'Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight'

By Lieutenant Commander Thomas J. Cutler, U.S. Navy (Retired)

When the United States declared war on Spain in April 1898, the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, then moored at Hong Kong, was immediately ordered to “Proceed at once to Manila; engage and destroy the Spanish fleet, when and where you find them.” The American strategy to eliminate the Spanish naval presence in the Far East as indicated in the dispatch from the Department of the Navy had come about largely because of the writings of Alfred Thayer Mahan, who some years earlier had penned what would become a classic work on naval warfare, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History . Among the many principles that Mahan described were the ideas that “passive defenses belong to the army,” navies must be used as a means of “offensive defense,” coastal defenses were for weak nations who could do no better, and “the enemy must be kept not only out of our ports, but far away from our coasts.” Far away was no exaggeration in this case. Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron was more than 7,000 miles from the nearest American support base as his ships steamed from China toward the Philippine Islands to engage the Spanish fleet based there.

Warships on the Cusp of Old and New

Dewey’s flagship, the Olympia , headed a squadron that consisted of the cruisers Baltimore , Boston , and Raleigh ; the gunboats Concord and Petrel ; the revenue cutter Hugh McCulloch ; and the coal transports (colliers) Nanshan and Zafiro . The squadron’s main firepower was represented by the cruisers, results of a shipbuilding program begun ten years earlier. With their tall masts and crossed yards, ready to take on sail should the need arise, and their large smokestacks billowing black clouds of coal-fired smoke, they were both monuments to a dying age and pioneers of the next.

The first morning at sea, the order to “clear for action” was passed. On board the Olympia , barricades of canvas and iron were built up around the gun crews’ stations, and heavy chains were rigged over awnings to provide additional protection to the ships’ ammunition hoists. Although she was built primarily of steel, veterans of the recent Sino-Japanese War had told of terrible casualties resulting from flying wood splinters, so Dewey made the tactical decision to have hatch covers, spars, chests, and other removable wooden items either safely stowed or jettisoned. Even some of the Olympia ’s mess tables were thrown over the side by overzealous cooks before they were stopped. A lieutenant in the Baltimore noted that a trail of wood “was strewn for fifty leagues [150 miles]” in the ships’ wakes.

The Olympia ’s commanding officer, Captain Charles Gridley, ordered the Sailors’ wooden ditty boxes to be jettisoned as well. Although the crew was eager to fight the Spanish and seemed willing to sacrifice their lives if necessary, giving up their ditty boxes, in which all their worldly possessions were kept, seemed too much to ask. There on that disciplined warship on the far side of the world, the ditty box was the one place a Sailor could call his own, where he kept tokens of his former life, where he had some small ties to home. To the crew’s everlasting gratitude, Commodore Dewey came to the rescue, urging Gridley to allow the men to stow their boxes below the cruiser’s protected armor deck rather than toss them into the South China Sea.

Wood was not the only thing that had to go. The ships’ barbers worked overtime shaving each Sailor’s hair down to the scalp because the surgeons declared “hair is as dangerous as cloth in a wound.”

That evening the Olympia ’s band assembled and played a series of rousing pieces, including several John Philip Sousa marches and “Yankee Doodle,” but the crew was most enthusiastic when the band struck up a popular song of the day, “Hot Time in the Old Town Tonight.” That odd sensation of nervous excitement that often prevails as battle draws near had taken hold of many of Sailors of the Asiatic Squadron, and they swayed rhythmically and slapped each other’s backs as they sang along. Indeed, a “hot time” in the “old town” of Manila was just a few days away as the U.S. ships steamed onward, ever closer to the Philippines and to a page in the history books.

Running the Boca Grande Gauntlet

In the meantime, Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron prepared his fleet for battle with the approaching American squadron. When word of the outbreak of war had come, the Spanish commander moved his fleet out of Manila to the more remote Subic Bay, 30 miles to the north. On his arrival, however, Montojo discovered that defensive preparations there were hopelessly behind schedule. Noting that the water at Subic was more than 40 meters deep, Montojo concluded that his crews would have a better chance of survival if sunk in the much shallower waters of Manila Bay. It was that combination of tactics and pessimism that caused him to return to Manila Bay to make his stand there.

Dewey had been concerned about the possibility of Montojo moving to Subic. “With this strategic point effectively occupied,” he later wrote, “no hostile commander-in-chief would think of passing it and leaving it as a menace to his lines of communication.” So he was relieved to find Subic Bay empty when his squadron arrived on 30 April. Calling a council of war on board the Olympia , the commodore told his commanders, “We shall enter Manila Bay tonight, and you will follow the motions of the flagship, which will lead.”

That night the Asiatic Squadron approached the Boca Grande (Big Mouth) of Manila Bay. The moon was low in the sky and mostly masked by towers of clouds built up by the tropical heat of the day. The darkness was occasionally broken by flickers of lightning dancing among the clouds, and light rain showers doused the white-duck uniforms of those on deck. Guns were loaded, but breechblocks left open to prevent accidental premature firing. As had always preceded battle since the days of sail, the decks were covered with sand to provide traction when blood and sweat moistened them.

Certain that the entrance to the bay was guarded by guns mounted among the high rocks on either side and that mines had been placed in locations unknown, tension among the crews of the U.S. ships ran high. Apprentice Seaman Wayne Longnecher remembered that this was “the hardest part of the fight . . . running the gauntlet of both mines and forts, not knowing which moment a mine or torpedo would send you through the deck above.” He sardonically reflected on the fact that he was doing this for $16 a month pay.

The scene was reminiscent of an earlier time, when Dewey’s Civil War hero, David Glasgow Farragut, had run past the guns of Confederate forts below New Orleans and again at Mobile Bay, uttering his famous words, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead.” But those guns had been furiously firing and, so far, these were silent.

The Olympia passed unharmed into the bay, as did several of the other ships following in column behind, steering by the single dim light that had been mounted on each ship’s stern. It seemed as though they might all pass unchallenged, but near the end of the column accumulated soot in the McCulloch ’s smokestack ignited, and a bright column of flame erupted skyward, giving the Spanish gunners an unmistakable target. A battery from the nearby headland opened fire, and an artillery round passed over the McCulloch and hit the water on her far side. She immediately returned fire with one of her six-pounders, and the Boston , Raleigh , and Concord opened up with their larger batteries. The deep rumble of gunfire rolled across the bay, and the garish flashes briefly lit the dark waters. But the exchange was short-lived. The Spanish battery fired only three more shots before a round from the Boston silenced it. And the Asiatic Squadron proceeded into Manila Bay without further molestation.

Once past the Spanish guns guarding the entrance, the American ships slowed to four knots. Manila was 25 miles away, and Dewey decided that it made good tactical sense to make a slow transit so that it would be daylight when he engaged the enemy. His squadron had a finite amount of ammunition with no means of rapid resupply, so he could not afford to waste shots firing blindly in the dark. With no enemy in sight and the great expanse of the bay before the squadron, word was passed for the men to remain on station but to stand easy. Many of the crew lay down on the deck to catch a little sleep, but the excitement of the moment and the gritty sand on the decks made that a difficult proposition.

Knowing that the U.S. ships were more maneuverable than his own, Montojo had chosen to fight from an anchored position where he could best control and consolidate his firepower. Not wanting to subject the city of Manila to the ravages of the battle, he had positioned his fleet off Cavite, an arsenal some five miles south of the city. While achieving his aim of sparing the city, the decision greatly reduced his available firepower, because there were only 34 land-based guns in the Cavite area as compared with 226 guns of various types at Manila.

To prevent his ships from being vulnerable to torpedoes, Montojo had constructed a protective boom in front of his anchored vessels, consisting of lighters filled with stones and water that were held together in a continuous line by heavy chains. Unlike his American counterpart, Montojo had not ordered the wood stripped from his ships.

At 0400 a cold breakfast augmented by hot coffee was served to the American crews still at their battle stations. As they ate, a young Sailor in the Olympia began to sing a somber rendition of “Just Before the Battle, Mother.” One of his shipmates poured coffee on him, cutting the concert short.

Showdown at Close Range

Increasing speed to eight knots, the U.S. squadron approached Manila as the sun brightened the sky behind the city. Before long it was evident that there were only sail-driven merchant ships moored at the city. No warships. With the Olympia still in the van, Dewey turned his column southward and, as the ships paraded past the Manila waterfront, a few of the Spanish gun batteries opened fire on the squadron. One 9.4-inch shell passed uncomfortably close between the cruisers Raleigh and Baltimore , but none of the Spanish shots found their marks.

A sharp-eyed Olympia lookout peering southward through binoculars discerned through the morning mist a row of masts topped with bright red and yellow flags. His report was what Dewey had been waiting to hear. There was the Spanish fleet, the object of his strategy.

Critics later pointed out that Dewey gave away a significant tactical advantage by moving his squadron in close to the Spanish fleet. His largest-caliber guns had a greater range than any of his opponent’s guns and, by remaining outside his enemy’s reach, he could have fired on the Spanish ships without any risk to his own. But Dewey later explained that “in view of my limited ammunition supply, it was my plan not to open fire until we were within effective range, and then to fire as rapidly as possible with all of our guns.”

The Asiatic Squadron moved ever closer to its adversary. Even when the Spanish opened fire, Dewey withheld his order to commence firing. Like so many others, Landsman John Tisdale found the tension of waiting under fire excruciating: “Our hearts threatened to burst from desire to respond. I sat upon the gun-seat repeating to the rhythm of the engine’s throb, ‘Hold your fire . . . hold your fire . . . hold your fire until the bugle sounds,’ while my fingers grew numb upon the spark.”

Tisdale, waiting at his station in the Olympia ’s after turret, was certainly justified in his anxiety, but there were even more difficult jobs to be accomplished under the circumstances. Because the ships were moving in so close to shore and in danger of running aground, a leadsman was required to stand at the ship’s rail, far forward on the open deck, casting a line down into the water to measure the depth. That Sailor had to cast his line, let it hit bottom, retrieve it, and report both the depth and the type of bottom—while enemy shells roared through the air and crashed nearby, lifting great geysers of water skyward.

When at last the U.S. ships had closed to within 5,000 yards, Dewey calmly uttered the words to the Olympia ’s captain that would be long remembered, “You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.”

According to the Olympia ’s official log, she commenced firing at 0535. Two-hundred-and-fifty-pound shells belched from her forward battery, and the cruiser shuddered from the eruption. Still in column, only the Olympia ’s forward guns were “unmasked” to allow firing at the enemy, and Tisdale still “chafed for the opportunity to fight back.” Dewey’s tactics soon remedied the problem. The commodore turned the column to starboard until it was steaming nearly parallel to the Spanish line of ships. Now Tisdale’s after turret could be brought to bear on the enemy, as could every American gun that could be trained to port.

The American gunners did not hold back. Long before the phrase “shock and awe” would enter the American lexicon of war, the Asiatic Squadron let loose with all its fury, firing every available gun as quickly as possible to deluge the Spanish fleet with shellfire. On his flagship, the Reina Cristina , Montojo watched as “the Americans fired most rapidly. There came upon us numberless projectiles. . . .”

The Olympia led the way as the U.S. ships ran along the Spanish line firing relentlessly. When they were beyond the enemy line, they executed a tactical “corpen” of 180 degrees, turning in column to preserve the order of ships for another run in the opposite direction. The guns were shifted to starboard, and again a withering fire was brought to bear on the enemy. The Spanish fought back, even as their ships began to burn and splinter apart. They launched several torpedo-boat attacks, but they were driven back by the Americans’ smaller guns, including those of the embarked Marines, who fired their rifles at the charging boats.

The battle raged for several passes. Dewey’s tactical maneuvers ensured that the maximum force of American guns was brought to bear on the stationary Spanish ships. It also made the American ships vulnerable by presenting beam-on targets. But Montojo’s immobile ships were even more vulnerable.

‘Like an Enraged Panther’

At last Montojo decided to go on the offensive. Whether he saw it as a tactical venture, designed to gain some military advantage, or as merely an act of defiance for honor’s sake is not clear, but he ordered his flagship to get under way and to charge headlong at his tormentors. Apprentice Seaman Longnecher, peering out from his gunport in the Olympia , could see the Spanish ship coming. “As the Reina Christina came out from the yard to meet us, she planted a shell into the side right at my gun port,” he recalled. “But it was spent and did not come all the way through before it burst.” John Tisdale was impressed by the Spanish tenacity. He witnessed one of his after turret’s 8-inch shells rip “through and through” the charging Spanish ship, yet “like an enraged panther she came at us as though to lash sides and fight us hand to hand with battle axes, as in the olden Spanish wars.”

But the charge was in vain. On fire and badly mauled, the Reina Cristina was forced to come about and limp back to her mooring. She was so badly damaged that Montojo soon ordered her abandoned. As she sank, he shifted his flag to another ship. The Reina Cristina ’s losses were catastrophic: 150 were killed and another 90 wounded. Five years later, when she was raised from the mud of Manila Bay, the skeletons of 80 men were discovered in her sick bay.

The battle raged for another half hour, until the smoke became so thick that it was impossible to see what was happening. Dewey then received a most unsettling report. Word came from Captain Gridley that the Olympia had only 15 rounds of heavy-caliber munitions remaining—a mere five minutes’ worth of fighting. With the battle undecided as far as he could tell and in light of this alarming report, Dewey ordered the Asiatic Squadron to withdraw, much to the mixed relief and consternation of the crews. They could not help but be glad for the rest, yet they were “fired up for victory,” as one lieutenant observed.

Moving out of range, Dewey called his captains to the Olympia for a meeting. He ordered a hot meal for the crews while the senior officers met. Word spread that Dewey had stopped the fight expressly for the purpose of having breakfast. Not a few of the men expressed their dismay and disapproval of that decision. One gunner was heard to say: “For God’s sake, Captain, don’t let us stop now. To hell with breakfast!”

While the many ate and passed scuttlebutt, the few conferred. Dewey soon learned that the report on low ammunition was in error. He also learned that there had been only six Americans wounded, all in the Baltimore , and none killed in action.

The smoke eventually cleared substantially, and at 1116 the U.S. squadron headed back in to finish the fight. It resumed the bombardment, and in less than an hour, all the Spanish ships were destroyed or put out of action. A white flag appeared over the naval station at Cavite, and the Battle of Manila Bay was over.

Ship of Heroes

From the Olympia ’s main deck that night, Wayne Longnecher watched the remnants of the Spanish fleet burning across the water. “It was a beautiful sight to see; besides about 12 or 13 ships all in flames, small magazines were going up all night,” the Sailor said. He and his shipmates would never forget that night, nor the day’s events that led up to it.

John Tisdale’s hitch was up, and soon after the battle he made his way halfway across the world to return home. He had left California as a boy, still “wet behind the ears.” He came home a Sailor and combat veteran, with tattoos to tell parts of his story and the confidence that comes to those who have faced great challenges and prevailed.

On his arrival in America, Tisdale found the country ecstatic over the Navy’s victory at Manila Bay. Everywhere he went, he heard songs with lyrics praising the great triumph. Banners proclaimed Dewey and his men the “saviors of the Republic,” and newspaper stories spoke of a “new era of American dominance of the sea.”

The Spanish fleet had been destroyed and 381 Spaniards lost their lives. The Asiatic Squadron lost not a single man, much less a ship. The Olympia and her squadron-mates carried the day in exemplary fashion.

This first engagement in what would prove to be a short war would also serve as the opening act in a drama whose denouement would be the emergence of the most powerful navy in the history of the world. Led by the cruiser Olympia , the U.S. Navy had arrived on the world stage, where it would rise to the starring role in just a few decades.

The Olympia did her part. Now we must do ours. The group Friends of the Cruiser Olympia is raising money to save the ship. To find out more, visit http://cruiserolympia.org .

 



Sources:

John Barrett, Admiral George Dewey: A Sketch of the Man (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1899).

Benjamin Franklin Cooling, USS Olympia : Herald of Empire (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000).

George Dewey, The Autobiography of George Dewey . (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1987).

Jack H. Friend, “The Battle of Mobile Bay,” Jack Sweetman, ed., Great American Naval Battles (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1998).

Craig L. Symonds, Decision at Sea: Five Naval Battles that Shaped American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006).

Craig L. Symonds, The Naval Institute Historical Atlas of the U.S. Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1995).

 

Thomas J. Cutler is a retired lieutenant commander and former gunner's mate second class who served in patrol craft, cruisers, destroyers, and aircraft carriers. His varied assignments included an in-country Vietnam tour, small craft command, and nine years at the U.S. Naval Academy, where he served as Executive Assistant to the Chairman of the Seamanship & Navigation Department and Associate Chairman of the History Department. While at the Academy, he was awarded the William P. Clements Award for Excellence in Education (military teacher of the year).

He is the founder and former Director of the Walbrook Maritime Academy in Baltimore. Currently he is Fleet Professor of Strategy and Policy with the Naval War College and is the Director of Professional Publishing at the U.S. Naval Institute.

Winner of the Alfred Thayer Mahan Award for Naval Literature, the U.S. Naval Institute Press Author of the Year, and the U.S. Maritime Literature Award, his published works include NavCivGuide: A Handbook for Civilians in the U.S. Navy; A Sailor's History of the U.S. Navy [one of the books in the Chief of Naval Operations Reading Program]; The Battle of Leyte Gulf; Brown Water, Black Berets: Coastal & Riverine Warfare in Vietnam; and the 22nd, 23rd (Centennial), and 24th editions of The Bluejacket's Manual. His other works include revisions of Jack Sweetman's The Illustrated History of the U.S. Naval Academy and Dutton's Nautical Navigation. He and his wife, Deborah W. Cutler, are the co-editors of the Dictionary of Naval Terms and the Dictionary of Naval Abbreviations.

His books have been published in various forms, including paperback and audio, and have appeared as main and alternate selections of the History Book Club, Military Book Club, and Book of the Month Club. He has served as a panelist, commentator, and keynote speaker on military and writing topics at many events and for various organizations, including the Naval History and Heritage Command, Smithsonian Institution, the Navy Memorial, U.S. Naval Academy, MacArthur Memorial Foundation, Johns Hopkins University, U.S. Naval Institute, Armed Forces Electronics Communications and Electronics Association, Naval War College, Civitan, and many veterans' organizations. His television appearances include the History Channel's Biography series, A&E's Our Century, Fox News Channel's The O'Reilly Factor, and CBS's 48 Hours.

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