America First - Lawton Evans
The beautiful islands, known as the Philippines, were the possession of Spain. When war between that country and the United States seemed inevitable, Commodore George Dewey was ordered to collect a fleet at Hong-Kong, and hold it in readiness for instant action.
Nothing suited Dewey better. He purchased a large supply of coal and provisions, called for a few more ships, collected stores of ammunition, and put his men under strict orders. By April, of 1898, he found himself in command of a fleet of nine ships, ready for battle, and quietly awaiting orders.
He had not long to wait. He received a cable-gram from the Secretary of the Navy, "War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to the Philippine Islands. Capture vessels or destroy them. Use utmost endeavors."
Dewey smiled with deep satisfaction. The chance of a lifetime had come, and he was ready. He issued orders to sail at once, and the very next day the fleet began its long voyage of six hundred miles to the Philippines. For three days and three nights they struggled through a boisterous sea, before they reached the mouth of Manila Bay.
This bay is a very beautiful harbor. Two small islands stand like sentries at its mouth, with their cliffs rising five hundred feet above the water. On those cliffs, as well as on other points of the mainland, were forts bristling with guns. Twenty-five miles up the bay, lay Manila, the capital of the Philippines, with its quarter of a million inhabitants. Its low-lying ground, intersected with many water-ways, made it known as the Venice of the East. It was Dewey's purpose to enter the Bay of Manila and to find the Spanish fleet there.
Night had fallen on April 30, 1898. As silent as ghosts, with all lights out, and in close order, the American battleships crept through the channel under the frowning forts. The moon, rising over the eastern waters, gave the ships the appearance of gray spectres gliding in a smooth sea. "I believe they will not see us," remarked an officer quietly, to the watchful Commander. "Evidently they are not expecting us so soon."
The ships were now half-way in the channel, and opposite the forts. Suddenly, a shot from a shore battery broke the stillness of the night. Then another and another were fired in quick succession. The fleet answered at once, and put on full steam ahead, for there was no longer any need of concealment. In a short while, the danger-point was passed, no damage was done, and the fleet was on its way up the bay to Manila, and to the Spanish men-of-war.
All night long the fleet steamed forward, silently and slowly. The rising moon made a silver path over the waters. The tropical breeze fanned slowly over the decks, and the hills loomed dark against the sky line. There was nothing on this beautiful night to indicate the approach of one of the decisive battles of modern history.
The next morning, the ever-memorable first day of May, the vigilant American Commander saw what he was looking for—the Spanish fleet, lying close under the guns of Cavite, a small town a few miles from Manila.
"The hour has come," said Dewey. "Nothing can prevent a battle. They cannot escape us, for we command the outlet of the harbor. It is their day or ours." Whereupon he gave orders for immediate action.
With Dewey there were nine vessels, only six of which were to be engaged in battle, the others being supply ships and a revenue cutter. The best vessel of the American fleet was The Olympia, the flagship. The Spanish fleet numbered ten, the largest of which was the Reina Cristina. None of the Spanish ships could be compared in size and strength with Dewey's The Olympia.
The two fleets were well matched, both being equipped with modern guns, about equal in number, as well as having about the same number of men. The advantage was slightly with the Americans, but, on the other hand, the Spanish fleet was backed up by the shore batteries at Cavite.
"Order the supply-ship out of range, place the fleet in line of battle, and prepare for immediate action," directed the Commander. It was then about six o'clock in the morning.
Promptly the American fleet swung into line, and moved toward the enemy. The Spanish guns opened on them as they approached, but they gave no reply. Silently and steadily they came nearer and nearer, until within a range of five thousand yards.
Dewey turned to the Captain of The Olympia, and said, "If you are ready, Gridley, you may fire."
The American ships now formed in a half circle, swinging before the massed enemy. An eight-inch shell from The Olympia sped across the water toward the Spanish flagship. A little later on, the order to open with all the guns brought every ship into action, as the fleet moved forward in a graceful curve. A terrific fire from the Spanish fleet and forts was the answer, and the battle of Manila Bay had begun.
Again and again the great American battleships swept around, pouring a deadly fire into the Spanish vessels, coming each time nearer and nearer, and doing more and more damage. In the midst of the action, the Spanish flagship, Reina Cristina, moved out to give battle to The Olympia. Dewey concentrated all the fire of his whole fleet upon her. Amidst an awful raking of shells, the Spanish vessel halted, broken and torn, and turned to flee. She was hardly able to struggle back to her companions; two hundred and fifty of her crew lay dead or wounded upon her shattered decks.
Five times did the American fleet swing past the enemy, each time doing more deadly work than before. Then Dewey drew his fleet off to the opposite shore, to prepare for the final engagement. The foolish Spaniards thought he had withdrawn entirely, and cabled to Madrid that the battle was over, and that Dewey had retired to bury his dead. They were soon to find out otherwise.
The men ate breakfast, and then brought up fresh supplies of ammunition. The decks were cleaned, the guns examined, and at eleven o'clock came the order to continue the battle. Slowly the American fleet swung around in its half circle and began its destructive work. One by one the Spanish ships went down, until the whole fleet was utterly destroyed. In a few hours the battle of Manila Bay was over.
Admiral Montojo, the Spanish Commander, escaped by land to Manila, while Dewey was destroying the shore batteries with the unerring marksmanship of his gunners.
The victory was complete. The Spaniards lost every ship of their fleet, and six hundred and thirty-four men in killed and wounded. The American ships were not seriously damaged, not a man had been killed, and only eight had been wounded. The Spanish rule of three and a half centuries in the Philippines was broken forever!