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When the Army built a Battleship


Warship Wednesday, May 6, 2015: The unsinkable battleship of Manila Bay

Click to big up

Click to big up

Here we see the concrete battleship, Fort Drum, as she appeared before 1941. While yes, this is not a ship but a U.S. Army coastal defense fortification, it has all the aspects of a ship above the waterline!

When Dewey swept into Manila Bay in 1898, the battle that his Asiatic Squadron gave the outgunned Spanish fleet was brief and historic– leaving the U.S. with de facto control of the island chain (or at least the Bay) that was made official after the war ended. After the Japanese defeat of the Russian Pacific Fleets (both of them) in 1905– during which a number of the Tsar’s ships took refuge in Manila Bay under the watchful eye of the USN, it became a priority to beef up the defenses around the harbor to keep the Navy there from turning into another Port Arthur.

The island, before 1909

The island, before 1909. If you prefer, you can refer to this as the ‘keel’ of Fort Drum

In the mouth of the Bay was El Fraile Island, a small slip of rock that the Army, in charge of Coastal Defense, decided to place a mine-control battery atop. However, this plan soon changed and the Army, with the Navy’s blessing, went about building their own static battleship.

Under the plan of Lt. John Kingman of the Army Corps of Engineers, the military leveled off El Fraile starting in 1909 and encased the entire island in steel-reinforced concrete with an average depth of 36-feet thick along the walls.


Several stories deep, a fort was constructed that included water cisterns, fuel tanks to run electrical generators, barracks for artillerymen, dining facilities, and storage for enough food to last the defenders months if needed.

Topside Plan

Topside Plan

Engine tank section

Engine tank section. Click to big up

Powder magazines

Powder magazines and “navy-type” electrical passing scuttles. Drum could stock 440 shells for its main batteries. Click to big up

Atop the roof of the structure, which itself was 20-feet thick, were mounted a pair of M1909 turrets that each houses a pair of 14-inch (360mm) guns. Although a Navy-style mount, it was all-Army and contained unique wire-wound guns modified from the standard M1907 big guns mounted in coastal defense forts stateside.

1936-38_ft_drum_-_battery_wilson_and_cage_mast_-_1937_-_While the standard CONUS 14-inchers were “disappearing” mounts, these larger 40-caliber tubes, with their 46-foot length, allowed the 1,209-pound AP shells to fire out to some 22,705-yards. To protect these turrets (named Batteries Marshall and Wilson), they had 16-inches of steel armor on their face, 14 on the sides and rear, and 6 on the roof. Of course, these giant turrets, with their outsized guns, tipped the scales at 1,160-tons or about the weight of a standard destroyer of the era, but hey, it’s not like they were going to sink the island or anything.

For comparison, the huge 16-inch/50 cal Mk.7 mounts on the Iowa-class battleships– commissioned decades after the Army’s concrete fort was built, weighed 1,701-tons but had three larger guns rather than the two the boys in green staffed.

The M1909 mount being tested at Sandy Hook Proving Ground, New Jersey before shipment to the PI. Only two of these mounts were ever constructed and, to the credit of the Army, are both still in existence despite an epic trial by combat.

The M1909 mount was tested at Sandy Hook Proving Ground, New Jersey before shipment to the PI. Only two of these mounts were ever constructed and, to the credit of the Army, are both still in existence despite an epic trial by combat. Click to big up

As befitting a battleship, the fort had a secondary armament of four casemated 6-inch coastal defense guns (dubbed Batteries Roberts and McCrea) as well as an anti-aircraft/small boat defense scheme (Batteries Hoyle and Exeter) of smaller 3-inch guns.

To direct all this a 60-foot high lattice mount (just like those on the latest U.S. battleships) was fitted to the ‘stern’ of the fort that contained fire control spotters (that fed to plotting rooms protected deep inside the facility), as well as 60-inch searchlights, radio and signal facilities to keep in contact with the rest of the harbor defenses.

Finally commissioned in 1913– just in time for World War One, the concrete battleship was named Fort Drum after former Adjutant General of the Army Richard Coulter Drum, who had died in 1909– the year construction began.

The man...

The man…

1936-38_ftdrum_prior_to_'41_copyThe fort was a happy post until December 8, 1941, when, just hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Japanese struck at the Philippines. Largely relegated to providing some far-off gunfire support and exchanging pot shots with Japanese planes until Manila fell, this soon changed.

In December two water-cooled .50 caliber machine guns manned by a 13-man platoon of 3/4 Marines (withdrawn only days before from China), was sent to the concrete battleship to beef up her dated AAA defenses.

They joined the 200~ soldiers, officers, Philippine Scouts, and civilian ordnance-men of the 59th and 60th U.S. Army Coastal Artillery Regiments, commanded by Lt. Col. Lewis S. Kirkpatrick. Later, when Bataan fell, about 20 tank-less soldiers from an armored unit– Company D, 192nd Tank Battalion (formerly Harrodsburg’s 38th Tank Company of the Kentucky National Guard)- managed to escape to Drum and lent their shoulders to the wheel for the last month of the campaign.

As the Japanese had done at Port Arthur in 1904 where they brought in 10-ton Krupp L/10 280mm howitzers from the Home Islands to churn the Russian fortifications to gruel, the Imperial Army shipped new 40-ton Type 45 240 mm howitzers just to batter Fort Drum in March.

Although they peppered the fort’s concrete and knocked out some small guns, Drum kept firing and after April, along with Corregidor and the other harbor forts, became the last piece of real estate owned by the U.S. When the Empire tried to take Corregidor in the end, Drum’s 14-inchers made Swiss cheese of a number of their thin-skinned landing barges, sending many of the Emperor’s best troops to the bottom of the Bay.

On May 6, 1942, some 73 years ago today, when General Wainwright surrendered Corregidor, he included the harbor forts in his order. Although still capable of fighting, the defenders of the fort obeyed orders, smashed their generators, burned their codebooks, spiked their weapons, turned the fire-hoses loose in the interior– paying special attention to the powder rooms, and raised a white flag at noon.

Although the 240~ soldiers and Marines of the garrison did not suffer any deaths in direct combat, their time in Japanese prison camps was by no means easy. A number of their unit, including Kirkpatrick, did not live to see the end of the war. Only one officer, battery commander Capt. Ben E. King, survived. Casualties among the enlisted were likewise horrific.

In the end, they were awarded the Presidential Unit Citation and that of the Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, which the 59th carries to this day (as the 59th Air Defense Artillery Regiment)

While the Japanese occupied the concrete battleship and used it as a coastal defense position for the rest of the war, they never did get the M1909s operable again.

US Army landing on Drum

US Army landing on Drum

Following bombardment by the USS Phoenix (CL-46), on April 13, 1945, the U.S. Army landed on the roof of the once-great fort. They found the Japanese defenders, shut inside its concrete warren under their feet, unwilling to surrender. Therefore, with McArthur’s blessing, a detachment of B Company/13th Engineers, poured 3,000 gallons of diesel/oil slurry down the ventilation shafts and set it off with timed charges as they withdrew.

US engineers and soldiers guarding them, pumping diesel fuel and oil into the innards of Ft. Drum Philippines. Note the 14-inch turret in the background

The fort burned for two weeks and no living Japanese prisoners were taken, only 68 “body remnants” were recovered. These men were sailors and survivors from the ill-fated super battleship Musashi, sent to the bottom just six months prior. So in the end, her final crew were battleship men.

According to an Augus1945 Yank magazine article:

First there was a cloud of smoke rising and seconds later the main explosion came.  Blast after blast ripped the concrete battleship.  Debris was showered into the water throwing up hundred of small geysers.  A large flat object, later identified as the 6-inch concrete slab protecting the powder magazine was blown several hundred feet into the air to fall back on top of the fort, miraculously still unbroken.  Now the GIs and sailors could cheer.  And they did.  As the LSM moved toward Corregidor there were continued explosions.  More smoke and debris.

Two days later, on Sunday, a party went back to try to get into the fort through the lower levels.  Wisps of smoke were still curling through the ventilators and it was obvious that oil was still burning inside.  The visit was called off for that day. On Monday the troops returned again.  this time they were able to make their way down as far as the second level, but again smoke forced them to withdraw.  Eight Japs-dead of suffocation- were found on the first two levels.

Another two days later another landing party returned and explored the whole island.  The bodies of 60 Japs-burned to death-were found in the boiler room on the third level.   The inside of the fort was in shambles.  The walls were blackened with smoke and what installations there were had been blown to pieces or burned.

In actual time of pumping oil and setting fuses, it had taken just over 15 minutes to settle the fate of the “impregnable” concrete fortress.  It had been a successful operation in every way but one:  The souvenir hunting wasn’t very good.

Starboard beam view of the battleship USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62) passing between CORREGIDOR (background) and FORT DRUM as she enters Manila Bay. Date: 3 Jul 1983 Camera Operator: PH2 PAUL SOUTAR ID: DN-SN-83-09891 Click to big up

Starboard beam view of the battleship USS NEW JERSEY (BB-62) passing between CORREGIDOR (background) and FORT DRUM as she enters Manila Bay. Date: 3 Jul 1983 Camera Operator: PH2 PAUL SOUTAR ID: DN-SN-83-09891 Click to big up

Now, abandoned, the unsinkable battleship with its charred interior spaces lies moldering away in Manila Bay.

1329544818334 fort-drum-102

Over the years, it has become a tourist attraction and target for scrap hunters who have carried off every piece of metal smaller than they are.

For more information on Fort Drum, please visit Concrete

As for Gen. Drum himself, he is buried at Arlington Section 3, Site 1776.


Displacement: It is an island
Length: 350 feet
Beam: 144 feet
Draught: nil, but the fort stood 40-feet high and the lattice tower over 100
Propulsion: None, although the fort had numerous generators
Speed: In time with the rotation of the earth
Complement: 200 men of Company E, 59th Coastal Artillery Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. Lewis S. Kirkpatrick (1941-42)
Armament: (as completed)
4xM1909 14-inch guns
4xM1908 6-inch guns
Armor: Up to 36 feet of concrete, with up to 16-inches of plate on turrets

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