America’s first great military debut on the international stage took place in 1898 when it launched a war against Spain. No longer was the U.S. military limited largely to the American continent. The new Navy, pushed forward by its new Assistant Secretary Theodore Roosevelt, would not only fight in both oceans, it would win decisively.
And, at the point of its first and greatest victory in the Spanish-American War, a Navy commodore took a quick break for breakfast while slaughtering Spain. And we don’t mean a few sailors were sent belowdecks at a time for food. We mean the entire fleet disengaged, everyone had breakfast, and then came back to finish the shellacking.
The buildup to war centered around control of Cuba, a Spanish colony that desired independence. Americans, meanwhile, were split on the issue. Some wanted Cuban independence, some hoped for a Cuban state, but almost everyone agreed that Spain should screw off.
But there was tension between the hawks and the pacifists in the country. Not everyone thought it was a good idea to risk a war with Spain, a major European power. So, as a half measure, the USS Maine was sent to Havana Harbor to safeguard Americans and American interests during the struggles between rebels and Spain.
But on February 16, 1898, the Maine suddenly exploded in the harbor. Investigations in the 20th century would find that the explosion was most likely caused by a bad design. A coal bunker had exploded, an event which occurred spontaneously in other ships of similar design. But the conclusion of investigators at the time was that the explosion was caused by a mine, and the implication was that Spain planted it.
America, already primed for conflict, declared war. And Roosevelt got his man Dewey the orders to take two heavy cruisers, three light cruisers, and a gunboat to the Philippines to strike the first blow.
The Spanish Admiral Patricio Montojo had a large fleet in the Philippines with 13 ships, but they were old and outdated. The armor was thin at key points, many of the guns were too small to do serious damage against newer battleships and cruisers like America’s, and they were tough to conduct damage control on, so fires could easily rage once started.
Montojo knew that the Americans would likely come for him, and he also knew that his fleet would struggle against the newer U.S. ships, so he decided to place his own vessels under the protection of shore batteries.
He sailed to Subic Bay where modern shore batteries were supposed to have been recently completed. But when he arrived, he found that not a gun was erected. Because of the constant fighting with Filipino rebels, the engineers had been unable to build the important defenses.
Montojo sprinted to Manila Bay where his men could be more easily rescued and ships more easily salvaged if lost, but he deployed his ships far from the city and in a shallow part of the harbor where his men could easily swim to shore if sunk, but also putting most of his ships out of range of the shore guns’ protection.
During the early hours of May 1, Dewey sailed into the harbor with his six ships in a battle line. He initiated the attack, and American ship after American ship paraded past and launched shells into the ineffective Spanish ships. Dewey turned back for another pass, and the ships repeated their process.
Dewey and the Asiatic fleet kept this up for hours. They were like a saw ripping into the Spanish fleet but with cruisers for teeth instead of shards of metal. But around 7:35, Dewey received a message that the 5″ guns had only 15 rounds remaining per gun.
Dewey knew that his gunners would need time to re-arm, and there was no point to doing it while under threat of the Spanish guns. So he took a look at the time, and ordered the fleet to withdraw. While this would later be reported as a withdrawal for breakfast, that wasn’t the initial intent. As Dewey would later write:
It was a most anxious moment for me. So far as I could see, the Spanish squadron was as intact as ours. I had reason to believe that their supply of ammunition was as ample as ours was limited.
Therefore, I decided to withdraw temporarily from action for a redistribution of ammunition if necessary. For I knew that fifteen rounds of 5-inch ammunition could be shot away in five minutes.
But during this withdrawal, Dewey learned two pieces of joyous news:
But even as we were steaming out of range the distress of the Spanish ships became evident. Some of them were perceived to be on fire and others were seeking protection behind Cavite Point…
It was clear that we did not need a very large supply of ammunition to finish our morning’s task; and happily it was found that the report about the Olympia’s 5-inch ammunition had been incorrectly transmitted. It was that fifteen rounds had been fired per gun, not that only fifteen rounds remained.
So Dewey suddenly realized that, first, he had the upper hand in the fight and, second, his men didn’t actually need to redistribute ammo. So, he ordered his men to take a break and get a bite to eat. Meanwhile, he called his captains together and learned that no ship had serious damage or fatalities to report. (One man would later die of either heatstroke or heart attack.)
So, after his men ate, Dewey returned to the attack and hit the city of Manila, quickly forcing its surrender. But he would have to wait for Army forces to arrive to actually hold it. It was the opening days of America’s first great overseas war, and the Spanish fleet was already in tatters, and the U.S. Navy was already a hero.