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Today in Military History – May 1st – The Whole Story

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USS Olympia leads the way as Commodore Dewey attacks the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay, May 1st, 1898.

In 1896, as tensions with Spain began rising due to Cuba, the US Navy began planning for an attack on the Philippines in the event of war. First conceived at the US Naval War College, the attack was not intended to conquer the Spanish colony, but rather to draw enemy ships and resources away from Cuba. On February 25, 1898, ten days after the sinking of USS Maine in Havana harbor, Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt telegraphed Commodore George Dewey with orders to assemble the US Asiatic Squadron at Hong Kong. Anticipating the coming war, Roosevelt wanted Dewey in place to strike a quick blow.

Consisting of the protected cruisers USS Olympia, Boston, and Raleigh, as well as the gunboats USS Petrel and Concord, the US Asiatic Squadron was a largely modern force of steel ships. In mid-April, Dewey was further reinforced by the protected cruiser USS Baltimore and the revenue cutter McCulloch. In Manila, the Spanish leadership was aware that Dewey was concentrating his forces. The commander of the Spanish Pacific Squadron, Rear Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasaron, feared meeting Dewey as his ships were generally old and obsolete.

Consisting of seven unarmored ships, Montojo’s squadron was centered on his flagship, the cruiser Reina Cristina. With the situation looking bleak, Montojo recommended fortifying the entrance to Subic Bay, northwest of Manila, and fighting his ships with the aid of shore batteries. This plan was approved and work commenced at Subic Bay. On April 21, Secretary of the Navy John D. Long telegraphed Dewey to inform him that a blockade of Cuba had been put in place and that war was imminent. Three days later, the British authorities informed Dewey that the war had started and that he had 24 hours to leave Hong Kong.

Before departing, Dewey received instructions from Washington ordering him to move against the Philippines. As Dewey wished to obtain the latest intelligence from the US Consul to Manila, Oscar Williams, who was en route to Hong Kong, he shifted the squadron to Mirs Bay on the Chinese coast. After preparing and drilling for two days, Dewey began steaming towards Manila immediately after Williams’ arrival on April 27. With war declared, Montojo shifted his ships from Manila to Subic Bay. Arriving, he was stunned to find that batteries were not complete.

After being informed that it would take another six weeks to complete the work, Montojo returned to Manila and took up a position in shallow water off Cavite. Pessimistic about his chances in battle, Montojo felt that the shallow water offered his men the ability to swim to shore if they needed to escape their ships. At the mouth of the bay, the Spanish placed several mines, however the channels were too wide to effectively prevent the entrance of the American ships. Arriving off Subic Bay on April 30, Dewey sent two cruisers to search for Montojo’s ships.

Not finding them, Dewey pushed onto Manila Bay. At 5:30 that evening, he summoned his captains and developed his plan of attack for the next day. Running dark, the US Asiatic Squadron entered the bay that night, with the goal of striking the Spanish at dawn. Detaching McCulloch to guard his two supply ships, Dewey formed his other ships into line of battle with Olympia in the lead. After briefly taking fire from batteries near the city of Manila, Dewey’s squadron approached Montojo’s position. At 5:15 AM, Montojo’s men opened fire.

Waiting 20 minutes to close the distance, Dewey gave the famous order “You may fire when ready, Gridley,” to Olympia‘s captain at 5:35. Steaming in an oval pattern, the US Asiatic Squadron opened first with their starboard guns and then their port guns as they circled back. For the next hour and a half, Dewey pounded the Spanish, defeating several torpedo boat attacks and a ramming attempt by Reina Cristina in the process. At 7:30, Dewey was informed that his ships were low on ammunition. Withdrawing into the bay, he quickly found that this report was an error. Returning to action around 11:15, the American ships saw that only one Spanish ship was offering resistance. Closing in, Dewey’s ships finished the battle, reducing Montojo’s squadron to burning wrecks.


Dewey’s stunning victory at Manila Bay cost him a mere 1 killed and 9 wounded. The one fatality was not combat-related and occurred when an engineer aboard McCulloch had a heart attack. For Montojo, the battle cost him his entire squadron as well as 161 dead and 210 wounded. With the fighting concluded, Dewey found himself in control of the waters around the Philippines. Landing US Marines the next day, Dewey occupied the arsenal and navy yard at Cavite. Lacking troops to take Manila, Dewey contacted Filipino insurgent Emilio Aguinaldo and asked for assistance in distracting the Spanish troops. In the wake of Dewey’s triumph, President William McKinley authorized sending troops to the Philippines. These arrived later that summer and Manila was captured on August 13, 1898.


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