When we left our anchorage at Hong Kong for Mirs Bay we passed close to an English army hospital-ship lying in the stream. The patients gathered on the port-side, and, with the doctors and nurses, gave three hearty cheers as we steamed slowly by. It did our hearts good, and from all our ships ringing Yankee voices answered them in kind.
It was known at Hong-Kong that we were to proceed to Manila to destroy the Spanish fleet, and no doubt the Spanish consul at Hong-Kong telegraphed our mission to the authorities at Manila. The Chinese at Hong-Kong regarded our intentions with apathy, but I believe that the Japanese trusted in our victory.
We left Mirs Bay at 2 P. M., April 27, 1898, the fleet grim in its dull war color, and every heart aboard beating with excitement and resolve. All knew that the orders had been received to proceed direct to Manila and to capture or destroy the Spanish fleet, but the outcome was dark with mystery. English naval officers predicted that we would win easily, for they had seen our target practice; but other naval officers declared that ‘the Spaniards had the weight of metal, and if they made the fight under the protection of the guns in Manila Bay, they ought to win. Nothing is so difficult for the American temperament to endure as uncertainty. As the vessels sailed over the calm sea between Hong-Kong and Manila it was easy to see that inaction fretted officers and men almost beyond endurance. The Commodore had given orders for eight knots only, in order to economize coal, and this slow movement annoyed the men, who were keyed up to fighting tension and suffered under the enforced idleness.
Cape Bolinao, the first headland of the main island of Luzon, was reached at four o’clock on the morning of Saturday, April 30. A report was brought to Commodore Dewey that a Spanish war vessel was in the little harbor, but he did not credit the rumor. We ran close inshore all day along the beautiful tropical coast of the island of Luzon. Poet or painter never pictured a lovelier scene, for in color and luxuriance of vegetation this island is not excelled anywhere in the world. We should have enjoyed the voyage had it not been for the preparations for battle and death seen on every side.
During the day everything made of wood that shot could reach was ruthlessly stripped off and cast overboard. Even the personal belongings of officers and men suffered the same fate. Rails and planks were cut away by jackies with their sharp axes, and chairs, tables, chests, and a great variety of smaller articles were added to the curious collection that littered the ocean for miles. It was hard on the lovers of curios, but nothing escaped the vigilance of the officers whose orders were to guard against splinters, more deadly on the gun-deck of the modern man-of-war than a solid shot.
Two hours after sighting Cape Bolinao the Boston and the Concord were detached by the Commodore and ordered to make a reconnaissance of Subig Bay, forty miles away, where it was reported the day before we left Mirs Bay that the Spanish admiral would await the American fleet. Later the Baltimore was despatched under full steam to assist them. When they returned they reported that two Spanish schooners were met near Subig Bay, but no trustworthy information was gained from their crews. No Spanish war vessels were seen, but the master of one of the schooners declared that he had just come from Manila harbor and that the Spanish fleet was not there. A Philippine insurgent leader, who was on one of our ships, boarded the schooner and closely questioned the crew. His report was that no dependence could be placed upon them. “They are liars,” said he; “and this story is a lie.”
When the three vessels returned to the fleet Commodore Dewey signaled for a council of war. All the captains met in the commodore’s room on the Olympia, and after a short discussion it was decided to run the batteries at the entrance of Manila harbor at midnight. As soon as the captains returned, the fleet was off again at six-knot speed. When night fell all lights were put out except a hooded stern lantern on each ship, which served as a steering guide to the vessel following.
As junior medical officer on the Olympia my station in battle was in the sick-bay situated forward on the berth-deck beneath the eight-inch turret, and close to the forward ammunition-hoist. Before we left Mirs Bay the men had been instructed in the application of tourniquets and first aid to the injured. At the same time bandages and tourniquets were distributed to each division. All were instructed to have their hair clipped short, and most of the officers and men complied. This was for better endurance of the fierce heat and to facilitate the dressing of scalp wounds.
Instructions were also given in the art of carrying the wounded both by bearers and on stretchers, and orders were passed that all sick and wounded were to be brought at once to the sick-bay or the medical station aft. In charge of the forward bay was the senior medical officer, Dr. Price, assisted by myself, two baymen, and the apothecary. Aft was the senior assistant medical officer and Chaplain Frazier. About 6 P. M. we began to prepare the sick-bay for the coming battle. The battle ports were closed and a canvas screen placed around all the sides and on the inboard partitions to protect the surgeons and the wounded from splinters. Our instruments were laid out ready for operations; antiseptic solutions, ligatures, tourniquets, stimulants, anesthetics, etc., were placed on a table close by; and the operating-table was in position to receive patients.
When these preparations had been made I went on deck. The history of the American navy is full of exciting episodes, but I doubt whether in the midst of any battle the nervous tension of officers and men was greater than on this night, as we entered the harbor of Manila. Not a light could be seen as the Olympia steamed slowly into the broad channel between the islands of Corregidor and El Fraile. Dark and grim the Spanish fortifications loomed on either side, and it seemed well-nigh hopeless that we should escape observation. But the commodore followed a mid-channel course, and in the gloom all the fleet had passed the islands, except the revenue cutter McCulloch and the transports, when suddenly from the summit of Corregidor, six hundred feet above us, leaped a rocket, and its blazing course lighted up the heavens. Instantly an answering signal came from the opposite fort, and a moment later the boom of great guns from the south shore showed that the Spaniards were aroused and knew that the enemy was at their gates.
Magical was the change in the bearing of the men on the Olympia. They sprang to the guns, eager to reply to the Spanish challenge, but Commodore Dewey forbade any firing. The Boston, the McCulloch, and the Concord responded with a few shots; but orders were given to cease firing, and the slow, silent, forward movement was resumed. Probably the fleet would have entered the harbor undetected had it not been for the blazing smokestack of the McCulloch and the stern lights; but the discovery and the aimless firing by the Spanish gunners had a good moral effect on the men. Before, they had been nervous and overwrought. Now, with the certain knowledge that fighting was in store for them at break of day, they dropped down in the warm tropical night beside their guns or wherever they had been stationed, and were soon sound asleep.
Morning came, and just before the shadows lifted all hands had coffee. Then the galley fires were extinguished and the preparations for battle occupied all on board. At 5:15 o’clock we passed the merchant fleet, composed of English sailing vessels, with one German ship. They lay in the way of the fire of the forts. Just after we had passed them the batteries at Manila opened fire, but the only vessel to respond was the Boston with a few eight-inch shells. The revenue cutter McCulloch and the two transports, Nanshan and Zafiro, were left in the middle of the bay, but still in range. Then the six fighting ships, cleared for action, sailed in to meet the fleet and the batteries. With three flags flying on each vessel, the ships made a brave sight.
The flag-ship Olympia led the way, and was followed by the Baltimore, Raleigh, Concord, Petrel, and Boston. We made a wide circle and came round opposite the city of Manila and down toward Cavite fortress, from which the red-and-yellow colors of Spain were proudly flying. At first we could not make out the Spanish fleet, and feared that it had really escaped; but a few minutes later we descried the flags fluttering from the vessels as they lay in a half-circle in Bakor Bay, just back of Cavite. On the Olympia the men stood at their guns with set teeth and the smile that one sees so often on the faces of men in the prize-ring.
When seven miles away puffs of smoke and roar of guns showed that the forts had begun their fire on us. But the shells did not reach, and the fleet sailed on without reply. Still silent, the Olympia drew near until she was only forty-four hundred yards away from fort and fleet. Then the roar of one of her forward eight-inch guns was the signal that the fight had opened. Almost instantly – it seemed to me like an echo-came the sound of the guns of the other ships. First would come the flash, then the puff of smoke, and then the mighty roar. We fired our port batteries in turn, and then, swinging round, discharged the starboard guns.
During this fight and the one later I watched the spectacle from the six-pounder guns forward of the sick-bay. There was very little for me to do, and as these guns were fired only when the ship was at short range from the shore, my position was an ideal one. Early in the fight I saw what looked like a ten-inch shell coming toward the ship with frightful velocity. It seemed inevitable that we should be destroyed. The shell struck the water ten feet from the bow and ricochetted clear over the vessel, with a screech that was indescribable. Had it struck five feet higher I should not tell this tale. Other shells fell as near, and the impact sent the water splashing over us.
Soon after two torpedo-boats put out from the fleet. They came straight for the Olympia, with the manifest purpose of sinking the flag-ship. When the foremost boat reached close range a perfect storm of steel burst upon it. The surface of the ocean burst into foam under the hail of shot, and the doomed boat went down with all her crew. The other, seeing the fate of her companion, turned and made for the shore. With riddled sides she managed to float until the few surviving members of her crew escaped. As we neared Cavite a mine field exploded, but as we were fully a thousand yards off, the ship was not hurt.
Five times the fleet ranged up and down before Cavite, each vessel pouring in broadsides upon the Spanish fleet and the batteries of Cavite. As soon as the Spanish admiral could get up steam on his flag-ship, the Reina Christina, he came boldly out to give us battle. It was magnificent, but in his case it certainly was not war, for his flag-ship was hit again and again and his men were driven from their guns by the fierce fire of the Olympia and the other vessels. I saw the vessel turn and begin an attempt to retreat; but as she swung about, an eight-inch shell from one of our guns raked the ship fore and aft. We learned later that this single shell killed the captain and sixty men, hopelessly crippled the ship, and set her on fire. Several other ships were burning fiercely as at 7:30 the signal was given and our fleet drew off.
This was the signal that the Spaniards misconstrued as a sign that the Americans had retreated to repair damages. The truth is that Commodore Dewey desired to consult his captains and also to give all hands breakfast. The men had been fighting in the fierce heat for two hours, and they were worn with fatigue and hunger. But, weary as they were, they laughed when they looked shoreward and saw the effects of their work, accomplished without any serious damage to their own vessels or any loss to their men. A cold lunch was served, and soon the men were ready to fight again.
Looking over to Cavite, the sight was one that no one who beheld it will ever forget. The forts of Manila and batteries at Cavite were throwing tons of shot and shell across the water; but all were wasted, as they fell short of the fleet. Along near the shore the Reina Christina was in a blaze and the Castilla was burning.
At 10:45 the attack was resumed. Nothing in the whole engagement showed more nerve than the dash made by the Baltimore and the Olympia up to the Cavite batteries. It was vitally necessary that these batteries should be silenced, as the fleet lay behind them, and the forts mounted big guns that could sink any of our ships with one well-planted shot. Both ships steamed full speed straight for the fort. We saw the Baltimore disappear in a cloud of smoke. Then we entered it and delivered a broadside. Nothing human could stand such a fire, well delivered at close range, and the Spaniards were forced to abandon their guns.
Then all the ships turned their guns on the remnant of the Spanish fleet, and under the terrible fire the Don Antonio de Ulloa sank with her colors flying. The big American ships did not dare venture far inside the harbor, but the Concord and the Petrel steamed in and shelled forts and ships. The Concord drove the crew of one hundred men from the transport Mindanao and set her on fire, while the Petrel burned all the ships she found afloat. At five minutes after one o’clock the white flag went up on Cavite fort.
When our men caught sight of this flag cheers went up which stirred one’s blood. The sailors were beside themselves with joy, and cheered, shouted, hugged one another, and indulged in many other signs of rejoicing. Then came the report that no lives had been lost, and the cheering was redoubled.
At noon the day after the battle the Spanish evacuated Cavite. I was sent ashore to bury eight Spaniards, and landed at the hospital on the point near Cavite. I went through all its wards. The sight was terrible. It is a good hospital, with detached wards in little pavilions grouped about the central buildings. Everything was in good order and cleanly. I conversed with several of the doctors in French, as I do not speak Spanish and they had no English at command. They were extremely courteous, but to my question, “How many Spanish were killed and wounded? ” they replied sadly that they did not know. In the wards I saw over eighty wounded. The horrors of war were seen at their worst. Some of the men were fearfully burned, some with limbs freshly amputated, others with their eyes shot out, their features torn away by steel or splinters-every kind of injury that surgery records. The shrieks and groans of the wounded were appalling. I could not stay to hear them, though my profession is calculated to harden one against such scenes. Had I been working, I should have endured it, but as an onlooker it was unbearable. We had received urgent messages from these doctors saying for God’s sake to send Americans to guard the hospital against the insurgents, who, they feared, would murder them and their patients. We had posted guards as soon as possible, but not before the insurgents had robbed them of all the clothing not on their backs and all their food except enough for twelve hours.
I walked through Cavite with several officers and saw the insurgents looting the stores and houses. They were carrying away provisions, clothing furniture and everything else portable. The Spaniards had all fled, and they were undisturbed in their greedy labors. When they bowed and smiled indulgently, with many salutations and spoken desires for l our welfare.
I shall not forget the burial of the eight men for whose interment I had been despatched with a line officer and party. We came upon them lying on a little porch behind a small hospital in the Cavite navy-yard. The bodies were mangled and ghastly. A leg was missing from one, the back of the head of another, the wall of the abdomen from a third. Those who were not instantly killed must have died soon after receipt of their injuries. Evidently they had been laid where we found them and then deserted. Shells had wrought the fearful havoc. Although dead but a few hours, the corpses were in an advanced stage of decomposition, owing to the climatic conditions. We dug a trench, covered the bodies with quicklime, and consigned them to the earth. The hospital inmates at Cavite were afterward sent to Manila under the Geneva cross in a captured steamer.
It seemed incredible to us, after the smoke and excitement of battle had cleared away, that we had lost not a single man, and that not a single ship had been seriously damaged. Primarily to the wretched gunnery of the Spanish we owed our escape; but there was an element of luck also in the escape of so many vessels from random shots. Many of their guns were old, but still they had enough good guns afloat and ashore to have made a destructive fight had they had the skill to handle them. Of ammunition and torpedoes also they had an ample store. No one who witnessed the Spaniards in action could say that they lacked courage. In fact, they exposed themselves, yet their valor was wasted in this long-range fighting. It was the oft-told story of the man behind the gun.
During the first battle Boatswain’s Mate Heaney of the Olympia was treated by me for crushed fingers caused by the recoil of a gun, and another man suffered from the same cause, having a slight scalp wound. Two others had minor injuries. In the second battle none were hurt in the least or were made sick by the heat and work. The day was clear and excessively hot, but about the beginning of the second fight a fresh breeze sprang up which lasted all that day and night. It was of incalculable benefit to our men, but the state of the thermometer may be judged from the fact that we all slept on deck that night without covering. The Olympia was struck thirteen times by Spanish shots, three times in the hull and the rest in the rigging. Two shots cracked the plates, but did not pierce them. I was told by a Spaniard after the battle that they thought our ships were armored, and so used armor-piercing shells, which, coupled with poor marksmanship, may account for our seemingly miraculous escape from harm.
The noise of the explosions was stunning, and a number of officers and men had their ears plugged with cotton as a safeguard. They could still hear commands, but were saved the shock of the rapid-firing guns. A private of marines was made deaf for several days, and powder smoke made many choke and caused watering of the eyes among all. When the eight-inch guns went off the noise in the sick-bay was terrible, and a cloud of smoke hid all from view in that direction. The ship heaved as if in the grip of a tidal wave, and one felt as though nothing could withstand the concussion.
I saw no fear shown by any one. After the battle began the coolness of the men and officers was as real and as great as if they were at target practice. They aimed their guns with the ease and steadiness of men shooting partridges, and cheered each shot home to its mark. Exclamations of satisfaction when some specially valuable target was hit were frequent, and all executed their maneuvers with the sang-froid of veterans.
My part in the conflict being almost entirely that of a spectator, I had opportunities to see much, but I can give only my ideas of the battle and its surroundings. I left for Hong-Kong in the McCulloch with others a few days afterward, but before that time we had destroyed the batteries at the mouth of Manila Bay and were loading the captured transport Manila with guns and other trophies of the victory. Manila had not surrendered, but Dewey sent word that if a shot was fired from the city he would lay the place in ashes. The admiration for Dewey – which I have discovered since my arrival in America amounts to idolatry -is well deserved. He is worshiped by his men. All knew before the battle that he was a magnificent theorist in naval affairs, but it was a revelation to find he was a genius in management and one greatest sea-fighters the century has produced.