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Naval History and Heritage Command

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(Gunboat No. 4: displacement 173 tons; length 100’ (waterline); beam 17’6”; draft 6’9”; engine 125 horsepower, twin screws; speed 8 knots; complement 2 officers, 27 men; armament 1 6-pounder, 2 1-pounders, 2 machine guns)

The Navy retained the name that the ship carried at the time of her acquisition.

Albay, a small gunboat laid down in 1885 at Cavite, Luzon (some sources indicate that she was constructed at Shanghai by the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Co.) for the Spanish colonial government of the Philippines and completed in 1886, operated in Philippine waters under Spanish command but did not engage U.S. Navy forces during the Spanish-American War. Along with most of the other Spanish gunboats in the Philippines, Albay remained out of harm’s way at Zamboanga, Mindanao.

War broke out around Manila on 4 February 1899 between U.S. forces and armed Filipinos under the command of Emilio Aguinaldo, however, beginning the Philippine Insurrection and making it clear that the Asiatic Squadron would require several shallow draft gunboats to fulfill its responsibilities to support the military government and U.S. Army operations.

Following the treaty that ended the Spanish-American War, the U.S. Army contracted with a commercial agent in the Philippines to negotiate the purchase of the Spanish gunboats and steam launches at Zamboanga. On 2 May 1899, the U.S. War Department purchased three steam launches and ten gunboats, including Albay, for $315,000, and in turn sold them to the Navy at cost. Detached from Baltimore (Cruiser No. 3), Ens. Michael J. McCormack assumed command of the newly commissioned Albay on 21 May 1899.

Capt. Albert S. Barker, who assumed command of the Asiatic Squadron upon the departure of Rear Adm. George Dewey on 20 May 1899, acted swiftly to organize the squadron to fulfill its mission to take control of inter-island trade and prevent arms and goods from reaching the insurgents. On 26 May, he ordered the newly purchased gunboats to be assigned to parent ships from which they would draw food, fuel, armaments, and other supplies. Often, the larger ships would supply the commanding officer and some of the crew of the small gunboats. Barker ordered Albay to join Yorktown (Gunboat No.1), her parent ship, at Ilo Ilo where Ens.William H. Standley, who had been commended by Comdr. Charles S. Sperry, his commanding officer, for his outstanding work reconnoitering an insurgent camp at Baler, Luzon, the previous April, relieved McCormack on 1 June.

Comdr. Sperry dispatched Albay and the gunboat Samar to break up the illicit traffic between Cebu, Panay, and Negros. Acting on intelligence provided by the Army, the little warships also worked to prevent insurgents from crossing to Negros from Luzon to incite further rebellion, and proved active in intercepting Filipino small craft. Sperry expressed his satisfaction with their efforts.

By August 1899, Yorktown had returned to Luzon to assist U.S. Army forces driving up the west coast, and Albay patrolled the west side of Manila Bay. Ens. Edward Watson now commanded the gunboat, and his reports recount the interception of numerous small boats attempting to carry food and tobacco to the villages on the Bataan Peninsula, considered to be a hotbed of the insurgency. Although the cargos confiscated proved of little value, the strict blockade drove home the American command’s position that support for the insurgents would not be tolerated. The complaints that reached the U.S. headquarters in Manila testified to the effectiveness of the gunboats’ work.

Near the end of August 1899, Rear Adm. John C. Watson, the new commander of the Asiatic Squadron, ordered Yorktown to relieve Castine (Gunboat No. 6) operating off Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago. The Moro sultans of that region happily accepted U.S. sovereignty at that point, because it supported their own authority in an area plagued by bandits and independent-minded tribesmen. Furthermore, the British Chief Commissioner at Sandakan, Alexander Cook, strongly recommended that American forces be sent to the southern islands immediately to fill the vacuum created by the departure of Spanish garrisons at Zamboanga and Jolo, lest unlawful elements of Moro society take advantage of the situation. Cook’s familiarity with the islands of the Sulu archipelago reflected the British maintenance of strong commercial ties to the southern Philippines.

Comdr. Sperry sent Albay, now under the command of Ens. Daniel W. Wurtsbaugh, to patrol the waters of the Sulu archipelago and establish a U.S. presence in the region until the Army could free troops to establish garrisons at the islands’ most important towns. Stopping at Jolo on 15 October 1899, Wurtsbaugh proceeded to Sandakan to receive information and letters of introduction from Chief Commissioner Cook. For the next two months, Albay cruised the waters of the Sulu archipelago to establish relationships with the Moro sultans and extend U.S. authority.

With orders from Comdr. Sperry to raise the U.S. flag on the island of Sibutu, Wurtsbaugh left Zamboanga on 16 December 1899, arriving at Sandakan two days later to pick up a pilot and interpreter. Albay arrived at Sibutu on 20 December and Wurtsbaugh sent a boat under the command of Ens. Harry E. Yarnell to met the local datos and bring them back to the ship when they were told that the U.S. flag would be raised at the local village at noon the following day. The datos were elated and promised to provide the pole and assemble their people including several minor datos. Ens. Yarnell led the party ashore the following day and found a forty-foot pole ready for him to hoist the flag. Upon raising the Stars and Stripes, Albay fired a twenty-one gun salute.

In 1900 the Philippine Islands had been divided into four cruising stations for the Navy’s gunboats. These were (1) Luzon, (2) Panay, Mindoro, Palawan, and Occidental Negros, (3) the Sulu group and southern Mindanao, and (4) the Visayas group consisting of Cebu, Samar, Leyte, Bohol, Oriental Negros, and northern Mindanao. Ens. Dudley W. Knox commanded Albay by the end of January 1900 and continued to patrol in the Moro country of Cruising Station Three.

In command of a crew of one naval cadet, fourteen enlisted men, two Chinese mess attendants, seven Filipino crewmen, and a Filipino pilot, Knox got underway early on 2 February to cruise in the vicinity of the Army garrison at Cotabato on the Mindanao River. The problems Albay experienced in running aground in the next couple of days were emblematic of those encountered by even the shallow-draft gunboats expected to patrol poorly charted waterways usually served by native canoe-like craft.

Steaming several miles upriver to meet an Army garrison, the gunboat grounded on a sand bar just as it arrived at her destination.  Knox was able to float the vessel without much trouble, and he was able to continue his mission in meeting the native chieftain and Army officers stationed there.  Albay grounded again on leaving, and this time the gunboat was firmly lodged in the mud.  The native chieftain came on board the U.S. vessel at 7:00 a.m. and offered the services of his villagers and a four-inch hawser. It took four hours of arduous work, and the line eventually broke, but the joint efforts of the Moros and the U.S. crew freed the gunboat.  Albay grounded yet once more on a bar off the town of Cotabato.

During the next few years, the small gunboat was intermittently in and out of commission as she performed patrol duty and helped to survey rivers and bays in the islands. She also served at Cavite as a ferry.

Placed out of commission at Cavite on 13 February 1904, Albay was still laid up there when her name was stricken from the Navy list on 11 February 1905.  She was sold on 8 June 1906 to Messrs. Grant and Co., of Manila.

Courtney Frey and Mark L. Evans

Published: Mon Jun 15 06:31:32 EDT 2015