Lessons from the Past

  • by Pete O'Brien
  • 12-27-2020

In keeping with the season, and taking some advice from a smart friend, this piece is something light, no need to get grim during Christmas. Digging into history a bit revealed an interesting item: December 26th is George Dewey’s birthday.

         Dewey - Admiral of the Fleet George Dewey - is an interesting character who is mostly forgotten these days. Born in Montpelier, Vermont in 1837, the son of doctor, Dewey attended Norwich Military Academy and then the US Naval Academy, graduating 5th in the class of 1858 - out of 15. He went on to lead an exemplary naval life, spent a good deal of time at sea but in the summer of 1897, as he approached his 59th birthday, he faced the possibility that his naval career was over. 

         How he was selected for the command isn’t relevant to the discussion below, but is entertains for showing how little some things have changed.

         A Commodore, Dewey had applied for command of the Asiatic squadron, and his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, Assistant Secretary of the Navy (from April 1897 to May 1898), wanted him for the job. But the decision was up Secretary of the Navy John Long, who would take his advice not from Roosevelt, but from Rear Admiral Crowninshield, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, a man Dewey later described as “a pronounced bureaucrat.” Further, one of his friends, and a classmate, Commodore Howell (who had finished ahead of him in the class of 1858), was also being considered for the command.

         Roosevelt encouraged Dewey to use any political connections, and it turned out that Dewey’s father was friends with one of the Senators from Vermont, Senator Proctor. Dewey went to see him and Proctor said he would support Dewey’s selection. Dewey then went to see RADM Crowninshield only to find out that Crowninshield was already going to recommend Dewey, and Long would probably approve it, but Long was angry at Dewey for dragging politics - Senator Proctor - into the process.

         Assistant Secretary of the Navy Roosevelt was something approaching a perpetual motion machine. He was constantly talking, writing, and moving and most of it was superb. And much of it was original. Roosevelt met frequently with a particular Navy Captain - Alfred Thayer Mahan, and they talked about both global strategy and about making preparations for action. From this whirlwind that was Roosevelt’s year as Assistant Secretary, he managed to produce the first real war plan in the history of the United States. (A rough plan had actually been drawn up at the Naval War College by a LT. Kimball, this formed the foundation of the later plan). Roosevelt had - as had others - correctly anticipated that the US and Spain were going to come to blows. But while others lobbied for or against it, Roosevelt was in a position to actually prepare for it at the operational and tactical level. And he did.

         Long, the Secretary of the Navy, was a lawyer and politician, and had served as governor of Massachusetts. Long had looked at Roosevelt’s plans and papers and commented in his diary:

         “The funny part of it all is, that he actually takes the thing seriously. He bores me with plans of naval and military movement, and the necessity of having some scheme to attack arranged for instant execution in case of emergency. By tomorrow he will have got half a dozen heads of bureau together and have spoiled twenty pages of good writing paper, and lain awake half the night.”

         Meanwhile, Roosevelt considered Dewey as just the man to lead operations in the Western Pacific should the need arise to execute the plan.

         Here is where it gets interesting.

         Dewey assumed command of the Asiatic Squadron on January 3rd, 1898. He immediately made efforts to ensure the force (three cruisers, two gunboats, a revenue cutter and two transports) was ready. He requested additional ammunition; it was provided on two ships. He purchased as much coal as his ships could hold; he purchased two additional merchant ships and loaded them with coal. As the political situation heated up, he began to concentrate forces so that he could respond quickly. By early March of 1898 his fleet was operating in the South China Sea, with the intention, once war was declared, of acting immediately against the Spanish navy forces in the Philippines, and then moving to secure key facilities on the main island of Luzon. (The Spanish Fleet was made up of smaller ships, in relatively poor material condition; a cruiser, a wooden cruiser, and 5 gunboats of varying size).

         In February of 1898, as the situation between the US and Spain continued to deteriorate, Roosevelt had a chance to act. Secretary Long had to receive some medical treatment - Roosevelt would be acting Secretary of the Navy - for just 4 hours on February 25th, 1898. Roosevelt seized the opportunity and sent out messages to the entire Navy directing ships to “Keep full of coal.” To Dewey he sent the cable:

         “Dewey, Hong Kong: order the squadron, except the Monocacy, to Hong Kong. Keep full of coal. In the event of declaration of war Spain, your duty will be to see that the Spanish squadron does not leave the Asiatic coast, and then offensive operations in Philippine Islands. Keep Olympia until further orders.”

         When he returned to work on the 26th Long was concerned - but he didn’t cancel Roosevelt’s orders.

         The roots of the war lay in the Cuban War for Independence, which was very popularly received in the US (and which certain papers pressed as being worthy of US support - but that’s a story for another day). When the USS Maine exploded in Havana Harbor on February 15th, the situation became supercharged. On April 11th President McKinley asked Congress for permission to intervene in Cuba. Congress debated the issue and on April 25th, 1898 McKinley signed the Declaration of War forwarded from Congress. 

         Dewey meanwhile had moved the squadron to Hong Kong by early March and anchored in the Harbor, the fleet at the ready. Two additional ships had been purchased, loaded with coal to support the ships. The fleet rode at anchor, waiting.

         On the 23rd of April they were advised that, per international law and neutrality, they would need to depart the inner harbor; Dewey began moving the squadron to Mirs Bay  - just north-east of Hong Kong - on the 24th; USS Raleigh had a circulating pump repaired in Kowloon that night, ships were loaded with more coal, and ammunition was transferred from the two stores ships.

         On the 25th the US declared war. At 1215 local a cable was received in Hong Kong from Secretary Long that war had been declared. 

         “Commence operations particularly against the Spanish fleet. You must capture vessels or destroy. Use utmost endeavor.”

         On the morning of the 27th there was a final meeting on the flagship (USS Olympia) and at 1400 the ships weighed anchor and headed to Manila.

         There was very real concern as to the nature of Spanish gun emplacements at the mouth of the harbor, as well as the use of mines. But, Dewey executed the plan, and smashed the Spanish fleet, The squadron arrived off Manila on April 30th and found the Spanish fleet at anchor inside Cavite. Dewey attacked the next morning, suffering few losses himself (2 men wounded), and minor damage to his ships, while the Spanish lost 4 ships: the cruiser, two gunboats and a transport, with 91 men killed and 280 wounded.

         But the remarkable thing is this, and the real lesson we can draw from it, more than a century later:

         The Navy went from essentially no plan to a fairly robust plan in less than 18 months - drafted by just a few people. Once war had been declared the fleet was sailing just 48 hours later, the plan was successfully executed just 4 days after that, and all this was done with just one flag officer (a commodore) who was communicating directly to the Secretary, clear orders, no meddling, no video tele-conferences, no satellites, no Persistent Surveillance, no Dominant Battle Space Awareness, and no real-time command and control.