our vessels received proved how brave and stubborn was the defense made by the Spanish forces. 
Miraculous as it may appear, not one of our men was killed, and only eight were wounded. Those who were wounded suffered only slight injuries.
Commodore Dewey arrived off Manila Bay last night and decided to enter the bay at once. With all its lights out the squadron steamed into Boca Grande, with crews at the guns. This was the order of the squadron, which was kept during the whole time of the first battle: — The flagship Olympia, Baltimore, Raleigh, Petrel, Concord, Boston
The flagship passed Corregidor Island without a sign being given that the Spaniards were aware of its approach. Not until the flagship was a mile beyond the Corregidor was a gun tired. Then one heavy shot went screaming over the Raleigh and the Olympia, followed by a second, which fell further astern. The Raleigh, the Concord, and the Boston replied, the Concord's shells exploding apparently exactly inside the shore battery, which fired no more. 
Our squadron slowed down to barely steerage way and the men were allowed to sleep alongside their guns. Commodore Dewey had timed our arrival so that we were within five miles of the city of Manila at daybreak. 
We then sighted the Spanish squadron, Rear-Admiral Montojo commanding, off Cavite. Here the Spaniards had a well-equipped navy yard called Cavite Arsenal. Admiral Montojo's flag was flying on the 3,500-ton protected cruiser Reina Christina. The protected Castilia, of 3,200 tons, was moored ahead, and astern to the port battery, and to seaward were the cruisers Don Juan de Austria, Don Antonio de Ulloa, Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, El Correo, Marques del Duero, and General Lezo. These ships and the flagship remained under way during most of the action.
With the United States flag flying at all their mastheads, our ships moved to the attack in line ahead, with the speed of eight knots, first passing in front of Manila, where the action was begun by three batteries mounting guns powerful enough to send a shell over us at a distance of five miles. The Concord's guns boomed out a reply to these batteries with two shots. No more were fired, because Commodore Dewey could not engage with these batteries without sending death and destruction into the crowded city. 
As we neared Cavite two very powerful submarine mines were exploded ahead of the flagship. This was at six minutes past five o'clock. The Spaniards evidently had misjudged our position. Immense volumes of water were thrown high in the air by these destroyers, but no harm was done to our ships. Commodore Dewey had fought with Farragut at New Orleans and Mobile Bay, where he had his first experience with torpedoes. Not knowing how many more mines there might be ahead, he still kept on without faltering. No other mines exploded, however, and it is believed that the Spaniards had only these two in place.
Only a few minutes later the shore battery at Cavite Point sent over the flagship a shot that nearly hit the battery in Manila, but soon the guns got a better range, and the shells began to strike near us or burst close aboard from both the batteries and the Spanish vessels. The heat was intense. Men stripped off all clothing except their trousers. 
As the Olympia drew nearer all was silent on board as if the ship had been empty, except for the whirr of blowers and the throb of engines. Suddenly a shell burst directly over us. From the boatswain's mate at the after 5-inch gun came a hoarse cry. "Remember The Maine!" arose from the throats of five hundred men at the guns. This watchword, was caught up in turrets and firerooms, wherever seaman or fireman stood at his post. "Remember the Maine!" had rung out for defiance and revenge. Its utterance seemed unpremeditated, but was evidently in every man's mind, and now that the moment had come to make adequate reply to the murder of the Maine's crew, every man shouted what was in his heart.
Olympia cleared for action at Manila Bay.
From the Independence Seaport Museum's archives
The Olympia was now ready to begin the fight. Commodore Dewey, his chief of staff, Commander Lamberton, an aid and myself, with Executive Officer Lieutenant Rees and Navigator Lieutenant Calkins, who conned ship most admirably, were on the forward bridge. Captain Gridley was in the conning tower, as it was thought unsafe to risk losing all the senior oflicers by one shell.
"You may fire when ready. Gridley," said the Commodore, and at nineteen minutes of six o'clock, at a distance of 5,500 yards, the starboard 8-inch gun in the forward turret roared forth a compliment to the Spanish forts. 
Presently similar guns from the Baltimore and the Boston sent 250-pound shells hurtling toward the Castilla, and the Reina Christina
The Spaniards seemed encouraged to fire faster, knowing exactly our distance, while we had to guess theirs. Their ships and shore guns were making things hot for us. The piercing scream of shot was varied often by the bursting of time fuse shells, fragments of which would lash the water like shrapnel or cut our hull and rigging. One large shell that was coming straight at the Olympia's forward bridge fortunately fell within less than one hundred feet away. One fragment cut the rigging exactly over the heads of Lamberton, Rees, and myself. Another struck the bridge gratings in line with it. A third passed just under Commodore Dewey and gouged a hole in the deck. Incidents like these were plentiful. 
Our men naturally chafed at being exposed without returning fire from all our guns, but laughed at danger and chatted good-humoredly. A few nervous fellows could not help dodging mechanically when shells would burst right over them or close board, or would strike the water and pass overhead, with the peculiar spluttering roar made by a tumbling rifled projectile. Still the flagship steered for the center of the Spanish line, and, as our other ships were astern, the Olympia received most of the Spaniards' attention. 
"Open with all guns," said Dewey, and the ship brought her port broadside bearing. The roar of all the flagship's 5-inch rapid firers was followed by the deep diapason of her after-turret 8-inchers. Soon other vessels were equally hard at work, and we could see that our shells were making Cavite harbor hotter for the Spaniards than they had made the approach for us. 
Protected by their shore batteries and made safe from close attack by shallow water, the Spaniards were in a strong position. They put up a gallant fight. The Spanish ships were sailing back and forth behind the Castilla, and their fire, too, was hot. One shot struck the Baltimore and passed clean through her, fortunately hitting no one. Another ripped up her main deck, disabled a 6-inch gun, and exploded a box of 3-pounder ammunition, wounding eight men.
The Olympia was struck abreast the gun in the wardroom by a shell which burst outside, doing little damage. The signal halyards were cut from Lieutenant Brumby's hand on the after bridge. 
A shell entered the Boston's port quarter and burst in Ensign Dodridge's stateroom, starting a hot fire, and fire was also caused by a shell which burst in the port hammock netting. Both these fires were quickly put out. Another shell passed through the Boston's foremast just in front of Captain Wildes, on the bridge.
After having made four runs along the Spanish line, finding the chart incorrect, Lieutenant Calkins, the Olympia's navigator, told the Commodore he believed he could take the ship nearer the enemy, with lead going to watch the depth of water. The flagship started over the course for the fifth time, running within two thousand yards of the Spanish vessels. At this range even 6-pounders were effective, and the storm of shells poured upon the unfortunate Spanish began to show marked results. 
Three of the enemy's vessels were seen burning and their fire slackened. On finishing this run Commodore Dewey decided to give the men breakfast, as they had been at the guns two hours with only one cup of coffee to sustain them. Action ceased temporarily at twenty-five minutes of eight o'clock, the other ships passing the flagship and the men cheering lustily. 
Our ships remained beyond range of the enemy's guns until ten minutes of eleven o'clock, when the signal for close action again went up. The Baltimore had the place of honor in the lead, with the flagship following and the other ships as before. The Baltimore began firing at the Spanish ships and batteries at sixteen minutes past eleven o'clock, making a series of hits as if at target practice. 
The Spaniards replied very slowly, and the Commodore signaled the Raleigh, the Boston, the Concord, and the Petrel to go into the inner harbor and destroy all the enemy's ships. By her light draught the little Petrel was enabled to move within one thousand yards. Here, firing swiftly, but accurately, she commanded everything still flying the Spanish flag. Other ships were also doing their whole duty, and soon not one red and yellow ensign remained aloft, except on a battery up the coast. 
The Spanish flagship and the Castilla had long been burning fiercely, and the last vessel to be abandoned was the Don Antonio de Ulloa, which lurched over and sank. Then the Spanish flag on the arsenal staff was hauled down, and at half-past twelve o'clock a white flag was hoisted there. 
Signal was made to the Petrel to destroy all the vessels in the inner harbor, and Lieutenant Hughes, with an armed boat's crew, set fire to the Don Juan de Austria, Marques del Duero, the Isla de Cuba, and the El Correo. The large transport Manila and many tug boats and small craft fell into our hands.
"Capture or destroy Spanish squadron," were Dewey's orders. Never were instructions more effectually carried out. Within seven hours after arriving on the scene of action nothing remained to be done. 
Taken from The Life and Letters of Admiral Dewey, 1899.

Following the battle and the triumphant end of the war a mere three months later, the country was in the mood to celebrate its newfound status as a world power. On September 29, 1899, Dewey and his flagship, Olympia, were fĂȘted in New York along with other heavy units of the fleet. Here is some amazing very early motion picture footage of the event, showing Olympia sailing up the Hudson River, firing salutes as she goes.

We are fortunate that Dewey's flagship Olympia is still around and available for tours at the Independence Seaport Museum in Philadelphia. If you've never visited, it's well worth the trip and will be a learning experience to boot. She's a beautiful old ship and he only survivor of America's first steel navy.

USS Olympia as she appears today in Philadelphia.


Derrick Celso said...

His arrival signalled the end of not only Spain but also Catholicism as the state religion of the erstwhile Spanish Philipines. It may indeed raised the US to a world power, but it provoked the beginning of the downfall of Catholic Philippines, since from then on Americanist principles like the Separation of Church and State, and the freedom and toleration of other sects were introduced in the Philippines.

Anyway, that is another way of looking at the Battle of Manila Bay and I am Filipino, by the way.

I've stumbled upon this blog after reading your piece about the LA Cathedral. That concrete building sure is terrible.

Florentius said...

Thanks for the comment, Derrick. All of that is indeed true and lamentable. However, also consider the reverse impact. Millions of Filipinos have now become Americans many of whom are friends and family members of mine. They have done great things in the US and have helped to re-energize American Catholicism wherever they have settled. We would be much poorer without them! If not for Dewey's victory at Manila Bay, none of that may have happened.