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“You May Fire When Ready Gridley” The Battle of Manila Bay 1 May 1898: Victory and Unexpected Consequences


In 1898 Spain was a weak and declining power with overseas territories which were seething with resentment to Spanish rule and ripe for the pickings of any power that wanted to challenge Spain. The United States was beginning its ascendency to becoming a world power and the Spanish colony of Cuba, which had many American economic interests and the possession of which could allow the United States to dominate the Caribbean was considered by many American political and economic leaders to be ripe for the picking. It was just a short distance from the United States, had a restive population whose cause was being promoted and exploited by the Yellow journalists of the Hearst media empire.

In response to the alleged dangers faced by American citizens in Havana, President McKinley sent the USS Maine to Cuba to safeguard American interests and citizens. The deployment was part of a larger world wide deployment of US Navy forces in the Caribbean, Europe and Asia. On February 15th the Maine blew up and sank. The American press declared it to be an act of terrorism perpetrated by Spanish agents in Havana. A US Navy investigation concluded that such was the case, while Spanish investigators concluded Maine’s loss was due to a magazine explosion. The truth of the matter was that the Maine blew up and the cause is inconclusive with experts, including a commission led by Admiral Hyman Rickover in 1974 determining that the cause could have been an internal ammunition magazine explosion, while others do not rule out the possibility of a Spanish mine.

Regardless of the actual cause tensions rapidly escalated and on April 23rd Spain declared war on the United States. On the 25th Congress declared war on Spain. In the Pacific the US Navy Asiatic Squadron under the command of Commodore George Dewey set sail from Honk Kong to Manila, where a poorly equipped squadron of mostly obsolete ships under the command of Admiral Patricio Montojo awaited them.


The US Navy forces were modern and well equipped compared to the Spanish. Composed of 4 relatively modern protected cruisers and 2 gunboats led by the Protected Cruiser USS Olympia. Dewey’s force was well trained and its ships superior to anything in the Spanish squadron. The Spanish ships, undermanned and some of which had much of their armament shipped ashore to supplement shore batteries were composed of 4 unprotected cruisers, two small protected cruisers and two gunboats. A number of smaller and even less capable ships were in the area but took no part in the action.

Dewey’s squadron sailed into Manila Bay on the evening of the 30th of April, surprising Montojo who believed that the approaches to the bay were too treacherous to navigate at night for mariners unfamiliar with them. Arriving in Manila Bay in the early morning hours and ineffectively opposed by shore batteries at El Fraile and Cavite and at 0541 Dewey ordered the Captain of the Olympia to open fire using the famous line “You may fire when ready Gridley.”


Within two and a half hours the Spanish force was destroyed. Dewey lost one man dead and 9 men wounded though some Spanish sources report that Dewey might have lost 13 killed and 30 wounded. The Spanish force lost all of its engaged forces with 77 men killed and 271 wounded. Dewey’s force would destroy the Spanish shore batteries and land Marines taking possession of the Cavite Naval Yard on May 7th.

The action was the first major naval action conducted by the United States overseas in the steam age and helped secure the United States a place in the early 20th Century colonization of Asia by European powers and Japan. As a result of Dewey’s victory other Spanish possessions in the Pacific like Guam would be occupied by the United States. It would also through the American occupation of the Philippines necessitate a campaign against the recently liberated Filipino population who had looked to the United States as liberators, and eventually to the Philippines becoming a major campaign in the Pacific war between Japan and the United States.


The wreck of the Spanish Flagship the Cruiser Regina Cristina 

Destroying the Montojo’s Spanish squadron was easy compared to the American counter-insurgency campaign against the Filipinos and the later conflict with the Japanese in the Second World War. However, Dewey’s defeat of Montojo’s squadron would help establish the United States as a world power and help ensure that the United States Navy would become one of the world’s preeminent Naval forces within a decade of the battle. Spain never fully recovered from the battle or the war and declined in influence. eventually succumbing to a violent civil war in the 1930s.

As a so common the initial battle or battles of a war can seem easy compared to the later tasks of occupying and ruling a conquered territory or the unexpected consequences that follow. As such it should serve as a warning for those that see easy conquests and do not calculate what might happen after the initial battle is won.


Padre Steve+

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Save the USS Olympia! News Update Number One

This is a follow up to my article Save the USS Olympia! Which was published in September 2010.

There is news concerning the Flagship of Admiral Dewey during the Battle of Manila Bay in 1898. The one a kind ship and the only surviving steel warship of her era has been moored in Philadelphia since 1957 when she was taken over by the Cruiser Olympia Association in 1957 and restored to her 1898 configuration. Since 1957 she has been a museum ship in Philadelphia and in 1996 the Cruiser Olympia Association merged with the Independence Seaport Museum due to the major costs of upkeep. Since then she has been moored at Penn’s Landing where she has been open for tours. During the Fall of 2010 the museum announced plans to close the ship due to the poor material condition of the ship which has not been in drydock or had a major overhaul since 1957 as well as the high operating costs.  However the Olympia has been kept open for tours and the museum plans on keeping her open through March 2011.

The museum and a new group dedicated to saving the ship, the Friends of the Cruiser Olympia has announced that they cannot raise the funding for the repairs needed to maintain the ship in Philadelphia.  The Independence Seaport Museum Chief Executive Officer John Gazzola said the museum cannot raise the at minimum amount of $10 million needed to dredge the marina where she is moored, dry dock the ship and repair Olympia’s hull and deck. A bid request has been issued for organizations that might want to obtain and preserve the ship. A group from Vallejo California the Navy Yard Association which is made up of former workers from Mare Island Naval Shipyard has announced their intention to bid on the ship when the auction takes place in February. In order to raise money the group plans on trying to align itself with non-profit groups since they are not.

The Christening of the USS Olympia at San Francisco’s Union Iron Works

The Olympia was built at San Francisco’s Union Iron Works in 1892 and if the group is successful this could return the ship to the place that she left for her assignment in the Far East in 1895. This is a unique ship and she needs to be preserved. Despite her status as a National Historic Landmark she has been allowed to deteriorate to the point that major repairs are necessary.  If a bidder cannot be found and the ship is unable to be restored it is possible that she could be scrapped or sunk as a reef.

As the situation develops I will provide updates on this site.


Padre Steve+



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Save the USS Olympia!

I am a historian and for that matter to be more specific a military historian.  I have had a very busy week in “real life” but I saw a couple of articles last week about the cruiser USS Olympia.  It seems that this warship, a symbol of American industry and power at the end of the 19th and turn of the 20th Century is in danger of being scrapped or disposed of as an artificial reef of Cape May New Jersey if a benefactor is not found to help pay the more than 5 million dollars needed to keep this national and international maritime treasure afloat.  The 5 million is just the immediate cost, it is estimated that it may take up to 19.5 million dollars to dry-dock her and make the extensive repairs to her hull.  Olympia is not the first historic US Navy ship to be threatened by the ravages of time, the Frigate USS Constitution,


The Olympia was one of the first steel and steam warships of the United States Navy and is the oldest steel warship in the United States Navy still afloat.  She was a transitional ship as the Navy entered the modern age and her design was revolutionary for her time.  Displacing 5870 tons and with a length of 344 feet she was She was powered by reciprocating steam engines and capable of 20 knots. She had twin revolving turrets which housed her main battery of four 8 inch guns and mounted a secondary battery of ten 5 inch guns which protruded from her superstructure on the main deck.  She also retained sails as part of her design and was the first US Navy ship with a refrigeration plant and ice making machines.

She was the Flagship of Admiral Dewey at the Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War and her last mission was to bring the body of the “Unknown Soldier” back from France following the First World War.  The launched on November 5th 1892 and commissioned on 5 February 1895 Olympia was decommissioned for the final time in on December 9th 1922.  She would continue her US Navy career in an inactive status after being reclassified as a miscellaneous auxiliary.  She remained as a Navy asset until she was acquired by the Cruiser Olympia Association on 11 SEP 1957 and was classified as a National Historic Landmark on 29 January 1964 and transferred to the Independence Seaport Museum in January 1995.

The ex-Olympia is a national and maritime history treasure. There are but a handful of ships for that era that still remain.  The Imperial Japanese Battleship Mikasa, Admiral Togo’s flagship at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905 is outside the Naval Base of Yokosuka Japan http://www.japan-i.jp/explorejapan/kanto/kanagawa/miurapeninsula/d8jk7l000002rn1h.html. The Russian Cruiser Aurora is moored in Petersburg http://www.aurora.org.ru/eng/ and the Greek Armored Cruiser Georgios Averof http://www.hnsa.org/ships/averof.htm are the only ships of that era remaining.

Olympia is in dire need of dry-docking and major repairs to her hull. Despite Federal Government regulations and sound maritime practices which stipulate that museum ships should be dry-docked and repaired at the minimum of every 20 years the Olympia has not been dry-docked or repaired since 1957.  She has numerous patches and her caretakers keep constant watch on her to ensure that no leak develops that could sink her. Additionally water now leaks through her decks into her hull causing further problems with rust and hull deterioration.

The Olympia is a National Historic Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places (1964), a National Historic Engineering Landmark (1977), and National Historic Maritime Landmark (1988) and was awarded “Official Project” status of Save America’s Treasures program (1999).

She will be closed as an attraction on the Philadelphia waterfront on November 22nd as the caretakers and the Navy determines her fate. Ultimately the Navy will have the final say in Olympia’s fate; even so efforts need to be made to enlist private and corporate sponsors to help save this treasure. As of the present time these efforts have been unsuccessful.

Naval Historian and author of a book on Olympia Lawrence Burr commented: “It’s an absolute national disgrace. It’s an appalling situation. She is a national symbol, and she marks critical points in time both in America’s development as a country and the Navy’s emergence as a global power.”

The “Friends of the Cruiser Olympia” http://www.cruiserolympia.org/ as well as former Secretary of the Navy John Lehman and former US Representative Curt Weldon  are leading the charge to see Olympia restored and reopened.

Olympia is not the first US Navy historic ship to be in such dire need. The first was the USS Constitution which was going to be broken up in 1830 until the public inspired by Oliver Wendell Homes’ poem elicited the money needed to repair that ship which was again threatened in the 1920s and was saved by a private-public endeavor urged by the Secretary of the Navy Curtis D. Wilbur which included a drive where children contributed thousands of dollars of pennies to the restoration effort and where prints of “Old Ironsides” were sold for .50 each.  Certainly it will take a creative effort to save Olympia and preserve her for history and those Americans that come after us.

I go to Baltimore to see an Orioles game on October 1st and may take a short trip to Philadelphia to visit the Olympia and if I do I will do an update with my own photos.


Padre Steve+


Filed under History, Military, Navy Ships, US Navy