Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Chief Boatswain Ernst Heilmann to Lieutenant Commander Clifford H. Roper

[Norfolk, Va., Feb. 4, 1930]

A Memory Sketch

                   As we are nearing the 32nd Anniversary of the battle of Manila Bay, there are no doubt a number of officers and men still about, who had the honor of sharing in Admiral Dewey’s1 victory, and whose minds are at this period turning back the book of time to review once more those history making events.

     In close relation to those days there must still rest in those minds a desire to know something more of the presence and conduct of Admiral von Diederichs2 squadron in Manila Bay.

     As a member of von Diederichs squadron at that time, I am supposed to know something about this, but if the Admiral himself knew, he certainly had taken good care that nobody else should know, in fact we of the crew never learned what was behind it all, and never gave it a second thought. Not even the customary rumors which always circulate through a ship’s company gave any indication what the squadrons purpose was at that time.3

     On the other hand we knew that it must have been a great source of annoyance to Admiral Dewey and in that respect experienced a more or less guilty feeling.4

     In my opinion the whole affair was a political blunder which has never been explained.

     The nearest explanation which I myself got was from an article I read about twenty years ago in one of the leading American magazines, (I don’t remember which one) in short, this article quoted words similar to this: At an audience between the Kaiser and the American Embassador the latter had hinted the United States were not inclined to take on any foreign territory, and that it would not be amiss to have a few ships around.5

     Speaking from a sailormens viewpoint I must say that von Diederichs squadron was certainly not prepared to meet a sudden emergency for the following reason: It was the custom in the german Navy to relieve the ships companies belonging to the Asiatic fleet every two years.

     For this purpose a North German Lloyd, or Hamburg American Line steamer was generally chartered to act as transport.

     In most cases, as it was on the ship to which I was detailed, the entire ships company, including half the officers were exchanged.

     This of course was not considered a good policy, but the argument was in favor of that practice, because it was said, that in the long run, this would tend to make a more efficient and happier ships company.

     Although no time was wasted to whip the crew into shape, it was never the less a very critical period, and especially so in case of an unexpected emergency.

     This was exactly the condition von Diederichs squadron was in, when speculation where rife in Dewey’s ships, what the next move would be.

          It must be remembered that with the exception of the petty officers, these men were mostly all recruits from the land population, with a sprinkling of men from the fishing fleets and merchant marine, conscripted for compulsory service.

     I do not remember the dates, but on or about the time of Dewey’s victory, the transport Darmstadt with relief crews on board was standing in to Singapore, with its final destination Tsingtao, where German ships, under command of Prince Henry of Prussia6 were to be assembled for this periodical exchange of men.

     I was one of the transports, and belonging to the Irene draft.7

     While on shore leave in Singapore we had not yet heard of the battle of Manila Bay.

     Eighter it had not yet happened or it was due to the obsolete communications of those days, but our destination was suddenly changed and in place of going to Tsingtao, we were heading for Manila, where upon our arrival von Diedrichs squadron was already anchored off the city.

     It was not until then that we on the transport learned of the battle.

     I remember as we steamed up the Bay all eyes were directed towards Cavite where the victorious American ships where anchored and further inshore could be seen all that was left of the Spanish Armada, partly submerged, and laying on their beam ends.

     The atmosphere of battle was still in the air, and could be felt by all who looked upon that scene. 

     We anchored in close proximity to our own ships, and immediately started the transfer by means of lighters.

     The Irene, to which I was attached, was a cruiser of about 3000 tons, similar in shape to the Albany or New Orleans.

     She was commanded by Captain Oppenheim8 and her armament consisted of six 15 centimeter and six guns of smaller caliber, three torpedo tubes, two on deck and one in the bow, and a number of machine guns, located in the fighting tops and bridge.

     The exchange of crew being completed now followed days of relentless activity in the squadron, and in order to make everything ship shape quickly, we had drills morning, noon and night, after which we settled down to a more regular routine.

     My regular station was capt. of a machine gun, but due to my knowledge of the english language, I was right from the first day selected as the ships orderly. It was my duty to carry all dispatches including the mail, and other correspondence between ships and stations.

     In this capacity I was the only member of the crew that was permitted to communicate with the shore during hostilities, because I had to report to the Consulate daily and sometime more if necessary.

     On my first trip ashore Manila was still occupied by the Spaniards, and seemed to be very much overcrowded due to the Spanish population from the outlaying districts having been driven into the city by the Insurgents.

     The soldiers were many without shoes and other equipment but everything seemed quiet and orderly enough, until at a later date when the Monterey left her anchorage at Cavite and steamed toward Manila where she commenced bombarding the city fortifications with her 13 guns, which cause quite a stir and commotion among the population.9

     I believe it was at this time that the Spanish Governor sought refuge on the Kaiserin Augusta, who carried him away to Hong Kong.10

     In the mean time the Bay assumed a lively aspect, American transports loaded with troops arrived almost daily, so that immediately after the capitulation these troops took possession of the city, to the great disappointment of the Insurgents who were all primed to move in themselves, but were promptly kept out.

     In the course of time provisions were hard to get especially fresh beef, so that the old salt horse11 became almost a daily item on our menu.

     But one day we received the surprise of our lives. The british steamer Angola had arrived on the scene with a load of Australian beef and mutton, which Admiral Dewey had bought outright, ship and cargo, and in his great generosity had offered to von Diedrichs the privilege to draw from his supply.

     This kind offer made the deepest impression among the crew, and I am sure we were all truly thankful, because this was the finest beef we ever tasted, and was greatly appreciated by all hands.

     Up to this time the Irene had not moved from her berth, where also close by a few merchant steamers were anchored, that were chartered by von Diederichs as a refuge for the german population ashore in case of need.

     Naturally speculation went high one day when orders were given to get under way the next morning, destination un known, but as it turned out, we went to Subig Bay.12

     Entering the Bay about noon, and nearing Grandy Island,13 frantic signals could be seen on the beach which indicated that communication was desired, and coming to anchor a cutter was lowered in which an officer proceeded to the shore for the purpose.

     In connection with my duties as orderly I stood aft and near the Captain when the officer returned and reported that after continuous attack by the Insurgents, the little garrison of Olongapo had been compelled to retreat to the Island, where they were making their last stand, nearly destitute of any means to sustain life, and badly in need of medical aid.

     The Spanish Commandant requested that the Captain take on board the women and children, including some severely wounded soldiers, and a number of priests.

     The Captain stood a while in mediation and then commanded the officer to return with the following message: Present my compliments to the Spanish Commandant, and tell him that I will return in the morning and comply with his wishes, with the exception, that only one priest for the attendance of the refugees will be received on board.

     The message being delivered we now got under way again and proceeded up the Bay, when shortly, under the lee of the Island a merchant steamer was sighted, with the Insurgent flag flying from the gaff, apparently heading for that place with intention to attack.

     This was evidently a pecurial situation, the Insurgent flag being without recognition.

     However, the steamers stopped and sent a boarding officer, but when the boat sheered alongside he was not permitted to come on board, but pointing to his flag was reminded that it was not recognized on the high seas, and was therefore requested to haul it down, and this is what happened after the officer had returned to his ship.

     I am unable to form an opinion what the Captain had in mind to do, had the steamer decided to ignore his request.

     Under the circumstances it was no doubt a ticklish business, but I am convinced that this interference was the salvation of the little garrison on Grande Island.14

     We now steamed farther up the Bay towards Subig, where we anchored for the night.

     In the mean time, and as a subsequent procedure of the next day proved, the Insurgent steamer had slipped out after dark to Cavite, and reported to Admiral Dewey that the Irene was giving aid to the Spaniards in Subig Bay.

     The following morning, true to his promise, the Captain anchored again off Grande Island, where the transfer of the Spanish noncombatants was put in effect.15

     Getting under way again we stood out of the Bay bound for Manila, and now we also realized the Insurgents visit to Cavite, for as we left the Bay about noon, we sighted the Raleigh and Concord standing in, subsequently passing us to starboard, and fairly close to, but as we both met near the entrance, the one coming and the other going, there was no display of any sign of outward curiosity, both held their course and passed silently on.16

     When the two ships were first sighted I saw a rather puzzled look on the Captains face, it was evidently his intention to transfer his passengers quietly, and without publicity from that quarter.

     At this stage, the women and priest were sitting on the poop deck, while the children were running about now on the poop and now on the forecastle, I heard the Executive ask the Captain: Would it not be better if we send all the Spaniards below deck until the ships had passed? To which the Captain, after a short silence replied: No, I will be responsible for this.

     I do not think this trip was pre-arranged other than to give the new crew a chance to break in under way, and what happened was altogether unexpected by anyone.

     Coming to anchor again at our old berth, the Spaniards were immediately transferred to one of the refugee steamers.

     I believe that this trip of the Irene to Subig Bay caused more suspicious speculation in the American squadron in regard to the conduct of von Diederichs ships, than anything else I know of.

     For the remainder of our stay in Philippine waters, only three short cruises were undertaken, two to Ilo Ilo, and the last to Marevelles Bay for the purpose of coaling ship.17

     We first went to Ilo Ilo in the fall, which I believe was more for the purpose of taking on fresh water, and some live cattle which the Paymaster bought on the opposite side of town.

     It may be interesting to know how we went about to get this. For the transportation of the water, the sailing launch was cleared of all gear, and a large canvas bag which was made for that purpose, and resembling a huge water monkey, was placed inside.

     We then towed the launch as near to the beach as her draft would permit, and by means of a great number of bamboo piping conducted the water from a little brook to the boat, which was then pumped on board with a hand billy.18 It was a slow process which only netted two load per day.

     To secure the cattle was a far more exciting and novel diversion to which I always volunteered because it was so much fun. We would go out in the hills and woods with the owner of the cattle, where they were grazing.

     The Paymaster would select the number he wanted and strike a bargain on the spot.

     This done, the owner was released of any further obligation and it was now up to us to get them on board any way we could.

     This was easier said than done, because these cattle were a wild lot and in no way inclined to make beef for sailors.

     After a number of skirmishes through the bushes we would succeed to chase them one by one down in the water where the sailing launch was anchored, we would now surround and overpower them bodily, heave them in the launch and sit on them until securely tied, we would hoist them out by a strap around the horns.

     At this period the town was still defended by the Spaniards, who almost every night had to repell the attacks of the Insurgents.

     No American ships had made their appearance there until much later, and that on our second visit.

     I am not sure anymore, but I believe it was on Christmas Eve of 98 that the Spaniards finally evacuated Ilo Ilo and sailed for home. . . .

Source Note: DS, DNA, RG 45, Entry 464. This document is attached to a letter from Heilmann indicating that the information he provided was originally requested by Lt. Cmdr. Clifford H. Roper and Capt. Byron McCandless. The date and place are taken from that letter. Heilmann initially served in the Imperial German Navy before he immigrated to the United States and joined the United States Navy before World War I.

Footnote 1: RAdm. George Dewey, Commander, Asiatic Squadron.

Footnote 2: Vice Adm. Ernst Otton von Diederichs.

Footnote 3: According to an article written by von Diederichs, two ships from the German Asiatic Squadron, the Cormoran and Irene, were dispatched to Manila to protect German interests and citizens in the city if they were in imminent danger. In actuality, von Diedrichs was ordered to bring a fleet to Manila for the purpose of investigating the possibility of Germany acquiring territory in the event the United States decided not to annex the Philippines. Karl-Heinz Wionzek, ed., Thomas Clark, trans., Germany the Philippines and the Spanish-American War: Four Accounts by Officers of the Imperial German Navy (Manila: National Historical Institute, 2000), 1; and Trask, War With Spain, 379.

Footnote 4: RAdm. Dewey complained in his autobiography that German officers frequently made contact with Spanish officers and officials on land. He was also annoyed by German warship making unannounced trips through the blockade, sometimes at night. The combination of these acts, the daily drilling of German sailors, and a German fleet larger than his own, created considerable suspicion. Dewey, Autobiography, 262-267.

Footnote 5: The diplomatic exchange referred to was a conversation on 14 May, between the American Ambassador to Great Britain, John Hay, and the German Ambassador to Great Britain, Count Melchior Gustav, Graf von Hatzfeldt zu Trachenberg. Von Hatzfedlt suggested to Hay that if the United States was amenable, Germany wished to acquire a coaling station in the Philippine or Caroline Islands in the event of American annexation. Trask, War with Spain, 378-79. Kaiser Wilhelm II was not present at this exchange.

Footnote 6: Adm. Prinz Albert Wilhelm Heinrich von Preußen. Germany had recently invaded Tsingtao in retaliation for the murder of German missionaries by Chinese nationals. See: Dewey to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, 1 February 1898.

Footnote 7: That is, one of the conscripts that came out on the transport Darmstadt.

Footnote 8: Capt. Ernst Obenheimer.

Footnote 9: Heilmann was probably referring to the 13 August, bombardment of Manila, however, the only ships that were engaged were Olympia, Raleigh, Petrel, Callao, and Barcelo. The Monterey was positioned with its gun facing the city, but never fired. See: Dewey to Secretary of the Navy John D. Long, 18 August 1898; and Trask, War with Spain, 417.

Footnote 10: Governor General Basilio Augustín y Dávila was removed from his position on 4 August, by the Spanish government to prevent his surrendering Manila to the United States. Encyclopedia of the Spanish-American War, 34. Kaiserin Augusta was a German Navy cruiser.

Footnote 11: The “old salt horse” was salt pork or salt beef and was a standard part of a sailor’s rations in the 1800’s.

Footnote 12: That is, Subic Bay.

Footnote 13: Isla Grande.

Footnote 14: Capt. Lt. Freiderich Pohl, the navigation officer on Irene, reported that the ship was initially sent to Subic Bay on 5 July 1898, to investigate rumors of two German businessmen who might have been trapped behind insurgent lines and to determine if the bay was suitable as a typhoon shelter. Irene was hailed by members of a Spanish garrison that had retreated to Isla Grande and were besieged by insurgents from their former garrison town at Olongapo. The Spanish hoped Irene might take some of the women, children, and wounded to refugee ships in Manila, Capt. Obenheimer agreed. While anchored off Isla Grande, Irene was then approached by the Companie de Filipina, a ship captured by Filipino insurgents out of Olongapo, and flying the flag of Emilio Aguinaldo’s insurgent government.  Insurgents on the Filipina informed Obenheimer that they intended to capture Isla Grande, but ceased their attempt when Obenheimer refused to recognize the Filipino flag and stated that he would not allow them to attack the Island with women and children there. The insurgents replaced the Filipino flag with a white flag and returned to Olongapo.

 That afternoon officers from Irene visited the docking facilities at Olongapo and were received by insurgent leaders. That evening the Filipina steamed to Manila where it reported that Irene was interfering with attempts to capture the Spanish garrison. The next morning, German officers inspected captured Spanish prisoners, deemed the camps to be acceptable, and, as agreed, stopped at Isla Grande to pick up the wounded and civilian Spanish. On the way out of Subic Bay, Irene passed Raleigh and Concord, on their way to capture Isla Grande. Karl-Heinz Wionzek, ed., Germany the Philippines and the Spanish-American War, 43-45.

Footnote 15: According to Capt. Lt. Friederich Pohls account, Irene took on board 1 priest, 1 wounded Spanish soldiers, 10 women and 20 children. Ibid, 44.

Footnote 16: For a description of the capture of the garrison on Isla Grande by the Raleigh and Concord, see: Capt. Joseph B. Coughlan to Dewey, 16 July 1898.

Footnote 17: That is, Iloilo City and Miravalles Bay.

Footnote 18: A “Handy Billy,” was a water pump.

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