Figure 1: The above painting shows USS Villalobos (PG-42) in Chinese waters circa 1910. This painting is from Yangtze River Gunboats, 1900-1949, p. 13, and was published by Osprey Publishing Ltd., 2011. The illustrations in the book were done by Tony Bryan and the text was written by Angus Konstam. This book is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about gunboats on the Yangtze River. Click on the photograph for larger image.
Figure 2: The gunboat Villalobos (PG-42) in Chinese waters, circa 1910. This appears to be the original photograph that was used as a model for the painting in Figure 1 by Tony Bryan. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph NH 48493. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 3: USS Villalobos (PG-42) at anchor off Hankow, China. Date unknown. Naval History and Heritage Command photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Figure 4: Hangchow, China. Some of the ships of the US Navy's Yangtze River Patrol at Hangchow during the 1920s, with several local junks and sampans also present. US Navy ships are (from left to right): USS Isabel (PY-10); USS Villalobos (PG-42); and USS Elcano (PG-38). Courtesy of Donald M. McPherson, 1969. US Naval Historical Center Photograph. Click on photograph for larger image.
Named after the sixteenth century Spanish navigator and explorer Ruy Lopez de Villalobos, the steel-hulled, single-screw gunboat Villalobos was built for the Spanish Navy in 1896 by the Hong Kong and Whampoa Dock Company at the British Crown Colony of Hong Kong, China. After being completed, Villalobos was based at Cavite in the then Spanish colony of the Philippines. After the Philippines was taken by the United States during the Spanish-American War in 1898, Villalobos was captured by the United States Army. The ship was acquired by the US Navy on 21 February 1900 and, after being overhauled, was commissioned at Cavite on 5 March 1900 as USS Villalobos. The 270-ton gunboat was approximately 156 feet long and 23 feet wide, had a top speed of 11 knots, and had a crew of 57 officers and men. Villalobos was originally armed with four 3-pounder cannons and two 1-pounders, but this armament changed over the coming years. By 1905, the ship carried two 6-pounder rapid-fire cannons, two 3-pounders, two 1-pounders, and two .30-caliber Colt machine guns.After being commissioned, Villalobos left Cavite on 13 March 1900 and began patrolling the waters around the many islands of the Philippines. At that time, Filipino insurgents were trying to overthrow the American occupation of the islands, so Villalobos’ primary function was to prevent the smuggling of arms and cargo shipments to the insurgents. During her first patrol near Buriad Island, Villalobos destroyed seven Filipino “bancas” (small native boats) and captured a brigantine, a schooner and another banca, all of which were being used for smuggling by the insurgents.
For roughly the next three years, Villalobos patrolled the coastlines of numerous islands in the Philippines and assisted the US Army and Marine Corps in blockading and intercepting contraband that was being shipped by sea to the Filipino insurgents. Villalobos transported supplies and dispatches to American military units on various islands and the gunboat also assisted the Army in numerous military operations that were mounted against the insurgents. On 20 November 1902, Villalobos was decommissioned at Cavite, but only two months later, on 21 January 1903, the ship was re-commissioned. Villalobos was overhauled and quickly prepared for duty on the Yangtze River in China. On 17 February 1903, Villalobos arrived at Hong Kong and remained there until 26 February. A few days later, Villalobos arrived at Shanghai for the inauguration of the US Navy’s Yangtze River Patrol. After a brief stay in Shanghai, the gunboat steamed up the Yangtze on 27 March to Kiang-Yin to investigate conditions there and to check on the welfare of the American citizens living in the area. She remained on the Yangtze River for the next 25 years.
Villalobos was one of the many gunboats on the Yangtze because of the “Boxer Protocol” that followed the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The Boxer Protocol gave American warships the legal right to protect American lives and property in China. Villalobos made regular stops at such ports as Changsha, Siangtan, Chu-Chow, Yochow, Hankow, Shanghai, Nanking, and Nanchang, to name just a few. Most of the time, the gunboats represented the only law and order on the Yangtze because of the absence of a strong central government in China. So ships like Villalobos were a welcome sight to all foreign nationals (as well as to missionaries) who were constantly in danger of being attacked by Chinese warlords or bandits. On many occasions, Villalobos also escorted American barges and merchant ships to protect them from pirates that prowled the Yangtze for easy unarmed victims.
When World War I started in 1914, the belligerent nations either withdrew their warships from Chinese waters or saw them interned. After British, French, and German gunboats were either interned or redeployed away from China, the only major power to maintain gunboats on the Yangtze was the United States. American gunboats, therefore, were given the task of “keeping the peace” along the river. But when America entered World War I in April 1917, all of the American gunboats in China were interned as well. Although USS Wilmington managed to escape to the Philippines to avoid internment, Villalobos, along with the American gunboats Palos, Monocacy, Samar, and Quiros all remained stuck at Shanghai. The crews of these gunboats occupied their time with the usual routine of maintenance work on board the ships, and this continued until China entered the war on the side of the Allied powers on 16 August 1917. After that, Villalobos and the other American gunboats resumed their duties patrolling the Yangtze and continued doing so until the end of the war in November 1918.
Villalobos also patrolled the Yangtze during the post-war years and in March 1921 the home port for the gunboats Villalobos, Quiros, and Elcano was officially changed from Manila in the Philippines to Shanghai. Villalobos, which was now designated PG-42, was sent to patrol the middle part of the Yangtze River. Because of their age, the first flag officer commanding the Yangtze Patrol, Rear Admiral W.H.G. Bullard, felt that Villalobos and her near-sister ships from the Spanish-American War were “hopeless cases” in terms of upkeep, firepower, and living conditions. But since the US Navy didn’t have any suitable river gunboats to replace them, they had to remain on duty. Added to these problems, frequent battles were now taking place between Chinese Nationalist troops, Communist troops, and soldiers under the command of various independent warlords that controlled large sections of territory along the Yangtze.
On 2 March 1927, Villalobos arrived at Hankow, joining the gunboat USS Isabel (PY-10) and the destroyers USS Truxtun (DD-229) and USS Pope (DD-225). Suddenly, Chinese Nationalist forces swarmed into Nanking on 24 March and began attacking British and American commercial interests in the city. Anticipating action, Villalobos’ skipper, Lieutenant Commander Earl A. MacIntyre, ordered his crew to place more steel boiler plates around vital control and gun positions on board the ship. Two weeks later, riots broke out in Hankow and looting commenced in the Japanese section of the city, prompting the Japanese to land troops to end the violence. American nationals had to be evacuated while Villalobos covered the evacuation with her guns pointing right at the city. Villalobos was then ordered downriver to guard the American-owned Socony-Vacuum Oil Company’s installation. She was assisted in this mission by the British gunboats HMS Teal and HMS Scarab. Fortunately, the ships did not encounter any more trouble from the Chinese Nationalist troops. Villalobos was relieved by USS Palos on 27 May 1927 and as she left the area and headed for Shanghai, Villalobos’ commanding officer was given this order: “If fired upon, and source can be located, return and silence fire with suitable battery.” Such were the tensions on the Yangtze River in 1927.
But Villalobos was coming to the end of her career as six new American gunboats were finally being built to replace the old ones from the Spanish-American War. The Secretary of the Navy’s report for 1927 stated that Villalobos was in bad condition regarding both hull and machinery and had little sale value. As a result, on 29 December 1927 President Calvin Coolidge authorized the destruction of Villalobos by gunfire. The gunboat was decommissioned on 29 May 1928 and was towed off the coast of China and sunk as a target for gunnery exercises on 9 October 1928. For almost 30 years, USS Villalobos served in both the Philippines and in China and gunboats like her played a critical role in protecting American lives and property in some of the most dangerous parts of the world. Considering that the ship was never even built for the US Navy or for use as a river gunboat, Villalobos had a fine career.