Today in 1898, the US Asiatic Squadron under (then) Commodore George Dewey destroyed the Spanish Pacific Squadron at Cavite, inside Manila Bay, Philippines (then a Spanish colonial possession). The Battle of Manila Bay was the first battle of the Spanish-American War (the US declaration of war was on the 23rd of April).
Commodore Dewey had ample warning of the coming conflict (from, among others, Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy) and the outbreak of war found Dewey and his fleet at Mirs Bay, near Hong Kong, which place he left on the 27th, after receiving up-to-date information on the Spanish fleet from the former US consul at Manila. After finding no sign of the Spanish fleet at Subic Bay (west of Bataan Peninsula) Dewey’s force: three protected cruisers, (including his flagship USS Olympia, pictured above) two gunboats and support vessels, rounded Bataan and entered Manila Bay the night of the 30th, appearing off Manila early the next morning.
Finding nothing but merchantmen off Manila proper, Dewey located the Spanish squadron at nearby Cavite. Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo y Pasarón’s placement of his ships at Cavite was perhaps a mistake (it was out of range of the forts nearer Manila which could have helped him), but it also avoided having US “overs” that missed Spanish ships land in the streets of Manila. The Spanish ships (two protected cruisers, four unprotected cruisers and a gunboat) were old, in poor repair and hopelessly outgunned.
Dewey’s squadron got through the Spanish minefields without difficulty, and, at 5:41 a.m., the Commodore gave Olympia’s captain, Charles Gridley, the famous order to open fire. The US ships, deployed in line, passed back and forth in front of the Spanish vessels and forts, from ranges between 5,000 and 2,000 yards. The American fire was devastating: the Spanish return fire, while “vigorous," was, as Dewey put it, “generally ineffective.” The Americans took a break from between 7:35 and 11:15 a.m, moving out into the bay to re-distribute ammunition.
Fire was resumed from 11:15 till about 12:30 p.m., when it became apparent the Spanish fleet was completely destroyed (some of the vessels surrendered). The Spanish had at least 150 dead, and many wounded. The Americans had seven wounded, none killed (although there was one death due to a heart attack). Dewey’s Marines and sailors landed at Cavite on the 2nd, destroyed the shore batteries, and took possession of the Spanish arsenal there on the 3rd.
Following the battle Dewey was immediately promoted to Rear-Admiral, and eventually to Admiral of the Navy, a rank nobody had held before, and nobody since. Naturally, news of the victory created a big sensation in the United States, not to mention making big waves in Europe: serving notice that America had arrived as a world power.
Admiral Montojo, it should be said, had a nearly impossible task: defending his country’s far away colonial outpost with his obsolete ships, and he got precious little help doing so from his home government, or the local Spanish bureaucracy. Admiral Montojo did the best he could with what little he had, and his subsequent inprisonment was a grievous miscarriage of justice. Eventually, Admiral Montojo was absolved by the Spanish authorities (Admiral Dewey gave evidence for his legal defense: correspondence here and here). American commanders in the Philippines in 1942 facing the Japanese would no doubt have understood Admiral Montojo's problems well.
Finally, Olympia had a long career in the US Navy, finally decommissioning for the last time in 1922. Olympia outlived Dewey, her crew and her enemies, and she still exists today, as a museum ship in Philadelphia, and a tangible reminder of the long-ago era of George Dewey, the sinking of the USS Maine, Teddy Roosevelt and San Juan Hill.