- Historic Sites
The Great White Fleet
After the Civil War, American sea power became a pitiful joke. Then an aroused nation set out to build a first-class, modern navy, and in 1907 proudly sent it off around the world
February 1964 | Volume 15, Issue 2
Buenos Aires also wished to entertain the Americans, but its ship channel was too shallow, and the fleet passed on. Not, however, before it had received a graceful salute, far at sea, from a squadron of neatly handled green-hulled Argentine cruisers. Farther south the fleet stopped at Punta Arenas on the Strait of Magellan, where the stores advertised special prices for the Americans. They were special, too. Twenty-five-dollar fox skins were available at forty, and seal, normally sold at fifty dollars, could be had for seventy-five.
The last part of the passage through the mountainrimmed Magellan Strait was made through fog so thick that one could see neither the ship 400 yards ahead nor the one 400 yards astern—the interval that the battleships of the Great White Fleet normally maintained at all times. Eventually the last ship felt her bow rise on a broad Pacific swell, and all were safe once more.
Now the white column steamed north and at Valparaiso Bay saluted the President of Chile. Less than twenty years earlier Evans, in a gunboat, had been involved in that very same bay in an unpleasantness which nearly caused war between Chile and the United States. Two U.S. Navy men had been killed in a riot arising from a barroom brawl, and it was largely Evans’ tact which prevented a major incident. But cordiality was the order now—as it was at Callao, the seaport to the Peruvian capital, Lima, where the fleet was entertained by bullfights. It continued north to Magdalena Bay, Mexico. There, by arrangement with the Mexican government, the Americans were able to spend a month at target practice, drill, and sports. Then they went on to California, where Admiral Evans, painfully ill with rheumatism, gave up his command.
After the men were banqueted at every port from San Diego to Seattle, Evans’ replacement, Rear Admirai Charles S. Sperry, took the fleet to sea again, heading out across the Pacific in the beginning of July. The first stop was Honolulu. Chief turret captain Roman J. Miller of the Vermont , visiting nearby Pearl Harbor, found that though it was yet undeveloped, it was “from a naval point of view, a very important place.” Leaving the Hawaiian Islands, the ships proceeded on a leisurely roundabout voyage, with stops at New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines, and Japan.
The Japanese, who only a short time before had been threatening war, received their white-hulled visitors with “cordiality … amounting often to actual frenzy,” as one participant remembered. The Americans did more than enjoy the cordiality. Observing the Japanese fleet in dark war paint, many officers recommended that our ships also be painted for war at all times. To leave the ships white until strained relations occurred with another country and then to change their color would be, as one naval officer has pointed out, “an overt act that might precipitate the very enemy action that the diplomats might otherwise be able to forestall.” The recomended change was put into effect within a few months, and our ships have worn gray in one shade or another ever since.
After Japan, the fleet was temporarily split—for target practice off Manila and on the China coast. Then, entering the Indian Ocean, the ships steamed for home. The long passage was broken only by a visit to Ceylon; there the American sailors from the farms of Kansas and Georgia caught glimpses of native villages hidden away in groves, far up in the mountains, and tea or rubber plantations. When the fleet arrived at Suez, in January, 1909, word came of an earthquake at Messina, in Sicily, which had killed 60,000 people. Help was desperately needed. One ship from the fleet was loaded with medical supplies and rushed ahead. Arriving ten days after the disaster, the rescue crews could do little but search for bodies.
On February 22, 1909—Washington’s Birthday—the Great White Fleet steamed home at last, to be welcomed at Hampton Roads by T. R. in the presidential yacht Mayflower . The occasion marked his last significant accomplishment as Chief Executive; ten days later, he left the White House for good. It was an impressive end to a notable presidential career; in his autobiography Roosevelt could write with justifiable pride that the voyage of the Great White Fleet was “the most important service I rendered peace.” As he said in a speech to Admiral Sperry and his men:
You have falsified every prediction of the prophets of failure. In all your long cruise not an accident worthy of mention has happened.… As a war machine, the fleet comes back in better shape than it went out. In addition, you, the officers and men of this formidable fighting force, have shown yourselves the best of all possible ambassadors and heralds of peace.… We welcome you home to the country whose good repute among nations has been raised by what you have done.
The accomplishments of the Great White Fleet had been numerous indeed. In his report for 1909 the Secretary of the Navy stated that the cruise “increased enlistments and enabled the Bureau of Navigation to recruit the enlisted force to practically its full strength,” a pleasing development in a period when few American boys thought seriously of joining the Navy. Moreover, the Secretary was able to report, “There has been a gratifying decrease in the percentage of desertions, which has dropped from 9 to 5½ per cent during the past year.”