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Sunday, May 10, 1898

Visit to Cavite

At 2:00 in the afternoon, the boat left for the harbor. There were nine of us who took our seats. Each brought his own equipment for the expedition — binoculars, cameras, pencils, note pads, etc. I am determined to scrutinize every detail, and mean to stay close to the American officer who will take us there. After coming alongside the commodore’s ship, the Olympia, we request permission to board. His secretary eventually agrees to show us around. This ensign is tall, young and blond, with beautiful eyes and firmly set lips, and all told, has a clean-shaven, ruddy face. He is well built, but like most Americans, a bit emaciated, yet endowed with broad shoulders. He speaks French but does not comprehend it well, so eventually I ask my questions in English.

First, we go to see the Spanish boas sunk on the shores of Cavite! Here, in front of Sangley Point, we see the Castilla, with one of her two masts collapsed. While some in my group sketch, I chat with the American. Looking at a map, we go over the approximate scenario of the combat and the action that took place.

–At what time were you in front of Cavite?

–Around midnight.

–And were guns fired at you?

–Yes, the ones on our right. In other words, we were raided from the island by El Fraile and the Punta de la Restinga.

–How many shots did they fire?

–Around seven or eight, but not one hit our ships. The darkness of night prevented them from seeing us clearly. Moreover, their shots were poorly aimed.

–What route did you take after that?

–Right of Manila, at slow speed.

–At what time were you in front of Manila?

–Around 5:00. The battery, perhaps that of the Luneta, started to fire, but it did us no damage. We were around 4,000 meters away.

–It was then that you steered towards the south?

–Yes, we headed towards Cavite, parallel to the firing line.

–At what time did you open fire on the enemy?

–Around 5:35.

–At what distance?

–Maybe between 1,500 and 5,000 meters. We moved perpendicularly towards the Spanish line. Then, at around 1,500 meters, we changed direction and shot three or four rounds parallel to our target, approximately east to west, constantly firing our cannons.

–Up to what time?

–Up to about 7:30 or 7:45.

–Were they badly beaten?

–Yes, demolished … but they fought bravely.

–How were their defenses, more or less?

–Well, they were spread out from east to west in Cavite City, the flagship being the Reina Cristina, which was the furthest out, with the Castilla right beside it.

–Did you close ranks on all of them?

To this important question, the answer was evasive.

At this point we were passing beside the transport ship Manila.

Yes, we have captured it, admits the American. It is in very good condition. We are removing machine guns and replacing them with cannons dismantled from wrecked vessels.

The Manila, which lies at anchor, displays the American flag, and has been repainted gray to make it look like other American warships.

We are now on the Castilla: one mast still upright and the other torn down. Two pieces of artillery, fore and back, are still intact; the rest of the ship is totally submerged. Where we are standing, it is seven or eight meters deep. The gun seems to be in good condition. The Americans obviously aimed low. Everything was devastated, twisted, and wrecked. This heap of metal reminds me of a collision of derailed railway trains and wagons. All the parts lined with wood were shredded to bits. It is not merely a ruin, but the ruins of a skeleton. It is difficult to visualize what existed before this calamitous event. Merely a week ago, this miserable carcass had life like all living things. The fire has done its task: the paint of the ship has turned yellowish green-multicolored. Everywhere it is corroded with rust, and the constant lashing of the high waves gives the ships the impression of sudden decay.

These ruins look as though they have been there for several months. Indeed, man is a master craftsman of destruction.

–The Reina Cristina and the Castilla suffered most, according to the American officer; above all, the Cristina, with about 50 percent dead and wounded. The commandant, the doctor, and the chaplain were all killed…

–The Cristina did not try to run you down?

–Yes, she advanced 200 meters , but was beaten back by our guns.

–Ah! Your light artillery served you well!

–It did. But we used it sparingly, especially since we began with our heavy machine guns.

This was a vague but very important point, although difficult to evaluate. Since the Spaniards were crushed after the rapid fire, we can better understand why not one of their shots seriously damaged the American fleet.

–Were your ships hit?

–Oh, yes. A number of shells reached the bottom of some ships, but none went through.

This was the sole response that made me secretly smile since it did not sound credible at all.

Right beside us is the Antonio de Ulloa.

–How many ships did you actually sink?

–Seven or eight, I think.

–And how many then, sank by themselves? Because there were some which were grounded in the dockyards, weren’t there?

–Yes, there were four. I do not know for certain. Perhaps the small gunboats which we will see inside.

The remains of the unfortunate Reina Cristina give testimony to her tragedy; her two masts, blackish gray and riddled with holes, the gangway overturned, the bridge completely razed, and beams twisted by the fire. The upper portion of the shield of a 16mm shell is split into two. And yet, there were some guns in front and at the back which were almost intact. From one end to the other, there is a mass of debris; the front full of holes but retaining its shapes, the back part, in contrast, burned and almost entirely submerged.

–But it was a good ship. (I could not restrain myself from uttering.)

–Yes, a good ship.

–Also … it had very good guns.

–Yes, Canet cannons, I think (intentionally answers the American, as he smiles with joy) — 35mm Canet cannons, or even 40. We are installing them on our transport ships.

–In the guise of a trophy, I suppose?

–Have you seen the Spanish officers? he continues.

–No, not yet.

–Ashore, the Spanish officers are saying that we used high explosive shells. But we only fired ordinary shells. In the marines, we do not carry high explosive shells.

Is that a fact? (I find that quite surprising.  I do not allow him to undermine my suspicions.) I comment coldly that melinite shells are used in modern warfare and we would probably use them if we had to go to war.

–Oh, yes! says the American smilingly. Yes, certainly! But we do not have high explosive shells. We only use ordinary ones… Now, if you want us to show you around, let us go inside.

We follow him. It is undeniably a necropolis of ships. There lies the Velasco and the Argus. Then all along the shallow part of the coastline, the Don Juan de Austria, the Isla de Cuba, the Isla de Luzon, the General Lezo, the Marquez del Duero.

–What a horrible sight! I say. Seven ships inside and three outside, that makes a total of 10. Then there is the Manila, 11, plus the mail boat, 12. Thus, 12 warships …! After all, they were all good ships.

–But, my God! The Isla de Cuba  and the Isla de Luzon were protected ships. That is why they were not badly damaged; their hulls are intact. From here one does not see any trace of damage from the fire. Those over there were sunk intentionally.

–Oh yes! They resisted well. But in the end, they entered the dockyards and sank.

–You could raise those ships which do not look too bad and move them them to the shallow part …

–Look over there. We are removing the cannons from the Isla de Luzon. One team with an officer-in-charge busies itself over there. There are salutes as we pass. I look at my young American, who, with his hand touching his cap, makes a perfect salute to the duty officer as his youthful mouth twists into an ironic smile.

For a good hour we observe the great pleasure he derives from our reactions. That we acknowledge this victory made him absolutely ecstatic.

–Did you hear any screaming from the Spanish side?

–We could not hear any, no. We ourselves were making too much noise. Our men were very busy firing away.

–And the smoke?

–Oh! A lot of smoke!

It is now time to get back to land. We coast along the wharf of the arsenal, beside the dry docks. There we come upon an American rowboat with some men on duty and the sentinel.

–Call the officer of the guard, please.

The sentinel fires two successive gunshots. The officer on duty arrives and authorizes us to disembark. We do so.

In the infantry barracks of the marines, there are trunks everywhere. The armory has been plundered. The place looks like it’s been hit by a hurricane. The buildings, nevertheless, are intact; only one was hit by a shell. Here are the administration buildings and the houses of the high government officials, quite lovely and furnished with taste. A charming garden, radiant with flowers, has a statue in its midst with the inscription: “Sebastian Elcano — military explorer.” He was Magellan’s brave commander who circumnavigated the world, the first to sail 14,000 leagues in three years, before returning to Spain. These tiny flowers smile happily, nonchalantly, under the sun, around the proud statue sitting in the midst of disaster. I feel a real displeasure when I hear the others laugh and ridicule this poor Elcano. Someone pokes fun at the length of his nose. Yes, the Spaniards recreated their high-spirited hero — the most steadfast, invincible, and greatest navigator they ever had.

Bundles of paper are scattered everywhere. Soiled documents, administrative books, and the Penal Code are on the floor. I pick up a book in Spanish to take as a souvenir: Choice of Synonyms in the Castillian Language. It opens on the page with the words “orgullo, vanidad, presuncion.” When fate mocks, it sneers like the grim reaper.

–When did you take the arsenal?

–Tuesday, during the day.

–It was deserted?

–Oh, yes, for some time. After the Spaniards departed, it was ravaged by a band of insurgents.

It would be interesting to make further investigations. In this province, one can assess the exact progress of the insurrection. Are rebel forces now surrounding Manila, or are they going to join forces with the Americans at the first opportunity that arises? It seems for the moment that the cabecillas rebels, because they are handsomely paid by the priests, are on the Spaniards’ side. In any event, they have no scruples about siding with the enemy.

We return to the motorboat to move on to Sangley Point. The Antonio de Ulloa is on this side. Not a trace of the chimney. Several heavy pipes on the bridge indicate that the engine has been dismantled. No trace of fire: the ship sank before it could be demolished. It is anchored and well docked. There are two floodlights on the gangway, one of which is upturned, but with the mirrors intact. Undoubtedly, the cannons’ impact must have shattered the doors. As the American officer says, the ship was abandoned by the crew, leaving their flag flying. Later, an American tugboat took it as a souvenir. A shell has left an imprint on the damaged mizzenmast.

At Sangley Point, we disembark at a worm-eaten wharf, partly sunk in the water where a shell had struck its foundations. On land, the Americans are removing burning junk, diffusing black oily smoke and a horrible, suffocating smell. Could it be old rotten wood, a dog burning, or a Chinaman, perhaps? This combined with the stagnant smell of sea water, bamboo, reeds, and a heap of boxes, generating an odor beyond words. As for the guns in firing position, there are two 16mm which are smashed, battered, and overturned. The gun aimed at the American ships is askew, rusted, and encrusted with stones, the lid of its cylinder head gone. The area is full of earth and stones. In what condition, then, were these guns before combat? I come nearer, and I read, “Cannon Trubia 1892.” But if the cannons were in good condition, why was it that not a single shot found its mark? The men were brave and the guns in good condition. If the job was not well done, it was because they lacked the necessary expertise.

We have seen everything. In the far distance before me, I contemplate the sea full of debris. What terrible deaths! The wrecked ships, which only yesterday were full of life. . . and today, the ghastly color and smell of decay everywhere! There lie the corpses, bloodily and quickly eliminated due to ignorance and incompetence.

Against the black hostile skies lit by sparks of fire, the tips and the trunks of masts hang on the horizon like lugubrious crosses over this cemetery in the sea.