OLYMPIA Stoker Charles Twitchell
Speaks of the Battle of Manila Bay
Below is an unusual account of the Battle of Manila Bay. The account is unusual because the witness describing the events did not see a single shell fired, and saw none of the American or Spanish ships maneuvering, yet he was in the very heart of the action. This man, Charles H. Twitchell was a stoker aboard OLYMPIA. his battle station was feeding the furnaces in OLYMPIA's boilers.
When in action, the men serving in the vital areas of othe ship - the engine rooms, the boiler rooms, the magazines, etc. - were virtually and literally shut off from the world. They were below the ship's "protective deck," the one lightly armored deck. The hatches through the deck were sealed. There was no intercom system, so these men had to depend on the whims of those above to learn how the battle was progressing.
They worked in an area of massive heat, incredible noise (the roar of up to forty furnaces, the rush of steam, the movement of the engines, the forced draft system, the shovelling of coal on metal decks, air pumps, water pumps, condensers, etc., combined to make it a deafening world...one in which one had to yell to be heard), coal dust, soot, ash, hot steam, oil and smoke. The arrangement of boiler rooms with narrow doors, hatches leading to coal bunkers, ladders, and narrow companionways leading between the boiler rooms was industrial architecture at its stereotypical zenith. Men working in the area experienced a living combination of Fritz Lang's "Metropolis" and Dante's Inferno.
Twitchell makes special notice of the concern about attacks by torpedo boats. This was a special fear for men in the boiler rooms. A torpedo hit in their area meant that certain death. The cooler water brought in by the hole could cause the heated boilers to explode. Exploding and damaged boilers would release thousands of gallons of superheated water, and the men would be both drowned and boiled to death. Escape from the boiler room took time, and could not be accomplished quickly should the need arise. The torpedo attack that Twitchell mentions has been a bit of a mystery. The ship did come at OLYMPIA, and was destroyed...but it has never been shown that it was, in fact, a torpedo boat, though it could have been. The Spanish reports make no reference to the commencement of a torpedo attack. At least one account states that it was a merchant who had his boat in the wrong place at the wrong time.
“You see, there isn’t very much fun for a man ‘way down here, out of sight of everything and everybody; its work for men and plenty of it. You may think it hot down here now, but this is Paradise alongside of what we had when we went for the Spaniards.
Midnight before the battle my shift went down to take care of the engines. Just about that time we got opposite Corregidor, and the guns in the Spanish forts woke us up and let was have it. We passed ‘em all right and kept right on up he bay as though nothing happened.
Of course we didn’t know much of what was going on up above. The battle hatches were all battened down, and we were shut in this little hole, the ventilating pipes being the only things left open.
Everybody had received orders to stand by his post and do his best until the shooting match was over. The temperature was nearly up to two hundred degrees at this time, and it was so hot our hair was singed. There were several leaks in the steam pipes, and the hissing, hot steam made things worse.
The clatter of the engines and the roaring of the furnaces made such a din it seemed one’s head would burst. When a man could stand it no longer he would put his head under and air pipe for a moment and try to cool off a little. The heat grew so unbearably fierce at times our hands and wrists would seem on fire, and we had to plunge them in water. All the water we had was in an old pork barrel, and it tasted more like hot brine than water. But bad as it was, it would at least moisten our throats. About half-past four that morning we were ordered on deck to get a breath of air and a cup of coffee. We were given to understand when we dived down into our furnace again that the battle was going to begin at once.
We knew that might mean this was the last glimpse we would ever get of the deck, and we went down prepared to go to the bottom of Manila Bay. Battened down the way we were in the bottom of the ship, had she been suck there would not have been the slightest chance of escape.
We could tell when our guns opened fire by the way the ship shook; we could scarcely stand on our feet, the vibration was so great. Just at that moment I glanced at the clock hanging on the wall and saw it was ten minutes to six.
From that time on the din was something horrible. Every once in a while one of the apprentice boys would come to our ventilating pipe and shout down from the deck what was going on. That was the only way we could tell how the battle was going. We kept working all the time as hard as we could. The ship shook so fearfully that the soot poured down on us in clouds. Now and then a big drop of scalding water would fall on our bare heads, and the pain was intense.
One by one three of our men were overcome by the terrible heat and were hoisted to the upper deck.
Whenever a Spanish ship would make a move out toward us some of the boys on deck would shout down that they were coming for us full tilt. We knew it meant sure death if the OLYMPIA got a shot through her anywhere in our vicinity. We were suffering so much from the heat and thirst that death didn’t frighten us. I guess we all thought it couldn’t be much worse that what we were going through. Along toward the last of our first engagement an apprentice boy shouted down the pipe that a Spanish torpedo boat was making straight for us. I don’t believe and of us had said more than a word or two up to that time, but at this news almost all of us set up some kind of a shout. We knew if that torpedo reached us that would be the windup.
But it never did reach us, and in a few minutes the boy yelled again and said the boat had been riddled by our guns. The news brought a cheer from the men, and we felt considerably better. About eight o’clock we drew off for a consultation o war. We went on deck then for a breathing spell and a bite to eat, and I can tell you we were mighty glad of the change. We were all surprised that the decks weren’t covered with blood and mangled bodies, and could scarcely believe it when they told us no one was hurt.
I shall never forget those few hours I spent in front of the furnaces in Manila Bay. It seemed to me the longest day I ever lived. I’m not anxious to go through it again, and I don’t think any of the others are."
Dewey, Adelbert, The Life and Letters of Admiral Dewey. (New York: The Woodfall Company, 1899) 370, 373, 374.
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