Medical Aspects of the Battle of Manila Bay

1 May marked the 102nd year of the Battle of Manila Bay (or Cavite), the opening shots of the Spanish-American War. Commodore George Dewey brought his fleet up from Hong Kong, under orders to aggressively pursue the Spanish fleet at Manila. This he did, and in a short battle on 1 May 1898, Dewey’s fleet overwhelmed the undergunned and poorly prepared Spanish.

Thanks mostly to poor Spanish gunnery, American casualties were few. The two deaths were both of non-combat causes. One was a heart attack brought on by the excitement of incipient battle. The other, sadly, was the Commanding Officer of Dewey’s flagship, USS Olympia, Captain Charles F Gridley. Gridley, ill even before the battle, suffered a quick decline afterward; he died en route to the United States, presumably of liver cancer, a month later. Only seven U S sailors were injured; almost all were able to return to duty immediately after receiving first aid type treatment, and none were left with permanent disability.

The Spanish, on the other hand, suffered grievously. At the end, 167 died, while 214 survived their injuries.

Assistant Surgeon Kindleberger, aboard Olympia, wrote in a contemporary narrative report (excerpted):

“As junior medical officer on the Olympia my station in battle was in the sick-bay situated forward on the berth-deck beneath the eight-inch turret, and close to the forward ammunition-hoist. Before we left Mirs Bay [Hong Kong] the men had been instructed in the application of tourniquets and first aid to the injured. At the same time bandages and tourniquets were distributed to each division. All were instructed to have their hair clipped short, and most of the officers and men complied. This was for better endurance of the fierce heat and to facilitate the dressing of scalp wounds.

“Instructions were also given in the art of carrying the wounded both by bearers and on stretchers, and orders were passed that all sick and wounded were to be brought at once to the sick-bay or the medical station aft. In charge of the forward bay was the senior medical officer, Dr. Price, assisted by myself, two baymen, and the apothecary. Aft was the senior assistant medical officer and Chaplain Frazier. About 6 P. M. we began to prepare the sick-bay for the coming battle. The battle ports were closed and a canvas screen placed around all the sides and on the inboard partitions to protect the surgeons and the wounded from splinters. Our instruments were laid out readv for operations; antiseptic solutions, ligatures, tourniquets, stimulants, anesthetics, etc., were placed on a table close by; and the operating-table was in position to receive patients.”

and later,

“At noon the day after the battle the Spanish evacuated Cavite. I was sent ashore to bury eight Spaniards, and landed at the hospital on the point near Cavite. I went through all its wards. The sight was terrible. It is a good hospital, with detached wards in little pavilions grouped about the central buildings. Everything was in good order and cleanly. I conversed with several of the doctors in French, as I do not speak Spanish and they had no English at command. They were extremely courteous, but to my question, “How many Spanish were killed and wounded? ” they replied sadly that they did not know. In the wards I saw over eighty wounded. The horrors of war were seen at their worst. Some of the men were fearfully burned, some with limbs freshly amputated, others with their eyes shot out, their features torn away by steel or splinters-every kind of injury that surgery records. The shrieks and groans of the wounded were appalling. I could not stay to hear them, though my profession is calculated to harden one against such scenes. Had I been working, I should have endured it, but as an onlooker it was unbearable. We had received urgent messages from these doctors saying for God’s sake to send Americans to guard the hospital against the insurgents, who, they feared, would murder them and their patients. We had posted guards as soon as possible, but not before the insurgents had robbed them of all the clothing not on their backs and all their food except enough for twelve hours…

“I shall not forget the burial of the eight men for whose interment I had been despatched with a line officer and party. We came upon them lying on a little porch behind a small hospital in the Cavite navy-yard. The bodies were mangled and ghastly. A leg was missing from one, the back of the head of another, the wall of the abdomen from a third. Those who were not instantly killed must have died soon after receipt of their injuries. Evidently they had been laid where we found them and then deserted. Shells had wrought the fearful havoc. Although dead but a few hours, the corpses were in an advanced stage of decomposition, owing to the climatic conditions. We dug a trench, covered the bodies with quicklime, and consigned them to the earth. The hospital inmates at Cavite were afterward sent to Manila under the Geneva cross in a captured steamer.”

Thanks to www.spanamwar.com; the quotes are from a Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine article cited in that website.

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