The Mosquito Fleet

Gunboat firing at shore positions c1900

    Other than winning the Battle of Manila Bay, the deep-draft, blue water ships of the US Navy's Asiatic Squadron proved of limited use in the Philippine Islands except for 1,000 ton class or below gunboats, such as the USS Castine, and USS Lexington, which proved invaluable in patrolling the Sulu Sea for gunrunners. But the real need was for small, fast, shallow draft vessels (less than seven feet) and well below 500 tons displacement to cope with the reef-encircled islands and shallow, muddy rivers, and the US Navy was deficient in this regard. Through purchase, capture, and stripping the blue water Navy of many of its gigs and launches, the Army and the Navy soon assembled a hodgepodge of small steam-powered vessels, from elegant yachts to beat-up Chinese-style junks, and armed them to the teeth with small cannon, machineguns, and Gatling guns. Collectively, they were referred to as "the Mosquito Fleet", even though they almost never operated as a combined fleet and usually cruised solo.

USS Pampanga Gunboat No. 39

Launched 1887. Displacement 243 tons; Length 121'; Beam 17' 10"; Draft 7' 6"; Speed 10 knots.; Complement 30; Armament one 6-pounder, three 3-pounders and two 1-pounders; Propulsion one single ended boiler, one 250 ihp vertical compound engine, one shaft. Sunk as a target ship, 21 November 1928 off the China coast. She figured prominently in the hunt for Datu Ali and provided a crucial shore party together with two dismounted Colt Automatic machineguns at the Battle of Bud Dajo. (Photo from Naval History and Heritage Command)

    In early 1899 the remainder of the Spanish Navy not destroyed or captured nine months earlier during the Battle of Manila Bay was in desperate straits. Their war was over yet they had been all but abandoned by their government and left to fend for themselves at their lone remaining naval base on the island of Basilan in the Sulu Archipelago. They had a few decrepit but still ocean-going seaworthy transports which could get them back to Spain, but no money for coal or provisions. However, they did have a flotilla of ten small gunboats and three steam launches, all fully equipped with modern armaments. Well-made by reputable builders, they were Yacht-like in design, appearance, and comfort (most had electricity, hot water showers, and small state rooms). In March, 1899, the Spanish Navy advertised them for sale in a Manila newspaper - to the highest bidder but for gold coin only.

     The advertisement jarred General Otis's staff, fearing the Philippine Revolutionary Government would scoop them up and use the vessels against the Americans. In order to avoid the lengthy process of going through channels, Otis hastily cut a deal with a syndicate of wealthy Filipinos to make an attractive all-or-nothing cash offer, bring the vessels to Manila, to be purchased by the Army at a generous profit to the investors.  A syndicate agent left post haste for the south and quickly cut a deal. The boats were moved by skeleton crews to Zamboanga to rendezvous with a US Navy gunboat escort steaming down from Manila. But before the gunboat could arrive a large band of Filipino "insurrectos" boarded the vessels and carried off more than half of their weaponry and all of their small arms. Fortunately for the Americans, the vessels were left undamaged by the attack, and were later conveyed to the US Navy by the Army. These thirteen vessels, plus a half-dozen other captured or purchased from the Spanish, became the core of the Mosquito Fleet.

    Captain Albert Barker of the USS Oregon, Admiral Dewey's temporary replacement, immediately grasped the potential value of maneuverable, shallow draft (less than seven feet) vessels in the poorly-charted waters of the islands that were proving deadly to the large, deep draught blue-water ships of the Asiatic Squadron. Barker amply re-equipped and outfitted the little boats, including rifles, machine guns, and even cutlasses for shore parties, stripping his command of some of his most promising junior officers and veteran seamen to man the small boats. More than half of the boats were sent back south, as U.S. Marines took over the abandoned Spanish naval base at the port of Isabella on Basilan Island. Their primary mission was to intercept gunrunners and other contraband transiting the Sulu Sea, what the British had termed "the back door to the Philippines", and to suppress piracy. However, they were also to make themselves available to assist Army commanders in ground operations through shore fire, troop transport, and furnishing naval shore parties armed with light cannon and/or machine guns. Each sailor was armed with a Krag .30-.40 rifle, a .38 revolver, and an 1860 model cutlass. The small boats played an invaluable supporting role in the Moro Campaigns.

The former Spanish, and then US Navy, base at Puerto Isabella, Basilan Island

The Navy Hospital and quarantine at Puerto Isabella

USS Samar, sister ship of the Pampanga, Gunboat No. 41

USS Paragua, sister ship to the Pampanga and Samar

Sister ships USS Quiros, PG-40 (above) and USS Villalobos, PG-42  (below)

    At 350 tons, the two were the largest of the gunboats of the Mosquito Fleet. Length 148 and 145 feet respectively, 7'6" draft, twin screw with 11 knot top speed. The Quiros carried two 6-pdr, and two 3 pdr, while the Villalobos carried four 3 pdr and two 1 pdr cannon. Both ships served on the Yangtse River in China fo;;owing service in the Philippines. (Photos from Naval History and Heritage Command). 


  Ensign Chester Nimitz c1907                                  US Navy longboat ferrying passengers

    Unfortunately no photographs have apparently survived of two of the smallest gunboats, the USS Mariveles and the USS Panay. Neither have photos surfaced of their two sister ships, the USS Calamianes and the USS Albay.  Each boat were the first commands and launched the careers of two very important Admirals in World War II. Admiral William D. Leahy who was the Chief of Staff of the US Navy throughout World War II commanded the Mariveles in 1901. Admiral Chester Nimitz, who commanded the entire Pacific Fleet, commanded the Panay in 1907.  Both vessels were part of the Army purchase from the Spanish Navy at Basilan. The Mariveles was single screw, 100 feet in length, and 170 tons.  The Panay was twin screw, 95 feet long, and displaced 162 tons. Their designs mirrored that of the larger USS Pampanga and each carried a crew of thirty. This was the first US vessel named Panay. Its larger successor became well-known in naval history when it was sunk on the Yangtse River in 1939 in an unprovoked air attack by the Japanese. The 22-year old Nimitz's second in command was 20-year old, "passed" US Naval Cadet John S. McCain, who commanded the carrier fleet in World War II and was the grandfather of the current Arizona Senator.

    A Navy shore party transporting a dismounted 3 inch gun on board an Army cannon on Jolo Island for use in the siege of cotta Pang-Pang in 1904. (Photo from 14th Cavalry Collection, US Army Military History Institute).