Ruy Lopez de Villalobos—a 16th century Spanish navigator and explorer—was given command of a force sent out by the Viceroy of Mexico to explore unknown islands in the southern seas of the Pacific. On 1 November 1542, Villalobos departed Mexico with five ships. In the course of his voyages, he discovered the Palaus, or the Western Caroline islands; and navigated the Philippine Archipelago, discovering them and naming them in honor of the reigning Spanish monarch, King Philip II. In 1546, the intrepid explorer died at Ambon, in what is now Indonesia.
(ScGbt: dp. 270; 1. 156'2"; b. 23'0"; dr. 7'6" (mean); s. 11.0 k.; cpl. 57; a. 4 3-pdrs., 2 1-pdrs.)
The first Villalobos—a steel-hulled, screw gunboat— was laid down in September 1895 at Hong Kong, British Crown Colony, by the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co., for service with the Spanish Navy. Launched during the following year, she was completed in July 1896 and was based at Cavite, Philippine Islands, at the time of the Spanish-American War. Captured by the United States Army along with near-sisters General Alava and Quiros, Villalobos was acquired by the Navy on 21 February 1900 and commissioned at Cavite on 5 March 1900, Lt. Edward Simpson in command.
Departing Cavite on 13 March, Villalobos patrolled off the coast from Cape Santiago to Point Cueva, Buriad Island, maintaining a communication link with the marines guarding lighthouses at Santiago and Malabrigo and keeping a sharp lookout for traffic supplying the Philippine insurgents. Before the ship returned to to her home port on the 26th, she had destroyed seven bancas (small native boats) with a cargo valuing some $935.00 and also seized a brigantine, a schooner, and a banca which had all been engaged in smuggling.
After a brief period of rest at Cavite from 26 March to 1 April, Villalobos patrolled the coastline between Niac and Laguimanoc and cooperated with an Army detachment from Taal in seizing three bancas in the barrio of Hanahana and 11 at the barrio of San Luiz, towing them to Taal for not having licenses. During these operations, the gunboat also seized a sloop and a banca with two Americans on board and arrested them for cruising without proper identification and papers. Her third patrol from Cavite, commencing on 14 April, saw the ship transporting stores to the guards at Cape Santiago, Cape Malabrigo, and Cabra Island lighthouses before resuming routine communication duties with Army detachments at Batangas, Lucena, and Laguimanoc.
Her fourth patrol from Cavite found her returning to the vicinity of Laguimanoc, along the southwest coast of Luzon. She cooperated with Indiana (Battleship No. 1) and Helena (Gunboat No. 9) in supporting the 29th Army Division in securing Marinduque Island. The gunboat then carried dispatches from Marinduque to Batangas before returning with emergency rations for the troops. Furnishing supplies to the lighthouse keepers again occupied the ship before she returned to commerce-watching duties during which she seized three bancas for cruising without licenses. The ship also communicated with Army posts at Taal, Batangas, Laguimanoc, Buac, Santa Cruz, and visited Gazan.
She returned to Cavite on 10 May for a 10-day respite. Underway again on the 20th, she headed for the familiar region of the southwest coast of Luzon to resume her watch on local banca traffic and to serve as a communication link for Army posts with the "outside world." Villalobos seized three more bancas for operating without licenses and one for having insurgent papers on board, establishing a link between the last boat owner and forces then fighting the new American occupiers.
Army-cooperation duties included supporting the Army's landing detachments including the 30th Infantry at Bana Layley, and the 38th and 29th Infantry at Santa Cruz and Marlango. She then steamed back to Buac before supporting operations of the 30th Infantry at Unisan. During the land operations of the 28th Infantry, Villalobos blockaded Maricabau Strait and subsequently served on blockade duty off Nasugbu at the request of the American military governor there before carrying dispatches to Buac.
For the remainder of the year 1900 and into 1902, Villalobos conducted patrols in support of Army forces similar to those she had been carrying out since she was first commissioned. She continued to work off the northern and western coasts of Luzon and off Cebu. In between deployments, she was repaired at Cavite before returning to patrol duty in which she supported the Army occupation of Samar. On 20 November 1902, the gunboat was decommissioned at Cavite.
Recommissioned on 21 January 1903, Villalobos immediately commenced fitting out for service on the Yangtze River. She got underway for China on 7 February and stopped at Dasol Bay, Philippines, from 8 to 14 February to conduct a "hydrographic reconnaissance" of the bay in company with gunboat Elcano, tender Callao, and collier Pompey. Underway again on the 14th, the squadron put into Hong Kong three days later and remained there until the 26th, when Villalobos, in company with Pompey and Elcano, sailed for Swatow, China. Leaving the collier at Swatow, Villalobos and Elcano proceeded to Pagoda Anchorage and thence moved on to Shanghai soon thereafter to inaugurate the United States Navy's Yangtze River Patrol. After a brief visit to this key Chinese seaport city, Villalobos pushed up the Yangtze on 27 March to Kiang-Yin to investigate conditions there and to check on the welfare of the American citizens living in the vicinity.
Thus the former Spanish gunboat commenced her service with the Yangtze Patrol—"showing the flag" on the mighty river of what the Chinese had called "the Middle Kingdom." China, once a power of stature perhaps unequalled, had become a collection of feuding states as strongmen leaders arose in various geographical areas to war on their neighbors. The Boxer Rebellion at the turn of the century—a scant three years before—had resulted in the "Boxer Protocol"—giving foreigners the right to station ships and men in the country to protect their nationals.
Villalobos steamed, in company with Elcano, to Chin-kiang and thence via Nanking and Wuhu to Hankow where she arrived on 10 April. She spent the next five days awaiting a favorable rise in the river level to permit passage to I'Chang before she got underway on the 15th for Chenglin, Yochow, and Shasi. After arriving at I'Chang on 19 April, the ship headed back downriver and returned to Hankow on 5 May to investigate the possibility of making passage to Changsha for needed supplies. Proceeding thence to Yochow and Chin-Chi-wan, she met a party of American engineers mapping out a route for the Hankow to Canton Railway.
Cruising subsequently to Changsha, Siangtan, Chu-Chow, Yochow, and Hankow, Villalobos set out on 1 June for Kiukiang. She awaited three days to obtain a pilot for passage up the Kan River and Poyang Lake and, when one was finally obtained, got underway for Nanchang. However, upon discovering that the river level had fallen so rapidly, Villalobos proceeded no further but instead sent a whaleboat upstream for Nanchang to reconnoiter in accordance with orders from Admiral Robley D. Evans, Commander in Chief, Asiatic Fleet, who had wired the gunboat to investigate local conditions there.
On 6 June, the boat returned and reported that all was quiet at Nanchang, and Villalobos headed back downriver—briefly unaware that her visit had stirred up diplomatic waters. En route downriver, the gunboat's commander received a letter, via the American consul, from the local Tao-Tai (governor) who strongly protested Villalobos' visit—a protest which the consul seemed to sanction. When word reached Admiral Evans, the Commander in Chief responded that a French gunboat had earlier made the same trip and had followed the same procedures, and it had gone without a protest from the local Chinese authorities.
"Your visit with the Villalobos to Nanchang," wrote Evans to Villalobos' commander, "for the purpose of investigating the condition and providing for the protection of the lives and property of Americans is approved." The admiral continued: "It is my desire that, so far as practicable, similar visits be paid to all Americans having property or other lawful interests in China, that I may be kept fully informed regarding all things concerning their welfare." Referring to the Tao Tai's contention that the gunboats should stay away since the inhabitants of the district were "bad men," the Commander in Chief responded that this fact was all the more reason for more frequent visits.
Evans authorized Villalobos' commanding officer to inform any Chinese officials who might raise similar objections that the Fleet's gunboats "are always amply provided for dealing with 'bad men.' The admiral admonished that if anything other than "proper respect" was shown to Americans in China, "severe and lasting punishment" would be meted out to those who dared to insult citizens of the United States. If the Chinese failed to provide "adequate and proper" protection, then gunboats flying the stars and stripes would do it for them. As if that were not enough, Evans wrote, "Our gunboats will continue to navigate Poyang Lake and other inland waters of China, wherever Americans may be, and where, by treaty with China, they are authorized to engage in business or reside for the purpose of spreading the Gospel."
When word of Evans' stand reached the American minister to China in Peking, Edward Conger, he sided with the Tao-Tai. Conger asked Evans by what authority he had sanctioned Villalobos' visit to Nanchang. The admiral responded that he had acted under no specific treaty—but rather, based his action on the broad principle of extending American protection to wherever this country's nationals resided for Gold, Glory, or Gospel. While communications between widely separated places often took weeks or even months and the matter passed to Washington and the State and Navy Departments, American gunboats continued to patrol Poyang Lake.
John Hay, the Secretary of State, wrote to Conger siding with Evans, whose position he considered "proper and correct." Furthermore, Evans at the time had had no knowledge of treaties that indirectly applied to American rights in China although they had been made with other nations. Article 52 of the British Treaty of 1858, made reference to "most-favored nation" treatment—unbeknownst to Evans—and applied directly to Villalobos' controversial visit. The admiral had thus established a precedent for the Asiatic Fleet that would be carried on until late in the 1930's.
Villalobo remained deployed on the Yangtze for the next 23 years, through various reorganizations and designations of what eventually became known as the Yangtze Patrol of the United States Asiatic Fleet. During World War I, the belligerent nations either withdrew their ships from Chinese waters or saw them interned. The vacuum thus created by the internment or redeployment of British, French, and German gunboats on the Yangtze left only the Americans available to "keep the peace." However, no major wars between factions and warlords occurred.
America's entry into the war soon resulted in internment for United States gunboats. While Wilmington (Gunboat No. 8) sailed for Manila within the allotted time to avoid forced internment, Palos (River Gunboat No. 1), Monocacy (River Gunboat No. 2), Samar, Quiros, and Villalobos all remained at Shanghai— maintained at 75 percent complement and occupying their time with usual and routine ship's maintenance work—until China entered the war on the side of the Allied and Associated Powers on 16 August 1917. At that time, Villalobos and her sister gunboats resumed their patrolling and continued it through the armistice and into the postwar years.
In March of 1921, the home port for the elderly former Spanish gunboats—Villalobos, Quiros, and Elcano—was changed officially from Manila to Shanghai. Villalobos—by now designated PG-42—patrolled the middle Yangtze in mid-1921, noting local conditions and continuing in her duty of standing ready to protect American lives and property should the need arise. The first flag officer commanding the Yangtze Patrol, Rear Admiral W. H. G. Bullard, felt that the venerable Villalobos and her near-sisters were "hopeless cases" in terms of upkeep, firepower, and living conditions; but they, nevertheless, remained on duty. However, by this point, there was not much for them to do, as the "war" between the warlords commanding Szechwan and Hupeh provinces had placed trigger-happy soldiers along both banks of the upper river, successfully halting river traffic. Villalobos reported on 22 July 1921 that "business is at a standstill" on both the middle and upper Yangtze River.
For the next five years, Villalobos continued her usual river activities, with occasional periods of upkeep at the Chinese-owned Kiangnan Dock and Engineering Works. In late August 1926, however, there were indications that there could be action in store for the gunboat at Hankow. Communist forces were on the march.
Underway on 27 August, the ship steamed upstream and passed Chinese warships at Kinkow, saw warlord soldiery along the banks, and spotted an occasional corpse floating with the tide—all of which indicated that further upstream there lay possibilities for trouble. After anchoring for the night, Villalobos got underway the next day only to soon run aground. While elsewhere in the Fleet such an incident would be grounds for a court-martial, in China the frequent capricious currents and changing river levels frequently resulted in such nautical mishaps. But with the river dropping one foot per day, if the ship were not soon refloated, she would be there until winter. Help soon happened by. A British Butterfield and Swire Line tug hove into sight towing a lighter. Closing the gunboat, the Briton came to the rescue, and Villalobos' crew transferred nearly everything portable—including ammunition and stores—to the tug's lighter. At the same juncture, Pigeon (AM-47)—a Lapwing-class minesweeper converted to a river gunboat—came by as well, headed downstream from Changsha while the river still allowed her to pass downriver safely. With her decreased draft, and the combined tugging efforts of Pigeon and the Butterfield and Swire boat, Villalobos shuddered free of the sandbar shortly thereafter and immediately began reloading of all stores and ammunition. When that task was completed, she resumed her passage.
After her delayed arrival, Villalobos remained at Changsha for the next four months until relieved by Palos on 28 February. Proceeding downriver, Villalobos arrived at Hankow on 2 March, joining Isabel (PY-10)—flagship, Commander, Yangtzee Patrol, Rear Admiral H. H. Hough; Truxtun (DD-229); and Pope (DD-225). Unfortunately, the serene conditions prevailing in that area did not last long, for Chinese Nationalist forces swarmed into Nanking on 24 March and subjected American and British commercial installations to heavy attacks. On the 25th, Lt. Comdr. Earl A. Maclntyre ordered his crew to place more steel boiler-plate around vital control and gun positions on board Villalobos in expectation of action. Within two weeks, riots broke out in Hankow and looting commenced in the Japanese section of the city, prompting the Japanese to land forces to quell the disturbance. With the evacuation of Americans, Villalobos stood by, keeping watch on the scene with her guns cleared for action.
Ordered downriver to guard the American-owned Socony-Vacuum oil company's installation, Villalobos joined British gunboats HMS Teal and HMS Scarab in an uneventful watch. Relieved by Palos on 27 May, Villalobos departed Hankow and the middle-river area and sailed for Shanghai with the orders: "If fired upon, and source can be located, return and silence fire with suitable battery."
Meanwhile, while Villalobos and her ex-Spanish sisters were completing their tours on the Yangtze, six new gunboats were being built especially for Yangtze duty. The Secretary of the Navy's report for 1927 stated that Villalobos was in bad condition as regarding both hull and machinery and had little sale value. Thus, on 29 December 1927, President Calvin Coolidge authorized the destruction of Villalobos by gunfire; and the gunboat was placed out of commission on 29 May 1928. Struck from the Navy list on 4 October, the venerable gunboat was towed to sea and sunk in experimental destroyer gunnery exercises off the China coast on 9 October 1928.
The gunboat Villalobos in Chinese waters, about 1910. (NH 48493)