In the evening of April 30th, 1898, a message was sent out to the Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo, commander of the Pacific Squadron at Manila. It informed him that two American ships had sailed into Subic Bay, then retreated towards Manila. Montojo knew this meant the United States’ Asiatic Squadron was near, and battle was imminent.
Only a few miles away lay the Asiatic Squadron of the United States Navy. At the head was the Cruiser Olympia, the flagship. Launched in 1892, and commissioned in 1895 the Cruiser was one of the most advanced ships of her time. Well-armed, fast, and manned by an experienced crew (two of whom were Civil War veterans) she was a formidable foe. In 1898 she was Commanded by Captain Charles V. Gridley, and host to Commodore George S. Dewey, commander of the Asiatic Squadron.
When the United States declared war against Spain on April 25th, 1898, Olympia and the Asiatic Squadron sailed out from Hong Kong, knowing that they were finally going to see action.They began steaming into Manila Bay at 11:00 PM on April 30th, each ship having carefully prepared for battle. The men had received haircuts, as loose hair could contaminate a wound. The guns were loaded, and the extensive wooden paneling around the ship was removed to prevent splintering. The Revenue Cutter Hugh McCulloch had even thrown her wooden galley tables overboard, leaving the crew to eat on the deck. Onboard Olympia the Wardroom had been converted into a makeshift operating room, as they expected casualties. Though the moon was out the night of the 30th, it was dark on board the ships; all lights were dimmed to hide their position.
But around 1:00 AM the Revenue Cutter Hugh Mcculloch’s smokestack caught fire. She had been burning Japanese coal, which tended to leave dust and soot in the stacks. The fire happened just as the squadron was entering the mouth of Manila Bay. It was spotted by the battery on El Fraile, a nearby island. A single ranging shot flew out and landed between two ships. Immediately the squadron returned fire, destroying the gun position.
The shots could be heard in Manila, and Admiral Montojo, the Spanish Commander, knew that the battle would soon begin. He ordered the men to be ready, all guns to be loaded, and the troops along the shore began reporting the position of the Squadron. On board Olympia, the crew saw flares, lights, and signals flashing between shore points as they crept towards the Spanish fleet. Commodore Dewey knew that their surprise was lost, and began signaling orders to the squadron using lanterns.
At dawn, the American ships began sailing towards Cavite, where the Spanish squadron was moored. The battle began in earnest at 5:15 AM, when the Spanish batteries at Cavite opened fire. The crew on Olympia tensely stood by her guns, waiting for the order to fire. The call had gone out to wait for a bugle call, and each gunner’s ear was strained for the shrill blast, his hand ready to fire. But the American ships continued under Spanish fire. One 11-inch ranging shell from the city barreled over the Olympia’s quarterdeck. Had it been but a few feet lower, it may have wiped out the ship’s command before the battle even started. But bravely the ships steamed on.
Finally, at 5:40 AM Commodore Dewey gave the famous order “You may fire when ready, Gridley”. Almost immediately, Olympia’s forward 8-inch turret erupted into smoke as she fired her first shots of the battle. From then on the battle raged. The Americans continued to swing down towards the Spanish position, turn back and then swing back down to fire. This kept a constant rolling barrage aimed at the Spanish ships, which were moored and easy targets.
But two Spanish ships did come out to try to close with the Americans. First, the Don Juan De Austria came out and sped towards Olympia. But she didn’t get far before the withering fire from the Americans turned her back towards the shore. Next, the Spanish Flagship Reina Cristina came out to fight. She came at a high speed, possibly to ram Olympia, her American counterpart. The Reina Cristina, too, met with intense fire. A fire broke out on board. Her steering was almost completely destroyed, and only two of her crew were left uninjured. Still, though, her guns kept firing. Finally, Spanish Admiral Montojo ordered her crew to scuttle her and retreat to shore, hoping to save as many lives as he could.
At 7:30 AM, after almost two hours of constant gunfire, Admiral Dewey received a report that they were low on ammunition. He was told that there were only 15 rounds left for each of the 5-inch guns. He immediately ordered a cease-fire, knowing that running out of ammunition was a terrible possibility. The Squadron steamed back out to the middle of the bay, the men were served breakfast, and the ammunition was inventoried.
By 11:00 AM it became clear that the report was in error. The truth was, the 5-inch guns had only FIRED 15 rounds. Dewey ordered a return to battle and at 11:16 AM the fighting resumed. But by this point, it was clear that the American forces had been victorious. The Spanish fleet lay broken, their flagship scuttled in the harbor, and many of their batteries on fire. Only one Spanish ship kept up the fight. Don Antonio De Ulloa continued to fire, and in return received a wealth of American rounds. But her crew won the respect of the Americans. The ship had already been disabled and lay limp at her mooring. The Captain had ordered the crew to abandon her, but some men stayed behind, refusing to give up the fight.
With victory being all but certain Dewey ordered his Squadron to break ranks and finish off individual targets. When the battle was completely over, the Squadron moored in Manila harbor, still under the guns of the Spanish forts. While the forts could still have sunk the entire American force, the fear of a return barrage kept them silent. That night the Olympia’s brass band played on their fantail, the music occasionally interrupted by the explosion of a Spanish powder magazine, or loose shell.
The Battle of Manila Bay essentially ended the Spanish imperial presence in the Pacific, and established the United States as a world power. Olympia stayed in the Asiatic Squadron until September 1899, when she arrived in New York to be refitted and repaired. Today she resides at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.