With the capture of Manila and its occupation by the British (1762-64), military strategists saw the need to fortify and secure Manila Bay. A naval base was established in Cavite in 1776 and an exploration of alternative harbors done. Subic Bay north of Manila was identified as a potential harbor. Subic’s excellent qualities as an anchorage had already been noted in 1572 by Juan de Salcedo who has been sent north to pacify the area and collect tribute. However, for three centuries nothing was done to exploit the bay’s potential.
With development of long range cannons and improvement in ordnance in the 19th century, the Spanish navy decided to fortify four islands stretched across the mouth of the bay, namely: Carabao, El Fraile (Fort Drum), Caballo and Corregidor. However, the development of steam ships and its introduction in Philippine waters raised the issue whether the defense of Manila Bay alone would suffice to secure the Philippine capital. Ships depended not on wind but on coaling stations. The close proximity of Subic Bay, some seventy kilometers north of Manila, posed the possibility that an enemy could easily seize the area and develop it as a coaling station and support anchorage. Thus, Manila would be vulnerable to attack from this staging point.
In 1868, the military conducted another exploratory mission in Subic and concluded that it would be ideal for a naval station. But it was not until two decades later, in 1884, that King Alfonso II authorized that Subic Bay be developed “as a naval port and the property appertaining thereto aside for naval purposes.” The following year, the Spanish Naval Commission authorized the construction the construction of an arsenal and a ship repair facility. Plans were also drawn for fortifying Grande Island at the entrance of the Bay.
In 1898, at the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, Spanish Admiral Patrico Montojo y Pasaron decided to move his major units to Subic while leaving the smaller ships to defend Manila Bay. Arriving as Subic, he found that the naval base was not ready for war and the four 5.9 inch guns for Grande Island had not been mounted. The guns had been transferred from Sangley Point in Cavite. Nor was the defensive screen of mines laid at Subic as planned. Unwilling to anchor at unfortified bay Montojo returned to Manila on 29 April. American Commodore George C. Dewey commander of US Asiatic Squadron decided to take Subic prior to an American assault on Manila. The German allies of Spain had dispatched the cruiser Irene to protect the Spanish troops that that reoccupied Grande Island and being attacked by Filipino revolutionaries. But at the sight of Dewey’s gunboats, Raleigh and Concord hurriedly departed. Spanish calculations of the strategic importance of Subic proved correct. With Dewey establishing Subic as a backstop he quickly moved on to attack Montojo’s fleet in Manila.
With the Treaty of Paris (10 December 1898) administration of the naval station passed on to the United States Navy. In 1899, Major Robert E. L. Spence took over the shipyard at Olongapo. During the Philippine Revolution until 1901, Subic remained quiescent as the US troops returned to Manila. Bit in 1901 the US navy had chosen Subic as a repair and supply base. In 1902, Admiral Robby D. Evans visited Subic and from his inspection tour recommended that Subic be the base of the first U.S. Fleet, and that the fortification of the bay begin with fortifying Grande Island. In 1903, Evans was ordered by the Navy to reopen the Spanish station as a U.S. Naval Station, which would function as an ammunition and coaling substation under the Cavite Naval Yard. That same year, Pres. Theodore Roosevelt issued an executive order designating Subic Bay and 70,000 hectares of land adjoining it set aside for a military reservation. In 1905, the Army with the authority of the 58th Congress purchased Grande Island and began to fortify it, calling the fortifications Fort Wint in honor of Brigadier Gen. Theodore K. Wint. The following year, the Dewey dry dock was towed from the US to Subic, passing through the Suez Canal and the Indian Ocean, a 12,000-mile journey. Infrastructure improvement in Subic was slow, personnel to maintain the base and funds were limited, and the naval base would remain dependent on the Cavite yard. On 22 July 1941, the Dewey dry-dock was towed to Mariveles and Subic served only as a base for seaplanes and patrol boats. In December of that year, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and Manila. To prevent the dry dock from falling into Japanese hands it was scuttled. During the Second World War, Subic was under the Japanese, returning to American control in 1945.
Subic’s expansion as the larges and most important American Naval Base in Asia began in 1951 when the Seabees constructed the Naval Air Station. Under Chief Arthur Radford, the US worked on upgrading Subic’s facilities, which included the construction of an 8,000 feet runway for an airport. Completed in 1956, the construction at Cubi was the beginning of the naval base. In 1959, the US turned over the town of Olongapo to Philippine jurisdiction, Pres. Carlos P. Garcia through Executive Order no. 336 constituted the municipality of Olongapo, later in 1966 Olongapo became a chartered city. Subic was an important position for the US military. It was a staging point for the Vietnam War in 1965 and for the Gulf War in 1991.
By1992, when the lease from the Philippines for Subic had expired under the RP-US Bases Agreement, the Americans created Subic not just as a naval station but an important rest and recreational area. Housing for permanent personnel was built and the remnant of the Spanish fortification integrated as the centerpiece of Rizal Park. The fort may have been damaged during the war, because the only remnant even during the period of the naval station is the gate with a short stretch of flanking walls we see today.
In 1991, with the eruption of Mount Pinatubo resulting in the damage to the Naval Base and the expiration of the lease in 1992 the United States navy pulled out of Subic Bay. Abandoned the base was protected by thousands of volunteers from further destruction and looting. Led by the neighboring Olongapo City Mayor Richard Gordon, the volunteers rescued the bases infrastructure from volcanic ash and manned the base until it was formally constituted as a special economic and tourist zone by. On 13 March 1992, Republic Act no. 7227 created the Subic Bay Freeport and Mayor Gordon was appointed as first chairman of SBMA.
The Spanish gate remains in Subic as the only reminder that this bustling economic, commercial and tourist hub was once an outpost of the Spanish empire.