We opened fire. . . The battle was a warm one while it lasted. . . While the fight was on, there was nothing to see but Spanish ships burning and sinking.
Ship’s Bugler Harry Neithercott, U.S. Revenue Cutter Service McCulloch, Battle of Manila Bay, 1898
The quote above by an eyewitness to the Spanish-American War’s Battle of Manila Bay attests to the fury of this naval conflict as well as the damage inflicted by U.S. warships, including the revenue cutter McCulloch.
The cutter McCulloch was commissioned on Dec. 12, 1897, under the command of U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Capt. Daniel Hodgsdon. Built in Philadelphia, the McCulloch was named for two-time Treasury Secretary Hugh McCulloch. At 220 feet in length and 1,300 tons displacement, the ship was the largest revenue cutter built up to that time. A “cruising” cutter for high seas deployments, it boasted a main armament of one 15-inch bow-mounted torpedo tube and four 3-inch guns, and had an advanced composite hull design with steel planking sheathed with wood.
Before the Spanish-American War commenced, McCulloch made history by steaming from the East Coast to its first station at San Francisco the long way around the globe. This was the first cutter to sail the Mediterranean and transit the Suez Canal. It was also the first to pass through the Red Sea and Indian Ocean, and the first revenue cutter to visit the Far East. Upon arrival at Singapore on April 8, 1898, two weeks before the United States declared war with Spain; orders directed McCulloch to report to Commodore George Dewey and the U.S. Navy’s Asiatic Squadron in Hong Kong. As was common with foreign warships in the Far East at the time, McCulloch hired several Japanese and Chinese men to serve as stewards and in the engine room.
Water color illustration of the McCulloch in combat during the Battle of Manila Bay. Notice the inaccurate hull color of white rather than the navy gray worn at the time of the battle.
(U.S. Coast Guard collection)
On April 27, the squadron stood out of Mirs Bay, China, approaching the Philippines three days later. Dewey’s squadron consisted of cruisers Olympia, Boston, Baltimore and Raleigh; and gunboats Concord and Petrel. McCulloch steamed at the rear of the squadron to protect the storeships Nanshan and Zafire. In the midnight darkness of April 30, Olympia had approached Manila Bay followed by the squadron and McCulloch with the storeships. Just as McCulloch passed El Fraile Rock at the entrance to Manila Bay, built-up soot in the cutter’s smokestack caught fire and lit-up the night. Soon, a Spanish battery on El Fraile opened fire on McCulloch, but USS Boston and McCulloch returned fire and silenced the Spanish gun. During the engagement, McCulloch’s chief engineer, Frank Randall, worked feverishly to quell the blaze and died from the heat and overexertion.
As he entered Manila Bay, Dewey slowed the squadron to four knots. He did this to time his opening salvos to daybreak. He ordered McCulloch to guard the storeships, protect U.S. warships from surprise attack and tow any disabled warships out of enemy range. A little past 5 a.m., the battle commenced with Dewey’s famous command, “You may fire when ready [Capt.] Gridley.” Eyewitnesses to the battle recalled that McCulloch found no need to tow U.S warships out of the battleline. When its duty to protect the storeships and rescue damaged warships had ceased, McCulloch joined the fight firing some of the final rounds of the battle.
Chief engineer Frank Randall of the McCulloch died of a heart attack trying to put out a smokestack fire. His was the only death associated with the Battle of Manila Bay and he was buried at sea.
In the Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey’s warships destroyed the Spanish forces as Manila Bay. Before surrendering, the Spanish had lost their entire fleet including 400 officers and men. No American warship was seriously damaged, eight Americans were wounded and chief engineer Randall the only loss of life. Due to the cutter’s superior speed, Dewey dispatched McCulloch to the closest cable facility at Hong Kong bearing news of the victory and the surrender of Spanish forces. In a message to the secretary of the Navy, Dewey commended Hodgsdon for the efficiency and readiness of the cutter.
In January 1899, over a year after departing the East Coast, McCulloch finally arrived at its new homeport of San Francisco. From San Francisco, McCulloch patrolled the West Coast from Oregon to the Mexican border. During part of this time, the ship sailed under the command of famed cutter captain “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy. Beginning in 1906, the crew undertook the annual Bering Sea patrol duty. During these 20,000-mile cruises, McCulloch became well known for humanitarian relief and its mission as a floating court trying legal cases in towns along the Alaskan coast. McCulloch also enforced fur seal regulations patrolling the waters around the Pribilof Islands and seizing poaching vessels of all nationalities. After returning to San Francisco in 1912, McCulloch resumed patrol operations along the West Coast.
Members of McCulloch’s crew pose with a Spanish shore gun disabled during Battle of Manila Bay.
(U.S. Navy photo)
The 20-year-old cutter joined the fight a second time on April 6, 1917, when the U.S. entered World War I. At 6 p.m., McCulloch received telephone instructions from the division commander to put into effect Mobilization Plan Number One. By 7:25, the cutter received a similar “ALCUT (all cutters)” message from Coast Guard Headquarters. In response, the McCulloch transmitted to the local Navy commander a coded radiogram reading “Commanding Officer, U.S.S. OREGON. Mobilization orders received. Report MCCULLOCH for duty under your command.” McCulloch was one of nearly 50 Coast Guard cutters that would serve under the direction of the U.S. Navy.
On June 13, 1917, still a year before the war’s end, McCulloch was lost in an accident. The cutter collided in dense fog with the Pacific Steamship Company steamer Governor and slowly sank off Point Conception, California, with the loss of one crew member. Fast forward to the summer of 2016, when National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) remotely operated underwater vehicles identified a ship lying in deep water off the California coast. The outline and size of the image closely resembled that of the McCulloch. In October 2016, a joint NOAA-U.S. Coast Guard underwater survey positively identified the wreck as the famous cutter. The discovery was announced to the public in mid-June of 2017, 100 years after its final plunge.
McCulloch was one of five ships lost during World War I. In 1917, the ship sank after a collision in the fog off the coast of California.
(San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park)
During the ship’s 20-year career, McCulloch performed the missions of search and rescue, ice operations, law enforcement, environmental protection, humanitarian relief, and maritime defense. The ship recorded many firsts, such as the first cutter to steam through the Mediterranean and Red seas, transit the Suez Canal, and visit the Far East by way of the Indian Ocean. In addition, its West Coast cruising territory extended from the Arctic and Alaska to southern California. Cutter McCulloch and the men who sailed it remain a part of the legend and the lore of the long blue line.