“You Must Capture Vessels or Destroy”
While battle plans were being formulated, crew members of the American flotilla were not taking life easy. The sailors trained continually in target practice, fire drills, and all possible conditions of actual combat. On Tuesday, April 26, Dewey was notified that war had begun and received his sailing orders: “War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to the Philippine Islands, and initiate operations against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavors.”
A reporter for the New York Journal, John Barrett, witnessed the American ships leaving the Chinese coast. He wrote: “When Dewey’s squad- ron sailed out from Mirs Bay, it reminded me of thoroughbred race horses, trained to the minute by an expert, who not only knew his animals, but also his competition, and the conditions of the race.” Nevertheless the United States Asiatic Fleet did not include a single battleship. The flotilla was composed of four cruisers, the Olympia, Baltimore, Boston, , and Raleigh; two gunboats, the Concord and Petrel; and the revenue cutter McCulloch. Dewey’s flagship, the Olympia, was commanded by Captain Charles V. Gridley.
The armament of the American vessels ranged from 8-inch to 5-inch guns, plus many smaller caliber weapons. The combined tonnage of the cruisers was only slightly more than that of the battleship Iowa.
Before leaving Hong Kong, Dewey had asked for and received permission to purchase two British cargo ships—the Nanshan and the Zafiro. The merchantmen were loaded with 10,000 tons of coal for the task force and manned by English crews. Three newspaper correspondents sailed with the American fleet. Aboard the McCulloch were Edwin Harden of the New York World and John McCutch- eon of the Chicago Record. Joseph Stickney of the New York Herald had a ringside seat on the bridge of the Olympia,.
Hong Kong was 600 miles from Manila, and there was plenty of time for the men in Dewey’s squadron to worry and wonder what was in store for them. Moreover, they could be anxious about an ambush; more than a thousand islands were scattered throughout the Philippine archipelago, and Spanish warships could be hiding anywhere
During the voyage, individual ship captains kept their men razor-sharp, with constant gun drills and signal exercises. General quarters was called at any hour of the day or night. On Friday evening, April 29, the fleet was ordered darkened, except for small stern lights that were barely visible. On Saturday morning, the island of Luzon was sighted. Fires were kindled under each boiler, and black smoke poured from every stack. The vessels were a bedlam of activity. Splinter nettings were spread and hoses run between decks—ready to instantly drown any fires caused by bursting shells. Ammunition hoists were checked, magazines opened, and every strip of bunting except the signal flags was packed away. Wooden stanchions, rails, and other movable items were stowed below to prevent shrapnel fragments from slashing the men topside in case of an enemy hit.
The Spanish Fleet Possessed a Distinct Numerical Advantage
Wooden lifeboats were lowered and towed behind the McCulloch. All spars and ladders that could not be stowed below decks were swung over the sides of the ships. Unnecessary rigging was taken down, and wire stays attached to the masts were firmly lashed with ropes, so that if shot away, the masts would not crash to the deck and interfere with the operation of the guns. The captain of every ship in Dewey’s squadron informed his crew that the Spanish fleet was larger than the American squadron, and that considering the mined channels and forts that had to be traversed, the enemy had a distinct advantage.
Before he sailed from Mirs Bay, Dewey learned that Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo had ordered his warships to Subic Bay, about 30 miles north of Corregidor, and was prepared to battle the Americans from an excellent defensive position. The vessels under Montojo’s command were the cruisers Reina Cristina and Castilla and the gunboats Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, Don Juan de Austria, and the Don Antonio de Ulloa. Several smaller ships included four torpedo boats.
Subic Bay was an ideal defensive setup. The entrance was about two miles wide, and halfway up the bay was Grande Island, commanding both sides of the passage. But unknown to Dewey, when Admiral Montojo’s fleet reached Subic Bay, he discovered that only five mines had been placed and that four cannon, supposedly mounted on the island, were instead lying on the beach. Visibly upset, Montojo turned his fleet around and headed for Manila. The Spanish admiral anchored his warships on both sides of the Cavite fortress, where the vessels could be protected by large land-based guns. Montojo was familiar with the harbor area, and was aware that the Americans would be compelled to maneuver in strange waters—and with inaccurate Spanish charts.
Dewey halted his squadron outside Subic Bay and sent the Boston, Baltimore, and Concord ahead as pickets to scout the inlet. The vessels returned in the afternoon and reported they found only a few small sloops and schooners. Dewey also received news that Montojo had left Subic Bay earlier that morning.
All ship captains were immediately summoned to the Olympia, for a conference. Dewey told the officers he intended to enter Manila Bay that evening—regardless of the mines and forts. The Commodore felt confident the Spaniards would not expect such a move, and that they could be taken by surprise. Then the American squadron sneaked along the Philippine coast at four knots so as not to reach the Manila Bay entrance before nightfall.
The ships’ crews went to their battle-eve supper at 7 o’clock, and about two hours later, battle ports were closed. A spirit of tense excitement permeated the hot, muggy night. The only light visible was a tiny stern signal, enclosed in a box so it could only be seen by ships directly in the wake of the slow-moving vessels.
The Olympia, led the column, followed by the Baltimore, Boston, Raleigh, Concord, and Petrel. The McCulloch and the coal ships were stationed a mile astern. The sky was overcast but the moon occasionally peeked between the clouds, silhouetting the invading fleet. Off to port, the coast of Bataan could be seen in the distance. Dewey realized that the enemy could be watching their approach and preparing their fortress guns for a heavy barrage. At 10 o’clock, the men were sent to their battle stations—not by the usual bugle call, but by word of mouth. Dewey timed his arrival with precision. It was almost midnight when the Corregidor Island foglight flashed ahead. The American squadron passed into the Boca Grande channel and approached Corregidor abeam to port. Every binocular and gun was trained on the fortress as Dewey’s fleet turned north into Manila Bay.
Suddenly the McCulloch’s smokestack belched a bright flash of flame. Soot from the soft coal she was burning had ignited inside the stack owing to the intense heat of her furnace. The fire glowed for a few minutes, leaving the cutter a perfect target for the enemy’s big guns. But the Spaniards had evidently been taken by surprise. Their weapons were not fully manned, and it took time to ready the batteries for action.
It was not until Dewey’s fleet cleared Corregidor that the Spanish opened fire. The flash from a cannon erupted on the mainland, and a shell ripped across the water, splashing in front of the Olympia,. The Raleigh answered the challenge, followed by 8-inch salvos from the Boston. Direct hits were scored on the enemy’s position, silencing their guns.
Even though the American squadron had been discovered, Spaniards in the forts at the bay’s entrance could not directly tell their comrades farther up the bay what was happening; there was no telegraphic communication between them and the city of Manila. Dewey was only 20 miles from Manila, but decided not to arrive until daylight. He signaled his ships to proceed in double column at a speed of four knots. He also ordered the McCulloch to lead the cargo vessels up to a position where they would be protected by the cruisers and less exposed to a sudden attack. All gun crews were directed to try to get some sleep. The men lay down on the decks near their battle stations. Each ship was in a state of readiness. Every gun was loaded, and ammunition hoists were filled with shells. Officers on watch continually moved about, inspecting every station over and over again. Conversations were conducted in whispers so as not to disturb the sleeping men.
At 5 o’clock Sunday morning, May 1, the dim outline of Manila loomed through the haze on the horizon. A few minutes later, the city’s waterfront could be seen. In a moment, a lookout aboard the Olympia, sighted the outline of ships about five miles south. Lieutenant C.G. Calkins, using his binoculars, brought Sangley Point and Cavite into sharp focus. He could see a line of gray and white vessels stretching eastward from the point, the flame-colored flags of Spain hanging listlessly from their masts. Dewey’s squadron, with bright-hued signal flags whipping in the air, looked every bit like ships on parade as they headed for their date with destiny.