The Concrete Battleship
Fort Drum guarded Manila Bay
This story originally appeared on Oct. 21, 2014.
Throughout history, coastal fortifications have guarded strategic seaports. And until recently, forts easily outgunned ships. Hence legendary British admiral Horatio Nelson’s quip—“A ship’s a fool to fight a fort.”
But you don’t have to fight a fort when you can just cut it off.
Arguably the greatest coastal fort ever was America’s Fort Drum, which guarded Manila Bay in The Philippines until Japanese forces surrounded it in May 1942.
Fort Drum had its origins in an earlier war—the now-obscure conflict between America and Spain in 1898. The Philippines was a Spanish colony at the time. On May 1 of that year, a U.S. Navy squadron infiltrated Manila Bay, sank or crippled the Spanish fleet and captured the archipelago.
U.S. military engineers made note of of Manila Bay’s weak coastal defenses and drew up plans to fortify America’s new colonial outpost in Asia.
A decade after the war, Lt. John Kingman of the Army Corps of Engineers recommended building a new fort built midway between the islands of Corregidor and Carabao near the mouth of the bay.
In a report dated July 18, 1908, Kingman proposed constructing a stout concrete blockhouse and gun platform and equipping it with two giant battleship turrets.
Between 1909 and 1913, engineers encased the existing rocky nub of El Fraile Island in enough concrete to erect a large, vaguely ship-shaped bastion. Fort Drum’s barracks, ammunition magazines and utility spaces lay inside concrete walls up to 36 feet thick.
Above—testing of Fort Drum’s guns in New Jersey. Photo via Wikipedia. At top—Fort Drum during its heyday. Keystone photo
The fort’s 20-foot-thick upper deck mounted four 14-inch M1909 coastal artillery rifles in two armored turrets. Each gun could lob a one-ton shell more than five miles. Four more six-inch guns sprouted from armored casements on either side of the fort. Several mobile anti-aircraft guns completed the island’s armament.
For detection and targeting, Fort Drum received a sighting mast of the kind you normally saw on World War I battleships. The 60-foot-tall latticework mast mounted searchlights and observation decks as well as radio antennas—and reinforced the fort’s ship-like appearance.
To withstand a siege, Fort Drum was to have primary and backup generators water tanks and a secure water well. Alas, the fort never received all the upgrades. Like many forts throughout history, Fort Drum finally fell when the enemy severed its connection to the mainland.
The “concrete battleship” went active in 1913.
The apparently over-engineered fort became an improbable overseas duty station for Army soldiers in the 1920s and 1930s. Serving on Fort Drum was very much like crewing a giant battleship that went nowhere.
Old photos capture the daily life on the fort. Soldiers labor with gigantic artillery rounds like railroad workers fitting axles. Clouds of cordite and fire billow from a test firing from Battery Wilson, one of the 14-inch turrets. When not working in the bunkers below, the fort’s 240-man crew spends most of its time in large wooden barracks on the roof.
All that changed in December 1941. Japan invaded The Philippines and Manila Bay came under heavy attack. Japanese aircraft bombed the U.S. Asiatic Fleet’s base at Subic Bay and sank several ships and submarines. American and Philippine troops retreated to Corregidor in advance of the Japanese onslaught.
The concrete battleship became the first American coastal artillery to open fire during World War II. By early February 1942, the island fortresses in Manila Bay were the only Philippine territory U.S. forces still held. Japanese 150-millimeter and 240-millimeter siege guns delivered a terrific pounding, but Fort Drum continued firing back, sinking several Japanese troop barges. None of the fort’s crewmen died during the siege.
But cut off from water, ammo and supplies, Fort Drum could not hold out forever. On May 6, 1942, Corregidor’s American defenders surrendered.
Fort Drum in modern times. Photo via Militaryphotos.net
The concrete battleship proved its toughness when the Americans returned in 1945 to liberate the archipelago. Japanese troops held out inside the fort despite a brutal naval and air bombardment.
American combat engineers poured diesel fuel and gasoline into the ventilators and fired tracer rounds to ignite it. The fire burned for days. There were no survivors.
Today Fort Drum’s pockmarked remains still stand guard over Manila Bay. Scrappers have stripped away much of the remaining metal, allowing whole floors to collapse in some places. But the huge armored turrets and 14-inch guns still squat in their fixtures, too heavy to loot.