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CHIPS Articles: The Legendary Great White Fleet

The Legendary Great White Fleet
By Heather Rutherford - January-March 2015
Last month marked the 107th anniversary of one of the most daring and memorable voyages ever undertaken by the United States Navy. On Dec. 16, 1907, a convoy of Atlantic Fleet battleships took to the sea from the waters of Hampton Roads, Virginia, embarking on an extraordinary journey around the world. President Theodore Roosevelt was the driving force behind the tour, which would come to be known as one of the greatest peacetime achievements in U.S. naval history.

Such an extensive deployment had never been attempted by any nation, according to Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC). This 14 month-long global expedition would cover a staggering 43,000 miles as the fleet sailed to 20 different ports on six continents.

The steam-powered steel battleships were divided into four squadrons of 14,000 Sailors and Marines under the command of Rear Adm. Robley "Fighting Bob" Evans. It was an impressive fleet, composed of 16 ships, all painted white, with gilded scrollwork gleaming golden across their bows. All of the vessels were commissioned after the Spanish-American War and included the following: USS Kearsarge (BB-5); USS Kentucky (BB-6); USS Illinois (BB-7); USS Alabama (BB-8); USS Maine (BB-10); USS Missouri (BB-11); USS Ohio (BB-12); USS Virginia (BB-13); USS Georgia (BB-15); USS New Jersey (BB-16); USS Rhode Island (BB-17); USS Connecticut (BB-18); USS Louisiana (BB-19); USS Vermont (BB-20); USS Kansas (BB-21); and USS Minnesota (BB-22).

This historic group of battleships would eventually be dubbed the “Great White Fleet.”

From Idea to Reality

The Great White Fleet came into existence for numerous reasons, many of them politically-based.

The Spanish-American War, which ended in 1898, had brought the United States into the role of world power. This led to the acquisition of both the Philippines and Guam, as well as the building of Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba as a safety measure for the construction of the Panama Canal in 1904.

Roosevelt, who had assumed the presidency upon the death of President William McKinley in 1901, was a prior assistant secretary of the Navy and former colonel of the Rough Riders, the first voluntary cavalry in the Spanish-American War. He cherished a long-held belief that a strong navy was the key to projecting power and prestige abroad, according to NHHC. Roosevelt also believed that updating and expanding the U.S. fleet would best protect American interests — especially as Japan was the dominant naval force in the Pacific and a potential threat to the recently acquired Philippines.

Meanwhile, Japan and Russia were locked in a deadly war that had begun in February 1904 and raged on for more than a year. When it finally came time to make peace, Roosevelt was called upon to act as peace treaty mediator. The Treaty of Portsmouth, which marked the formal end of the Russo-Japanese War, was signed in September 1905 and ratified by both parties the following month. However, according to NHHC, the Japanese were less than pleased with the conditions of the treaty and blamed Roosevelt for the perceived shortchange.

As if that weren’t enough, tensions then proceeded to escalate with the wave of anti-Japanese feelings that had arisen in California and eventually led to the San Francisco Board of Education ordering the segregation of all Japanese schoolchildren. The Japanese didn’t take kindly to this, and began staging violent anti-American protests.

According to NHHC, Roosevelt had no desire to “break with Japan” due to the fact that the U.S. was inadequately prepared for war. At that time, the U.S. fleet was nearly solely concentrated in the Atlantic; only a few armored cruisers were located in the Pacific. With that in mind, Roosevelt diffused the situation by persuading the Board of Education to discontinue its segregation policy — in exchange for an agreement with Japan to slow down its stream of immigrants into the United States.

These events led Roosevelt to believe that the best course of action would be to demonstrate how the U.S. Navy could shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, according to NHHC. The Great White Fleet would be just the way to do that. He also felt that the success of this particular cruise would help obtain appropriations for four more battleships, which fit with his ultimate goal of building a robust naval force.

Roosevelt was also interested in the practicalities of such an undertaking. He wanted to know how circumnavigating the globe would affect the fleet. "I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not in time of war," Roosevelt said.

Roosevelt’s plans to have the fleet circle the world were kept under wraps, with only a few of the highest ranking Navy officials made privy to the battleships group’s future movements. According to NHHC, even Roosevelt’s own cabinet was kept in the dark. The journey was widely advertised as a training exercise in which the fleet would sail from the East Coast to the West Coast. When the real plans for the Great White Fleet were made public, more than a few feathers were ruffled. Some critics were concerned that the show of force would provoke the Japanese, while others felt that the Atlantic fleet would be left in a position of weakness during the tour. There were also logistical concerns, as the Panama Canal had yet to be completed; this would force the fleet to maneuver through the stormy, unpredictable currents of the Straits of Magellan.

President Roosevelt, however, remained steadfast, and the Great White Fleet soon set sail under his watchful gaze.

The Voyage of the Great White Fleet

Even as the Great White Fleet steamed away from the Virginia coast on that gray December morning in 1907, the Sailors aboard remained unaware of the fleet’s plans to sail around the world. According to NHHC, Adm. Evans, who was commanding aboard the fleet’s flagship, Connecticut, passed the word late on the first day that following a short stay on the West Coast, the fleet would return home by way of the Pacific, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean, and then to the Atlantic. By the next day, word of the Great White Fleet’s circumnavigation plans had traveled far and wide; subsequently, invitations for port visits to countries all over the world came rolling in.

The Great White Fleet’s incredible journey got off to a bit of a rocky start. The South Atlantic was first on the itinerary, and on Dec. 23, the fleet had docked off the coast of Venezuela, at the Port of Spain in Trinidad. Unfortunately, the Port of Spain offered a less than stellar welcome to the Americans. According to NHHC, one Sailor described that first stop as nearly deserted, and on top of that, the weather was so hot that the beer tasted like boiler water.

The end of December found the Great White Fleet making its way to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where they received a rowdy welcome on Jan. 13. That night, at a local drinking establishment, a fight broke out when a bottle was thrown by a local longshoreman, missing its intended target — a fellow longshoreman — and hitting a Louisiana Sailor instead, according to NHHC. A fight ensued between the Sailors and the longshoremen, only to be broken up by the shore patrol. The next day, an inquiry determined that the Sailors weren’t the aggressors, and the Brazilian officials invited the Americans to stay in Rio. With no further incidents to report, Brazilian President Penna praised the “glorious American Navy" and Penna's foreign minister referred to the Great White Fleet as "the pride of the continent."

Interestingly, Rio de Janeiro was also the birthplace of a rumor that would follow the fleet throughout its journey. According to NHHC, the Rio chief of police had been told that anarchists had been planning to blow up the fleet. As this rumor persisted, Americans had the impression that the fleet was in constant peril.

The fleet set off from Rio on Jan. 21, 1908 for the treacherous Straits of Magellan en route to the South Pacific. Wild rumors of the Straits abounded — that the islands were rife with cannibalism, and that williwaws — wild winds — would cause the ships to wreck on the rocky shores of such places as Desolation Island and Point Famine. Fortunately, the Great White Fleet was able to be safely guided through the foggy, windy Straits by a Chilean cruiser with no mishaps.

On the way to the West Coast, the Great White Fleet visited several more ports, including Sandy Point, Chile, followed by Callao, Peru, where they were rapturously embraced by the locals with a nine-day celebration, including a commemoration of George Washington's birthday and a musical homage by Peruvian composer Cesar Penizo called "The White Squadron.”

The fleet also docked in Magdalena Bay, Mexico, for gunnery practice, and made several stops along the California coast, whose cities were all clamoring for the honor of hosting the fleet, before arriving in San Francisco on May 6. According to NHHC, the hills surrounding San Francisco were packed with thousands of greeters, many brought in by special trains from outlying communities. The city gave a 48-hour ball at the Fairmont Hotel, where all of the Sailors were treated to memorable, expensive dinners.

While in San Francisco, two significant changes were made to the Great White Fleet. Due to the fact that the battleships Maine and Alabama had used an excess of coal, they were replaced by USS Nebraska (BB-14) and USS Wisconsin (BB-9). Coal — commonly referred to as black diamonds — was the fleet’s sole source of power.

The other major change concerned personnel. Adm. Evans was relieved due to an unfortunate attack of gout; Rear Adm. Charles Sperry then assumed command. Following these events, the battleship group moved on to the Pacific Northwest, including ports in Washington.

The Great White Fleet continued to be welcomed with open arms — or open ports, as it were. July 16 marked the arrival of the revered fleet in Hawaii, where six days of luaus and sailing regattas were held in their honor, followed by a stop in New Zealand, where the Sailors were honored with an invitation to observe the tribal dance ceremonies of the Maori.

On Aug. 20, the fleet pulled into Sydney, Australia, where more than 250,000 people were waiting to greet them. Crew members took part in eight whole days of non-stop celebrations. The fleet made a stop in Melbourne before sailing on to Manila, Philippines, where they arrived Oct. 2 only to find the city in the throes of a cholera epidemic. As such, no liberty was authorized.

From Manila, it was on to Japan. On Oct. 10, the Great White Fleet headed north where, according to NHHC, they encountered “one of the worst typhoons in 40 years” in the South China Sea. Miraculously, their streak of good luck continued and the fleet successfully weathered the storm without incident.

A Diplomatic Success

Given the political climate with Japan in the not-so-distant past, it would be natural to assume that the fleet would not receive as gracious of a welcome as they had elsewhere in the world. Sperry had taken precautions, issuing a directive stating that "only first-class men, whose records showed no evidence of previous indulgence in intoxicating liquor," would be allowed ashore, and also that "the men will be made to understand that this, though an entertainment, is a matter of military duty" in regard to a planned reception for crew members.

However, the Great White Fleet was not only welcome in Japan, but given a royal treatment. They arrived in Yokohama, Japan, Oct. 18 to an escort by three Japanese destroyers and a crowd of enthusiastic schoolchildren singing the Star-Spangled Banner. The Japanese were hospitality personified, putting the flag officers up in the Emperor’s Palace and installing the ships’ captains in suites at the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. The fleet stayed in Japan for a week where they attended a whirlwind of events, including a parade held by the citizens of Tokyo, a formal ball hosted by Prince Katsura Taro, Prime Minister of Japan, and a garden party given by Adm. Togo Heihachiro, fleet admiral of the Japanese Imperial Navy. According to NHHC, this visit generated goodwill between the United States and Japan, and eased the tensions that had been brewing beneath the surface.

On the way back from Japan, the fleet divided for stops in Manila and the Chinese island of Amoy, and then reunited for their journey to the Indian Ocean. In Colombo, Ceylon, now known as Sri Lanka, the Sailors were showered with generous amounts of tea by Sir Thomas Lipton, of Lipton Tea fame.

On the Way Home

The Great White Fleet was quickly approaching the last leg of its tour. The Sailors celebrated Christmas on the way to the Arabian Sea and docked in Port Said, Egypt, in January 1909. While in port, Sperry discovered that a massive earthquake had struck Messina, Sicily. He immediately dispatched the Connecticut and the Illinois, where they helped citizens who were reeling from the disaster and performed recovery operations. The crew of the Illinois found the bodies of the American consul and his wife, but sadly, their daughter was never found.

Upon leaving Port Said, the fleet split into separate parties and visited Algiers, Algeria; Tripoli, Libya; Naples, Italy; Marseille, France; Athens, Greece; and the Republic of Malta. They came together for the last time on Feb. 6, making one final stop at Gibraltar before setting sail into the Atlantic Ocean.

On Feb. 22, 1909, after 14 months at sea, the Great White Fleet arrived back in Hampton Roads. Despite the gray, rainy day, cheering crowds were waiting along the shoreline to welcome the world-travelers home. Aboard his presidential yacht Mayflower, President Roosevelt responded to the rendering of the fleet's 21-gun salute with enthusiastic waves, according to NHHC. He would go on to view this voyage as a legacy, saying that it was "the most important service that I rendered for peace."

Today’s Navy continues to carry on the legacy of the Great White Fleet. As of Jan. 20, the U.S. Navy has 287 deployable Battle Force Ships, 97 of which are currently deployed around the globe.

For More Information

http://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/the-great-white-fleet.html

Ships of the Great White Fleet in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
Ships of the Great White Fleet in Philadelphia. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

USS Kentucky. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
USS Kentucky. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

USS Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
USS Wisconsin. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

Sailors in Sydney, Australia. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
Sailors in Sydney, Australia. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

Steaming into Ceylon. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
Steaming into Ceylon. Photo courtesy of NHHC.

Sailors visit the Sphinx. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
Sailors visit the Sphinx. Photo courtesy of NHHC.
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