Manila Bay Battle Put U.S. in Asia for Good

By Buckman, Robert | The Washington Times (Washington, DC), May 1, 1998 | Go to article overview

Manila Bay Battle Put U.S. in Asia for Good


Buckman, Robert, The Washington Times (Washington, DC)


The modern navy is 100 years old today. So is U.S. involvement in Asian affairs.

At 5:40 a.m. on May 1, 1898,as daylight was just breakingover Manila Bay in the Philippines, Commodore George Dewey turned to Capt. Charles V. Gridley, captain of the commodore's flagship, Olympia, and issued an order that has become part of the U.S. Navy's folklore:

"You may fire when you are ready, Gridley."

Capt. Gridley ordered the Olympia to commence firing on Adm. Patricio Montojo y Pasaron's 10-ship Spanish squadron, just 2 1/2 miles away. Then Commodore Dewey's five other ships opened up. For the first time in history, two fleets of steel warships were locked in battle.

When it was over seven hours later, Commodore Dewey had scored one of the most stunning naval triumphs in U.S. history. He remains a Navy icon today.

The better-armored and -armed American fleet had sunk three of Adm. Montojo's ships and heavily damaged the others, forcing the Spanish to scuttle them. Commodore Dewey's ships suffered only minor damage.

The Spanish suffered 161 men killed and 210 wounded; Commodore Dewey suffered no fatalities, other than an engineer who died of heat prostration the night before, and only six wounded.

To commemorate Commodore Dewey's victory, the Naval Order of the United States is holding a service at 10:30 a.m. today in the Bethlehem Chapel of Washington National Cathedral, where Commodore Dewey is buried.

"It marked the debut on the international stage of the U.S. Navy," observed Edward J. Marolda, chief historian of the Naval Historical Center in Washington. "It was also the combat debut of the modern steel navy."

Moreover, he added, it marked the first application of the theories of fleet warfare of Capt. Alfred Thayer Mahan, an instructor at the Naval War College. His book, "The Influence of Sea Power Upon History," had been published just six years earlier and was to have a long-range effect on 20th-century naval warfare.

ALTERED BALANCE OF POWER

"Mahan influenced a whole generation of naval officers around the world, and one of his leading disciples was Theodore Roosevelt," Mr. Marolda said. "Previously, a navy merely captured enemy merchant ships to disrupt trade. Mahan favored control of the sea by fleet engagement. He said one or two battles can decide a war, and this certainly was the case in the Spanish-American War."

But to Mr. Marolda's fellow historian Daniel Moran, associate professor of national security affairs at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, Calif., the importance of Manila Bay is not military but geopolitical.

"Obviously, [Manila Bay] is an important event in U.S. history but not so important in global naval history," he contended. "The battle of Manila Bay largely decided which fleet would control Manila Bay, while [the Japanese victory at] Tsushima in the Russo-Japanese War [of 1904-05] was a more evenly balanced kind of contest that altered the balance of power of the world's navies.

"But," he continued, "it's a matter of great significance because it gave us a stake on the ground in Asia, which we did not have before. It pulled our foreign policy toward Asia, and we inherited this great far-flung commitment. Minus the American presence in the Philippines, the need to develop Pearl Harbor as a forward base diminishes dramatically."

Until the Spanish-American War, Mr. Moran said, U.S. policy in Asia had been exemplified by its Open Door Policy toward China, which opposed the seizure of Chinese territory by various European powers.

David F. Trask, former chief historian for both the State Department and the Army and author of a 1982 history of the Spanish-American War, agreed that the historical significance of Manila Bay is how it involved the United States in Asia.

"I don't think the battle had much significance as a naval engagement," he said. …

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