John McCutcheon described the opening of the battle: “At ten minutes after five, the American fleet was off Cavite, and the brightness of the day revealed the enemy’s position. Spanish began firing immediately at a range of four miles. At the sound of the first shot, the Olympia, swung to starboard, and headed straight for the Spaniards. The flagship was followed by the Baltimore, Raleigh, Petrel, Concord, and Boston.”
Aboard the advancing American vessels, gunners, stripped of all clothing except their trousers, waited impatiently for the order to commence firing. Dewey had given strict instructions for his ships to hold their fire until an effective range had been reached—he could not afford to waste powder and shells. The McCulloch and coal ships remained back in the bay, their crews lining the decks to watch the spectacle. Commodore Dewey and Lieutenant Calkins stood on the forward bridge of the Olympia, while Captain Gridley’s post was in the conning tower.
With Dewey’s flagship in the lead, the silent fleet steamed steadily forward. Enemy shells kicked up the water around the squadron, but each vessel maneuvered directly behind the Olympia, with absolute precision and in perfect order.
As the American flotilla drew closer to Cavite, shells from the Spanish fort and anchored warships churned the bay into a frothy foam. Suddenly two large geysers of water shot into the air as the Spaniards exploded a couple of mines in front of Dewey’s advancing column. But the American ships stayed on course, closing the distance between themselves and the smoking Spanish cannon. When each range was called, the gunners aboard the Olympia, lowered their sight-bars.
The flagship continued for another mile, with shots splashing on all sides. The tension among the crew was almost unbearable. As soon as the Olympia, was three miles from Cavite, Dewey ordered the cruiser’s port 5-inch battery turned toward the enemy. Seconds later, a shell burst above the flagship. A boatswain’s mate at one of the aft guns shouted “Remember the Maine!” and every man on deck echoed the cry.
“You may fire when ready, Gridley!”
Dewey checked with his gunnery officer. The range was perfect. The commodore then glanced at his watch. It was exactly 5:40. He looked up at the conning tower and called out, “You may fire when ready, Gridley!”
Dewey had barely finished giving the order when the Olympia, sent a broadside of shells crashing into Fort Cavite. The signal for attack brought every squadron gun into action. A hailstorm of steel from rapid-fire weapons pounded the Spanish fleet, while large-caliber shells concentrated on the fortress. The enemy’s return fire increased. Splashing projectiles hurled a deluge of water across the Olympia,’s deck, thoroughly dowsing the gun crews. Clouds of dense smoke enveloped the Spanish and American vessels. The terrific onslaught by Dewey’s fleet continued as it steamed past the enemy fortifications.
When the port batteries of the American ships would no longer bear on the Spaniards, Dewey’s column swung about and cut loose with their starboard guns. One sailor remarked, “It was a tremendous, roaring procession—a scene of awful magnificence!” Two enemy shells ripped the Baltimore. One missile passed clear through the cruiser without exploding. The other tore across the main deck, wrecking a 6-inch gun and wounding eight men.
The Boston was also blasted. A projectile struck her port quarter. A fire broke out, but it was quickly extinguished. Time-fuse shells continually exploded above the American fleet, scattering steel fragments in all directions. Joseph Stickney was on the Olympia,’s bridge during the conflict and described the battle: “One projectile headed straight for the forward bridge, but exploded less than a hundred feet away. Shrapnel sliced the rigging over the heads of Commander Lamberton and myself. Another shell, about as large as a flatiron, gouged a hole in the deck a few feet below the Commodore.”
Tons of Spanish shells fell about the American squadron, whose salvation was the poor marksmanship of the enemy. Most of their shots were too high and roared into the bay beyond. After passing the enemy’s line for the second time, the Olympia,’s column swung around again on a closer tack, giving the port guns a second chance at the Spaniards. The Cavite shoreline was a veritable inferno of flames and the pandemonium was indescribable. Suddenly the Americans spotted the Reina Cristina steaming out to meet the Olympia,. Dewey ordered his ships to concentrate their fire on the reckless enemy vessel. Rapid-fire shells riddled the side of the Spaniard, and gunfire swept her decks. An 8-inch projectile struck the enemy cruiser in the stern, plowing completely through the ship and blowing up its forward magazine.
Dewey’s fleet had just finished its fifth circle of the enemy’s position, when Gridley reported that there were only 15 rounds per gun for the Olympia,’s 5-inch battery. Not wishing to alarm the crew, the commodore ordered his squadron to withdraw for “breakfast.” While the battle-weary fleet steamed north, beyond the range of Spanish guns, clearing smoke near Cavite revealed the wreckage of the fort and fires burning on several enemy vessels.
How Morale on the Olympia Plummeted
Once safely out in the bay, Dewey summoned his ship captains to the Olympia,. Remaining ammunition was checked and powder and shells redistributed where necessary. During this unorthodox pause in the action, Stickney wrote the following: “We had been fighting a determined and courageous enemy for almost three hours, without noticeably diminishing their volume of fire. So far as we could see, there was no indication that the Spaniards were less able to defend themselves than they had been at the beginning of the engagement.
“We knew the Spanish had an ample supply of ammunition, so there was no hope of exhausting their fighting power by a battle lasting twice as long. If we should run short of powder and shell, we might possibly become the hunted instead of the hunter. The gloom on the bridge of the Olympia, was thicker than a London fog in November. We had all been disappointed by results of our gunfire. For some reason, the shells seemed to go too high or too low. The same had been the case with the Spaniards. On our final circle, we were within 2,500 yards of the enemy. At that distance, and in a smooth sea, we should have had a large percentage of hits. However, as near as we could judge, we had not crippled the foe to any great extent.”
While his ravenous sailors ate a hearty meal, Commodore Dewey scouted the enemy position with his binoculars. Heavy smoke obscured Cavite, but he still could make out the tall masts and flags of Spanish ships. Occasionally the sound of exploding ammunition could also be heard in the distance. After a three-hour respite, Dewey again formed his battle line for attack. This time the Baltimore was in the lead.
As the American fleet approached Cavite, the sound of church bells in downtown Manila floated peacefully across the bay. Curious spectators could be seen crowding the rooftops of the city. They appeared to be preparing to watch a pageant or play.
Dewey’s squadron and the big guns of Cavite opened fire at the same time. Only one Spanish vessel slipped her moorings and came out fighting. The captain of the Antonio de Ulloa nailed her flag to the mast and engaged the American cruisers in a one-sided firefight. Within a few minutes, the Spanish vessel went down with all hands.
Spotting the White Flag of Surrender
Recognizing the futility of continuing the conflict, Admiral Montojo issued his last order to his fleet officers: “Scuttle and abandon your ships!” The admiral then escaped to Manila in a small boat.
About 12:30, a white flag of surrender was seen flying over Fort Cavite, and Dewey anchored his squadron near Manila.
Three enemy ships had been sunk by Dewey’s squadron. Eight Spanish vessels had been set afire and scuttled by their crews. A total of 381 Spaniards were killed during the fierce battle. While aboard the American fleet, only eight men were wounded. Amazingly, not one member of Dewey’s squadron was killed in action.
After the conflict, Commodore Dewey declared: “This battle was won in Hong Kong Harbor. My captains and staff officers working with me, planned out the fight with reference to all contingencies, and we were fully prepared for exactly what happened. Although I recognized the alternatives from reports that reached me—that the Spanish might meet me at Subic Bay, or possibly near Corregidor, I made up my mind that the battle would be fought right here that very morning, at the same hour, and with nearly the same position of opposing ships. That is why and how, at break of day, we formed in perfect line, opened fire, and kept our position without mistake or interruption until the enemy ships were destroyed.”
Dewey’s engagement was unsurpassed in the naval history of that time. Never before had an entire fleet been wiped out without the loss of a ship—or a single man—on the part of an attacking force. Commodore Dewey’s victory at Manila Bay is still one of the most romantic and decisive in world history.