Boys' Book of Sea Fights - Chelsea Fraser
The sun in heaven was shining gay,
All things were joyful on that day;
The sea-birds screamed as they wheeled round—
And then came the harsh note of battle sound.
Strange as it may seem, the first blow delivered by the United States in behalf of Cuba was struck on the other side of the globe, in Asiatic waters. This thump was so hard that it caused the eyes of the nations of Europe to pop wide open. To the people back home it brought immense satisfaction and a joy quite unspeakable.
Before the Spanish American War the chief colonial possessions of Spain, excepting Cuba and Porto Rico, were the Philippine Islands. This group, of some twelve hundred separate bodies of sea-surrounded land, lies off the south east coast of China. The largest island, Luzon, is about the size of the State of Kentucky. The Philippines had an aggregate population of perhaps seven millions people, chiefly Malays, though many of the inhabitants were of Spanish blood. The office-holders and tax-collectors were, of course, Spaniards.
Squarely upon the natural highways of Oriental trade, the Islands were of enormous commercial importance, owing to the value of their many mineral and vegetable products. In addition, their safe harbors and supplies of coal rendered them of great military importance.
Spanish misrule in the form of merciless oppression, cruelty, and extortion, finally festered the heretofore patient and uncomplaining natives into a violent insurrection—one scarcely less bitter than that then going on in Cuba against the Spaniards. Led by Aguinaldo—a young Filipino of considerable sagacity and a fair education—thousands of irate natives became engaged, in 1897, in a bloody warfare against the authority of Spain. This had caused the Spaniards to fortify heavily the capital, Manila, which is situated at the head of Manila Bay, thirty-five miles from the open waters of the Pacific. Strong forts were erected at the entrance to the Bay, and furnished with the best modern guns Spain could procure. At Cavite, on the right side, as one enters, was established the government arsenal and naval station. In the city of Manila itself an efficient army was quartered.
Immediately at the prospect of war with the United States both the force in Manila and the defenses along the Bay were strengthened, while a considerable Spanish fleet gathered to protect the forts.
Under instructions from his Government at Washington, Commodore George Dewey had gathered at Hong-Kong—about six hundred miles from the Philippines—the greater part of the United States warships then in the Pacific Ocean. By the 19th of April, 1898,—the day Congress passed its resolutions of war—the fleet consisted of the Olympia, the Boston, the Concord, the Raleigh, and the Petrel. On that day the jackies began to put on them their war uniforms of slate color, wielding their brushes as fast as they could. Three days later, while this work of painting was still under way, the Baltimore came into port from Yokohama. She had no thought of losing her part in the expedition, so, with characteristic energy and speed, her officers and sailors in the following forty-eight hours had put her in drydock, and scraped, repaired, painted, coaled, provisioned, and otherwise made her ready for the grim business of war.
Everything was ship-shape by the 24th, and the Pacific fleet headed away from Hong-Kong with bands playing and cheers ringing after them from the American and English residents of the Chinese port. Commodore Dewey led the procession in the battleship Olympia. Accompanying the fleet were the revenue cutter Hugh McCulloch, as a dispatch-boat, and two merchant vessels carrying ten thousand tons of coal. On the decks and in the tops were seventeen hundred lusty, strong-hearted American boys—as fine a lot of adventure loving young seamen as ever roamed the seas. And yet the number of Spanish vessels in Manila Bay exceeded considerably the number of American craft going to meet them. Most of the latter, too, were cruisers, having far less armament power than battleships. While they would have an equal number of enemy ships of their type to face, the smaller craft would be largely outnumbered. With this situation against them, the American vessels also would have to contend against the formidable Spanish forts at the mouth of the harbor, the batteries and arsenal at Cavite, further in, submerged mines, and the fortifications and troops of the city of Manila. Despite these very real perils, the American tars sailed on with the greatest enthusiasm.
It was on Saturday morning, the 30th of April, that they sighted the Island of Luzon. A suppressed excitement ran throughout the fleet; everybody was astir, and eyes searched the distant waters for a speck of land which at that time only the officers with their powerful glasses could discern. As the ships sped on, the decks were sanded, and preparations for conflict renewed, everything that might catch fire in battle being tossed overboard or put in the hold.
No sight of the Spanish ships was caught that day, and the officers became certain that they were harboring in the calm waters of the Bay, safely behind the network of submarine torpedoes and under the wing of the Spanish fortifications. At five o'clock the different captains were called aboard the Olympia for consultation and final orders. It was decided that the hour of twelve, midnight, would be best for making a dash past the forts at the entrance to the harbor, in order to be ready for an engagement at daylight. The problem was to find the enemy just at daybreak and not before.
The early part of the night was cloudy and dark, ideal for the purpose in view. No lights were allowed except one at the stern of each vessel, covered on all sides save the rear, for the guidance of the ship that was following, and no word was to be spoken or movement made unless by the orders of the commanders. At eleven o'clock the crews were called to quarters to be ready for an emergency, and at midnight the ships, in single column with the Olympia leading, commenced the perilous passage.
The forts at the entrance of the Bay were upon Corregidor Island, six hundred feet above the water level; and at El Fraile, on the opposite side. The channel on one side is one mile wide; on the other, five miles wide. The entrance of the Americans was made by the wider passage, and between the forts.
As the fleet went by the island, a rocket shot up into the sky from the fort on the hill, showing that they had been discovered. Almost instantly other rockets flashed along the shore line. It was supposed that these warnings of the enemy would be followed by an immediate attack from the Krupp guns of the shore batteries, but such was not the case. All was silence. Evidently these defenses, confident in the prowess of the Spanish fleet to annihilate the invaders, thought they would relegate the task of destroying the Americans to their own vessels.
Thus the Yankee ships moved forward till opposite the second fort, which was situated upon a small island near the shore. This defense proved more aggressive than those preceding it. There was a bright flash in the darkness surrounding it, the heavy boom of a gun, the scream of a shell overhead. Another, and still another shot came screeching through the air toward the procession of American ships.
At the last shot, the Raleigh, which was third in line, replied with a five-inch shell that sent mortar flying, and the Concord and the Boston, coming next, each in turn opened fire. The shells from the shore batteries fell wide of the mark. On the other hand, with the first enemy flash the Yankee gunners had the spot well marked, and presently placed a six-inch shell so accurately that it penetrated the defense, killing outright one officer and forty-one men, and silencing the battery completely.
The night wore away slowly as the fleet advanced in cautious formation, feeling their way along the unknown passage toward the city. Toward morning the moon broke through the clouds. All the time the finishing touches for action with the enemy ships were being applied with energy. The men were instructed once more in their duties, the decks were again sanded, the boats were covered with canvas to prevent their being splintered by flying shell, the ammunition hoists were wound with cable-chains, the guns were gone over very carefully, the surgeons gave their final directions to their assistants, the carpenters saw that their mates stood ready with emergency repairs, and in fact everything was done that American wit and industry could do to get ready for serious action.
The lights of Manila came in sight early, and were used by Dewey as beacons of guidance in the forward movement. At dawn the fleet was about four miles from the city, and breakfast of hardtack and coffee was served at once to the hungry crews.
It was a Sunday—that day of peace with civilized mankind when, singular as it is, most of the world's important battles seem to have been fought to a conclusion. At a little past five the forts on the Manila shore, and at Cavite, just opposite, began to open up; but their projectiles fell a half-mile short of the fleet. No reply was made; Commodore Dewey, on the bridge of the Olympia, had his plans, and nothing could divert him. While the dispatch-boat McCulloch stopped in the middle of the Bay, the cruisers passed on in single file, swung around to the right, and, under full steam, made straight toward the arsenal at Cavite and the Spanish fleet which could be seen anchored there.
By this time the fire from the forts and the enemy ships, each of the latter bearing aloft great battle-flags of red and gold, was very heavy, the reverberations from the powerful Spanish guns echoing and reŽchoing across the waters of the Bay from headland to headland. But still their shells fell short. Either they were low of range, or their weapons were not of sufficient power to carry up.
The American gunners stood by their pieces with smiling, tense faces, as their ships pressed onward— as straight as an arrow toward the enemy. Presently from the Olympia this signal was raised: "Fire as convenient." As restless as every man was to discharge his piece, the officers still shook their heads. When the range finder showed two miles, Dewey turned to the captain of his ship and said the historic words: "When you are ready you may fire, Mr. Gridley."
Captain Gridley, quite ready, quickly passed the order; and in a moment the eager gunners before the eight-inch guns in the forward turret of the flag-ship were aiming and discharging their pieces with thunderous roars which were but signals for a general storm of missiles from the other ships, all directed toward the vessels of the Spanish fleet in front of Cavite. Every port battery, within a few minutes, had unloosed its burden of deadly lead and iron. The air was full of shells and smoke. To give the gunners a better chance, the speed was slowed down.
As soon as all had passed the anchored Spanish ships, the line swung round, and returned slowly over the same course, this time firing the starboard batteries. Spouts of water could be seen flying up all about the Spaniards' ships as the shots fell in their midst. Suddenly, not more than eight hundred yards ahead of the Olympia there was a dull rumble below the sea, and a geyser shot up high in the air. A submarine mine had exploded prematurely—probably as the result of a wild enemy shot striking it.
At this juncture the Spanish flag-ship, the Reina Cristina, slipped her mooring and charged directly at the Olympia, like a maddened panther. But the guns of all the fleet were instantly turned upon her, and the marksmanship of the cool headed American gunners, used to hitting much more difficult targets, did not fail. In a few minutes the Spanish ship was in flames, with great holes torn in her hull and half her rigging shot away. Turning about with difficulty she at tempted to flee back to her consorts. But even as she headed for shelter, the trained eye of a gunner on the Olympia's forward deck was glancing along his great steel pet; there was a heavy roar, and a terrible projectile struck the Spaniard's stern and crashed clear through, sweeping to the very bow, and dropping the captain and more than sixty of his men.
Admiral Montojo and his men escaped as best they could from the sinking ship in her boats, the former transferring his flag to the Isla de Cuba. But no sooner had he run up his admiral's emblem upon this ship than she immediately became the new target for the resistless American batteries. The result was, soon she too was burning and in a sinking condition. Angered almost to distraction the Spanish commander-in-chief once more had to find new quarters, whereupon he at once ordered two of his torpedo-destroyers to go out and do to the Olympia what he himself had been unable to accomplish. The Spanish destroyers, lying low in the water, going at great speed, soon come within seven hundred yards of the Olympia. She is in easy reach of the deadly torpedoes, and a big target; the Spanish gunners can hardly fail to get at least one into her. The dark eyes of the Spanish officers and crew glint with triumph. The captains put their lips to the speaking-tubes to give the chief gunners the word to fire. But they are too late. Already the secondary batteries and rapid-fire guns of the Yankees are beginning to bark, and the well-aimed shot to strike the destroyers. From one of the latter there arises a great puff of white as an internal explosion shakes her from bow to stern; and she drops under the waves forever. The other Spaniard, sorely crippled, fires a tube hastily and the torpedo cuts a white line harmlessly across the bow of the Olympia, while the destroyer makes about and struggles frantically toward shore. There on the beach she will be found after all is over, pierced, shattered, and bloody.
Now the American fleet turn again and steam back to bring their guns to bear on the other side. This time it is the Spanish ships Don Antonio de Ulloa and Castillo which become the victims of their merciless aim; the enemy ships, frightfully torn, soon sink.
Although they ought to be tired out by this time, the Yankee gunners seem to be gaining in the precision of their fire, the accuracy of which is wonderful to behold—as if they were at target-practice and in no danger themselves. The sniff of victory is in their nostrils; the remarkable triumph they are gaining lifts them above such a sordid weakness as exhaustion; the spirit continues the fight with sublime indifference to the whims of the physical being.
Presently, to the surprise of the rest of the fleet, the Olympia draws out of line. What is the matter? Has she been struck? Does she feel the necessity of immediate repairs? But no—as she comes near some of the ships in moving out, and their crews cheer her, and her own crew cheers as heartily back, every consort feels reassured. Now from her masthead flies the signal to withdraw and serve breakfast.
It is half-past seven, and the fight has raged for more than two hours. Even as the men gather round the tables to partake hungrily of food those on deck can see several enemy vessels burning, and a fire in the Arsenal. While the eating goes on, the officers hastily make a close inspection of their vessels, noting the damage done and the condition of the ammunition. The captains are called to the flag-ship, from whence they soon return with the cheering news that not a man has been killed and only a half-dozen wounded. A great cheer goes up; and a greater one still, when announcement is made that the attack will be renewed and the battle fought to a finish without further delay.
Shortly before eleven o'clock the signal comes to advance once more. The plan of battle has been changed. The Spanish ships have been so badly used up that they are practically out of the fight. Now, instead of the American fleet moving up and down in front of the enemy forts and vessels, and firing as they go, orders are to go directly toward the ships, stop for range, then choose a mark and make sure that it is struck.
First goes the Baltimore. Her engines working at capacity, the black smoke fairly rolls from her stacks, and she trembles from end to end under the mighty impulse of her own mechanical power. In a short time she has almost disappeared in her smoke. Then her huge guns begin to thunder, followed, as she draws in, by the lighter and shriller staccato of her rapid-fire battery.
The men behind, on other decks, tremble eagerly as they await their turn. Now they watch the Olympia, which, twenty minutes later, takes up the trail of the Baltimore. Following, the Boston gets under way, with a cheer from her own and the other crews. Then the Raleigh and the Concord drop in. Last to go forward is the little Petrel. But it is not through choice, you may well believe. Drawing less water than her consorts, this small ship runs close in under the frowning parapets of the fort, fires a furious broadside, wheels and fires the other, dashes nimbly away, returns and repeats the process—until the fort has been crumbled in many places and is seen to be in flames.
Meantime the sister ships of the "baby battleship,"—as she is lovingly dubbed—have not been idle. By one o'clock all the larger Spanish ships have been put out of action, and the remaining forts disabled or left burning. Five minutes later the little Petrel, dashing in once more, signals the Commodore that the enemy has struck his colors at Cavite and has raised a white flag.
The fight had now been completely won. The firing ceased, and the crews climbed the rigging to cheer and cheer again till they were hoarse the marvelous victory they had won seven thousand miles from any American soil. The exultation was all the more enthusiastic because no additional casualties had been endured in the second stage of action. As for the Olympia, she had been struck thirteen different times, and not one of the other vessels had entirely escaped, but the damage in every case was not very serious.
It was a battle in which scientific skill had had more to do with the result than any other factor. The Spaniards clearly showed a lack of the high training that had been the lot of the American seamen; while every one of the latter's shots seemed to find its mark, the projectiles of the enemy usually went wide.