The cruise of the Great White Fleet
On the warm, cloudy morning of Dec. 16, 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt stood on the weather-deck of the presidential yacht Mayflower, anchored in the waters off Hampton Roads, Va. He flashed his famous broad, toothy smile and thought how "bully" it was to see a mighty armada of US battleships passing in review before him. The President, and indeed the throngs of onlookers gathered on shore, felt a great sense of pride and exhilaration as 16 battleships of the US Atlantic Fleet, all painted white, save for gilded bows, steamed in a long majestic column out of Hampton Roads to the open sea, flanked by their attending auxiliary ships.
Great White Fleet
To the familiar strains of "The Girl I left Behind Me," the procession of battlewagons passed before the President at 400-yard intervals with their crews smartly manning the rails. This newly designated battle fleet was made up of ships commissioned since the end of the Spanish-American War. They were 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).
The four squadrons of warships, dubbed the "Great White Fleet," were manned by 14,000 sailors and marines under the command of Rear Adm. Robley "Fighting Bob" Evans. All were embarking upon a naval deployment the scale of which had never been attempted by any nation before - the first 'round-the-world cruise by a fleet of steam-powered, steel battleships. The 43,000 mile, 14-month circumnavigation would include 20 port calls on six continents; it is widely considered one of the greatest peacetime achievements of the US Navy.
The idea of sending the new battle fleet around the world was the brainchild of the energetic "Teddy" Roosevelt, former colonel of the Rough Riders and one-time assistant secretary of the Navy. Assuming the presidency after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt brought to the White House a deep conviction that only through a strong navy could a nation project its power and prestige abroad.
In 1898, at the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States was thrust into the mainstream of international affairs and gained status as a world power, acquiring as possessions the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, then Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. In 1904, the United States also established a naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to ensure the safety of the Panama Canal, then under construction.
Roosevelt stressed the upgrading and expansion of the US fleet in order to protect American interests abroad. From 1904 to 1907, American shipyards turned out 11 new battleships to give the Navy awesome battle capabilities. This was timely, for, in 1906, hostilities with Japan seemed possible; the Japanese navy dominated the Pacific and posed a potential threat to the Philippines.
America's problems with Japan arose shortly after Roosevelt mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1906, ending the Russo-Japanese War. In that conflict the Russian fleet had been annihilated by the Japanese. But despite their triumphs over the Russians on the high seas, the Japanese failed to get all they felt they deserved at the peace table and blamed Roosevelt for it.
In the same year, anti-Japanese feelings were sweeping California. The San Francisco Board of Education ordered the segregation of all immigrant and descendent Japanese school children.
When the news of this reached Japan, violent anti-American protests broke out. Roosevelt managed to persuade 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.
Roosevelt didn't want a break with Japan, as the United States was ill-prepared for war. Most of our battle fleet was concentrated in the Atlantic, and there were only a handful of armored cruisers on duty in the Pacific. In the event of war with Japan, this small contingent that made up the Asiatic Battle Fleet would have to abandon the Philippines for West Coast ports until the United States had strength enough to go on the offensive. Thus, to impress upon Japan that the US Navy could shift from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Roosevelt ordered the Great White Fleet to sail around the world.
The President also wanted to find out what condition the fleet would be in after such a transit. As he stated before the fleet's departure, "I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not in time of war."
But, more importantly, Roosevelt felt that a successful cruise of this magnitude would provide the American people with an example of US naval prepardness, strength and range. Such an impression, he hoped, would help him get the desired appropriations for four more battleships.
With the exception of the few highest ranking naval officials, nobody was aware of Roosevelt's intention to send the fleet around the world. Even the President's own cabinet didn't know about it. All anyone knew was that the fleet would be steaming from the east to West Coast in a training exercise.
Once the plans for the cruise became public, not everyone was impressed. Some critics felt that this show of force would encourage a Japanese attack on the fleet. Others were worried that the Atlantic naval defenses would be weakened by taking away so many ships. Also, it was reasoned, since the Panama Canal was unfinished, the ships would have to pass through the Straits of Magellan, an area that posed considerable danger because of tricky currents and great storms.
Senator Eugene Hale from Maine, chairman of the Naval Appropriations Committee, threatened to withhold money for the cruise. But this didn't bother Roosevelt, who replied in his typically brusque and forthright fashion that he already had the money and dared Congress to "try and get it back."
Nobody took Roosevelt up on his challenge and the Great White Fleet got underway that December morning, with the coal-burning ships' stacks spewing billowing clouds of black smoke into the gray sky. Aboard the flagship Connecticut, Rear Adm. Evans looked out with pride upon the majestic fleet under his command. He had stated earlier that his ships "were ready at the drop of a hat for a feast, a frolic or a fight".
Late on the first day of steaming, Evans passed the word to the officers and men of the fleet that after 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. In short, they would be transiting the globe. When this announcement became general knowledge the next day, countries throughout the world tendered their invitations for the fleet to visit their ports.
The first leg of the cruise took the fleet into the South Atlantic. On Dec. 23, the fleet made its first port visit, at Port of Spain in Trinidad, a small island off the coast of Venezuela.
Trinidad, as most of the sailors discovered, rated a pretty low score when it came to liberty. According to one sailor, it was one of the most boring places he'd been to and he remarked, "When we pulled in, there were no people around and almost everything was closed up. Just one building was open that had any beer in it. By the time we made it to shore, the stuff was hot as hell. It was just like drinking boiler water."
Another sailor noted that, aside from "looking at the flowers and visiting a leper colony," there wasn't much to do. When the fleet left Port of Spain Dec. 29, enroute to Brazil, there were few if any, who longed to stay. All hoped for better liberty in the future. It couldn't get any worse.
Courtesy of the Navy Historical Center