I was in charge of the forward ammunition supply on the BOSTON during the battle of Manila Bay. I can only tell of the battle as I saw it and heard of its incidents at the time from officers and men aboard the American men-of-war. To begin at the bow of the story, the American fleet sailed from Mirs Bay, April 27. We steamed slowly for Cape Bolinao, the formation of the ships being “column at distance,” or what a landsman might call Indian file, except the reserve division, which was on the starboard beam.
We went ahead on the 30th with the CONCORD to reconnoiter Subig Bay, where the Spanish commander intended to meet us; and his plans, captured later, showed that he had it in mind to sweep us off the face of the water. The rest of the fleet joined us in the bay, and we steered south until about thirty miles from Manila harbor, when we were ordered to general quarters. Now we had no lights except a glimmering lantern on each stern to follow, but the enemy found us. The McCULLOCH had a Japanese brand of coal, and her smokestack appeared like a bonfire at election time. When we saw a rocket go up from Corregidor no one gave the Spanish credit for superior eyesight. We were not surprised when a gun boomed from the south shore, and we let them have an eight-inch shell just to tell them that they had seen us surely. The CONCORD fired two six-inch guns and the McCULLOCH four times, and then we paid no more attention to them or they to us. Two hours after midnight we were told to lie down, and the ships crept along at four knots an hour while we secured some sleep.
About five o’clock, just as daylight brightened the horizon, we were rushed to quarters without breakfast except a bite of hardtack and some cold meat. My station was on the forward berth-deck. My duties were to see that the ammunition called for from above was sent on deck with the utmost despatch and without mistakes in the size and kind desired. All the ammunition is stored in the lower hold, or the part of the ship next to the keel, there being different compartments for the powder, the shells, and the fixed ammunition. Technically, I had charge of the “forward powder division,” and under me were twenty-five men. They were firemen and coal-heavers, off duty in the engine-room and trained to man the whips. They were used to their work, as this was their regular battle station, and even in practice the same discipline was enforced as when now we were lighting for country and life.
The Chinese servants, ordinarily used for fetching and carrying, were impressed into service, and showed courage and skill. The ship was already prepared for battle. Everything that led to the berth-deck from above was closed except the hatches for passing up the ammunition. This was to prevent a draft in case of fire. Every water-tight compartment was also shut, save, of course, the ones through which the ammunition came. The system of artificial ventilation had been stopped since midnight, and the valves in the air-duct closed, making the compartments absolutely water-tight, as with open valves a leak in the ship as the result of a collision or shot would be fatal. At the same time we had sent up four rounds for each heavy gun and two boxes of fixed ammunition for each of the secondary-battery guns.
Nothing had been neglected, and we were in perfect readiness when at daybreak we descried a line of merchant vessels at anchor, and soon afterward the Spanish men-of-war. Nine were counted drawn up in battle array. Now began our work in earnest.
I must tell first what we did below, where we could not see the fight, but felt it, perhaps, more than those above. Then I will tell what my mates who manned the guns saw and what they did. It was a little after half-past five o’clock when the roar of a gun on our deck above let me know that we had taken a hand in the game. It was an eight-inch monster, and before its echo below had died away the call for ammunition came. I think that was the proudest moment of my twenty-four years in the navy. I had sent many a shell above to hit or miss a sand-bank or some old hulk for target practice, but we knew now that every one “meant business.” On the bridge Captain Wildes would shout what was wanted, and the word came to us from those assisting above in hoisting. Each projectile was slung ready for use, the powder in copper cylinders and the fixed ammunition for the rapid-firing guns in boxes. The men worked coolly, with nothing troubling them but the heat and curiosity. Their eagerness to know what was going on was overwhelming, and impelled them to rush to the ports to discover the cause of extraordinary activity on deck or of lulls in the firing. I had little opportunity for this, as I had to be particularly careful that no error was made in the ammunition, and that not a second was lost. What between orders for full and reduced charges, steel and shell, I was kept busy all the time.
Often I have been asked if we were afraid. My answer is that I never saw men as easy in mind as those below; and later, when I went on deck, one would have fancied we were at a garden party for all the fear exhibited. The Chinese showed as much nerve as the Americans. They toiled at the whips and in lifting and carrying the ammunition. Their faces were as impassive as when serving dinner in Hong-Kong harbor. They chattered to each other in their own language, and laughed in their celestial way, when a shot, striking the foremast, shook the ship, caused the paint to scale off the mast a foot from us, and the angle-lines which strengthen it inside to rattle loudly. “Velly good,” said one, and mechanically resumed his task. They, too, were curious; and when some man would sing out from the ports that we had struck a Spanish ship they were as happy as we. My own feelings were so lost in anxiety to do well with the ammunition that for the first hour and a half I thought little of what was being done above.
After this I became exhausted from the heat, loss of sleep, and lack of proper food; and when we were ordered to cease supplying ammunition I went on deck and lay down on the desk in the chart-house. Below, the thermometer was at 116 degrees, and the fresh air was a great relief. From this vantagepoint I could see the destruction we had wrought, and was informed of all that had happened.
The most exciting incident of the battle, perhaps never exceeded in its audacity and its fearful results for the attacking party, was the attempt of two torpedo-boats to destroy the OLYMPIA. They waited as she approached, and then came at her full speed. The OLYMPIA poured a storm of big shells about them, but they presented such a small target at the distance of several miles that they were not hit, and each moment of their nearer approach was filled with suspense and dread for all on our ships. Insignificant as they were, they might send the flagship to the bottom of the bay, and every shot directed at them carried a prayer for its success. When within eight hundred yards the OLYMPIA used her secondary battery, and almost drowned the torpedo-boats in a rain of projectiles. The one which led suddenly paused, and then, coming on a few feet, blew up and sank with her crew. The other fled for the beach, and was found there the next day, a mere sieve, battered and blood-stained.
The engagement was a general one by this time, and forts and ships fired at one another with the fury of desperation on one side and perfect confidence on the other. The BOSTON was ordered to look after the REINA CHRISTINA and the CASTILLA, and we went as close to them as we might with any degree of prudence, steaming in an ellipse and firing the port battery. Then we ported our helm and gave them the starboard guns. The BOSTON did not escape unscathed. We were struck a number of times. The shot that had disturbed us below nearly ended Captain Wildes’s life. He was on the bridge, with sun helmet, palm-leaf fan, and cigar, when the shot hit the foremast three feet over his head, passed from starboard to port, cutting a shroud in the fore-rigging, and burst ten feet from the side, the recoil sending the base-plug back on deck. The captain watched the shell’s progress intently, and then resumed his smoking. Of all the officers on the bridge he was the only one who did not try to dodge the missile. He simply said, “We were lucky, gentlemen!~~ This shell went through the foremast, making a clean hole, and a piece of the mast fell on a man’s foot, but so gently as not to injure him. Quartermaster Burton, at the “conn,” had his cheek skinned by splinters of paint from the mast, and one or two suffered trifling bruises. A one-pound shell landed on a gun, was deflected to the deck, making an indentation, and was thrown overboard by a quick-witted gunner before it exploded.
We made the five trips past the forts and fleet, peppering the REINA CHRISTINA whenever able. Just two hours after the beginning of the battle we hauled out, and, withdrawing a few miles, the order was given for breakfast. Then it was that I went on deck. I could not eat, but was fortunate enough to get a cup of Paymaster Martin’s coffee. The men had cold comfort, as the galley fires had been ordered extinguished at 4 A. M. They were wearied and hungry, and ate the bread and meat with good appetites. After the meal the officers were summoned to the OLYMPIA for a consultation. The BOSTON had no boat, as all were found shattered by the concussion of the guns. The PETREL loaned us a gig, and Captain Wildes was gone some time. Meanwhile we had our eyes glued on the ships we had been maiming, and were gratified to see the REINA CHRISTINA burst into flames, followed by the CASTILLA. We cheered and shook bands, and then I went below to my station, as the second round was to begin.
My men were talking excitedly about the fight, and naturally their versions were different. Some were sure that the BOSTON had done all the damage inflicted on the Spanish, and others that we had been badly hurt. The BALTIMORE led back, the OLYMPIA seeking to save her ammunition, which was almost spent. The BOSTON was the third ship in the return. The BALTIMORE faced the Cavite forts at close range, and for twenty minutes fired without cessation. A mine field burst a thousand yards from her, but without damage. The BALTIMORE then steamed ahead two hundred yards, the OLYMPIA taking her place for the same length of time. The BOSTON was favored at the end of forty minutes, when we attacked the sea face of the forts where the OLYMPIA had been. We got so near inshore that our stern was in the mud, and we were as steady as a rock. I think there were only three guns then firing from the fort, and our first eight-inch shell dismounted all three. We then fired at all Spanish property within range, and, knowing that it was the end of the battle, took pride in accurate firing and measured ranges.
In the second fight I sent up ammunition until 11:30, about three-quarters of an hour. All my men were naked except for shoes and drawers, and I wore only a cotton shirt in addition. Three in the after powder division fainted from the heat, but none of my force was overcome. The heat was really fearful. The powder smoke settled down, choking us and half blinding some, and only the love of the work kept us going. The Chinese stood the heat better than we did.
The BOSTON stayed by the batteries until they were silent. All this time the two Spanish vessels were ablaze. The DON ANTONIA DE ULLOA had the attention of most of us, and finally went down with her colors flying. The Spanish emblem was still on the navy-yard, but a shell from the PETREL changed it for the white flag of surrender. The Spanish must have been magicians, for they switched the bunting as Herrmann used to change the rabbits. Maybe they had anticipated the inevitable. By an accident to her engine-room telegraph, the BOSTON was cut out of the job of going inside and destroying all the vessels, and the PETREL did the work. Then the cheering became general, and as ship after ship passed in their maneuvers the men shouted themselves hoarse with joy. The signal was set that none had been killed on any vessel of ours. It is not easy to convey a proper idea of the enthusiasm and delight at the news that our men were all safe, after the hell we had been through for hours. We could hardly believe it. All during the battle rumors flew with the shells, and we discussed reports of killed and wounded with eagerness and grief. Men who in the excitement of the moment had guessed that shots which hit or went near to our vessels must have injured the crews aboard, and who had credited and helped to spread these reports, were now so glad at their untruth that they actually cried like children. Allowance must perhaps be made for the revulsion of feeling which followed the great excitement since we left Mirs Bay, but I am sure that never again shall I see men give way so freely to their feelings as did the Yankee tars after the day was won at Manila. Some few who were religious audibly thanked God, and some the saints, that death had claimed none of us; and I recall one man who was on his knees in an ecstasy of thanksgiving when ordered above for some duty. An old gunner whose thirty years of service have made him wise in nautical and other things said: “God was pointing our guns, and maybe the devil was aiming the Spanish.”
It was a lesson to see how quickly we relapsed into the routine of ship life after firing had ceased. Decks were washed and galley fires lighted. The big events that came later are better told by those who were in authority. It was related to me by an officer on the OLYMPIA that when the token of surrender had been shown, Dewey turned to his staff and said: “I ‘ve the prettiest lot of men that ever stepped on shipboard, and their hearts are as stout as the ships.”
After the first flush of victory there was much work to be done, and we were all busy for several days. Incidents of the hot hours of fighting were recalled, and at mess the heroic and the ludicrous were mingled in the talk. Among the gunners the favorite discussion was the marksmanship of the Spanish. They lacked only skill to make a good fight. They had had scarcely any target practice. We of the BOSTON had had thirteen practice shoots in a twelvemonth. We husbanded our ammunition during the battle, while they poured it prodigally into the bay. They seemed to fire at random during the engagement of our entire fleet, whereas each American gunner had his target and concentrated his fire upon it. The British naval officers in Hong-Kong knew the difference between us and the Spanish in this particular, and when we were leaving port for Manila the captain of the IMMORTALITY shouted to Captain Wildes: “You will surely win. I have seen too much of your target practice to doubt it.” The British in China were confident of our victory when we sailed, but I believe that the Russian, German, and French naval officers thought Spain would conquer.
I returned to Hong-Kong on the McCULLOCH, leaving Manila on May 5. We made the trip in forty-six and a half hours. Our reception in the harbor was generous. We were surrounded by launches, while representatives of governments and of newspapers all over the world implored speedy information. That night ashore was to be remembered. ‘The Americans made a jollification of it that outdid any celebration in the memory of the oldest inhabitant. The British residents joined in it, and in spirit the men of the two nations were one in rejoicing over the victory of the Anglo-Saxon.
Evans, Joel C.. "The Battle of Manila Bay - The Destruction of the Spanish Fleet as Told by Eye-Witnesses, Part IV, Narrative of the Gunner of the BOSTON," The Century. Vol. 56, No. 4 (New York: The Century Company, August, 1898) 624-628.