When Commodore George Dewey's Asiatic Squadron sailed into Manila Bay on May 1, 1898 to defeat the Spanish fleet, it marked a major turning point in American history. Aboard Dewey's flagship, Olympia, one very young sailor with a keen eye and agile pen was writing it all down.
Having run away from home to join the navy in 1895, Jack Tisdale hoped that he would be lucky enough to land a berth aboard the Olympia—a modern steel protected cruiser and flagship of the US Asiatic Squadron. He ended up getting his wish, and a lot more than he bargained for.
Originally published in 1908—a decade after the events described—Three Years Behind the Gunsis an amusing, gritty look at life aboard a man-o'-war at a time when the United States was on the cusp of becoming a great power. Though a memoir, the author writes with all the youthful exuberence of the age, describing his experiences with good humor and verve, even when they stretch the bounds of credulity. There are literal fish-stories here, such as when Jack captures a two-foot long flying fish on the deck, or when his shipmate nearly loses a toe while doing some illicit angling. But there are also descriptions of more somber events, such as the death of a shipmate during gunnery practice, or the midnight wreck of a Chinese steamer. Stories of his adventures at various ports of call are myriad, crowned by his unique perspective on the Battle of Manila Bay as a member of the crew of Olympia's main guns.
Tisdale's ship, USS Olympia, still exists to this day as a museum in Philadelphia, PA, where visitors may see how the decorative wood paneling and furniture in the officers quarters contrasts sharply with the painted steel and spartan decks of her crew quarters and engineering spaces. Like the ship, Three Years Behind the Guns is a hybrid—part solid fact, part work of art. Such beautiful mementos of our bygone history deserve to be maintained if for no other reason than as concrete reminders of how we got here.