Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1833-1946 period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday, Aug.7, 2019: The Muddy Seabird of Manila Bay
Here we see a beautiful tinted (not colorized) photo of the 4th rate barquentine-rigged gunboat USS Petrel (PG-2) somewhere on Asiatic Station in 1896. While striking in this image, this one-of-a-kind warship would spend a winter holed up in a mud fort in restless territory before going on to burn a Spanish fleet to the waterline.
Ordered with $247,000 under the 1885 Congressional funding act for the Navy Department, Petrel was one of the smatterings of new steel-hulled warships built for the rapidly modernizing fleet that was only just shaking off the cobwebs of two decades of post-Civil War doldrums. Laid down in 1887 at Baltimore’s Columbian Iron Works & Dry Dock Co., our 188-foot-long gunboat had a thin coat of armor (7 to 9mm) along her watertight deck. Fitted with an auxiliary sailing rig, her primitive twin-boiler/single-engine/single screw plant could make 11 knots on a good day. With a mean draft of just 11 feet, 7 inches, she could poke her nose in lots of coves, bays, and harbors otherwise off-limits to larger warships. This would prove useful in her career.
For armament, she carried four 6-inch guns mounted two per side on sponsons as well as an array of 3- and 1-pounder rapid-fire guns to ward off torpedo boats.
Commissioned 10 December 1889, Petrel was the U.S. Navy’s third warship named after the small long-winged sea bird with the two previous vessels being an armed 1840s schooner and a Civil War-era tinclad steamer, respectively, the latter of which was lost during the Yazoo River expedition.
Our ship when new:
And the postcard itself!
By September 1891, our Petrel was ordered to the Asiatic Station, where she would call home through most of her career. She spent nearly a decade poking around Chinese, Korean and Japanese waters, protecting U.S. interests, with occasional trips to the Pribilof Islands in the Alaskan Territory to discourage seal poachers.
It was during this time that her crew dutifully grew the files of the ONI by taking rather decent photos of the various naval vessels they came across in the exotic ports of the Far East. Such as the Thai cruiser HTMS Makut Rajakumarn (1887):
As part of her gunboat diplomacy of the era, Petrel intervened during the Sino-Japanese War of 1894, spending a winter iced in at the mouth of the Liao River, holed up in an improvised breastwork fort with the smaller British gunboat HMS Firebrand.
From the Naval War College:
In October 1894, the third USS Petrel (PG-2), a fourth-rate gunboat, was dispatched to Newchwang (also known as Yingtze, Yingkou, and Yenkow), China, in order to protect the city’s foreign residents. Special problems arose because the city is located on the Liao River, which is closed to navigation from November until April by ice floes. Since it was necessary to remain there all winter, they beached the vessel and constructed a fortress around it large enough to include all the foreign residents.
It was reported that, although the American force never confronted hostile Chinese or the Japanese forces, its presence prevented the outbreak of rioting on several occasions and strengthened the local government’s authority. The governor, the foreign consuls, and residents agreed that “Fort Petrel” had given them a significant advantage in their efforts to protect life and property. The Petrel arrived at Newchwang on 12 November 1894, just as the winter freeze was setting in, and it departed with the spring thaw on 24 April 1895.
After that, she continued her rounds.
When the U.S. and Spain collided in war on 21 April 1898, Petrel was in Hong Kong and quickly made ready for combat with Commodore George Dewey’s Asiatic Squadron. She sailed for the Spanish-held colony of the Philippines by the end of the month.
Headed into Manila Bay, Spanish RADM Patricio Montojo squadron had seven cruisers of various sizes as well as an equal number of gunboats and armed auxiliaries along with several shore defenses and coastal artillery batteries. Against this seemingly imposing force, Dewey could count his flagship, the large protected cruiser USS Olympia, three smaller cruisers (Baltimore, Raleigh, and Boston) as well as the gunboats Concord and our Petrel, who was the smallest in the good Commodore’s battle line.
Of course, the battle proved very one-sided as Montojo’s fleet was a paper tiger, composed of small, unprotected ships (four of his “cruisers” only went about 1,100-tons and had smaller sized guns than Petrel) while the Spanish harbor defenses were similarly ineffective.
It was over fast and all Montojo’s warships were effective losses while Dewey’s force was almost completely unscathed.
Petrel’s skipper, LCDR Edward Parker Wood (USNA 1867), reported that his ship fired her first shot at 5.22 a.m. and the last one, before hauling off for breakfast, was fired at 7.30 a. m. while the second part of the action occurred from 11.30 a. m. to 12.30 p. m., “at which latter time the Spanish flag on the arsenal sheers in Cavite was hauled down.” The gunboat fired about one-third of her magazine stores including 113 6-inch common shells, three 6-inch armor-piercing shells, 82 6-inch full charges, 34 6-inch reduced charges, 313 3-pounder shells and 176 1-pounders.
In the first part of the action, Wood noted:
“The greater part of our great-gun fire was at the Reina Christina and Castilla, the former steaming around the harbor and the latter anchored about 500 yards off Sangley Point; but the other and smaller vessels were fired at when opportunity offered. Especially was the fire of the rapid-fire guns aimed at a yellow launch, which was apparently a torpedo boat trying to turn our flank. The navigator, Lieut. B. A. Fiske, was stationed in the top with a stadimeter to determine the distance and report upon the efficiency of the fire.”
The second part:
At 11, when the signal was made to get underway, the Petrel followed Olympia and stood well in. While steaming across the fire the signal was hoisted for the Petrel to pass inside.
This vessel left her station, passed outside of Baltimore, and rounded Sangley Point about 500 yards outside of where Castilla was burning. The fire was then directed at the Don Antonio de Ulloa, and when it was found that she was sinking and deserted, the ship passed farther inside and opened fire upon the ships behind the inner breakwater and whose masts were seen above government buildings. During the firing on the Ulloa a white flag with a Geneva cross was discovered in range with her, and I stood in further so as to get it out of range. After the first two or three shots fired through the public building at ships behind the mole, the Spanish flag was, at 12.30 p.m., hauled down and a white flag run up. The surrender was immediately signaled to fleet and firing ceased.
Petrel was then ordered to deliver the coup de grace to what was left of the Spanish fleet:
In obedience to a signal from flagship to destroy all shipping in the harbor, Lieutenant Hughes was sent with a whaleboat crew of seven men, this whaleboat being the only one on the ship which would float, and set fire to the Don Juan de Austria, Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, General Lezo, and Marques del Duero. Afterward, Ensign Fermier was sent to set fire to the Velasco and El Correo.
The Isla de Cuba, Isla de Luzon, and Don Juan de Austria were aground and full of water when they were fired. Their outboard valves were opened, and the ships allowed to fill. The breech plugs of 4-inch guns had been taken off and could not be found. During the night the magazines of the Don Juan de Austria blew up.
The Manila was not burned because the Spanish officers begged that she be not destroyed because she was unarmed and a coast-survey vessel. Lieutenant Fiske and Passed Assistant Engineer Hall raised steam on the ship this morning, the 4th instant, and brought her out. At the time she was aground. The Don Antonio de Ulloa was sunk, and the Reina Christina and Castilla were burning in the outer harbor.
Lieutenant Fiske was sent ashore and brought off two tugboats, the Rapido and Hercules, and three steam launches.
One of her crew, German-born Franz A. Itrich, Chief Carpenter’s Mate, received the Medal of Honor for his actions during the firing, one of just 66 issued for the Navy during the Spanish-American War.
In all, Petrel suffered no casualties during the battle and the ship received no damage. However, during the scrap, the discharge of the after 6-inch guns shattered her gig and first whaleboat which were later “replaced by two taken from the enemy.”
Not a bad morning’s work when it came to a fleet-to-fleet action.
Petrel would continue to serve in the occupation of the island chain throughout 1899. She joined Boston in shelling Panay Island in February of that year before landing a force of 48 men to occupy Cebu. In October, Petrel joined USS Callao (a captured Spanish gunboat which had been commissioned in U.S. service) in supporting the Marine Corps assault on Neveleta by bombarding ahead of the advancing Marine column.
After the conflict died down, Petrel suffered an extensive below-deck fire that began in her sail room and spread to a magazine. The blaze claimed the life of her skipper, LCDR Jesse M. Roper, who was overcome by smoke on his second descent into the burning compartment to rescue downed bluejackets and suffocated before help could reach him. The Wickes-class destroyer USS Roper (DD-147) was later named in his honor.
Also honored for their actions that day were three men– Seaman Alphonse Girandy, Marine PVT Louis Fred Theis (aka Louis Fred Pfeifer), and Seaman Thomas Cahey– who ultimately received the Medal of Honor. Each of the latter’s citations states, “Serving on board the U.S.S. Petrel, for heroism and gallantry, fearlessly exposing his own life to danger for the saving of others, on the occasion of the fire on board that vessel, March 31, 1901.”
Decommissioned after the fire at Cavite and laid up there for a decade, Petrel only returned to fleet service on 2 May 1910, under command of CDR (later RADM and commander of the Asiatic Fleet in the 1930s) Montgomery Meigs Taylor. He was not the only admiral who would learn his trade on Petrel. During her career, the gunboat would see at least 23 commanders, of which at least four would garner stars.
Upon returning to service, Petrel underwent a final refit and modernization, landing her old 6-inchers in place of four more modern 4″/40cal singles. A couple years later, her worn boilers were replaced by four new ones. Her listing at the time from Jane’s:
Transferring to the East Coast for the first time in two decades, Petrel would spend from 1912 to 1917 largely in the Caribbean, with much of that as a station ship at Gitmo.
When the U.S. entered the Great War, Petrel was given depth charges and assigned to the American Patrol Detachment at Boston, although she would range into the Caribbean and Latin American waters on her counter U-boat efforts.
Petrel decommissioned at New Orleans 15 July 1919 and was struck from the Naval Register 16 April 1920. She was subsequently sold to Snare & Treest, New York, 1 November 1920, for breaking.
Her plans rest today in the National Archives as do her logs. She is memorialized in maritime art:
Her name was used for the 4th (and thus far last time) for the Chanticleer-class submarine rescue ship USS Petrel (ASR-14), which commissioned 24 September 1946. This hardy vessel, like her predecessor, would give over 30 years of hard service to her country and, after a further decade on James River’s red lead row, was scrapped in 2003.
Displacement: 867 tons
Length: 188 ft
Beam: 31 ft
Draft: 11 ft 6 in
Machinery: 2 cylindrical boilers (4 after 1914). Horizontal, back-acting compound engine with a 33-inch stroke, 1,045 hp. Single screw.
Speed: 11.4 kts (11.55 trials)
Range: 4,000 nautical miles at 10 knots with 200-ton coal load (100 tons normal load)
Complement: 10 officers and 112 enlisted as designed. 142 by WWI
Armor: 7-9mm on watertight deck
4 × 6″/35cal (152 mm) Mk III guns
2 × 47mm (3-pounder) Hotchkiss Mk I guns
1 × 37mm (1-pounder) “Hotchkiss Long” RF gun
2 x 37mm (1-pounder) Hotchkiss 5-barrel revolving cannons
2x .45-70 Gatling guns
4 × 4″/40cal (102 mm) Mk VI guns
2 × 47mm (3-pounder) Hotchkiss Mk I guns
2 × 37mm (1-pounder) “Hotchkiss Long”
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