Just after midnight on May 1, 1898, the USS Olympia led the United States’s Asiatic Squadron quietly through the calm, glassy waters of the Boca Grande Channel, between the island of Corregidor and the coast of Luzon in the Philippines. The United States was at war with Spain, and the American squadron was preparing to attack a Spanish fleet in Manila Bay.
As Sunday morning dawned hours later, the Olympia‘s commander, Captain Charles Gridley, waited for the order to fire his ship’s guns. The order would come from the squadron’s commander, Commodore George Dewey, who watched from atop the Olympia‘s flying bridge as shore batteries fired harmlessly at the advancing column of American ships. At 5:40 A.M. Dewey finally hailed Gridley with the now-famous words, ‘You may fire when you are ready, Gridley.’
The ensuing Battle of Manila Bay ended with the destruction of the Spanish fleet and the surrender of the Philippine capital of Manila. It signaled to the world that the United States was a major naval power and made Dewey a national hero. The pivotal sea battle also hastened the death of the terminally ill Captain Gridley. Though considered one of the best and brightest officers in the United States Navy at the time of his death, Gridley would probably be forgotten today if it weren’t for Dewey’s command.
Charles Vernon Gridley was born in Logansport, Indiana, on November 24, 1844. When he was three, his father moved the family to Michigan. Thirteen years later Charles won an appointment from that state to the United States Naval Academy, graduating in 1863.
Gridley’s first assignment was aboard the nine-gun steam sloop Oneida during the Civil War. As part of the Union fleet commanded by Admiral David Farragut, the Oneida participated in the capture of the Confederate port of Mobile, Alabama, on August 5, 1864. It was the only action Gridley saw during the first 33 years of his career. He spent the remainder of the war on blockade duty.
Gridley left the Oneida in 1866 and subsequently received a number of routine assignments, including service in the South Atlantic Station, a four-year stint as an instructor at the Naval Academy, and the command of two training ships. In May 1872, he married Harriet Frances Vincent, and they had three children.
On July 28, 1897, the 52-year-old Gridley reached the pinnacle of his career when he was given command of the USS Olympia. Launched in 1892, the 5,870- ton protected cruiser carried four 8-inch guns, ten 5-inch guns, and fourteen 6-pounders and was manned by a crew of 34 officers and 440 enlisted men. Gridley was particularly pleased with this appointment. Not only was the Olympia the flagship of the Asiatic Squadron, but squadron commander George Dewey was a close friend. The only circumstance marring this professional achievement was an intense pain that Gridley had begun experiencing in his right side. The fleet surgeon was unable to find a cause for Gridley’s discomfort or for the gradual weight loss that had taken him from a robust 200 pounds to 115. It is believed that he was probably suffering from liver cancer.
ON FEBRUARY 15, 1898, the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor, killing more than 260 men and setting off a chain of events that would lead to armed conflict with Spain. As the international situation deteriorated, Commodore Dewey, stationed with his Asiatic Squadron in British-controlled Hong Kong, became increasingly concerned about the health of his flagship captain. With each passing day Gridley became weaker. He had lost his appetite and barely had the strength to move around the Olympia. Dewey knew that once war was declared, he would be ordered to attack the Spanish Pacific Fleet, and he didn’t want the captain of his flagship debilitated by illness.
On April 15, 1898, the fleet surgeon pronounced Gridley physically unfit for duty, and Dewey reluctantly ordered his old friend home. Gridley protested vehemently. He reminded Dewey that as the flagship’s captain, he was responsible for preparing the squadron for the coming battle. He argued that although he was weak from his illness, he was thoroughly familiar with the battle plan and able to carry out his duties. In the end Dewey relented, and Gridley continued as the Olympia‘s captain.
Ten days later news reached Hong Kong that the U.S. North Atlantic Squadron had blockaded Havana. Hong Kong’s British governor, Major General Wilsone Black, sent notice that Great Britain had proclaimed neutrality, and that all Spanish and American warships had until 4:00 P.M. that day to leave Hong Kong Harbor. Despite his country’s position, Black penned, ‘God knows, my dear Commodore, that it breaks my heart to send you this notification,’ beneath his official message to Dewey.
Dewey moved his squadron to Mirs Bay, China, and there received the message he had been expecting. Navy Secretary John D. Long cabled: ‘War has commenced between the United States and Spain. Proceed at once to Philippine Islands. Commence operations particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavor.’ Dewey waited the two days it took for U.S. Consul Oscar F. Williams to join the squadron from Manila before leaving for the Philippines. Williams brought news that the Spanish squadron was leaving Manila Bay for the more defensible Subic Bay, 25 miles north of Manila.
On April 27, the anchor chains rattled up through the hawser holes, and the Olympia led the squadron out of Mirs Bay. She was followed by the heavy cruisers, Baltimore, Raleigh, and Boston, two gunboats–the Petrel and the Concord–and a Revenue Service cutter, the McCulloch. Two unarmed colliers, the Zafiro and Nanshan, completed the fleet. On the bridge of the Olympia Gridley ordered Lieutenant Carlos Calkins to set a course across the South China Sea to the Philippines.
During the first day at sea, Gridley began the grim task of preparing his ship for combat. Sailors performed musket and cutlass drills, sanded the decks, and bound the masts with anchor chains. The crew also tossed overboard all wooden furniture, paneling, books, and even pinups to reduce the risk of fire during battle.
On April 29, Gridley assembled his crew on the quarter deck and read from a proclamation the Spanish governor general of the Philippines had issued five days earlier. It warned the Filipinos that a’squadron manned by foreigners, possessing neither instructions nor discipline, is preparing to come to this archipelago with the ruffianly intention of robbing us of all that means life, honor, and liberty. Pretending to be inspired by a courage of which they are incapable . . . [they] shall not profane the tombs of your fathers, they shall not gratify their lustful passions at the cost of your wives’ and daughters’ honor . . . prepare for the struggle . . . .’ Whatever effect the words had on the people of the Philippines, they ignited the anger of the American crewmen.
Gridley reminded his men that their nearest point of supply was San Francisco, 7,000 miles across the Pacific, so he urged his gunners to do their best, aim carefully, and make every shot count. When he finished one of the assembled crewmen began to quietly sing the ‘Star Spangled Banner.’ Before long every man in the crew was singing.
In the middle of the afternoon of April 30, the squadron reached Subic Bay, only to learn that the Spanish fleet was not there. Admiral Patricio Montojo Y Parsarn, commander of Spanish naval forces in the Philippines, had arrived at Subic Bay only to find that the defenses there had been neglected and had returned to Manila Bay on April 28. The American fleet regrouped and headed south in pursuit.
When the Asiatic Squadron arrived at the Boca Grande Channel in the early hours of May 1, Olympia‘s crew hung battle lanterns, readied the ammunition hoists, and loosened the sea fastening on the cruiser’s guns. Lieutenant Corwin Rees turned to Gridley and said, ‘Sir, the ship is cleared for action!’
Dewey knew that the strain of the long night had taken a terrible toll on the ailing captain of his flagship. He offered to excuse Gridley from duty and urged him to go below for some much needed sleep. Gridley refused. ‘Thank you, Commodore,’ he said, ‘but [the Olympia] is my ship and I will fight her.’ A mess attendant passed by with a steaming can of coffee. Gridley took a cup, and left for his battle station in the conning tower.
The Battle of Manila Bay began at dawn and ended shortly after noon. The Olympia, firing her forward turret, led the Asiatic Squadron down along the shoreline in a close-order column headed directly for the Spanish ships. Except for the flagship Reina Cristina, all of the Spanish ships remained fixed to their moorings or at anchor.
Closing on the enemy, Gridley swung the Olympia to the west and ran parallel to the Spanish line, adding the fire of the ship’s port batteries to the barrage. Behind him, at 200-yard intervals, the rest of the squadron formed a close ellipse and followed his every move. The Olympia led the American line in a series of U-turns that, with each pass, closed the distance between the themselves and the Spanish. Heavy black smoke covered the bay as the hapless Spanish ships received fire from alternating starboard and port guns.
As the Olympia headed eastward to begin her fourth pass down the Spanish line, the Reina Cristina, maneuvered out of the smoke and headed straight for the American ship. The Spanish flagship was 1,200 yards from Gridley’s ship when several hits forced the Reina Cristina to limp back to shoal waters. It was a gallant but futile effort.
At 7:30 A.M. Dewey received word that the Olympia‘s ammunition was low. Concerned that the rest of the squadron was in the same position, Dewey ordered his ships to withdraw and take stock of the situation. Not willing to alarm the crewmen, he gave breakfast as the reason for the withdrawal. One gunner remonstrated to Dewey’s chief of staff, ‘For God’s sake, captain don’t let us stop now! To hell with breakfast!’
At the captains’ conference that was called, all the news was good. Ammunition supplies were still ample, and though the squadron had taken a number of hits, damage was slight. Only six Americans had been wounded and there were no fatalities.
Shortly after 11:00 A.M. the Asiatic Squadron regrouped to renew its assault on the Spanish fleet. Only the shore batteries and one small cruiser, Don Antonio de Ulloa, were still firing. By 12:30 P.M. the Ulloa had been sunk, and Montojo surrendered. Dewey had executed his orders to perfection. The Americans had sunk or destroyed seven warships. The Spanish had suffered 381 fatalities; the Americans, none. The battle, however, would claim one American life a month later.
The searing heat and poor ventilation in the Olympia‘s conning tower, combined with the strain of the battle, had proved too much for Gridley. At some point during the day he struck his side on the edge of the chart table, and when the battle was over Gridley had to be carried from his post. He never rose from his sickbed, and Benjamin Lamberton replaced him as captain of the Olympia.
On June 5, Captain Charles Vernon Gridley died in the harbor of Kobe, Japan, on his way home aboard the passenger liner Coptic. Four days later, his casket was carried through the streets of Yokohama in an impressive funeral procession, accompanied by an honor guard of Imperial Japanese Marines. All foreign ships in the harbor flew their flags at half mast.
Gridley’s ashes were returned to the United States and interred at Lakeside National Cemetery in Erie, Pennsylvania, where four guns sent by the United States Navy from the Spanish Arsenal at Cavite in Manila Bay were placed on his grave. In March of 1918, the navy bestowed another honor on the Olympia‘s late captain when his daughter Ruth helped launch a new destroyer, the USS Gridley.
With the immortal words, ‘You may fire when you are ready, Gridley,’ Commodore George Dewey honored his old friend by allowing him to lead the American squadron’s charge against the Spanish. But the command did more than set the stage for the May 1, 1898, battle. Those eight words assured the dying captain of a place in American history.
This article was written by Richard Harris and originally published in the February 1998 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!