Remember the Baltimore


April 16, 1998

WHEN the centennial of war with Spain arrives Monday, who will join us in a cheer for the U.S.S. Baltimore? It was with Dewey at Manila Bay.

At least five warships have worn the name Baltimore in wartime. Historian Francis F. Beirne lists a Revolutionary War brigantine; a 1798 merchantman purchased by the Navy; a Civil War sidewheeler; the steel cruiser of 1898, built in Philadelphia and around as a North Sea minelayer in 1918; and a World War II cruiser that carried FDR to Hawaii for a rendezvous with Adm. Chester Nimitz and Gen. Douglas MacArthur.

No dreadnoughts, these. But the role of the 1898 cruiser was pivotal. As war loomed, Commodore George Dewey (Annapolis '58) cabled from Hong Kong: Urgent need coal, ammunition. In response, the heavily laden Baltimore steamed out of Pearl Harbor, heading west. Had the Spaniards in Manila intercepted her, writes the historian Ivan Musicant, it would have been a far less dandy little war.

Without radar, though, the Baltimore slipped through, arrived, unloaded and joined the Asiatic Squadron's advance on the Philippines. In the fighting May 1, the cruiser suffered the only direct hit. Spanish marksmanship, afloat and from shore guns, resulted in no U.S. fatalities.

A century later, the event looks small. Dewey had half a dozen ships; so, too, his foe. The Baltimore displaced 4,400 tons. The land forces that reduced Manila on Aug. 12, many led by Brig. Gen. Arthur MacArthur, Douglas' father, totaled 8,500.

But the war's consequences were large. The victors learned about life in the tropics, before air conditioning. They learned of the natives' desire, alongside gratitude for liberation, not to be a colony of any outside power.

Postscript: the U.S.S. Baltimore apparently survived, in Hawaii, until 1937. How harsh was the shipbreaking process that time?

Pub Date: 4/16/98

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