It was a rainy day on Feb. 22, 1909 when 16 battleships of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet returned home to Norfolk, Virginia, completing an exhausting 26-month, 43,000 mile circumnavigation of the globe. For the 14,000 Sailors and Marines who were part of this epic voyage, the mood was nothing like the dreary and overcast skies.
The four squadrons of warships, nicknamed the "Great White Fleet" because of their white hulls, returned to the United States victorious, even though no war or battle had taken place. The journey included 20 port calls on six continents and it is widely considered one of the greatest peacetime achievements of the U.S. Navy. President Theodore Roosevelt declared the cruise was "the most important service that I rendered for peace."
This round-the world-voyage had two distinct purposes: First and foremost, the ships had to be tested to see if they were mechanically sound and ready to operate in distant parts of the globe. Second, it was an opportunity to demonstrate America’s naval prowess to the rest of the world and to energize and inspire Americans back home.
The success of the odyssey satiated the country’s desire to be recognized as a world power, with a fleet that proved the United States was capable of projecting its influence anywhere in the world.
Another happy side effect was enhanced relations and strengthened partnerships with the countries the fleet visited including Trinidad, Brazil, Chile, Peru, Mexico, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, The Philippine Islands, Japan, China, Ceylon, Egypt, and Gibraltar.
The relationships with other countries visited were improved or initially established in a positive way. Diplomatic ties with Japan were arguably the most improved because America’s increasingly tense relationship with the Rising Sun Empire got an overhaul, one of the objectives for President Roosevelt and his administration. The visit to Japan by the fleet provided the main thrust behind the Root-Takahira agreement that went into effect shortly after the fleet’s return.
According to this treaty, the U.S. and Japan agreed to maintain the status quo in the Pacific and to respect each other’s possessions there. Additionally, both countries agreed to respect the “Open Door” policy in China and the independence and cohesive integrity of that country.
On the technical side, the Navy was able to test the physical and tactical systems of these warships and see what areas needed improvement after 14 months at sea. Roosevelt stated “I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not war.”
There were no significant breakdowns on the cruise, but it brought to light that technical changes were needed concerning the ships’ hull design and gunnery arrangement. Shipboard habitability wasn’t adequate and the ventilation systems had to be improved. During rough seas, water would seep into the ships’ hulls and could potentially cause the ship to list, or even worse, sink.
One of the most important lessons learned was a ship’s dependency upon foreign coaling stations would be a handicap. They would need to convert warships to burn oil as a primary fuel as quickly as possible, preferably during peacetime rather than at the beginning of a war.
Another recommended change was to paint the hulls “haze gray” rather than white, because it was felt Navy ships should not be in “holiday colors” going into battle.
The Great White Fleet’s voyage around the world was in a way the birth of the new United States Navy. The officers and Sailors of the fleet had been provided with thorough at-sea training and had been integral in the changes in the Navy’s approach to formation steaming, coal economy, and gunnery.
For the Sailors who participated in this historic adventure, the cruise reinforced their pride for their service and their country. They had become unforgettable ambassadors through which others judged America and her Navy, and just as impressive as the sight of that Great White Fleet, they did America proud.
To learn more about U.S. Navy history, please go to the Naval History and Heritage Command website: www.history.navy.mil/.