At 41 minutes past 5 o'clock on Saturday, April 30th 1898, Commodore Dewey, the Olympia then being bow on, 5,500 yards or about three miles, from the fortress at Cavite, called out to Captain Gridley: "You may fire when ready." A few moments later the huge 8-inch guns in the forward turret belched forth flame and steel at the flag-ship of Admiral Montojo. At this signal to engage the enemy an eye-witness with the squadron reports that from the throats of the Americans on all the ships rose a triumphant cheer and the cry, "Remember the Maine." And then, from every ship that could train guns on the enemy, poured a rain of shot and shell directed by men who were as deliberate and cool as if they were at play. The deadly accuracy of American marksmanship was exhibited under circumstances so extraordinary that it was destined to stand without precedent or comparison in all naval history.
Sheltered under the guns of Cavite the Spanish cruiser Castilla lay anchored by head and stern, broadside to our fire. On either side Admiral Montojo's flag-ship, the Reina Cristina, the Don Juan de Austria, and the Velasco moved into action, while the gunboats behind the breakwater were sheltered to some extent. The Americans at 5,500 yards filed in line past the enemy and, countermarching in a circle that extended closer to the Spaniards at every turn, sent in a crushing rain of fire from each broadside as it was presented.
Lieutenant L. J. Stickney, a former naval officer who was on the bridge of the Olympia as a volunteer aide to Commodore Dewey and who wrote an account of the battle as a press correspondent, thus describes the combat after the first fire of the Americans:
"The Spaniards seemed encouraged to fire faster, knowing exactly our distance, while we had to guess theirs. Their ships and shore guns were making things hot for us. The piercing scream of shot was varied often by the bursting of time fuse shells, fragments of which would lash the water like shrapnel or cut our hull and rigging. One large shell that was coming straight at the Olympia's forward bridge fortunately fell within less than one hundred feet. One fragment cut the rigging; another struck the bridge gratings in line with it; a third passed under Commodore Dewey and gouged a hole in the deck. Incidents like these were plentiful.
"Our men naturally chafed at being exposed without returning fire from all our guns, but laughed at danger and chatted good-humoredly. A few nervous fellows could not help dodging mechanically, when shells would burst right over them, or close aboard, or would strike the water, or pass overhead with the peculiar spluttering roar made by a tumbling rifle projectile.
"Still the flag-ship steered for the centre of the Spanish line, and as our other ships were astern, the Olympia received most of the Spaniards' attention.
"Owing to our deep draught, Commodore Dewey felt constrained to change his course at a distance of 4,000 yards and run parallel to the Spanish column.
"`Open with all guns,' he ordered, and the ship brought her port broadside bearing. The roar of all the flag-ship's 5-inch rapid-firers was followed by the deep diapason of her turret 8-inchers. Soon our other vessels were equally hard at work, and we could see that our shells were making Cavite harbor hotter for the Spaniards than they had made the approach for us.
"Protected by their shore batteries and made safe from close attack by shallow water, the Spaniards were in a strong position. They put up a gallant fight.
"One shot struck the Baltimore and passed clean through her, fortunately hitting no one. Another ripped the upper main deck, disabled a 6-inch gun, and exploded a box of 3-pounder ammunition, wounding eight men. The Olympia was struck abreast the gun in the wardroom by a shell, which burst outside, doing little damage. The signal halyards were cut from the officer's hand on the after bridge. A sailor climbed up in the rain of shot and mended the line.
"A shell entered the Boston's port quarter and burst in Ensign Dodridge's stateroom, starting a hot fire, and fire was also caused by a shell which burst in the port hammock netting. Both these fires were quickly put out. Another shell passed through the Boston's foremast just in front of Captain Wildes, on the bridge.
"After having made four runs along the Spanish line, finding the chart incorrect, Lieutenant Calkins, the Olympia's navigator, told the Commodore he believed he could take the ship nearer the enemy, with lead going to watch the depth of water. The flag-ship started over the course for the fifth time, running within 2,000 yards of the enemy, followed by all the American vessels, and, as even the 6-pounder guns were effective at such short range, the storm of shot and shell launched against the Spaniard was destructive beyond description."
Return to The Great Republic by the Master Historians (Vol 4)