Under Dewey at Manila/Chapter 24

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CHAPTER XXIV


"CLEAR SHIP FOR ACTION!"


"Do you know much about this island of Luzon?" asked Larry of Striker, after the two had been at the gun again, seeing that everything was oiled and in perfect order, and after Larry had taken an additional lesson in handling the stout canvas bags containing fifty and a hundred pounds of brown prismatic powder.

"Well, I know a little," answered the tall down-easter, as he took a long look ashore, for now the coast line loomed up quite plainly to his trained eye. "The island is by far the largest of the Philippines, and is one of the most northern. Away to the south of the group is Mindanao, and, as you know, there are any quantity of islands, big an' little, betwixt the two. I once heard say that Luzon was about the size of all of our down-east states combined."

"It's larger then than I thought it was," cried Larry, somewhat astonished. "And what about the cities?"

"The biggest city is Manila, on the east shore of Manila Bay, a big harbor shaped like a camel's head, with the opening at the neck of the animal, and Manila sittin' like a wart on the critter's nose. Years an' years ago the city was only a Spanish military post, but it grew an' grew, until I reckon there are several hundred thousand folks—Chinese and Japanese and all—in and around Manila. A good many of the people are what they call Tagals, a branch of the Malay race—a good enough set if the Spanish would only treat 'em half decently."

"Something was said about their being in rebellion," went on the boy. "I wonder if they are fighting now."

"To be sure they are fighting," put in Barrow, the gunner. "I heard the lieutenant say, and I guess he got it straight from headquarters, that there are between thirty and forty thousand Tagals and others in revolt, under General Emilio Aguinaldo and other leaders. Oh, they'll make it as hot on land in these quarters as we'll make it on the sea, if we can catch sight of those will-o-the-wisp Dons."

There had been a vigorous signalling going on between the vessels of the squadron, and now all but the Concord and the Boston slowed up. The two craft mentioned put on extra steam, and in a short while were lost to sight in the distance.

"They are out on a scout," announced Striker. "Nothing like being careful, you know. There's a bay ahead, and they are no doubt under orders to search it."

Striker's surmise was correct. The opening ahead was that of Subic Bay, a number of miles west of the bay of Manila. The Boston and Concord were to examine every corner and shelter of it carefully, and hurry back at the first sign of the enemy. Later on the Baltimore joined her two sister ships.

"If the Spanish fleet is in Subic Bay, we'll have some fun getting at them," Larry heard one of the sailors say. "The water there is mighty shallow in spots, and rocks are there a-plenty."

"Yes, and it's likely if the Dons are there they'll plant some shore batteries, and give us the hottest kind of a plunging fire," added another. "Splice the anchor chain, but I hate a plunging fire," was added with a growl. All sailors hate such a fire, coming from an elevated battery capable of throwing shot and shell directly down upon a vessel's deck.

The hours passed slowly, until, towards evening, the three warships sent out on the scout were seen coming back "empty handed," as Striker expressed it. No vessels but a few fishing and merchant craft had been seen.

The warships were now called closer together, and the various commanders were summoned by Commodore Dewey to the flagship, to hold a council of war. The coming of so many small boats to the Olympia was an event of interest to Larry, and he viewed each captain with combined curiosity and respect. The council of war was held in the after-cabin of the flagship, and, of course, the sailors heard nothing of what was going on. But we will take a peep behind the curtain.

Having satisfied himself that Admiral Montojo's ships were not in Subic Bay, Commodore Dewey was strongly of the impression that the Spanish officer had taken his fleet into Manila Bay. There were a number of reasons for this, the principal one of which was that it seemed likely that the admiral would think it his duty to remain close to Manila, to protect it both from American attack and from the fiercer and fiercer attacks of the insurgents.

The whole question was, then, Should the American warships risk a run into Manila Bay? That was a question to be carefully considered, and why my young readers will soon learn.

As Striker had mentioned, the bay was shaped somewhat like the head of a camel, with the neck of the animal forming the entrance to the waters. Manila was situated twenty-nine miles from this entrance, and eight miles out from the city was a long, low neck of land, at the extremity of which stood Fort Cavite, an old but massive stronghold, mounting sufficient pieces to cover the shipping in front of Manila proper.

Almost in the centre of the entrance to Manila Bay lay Corregidor Island, with a smaller island beside it. Corregidor Island was also fortified, with guns well able to sweep the channels on both sides. More than this, it was reported that the entrance to the bay was strongly mined by what are known as contact mines; that is, mines which will explode the moment a ship comes into contact with them. What a marine mine can do has already been only too well illustrated in the case of the ill-fated Maine.

The question then was, Should the squadron risk an attempt to slip into the bay, past Corregidor Island, and past the hidden mines? It took brave men to decide to do this, but the commodore and his captains voted to a man that this should be done, and furthermore, that the attempt should be made that very night.

In less than half an hour after the council of war broke up, what was proposed to be done under cover of darkness was known to every one on the warships. Perhaps some of the jackies turned pale at the news, but if so they "were lost among the numbers of those who gave their commodore and their captains "three times three " with a will. Your true American man-o'-war's man would rather fight than cruise around, any day.

In order not to appear off the entrance to Manila Bay while it was yet light, the squadron steamed slowly southeastward, keeping a good distance from shore. The extreme heat almost made eating out of the question, yet supper was served at the usual time,—the last meal to be had for some hours to come.

The sun went down as in a veritable sea of molten lead, and as the night drew on, the pale southern moon came up, accompanied by hundreds of twinkling stars. Perhaps those in command would have preferred greater darkness, yet it was necessary to have some light, that the channel might be seen without the aid of search or other lights.

As it grew darker each warship put out a single hooded light, showing from behind only; this precaution being taken to keep one vessel from running up into that before her. All the other exposed lights were cut off, and officers and men were alike warned that no noise that was not absolutely necessary should be made. If it was possible, Commodore Dewey intended to run by the batteries on Corregidor Island, and any other batteries in the vicinity, without being discovered. In naval warfare, and in military warfare, too, for the matter of that, to come upon the enemy when he leasts expects it, and thus throw him into more or less confusion, often constitutes a large element of success.

On and on went the squadron, looking like dim phantoms of the night, moving in an irregular line, the Olympia in the lead, and the tiny Petrel and despatch boat McCulloch bringing up together in the rear. Corregidor Island was not yet visible, yet the men knew it might appear in the dim distance at any moment.

"Clear ship for action!"

The command was given quietly, and instead of blowing their bugles and whistles, and ringing their bells, the under-officers passed the commands along by word of mouth. Silently the men obeyed, but what a rushing around ensued! To an outsider the men might have appeared in helpless confusion, yet nothing could have been more orderly.

As mentioned before, all unnecessary woodwork had already been disposed of, but now the decks were cleared of even the ventilator pipes wherever they interfered with the range of the big guns, and chains were run out, to help work guns from the outside as well as from the inside. Added to this, a gangway that had been kept until the last minute was slid into the sea, and then the various hatchways were fitted with steel covers, to protect those below from the explosion of a stray shell or the plunging fire of small arms.

In the bowels of the warships the engineers and others had also been busy, coupling the various engines so that they might work one for another, attaching the power to the machinery that worked the big guns and to the electric circuit, for my young readers must remember that many modern guns are fired by electricity. The pumping-engines were also connected with the fire-hose, which was laid in every part of the ship, and final tests were made of the appliances designed to flood with water any magazine that was in danger of explosion.

Firemen and stokers were at the fires, bringing the heat up to the highest possible point, and putting tons and tons of coal where it would be handiest, and also testing the forced draughts and blowers. They knew only too well that while in action a modern battleship must keep moving lively, or the enemy will blow her up as soon as guns can be properly pointed. And they knew, too, that if the battle went the wrong way, it would be steam alone that might save them from capture.

And while this was going on, Larry, Striker, and those working with them had not been idle. The magazines had been opened and the work of delivering powder and projectiles to the various guns started. Ammunition, too, had been sent to the men in the fighting tops. Each gun was carefully swabbed out and loaded, and the range-finders tested by the head gunners. The actual loading of the big gun to which he had been assigned filled Larry with interest. He wondered how it would sound when the charge went off, and if they would hit anything on the first trial.

In the conning tower, a round, steel structure, stood Captain Gridley, ready to do or die, as the occasion might require. The captain was not well, but had begged to be allowed to take charge of his vessel upon this trip, confident that he should come out of any contest with colors flying. Close behind the captain was the man at the wheel, and half a dozen others, on duty at the speaking-tubes and ready to carry commands to any portion of the warship.

The commodore was on the bridge, that curious structure set sidewise above the deck of every modern battleship. With him, too, were petty officers, to carry his commands or send them to the other vessels by the use of night signals. And all was as silent as death, even the big engines doing their work with nothing more than an indefinite rumble, and the big fires blazing away without a spark soaring skyward.

A bit of land came out of the distance. Slowly but surely the Olympia crept closer to it, keeping it upon the port side. It was Corregidor Island. Soon appeared the small island of Pulo Caballo. They were approaching the entrance to the harbor at last. Would they be able to pass into the waters beyond in safety?