Under Dewey at Manila/Chapter 19

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CHAPTER XIX


THE MISSION OF THE SQUADRON


Striker was right; the war vessels approaching were the Asiatic Squadron of the United States Navy, and while the vessels are drawing closer to Larry and the Yankee tar, we will take a brief look at the noble craft which were so soon to engage in a battle to become world famous in history.

The fighting ships were seven in number, consisting of four cruisers, the Olympia, Baltimore, Boston, and Raleigh, and three gunboats, the Concord, Petrel, and McCulloch. Added to these were two large vessels, the Nansham, and the Zafiro, carrying between them 10,000 tons of coal for the fleet's use.

The largest of the ships was the Olympia, which was also the flagship. She was a fine specimen of the protected cruiser, of 5800 tons, and carrying twenty-eight guns of good size. Her commander was Captain C. V. Gridley, and her executive officer Lieutenant C. P. Rees. It may be worth remembering that the Olympia was the only ship which was protected by armor, and that armor was merely a band of four-inch steel around her turret guns—quite in contrast to numerous other armored vessels that carry steel plates about them from twelve to twenty inches thick.

Next in size to the flagship came the cruiser Baltimore, of 4400 tons, and carrying fourteen guns. She was commanded by Captain M. N. Dyer, with Lieutenant-Commander J. B. Biggs as executive officer.

The third on the list of cruisers was the long and low-lying Boston, of 3000 tons, and ready to fight with ten splendid guns. Captain Frank Wildes was her commander, and Lieutenant J. A. Norris her executive officer.

The quartette of cruisers came to an end with the Raleigh, of about the same tonnage as the Boston, and mounting eleven guns, only one of large size. The Raleigh had just come all the way from New York to join the squadron, and was commanded by Captain J. B. Coughlan, with Lieutenant Frederic Singer as executive officer.

Of the gunboats, the Concord took the lead. She was a stanch three-master of 1700 tons, carrying eight guns and rifles, and was commanded by Captain Asa Walker.

Next to the Concord came the tiny but sprightly Petrel, of only 900 tons, and carrying but four guns. Her commander was Captain E. P. Wood. The Petrel looked almost too small to take part in a great battle, yet later on we will see her giving the best possible account of herself.

The last on the list of the fleet was the gunboat McCulloch, which was not, strictly speaking, a fighting craft, but a revenue cutter, used for carrying despatches from one boat to another and to shore. The McCulloch carried four light pieces, principally for defence, and was commanded by Captain Hobson, of the Revenue Marine Service.

And now what had brought this squadron out in the middle of the South China Sea, to the great wonder and astonishment—not to say thankfulness—of Larry and his down-east friend? In order to answer that question we shall have to take a dip into history—a brief dip, and one that I trust will not tire even such of my boy readers as desire a story to move along "lively like."

We have already learned how the battleship Maine was blown up in the harbor of Havana, Cuba, and also something of the condition of affairs in that ill-fated isle at that time: how the Spanish authorities had tried in vain for three years to put down the rebellion which was raging in every quarter, and how many American citizens were suffering because of this conflict. American capital amounting to millions of dollars was invested in Cuba, and this was rapidly being lost through the confiscation and destruction of property.

Yet the American nation could stand the loss of property without waging war, hopeful that in the end Spain would make matters right. What worried the people was the cruelty practised by the Spanish authorities against the insurgents, and when in the halls of Congress it was openly declared that through Spanish misrule tens of thousands of Cuban men, women, and children were actually starving to death, the people everywhere cried out that this must stop, and if no other civilized nation would take a hand, the United States must step in alone and do the work.

The climax of resentment against Spain came when the Maine went down carrying two hundred and fifty-three of our gallant officers and sailors with her. The harbor of Havana was still supposed to be a friendly one, yet the vessel had gone to her total destruction there, although Spain denied that she was in any way to blame. I may as well add here that the Maine and her equipment cost the nation four millions of dollars.

The cry for war against Spain came from every quarter, yet the wiser heads said that we must go slowly, must be perfectly sure of what we were doing, so that other nations might have no cause to find fault with us when the opening blow was struck. A court of inquiry was organized to learn the absolute truth concerning the Maine, and at the same time Congress took up the question of assisting the Cubans by sending them relief ships loaded with food and clothing.

While Larry was sailing the dreary wastes of the mighty Pacific, the climax was reached. The court of inquiry found that the Maine had been blown up from the outside, probably by some sunken mine, fired by electricity. As the battleship had been given her place in the harbor by the Spanish harbor-master, the fact was evident that this official had placed her directly over the mine in question; so that Spain was responsible for the loss of our ship and our sailors, no matter if the mine had been fired without direct orders from headquarters.

The way was now clear for what was to follow. Directly after the findings of the court of inquiry had been made public, President McKinley sent an address to Congress citing the condition of affairs in Cuba, adding that Spain had lost control, and that not even the ships of a friendly nation were safe in her harbors, and recommending that immediate action be taken.

Action was taken by our Congress declaring that the people of Cuba were, and of a right ought to be, free and independent, and Spain was given a certain length of time in which to withdraw all her military and other forces from the island. At the same time it was avowed that the United States had no thought of taking Cuba for her own, but that she would protect the Cubans until they were capable of doing for themselves. Spain was given a set time in which to answer our ultimatum, as it was called, but instead of sending an answer she gave to our minister his passport, a virtual order to leave her domains, and this was equivalent to a declaration of war.

In the mean time, in anticipation of a conflict, the navy had been active, adding a number of vessels to the list, and getting everything in readiness for a struggle, which people felt must take place largely upon the water. On April 21, when negotiations were broken off, the first of our fleets sailed for Cuba, and Havana was blockaded, the first aggressive movement of the war. Following this came the President's call for 125,000 men to serve as volunteers in the United States Army, and later still, another call for 75,000 additional soldiers. All became bustle and excitement at once, and from every city, town, and village the brave soldier lads marched away, to gather at their respective State camps until mustered into the regular service of Uncle Sam.

When the news of the destruction of the Maine was flashed around the world by cable and telegraph, Commodore George Dewey, commanding the Asiatic Squadron, felt that war was close at hand, and to be prepared for whatever might come he began to gather around him in the bay of Hong Kong all his available vessels, and have them put in proper fighting trim. The men under him numbered not quite 1700, all brave and hardy to the core, as representative a lot of fighting seamen as could be found anywhere, as later events proved.

Immediately after the war broke out the squadron was asked to leave Hong Kong, that being a neutral port, and took its way to Mirs Bay, some thirty miles away. At this place word was received by the commodore that he must find a Spanish fleet which was located somewhere in the Philippines and engage it. This meant a big battle, providing the Spanish ships could be found, not an easy task when it is considered that the islands number over a thousand, and that sheltered harbors are even more numerous. To find the fleet, and to be fully prepared to give it battle wherever and whenever found, was a task requiring a large amount of sagacity and wisdom.

The ships left Mirs Bay on the afternoon of Wednesday, the 27th day of April, the Olympia leading the van, with Commodore Dewey and Captain Gridley upon the bridge, the former viewing with a pleased eye his small but solid-looking squadron, every vessel of which shone forth stern and threatening in her war-paint of dark color.

"They ought to win out in a battle, captain," remarked the commodore, quietly. He was not a man of many words.

"They will win out, commodore," answered the captain of the Olympia, emphatically, "if only we can catch sight of Admiral Montojo and his ships. It's my opinion the Spaniards will keep out of sight if it's possible for them to do so. Montojo will live in hope that matters will be squared up at home before we have a chance to smash him."

"Don't be too sure of it, Gridley; Montojo is as honest a fighter as the Spanish navy possesses. If we do come to an engagement, make up your mind that he will fight to the last deck."

The destination of the fleet was the island of Luzon, that being the most important of the Spanish holdings in the Philippines. It was the commodore's determination to search all the bays and harbors of this island first, and if the Spanish warships were not found, to then proceed to the next territory.

Once out into the China Sea, the squadron proceeded slowly; for while the larger ships could breast the waves with impunity, the tiny Petrel was nearly engulfed, and the two coal-boats labored along under a strain that was actually perilous.

Ever since the ships had been called together, gun and other drills had kept the men in perfect condition, but now, on the first night out, the commodore resolved to put his command to another test. The majority of the hands had retired for the night when the flagship signalled forth the command, "Prepare for action!"

What a hurry and bustle ensued! Men came rolling from their hammocks and ran, but partly-dressed, to their stations, bugles sounded over the waters, there came the rattle of chains and the rumble of heavy machinery, and in two minutes could be seen the dancing red and white light signals from this and that boat: "We are ready for action."

"That is as it should be," said the commodore. He was greatly pleased, and felt more confident than ever of the men under him.

It was on the day following that the lookout in the foretop announced a strange object in sight.

"It looks like an upturned boat with two men clinging to it," he called down to the officer of the deck. "It's almost dead ahead."

Powerful glasses were turned upon the object, and Larry and Striker were made out long before they themselves knew that they were seen.

As the Olympia was steaming for the unfortunates there was no need to give directions to change her course. When it was seen that they were waving frantically with their hands and with a jacket, the commodore turned to the captain and ordered that a small gun be fired, "Just to let the poor chaps know we intend to pick them up," he said.

And that is how Larry Russell chanced to fall in with the Asiatic Squadron of the United States Navy, just previous to the wonderful engagement of which I am about to relate.