The Great White Fleet begins its around-the-world cruise (U.S. Navy)
100 years ago this month, the Great White Fleet sailed into San Francisco, roughly five months into a 14 month voyage around the world. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, “perhaps a million people saw the fleet steam (under) the Golden Gate,” when it entered the bay.
We’ve all heard of the Great White Fleet, but do we really know its story?
The sixteen battleships that comprised the Great White Fleet had all been commissioned since the conclusion of the Spanish American War in 1898. Because of that war, the United States found itself in possession of Guam and the Philippines with little capability to defend them. The Japanese had an interest in the Philippines too, and tensions were rising. It was to improve relations with Japan that Teddy Roosevelt sent the Great White Fleet on its voyage from Hampton Roads. Its less than subtle message was that the United States could become a Pacific power if the need arose.
The voyage was an incredible success, drawing millions of onlookers during its journey. The awesome might of the U.S. Navy was evident every time the fleet pulled into a port, proclaiming to the world that the United States had become a global power.
What you don’t hear are the stories, and there are tons of them. In a delightful article written for the Naval Historical Center, JO2 [Journalist Second Class] Mike McKinley tells the tales as remembered by those who sailed with the fleet. I’ll bet you didn’t know:
12,000 of the 14,000 Sailors were wogs until the fleet crossed the equator on the way to Brazil.
USS WISCONSIN (BB-9) Sailors Crossing the Line (U.S. Navy)
Bar brawl in Rio
The good will tour was nearly derailed early in the cruise, during its port visit in Rio De Janeiro. According to JO2 McKinley, “It all began in one of Rio’s rowdier drinking establishments when two local longshoremen got into an argument. In expressing his particular point of view, one of the longshoremen threw a beer bottle at the other. The bottle missed its intended target and continued its flight across the smoke-filled room. At the bar, a group of White Fleet sailors were enjoying a brew and good conversation when the wayward bottle found a target – a sailor from Louisiana. The rest is right out of a Hollywood movie. Sailors rallied around the victim, the longshoremen called up their reserves and the battle was joined.
“When the shore patrol arrived, the donnybrook had flowed out into the street, as longshoremen and sailors threw rocks and bricks at each other. Shore patrol and local police brought about order, separated the combatants, and escorted the sailors back to their ships.” Luckily, the local authorities agreed that the American Sailors were not to blame, and the festivities continued.
Because the Panama Canal wasn’t yet completed (1914), the fleet sailed around South America, entering the Pacific through the Strait of Magellan. McKinley writes, “There, rumor had it, massive whirlpools could twist a ship completely around. Winds, known as wiliwaws, were said to be so wild that ships would be dashed to pieces on the rocky shores of such nightmarishly labeled places as Delusion Bay, Desolation Island, Point Famine and Dislocation Point, all inhabited by cannibals, of course. One newspaper in California, the Sacramento Union, prophesied shipwreck and cannibalism should the White Fleet attempt the Straits. ‘We don’t want our Jackies eaten by terrible Tierra del Fuegans,’ wrote the editor.” (The transit was accomplished without incident.)
The fleet proceeded north to visit ports along the west coast of South and North America, then headed west to Hawaii and Australia.
Kangaroo mascot presented to USS CONNECTICUT (BB-18) in Sydney (U.S. Navy)
In September the fleet headed north to the Philippines then toward Japan, battling through a typhoon enroute. And on October 18th, it sailed into Yokohama harbor. Admiral Sperry issued stern warnings to behave – the diplomatic stakes were high.
But it was Sperry who almost blew it. McKinley describes the scene: “During a champagne party aboard the Japanese battleship Nikasa, Sperry suffered an indignity, albeit unintended by his Japanese navy hosts. It occurred when a group of exuberant Imperial Navy cadets suddenly picked up Sperry and hurled him into the air three times, shouting ‘Banzai!’ with each liftoff. In Japanese naval circles, the Banzai cheer and tossing were considered tributes. This was explained to a ruffled Sperry after he was placed back on the deck, gasping and trying to straighten out his twisted sash, dislocated sword and wrinkled uniform. Sperry accepted the tribute as graciously as possible under the circumstances.”
Nevertheless, the Americans were toasted and honored by the Japanese. Its primary mission a success, the fleet sailed for China.
Loss of face
“After Japan, half the fleet steamed back to Manila for a month’s gunnery practice and the other eight ships set course for the Formosa Straits and the Chinese island of Amoy. The Peking government was prepared to welcome 16 battleships, but when only eight arrived, the local officials were a little disappointed and embarrassed. Though this slight was due to operational requirements and unintentional on the fleet’s part, it did contribute to the peculiar funk known to the Chinese as ‘losing face.’ But Peking rallied, and in order to ‘save face,’ told the people that the rest of the fleet was lost in a typhoon.”
Leaving China, they sailed through the Indian Ocean, visiting Sri Lanka (Ceylon) and being treated to “complimentary tea from none other than Sir Thomas Lipton, a man whose familiar face, even today, adorns boxes of tea bags found in supermarkets throughout the United States.” (NHC)
The battleships entered the Meditteranean via the Suez Canal and split up for awhile, some ships visiting Sicily to provide aid after a devastating earthquake. On February 6, 1909 the fleet regrouped at Gibraltar and headed for home.
The Great White Fleet ended its journey on February 22, 1909 (Washington’s Birthday), by all accounts a tremendous success for American diplomacy and prestige around the world. President Roosevelt was there to greet the fleet. “With only two weeks left in the White House before turning over the reins of government to his successor, William Howard Taft, the return of the fleet and the success of its mission prompted Roosevelt to declare later that this cruise was ‘the most important service that I rendered for peace.'” (NHC)
Roosevelt was famous for saying, “Speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Great White Fleet did just that.
For a great article about the Great White Fleet (plus more sea stories), read JO2 McKinley’s story for the Naval Historical Center.