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Teddy and the "Great White Fleet"

February 26, 2019

"The bride at every wedding”!
 “Speak softly but carry a big stick”!  Words of wisdom from a President of the United States, who spoke with a booming voice, had opinions about everything and refused to back down from a fight. His daughter, Alice, claimed that he “Wanted to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral’’! He wrote over fifty books in his relatively short life. Explored unknown areas of Amazonia and Africa, was the only “Conservationist”, who had every trophy head of now endangered world species that he shot, nailed to the walls of his home in Sagamore Hill. He was a boxing champion who suffered poor eyesight and severe asthma yet became a rancher in the Dakota’s, a Police Chief, Governor of New York, Asst. Secretary of the Navy, heroic Cavalry Colonel who led the charge up San Juan Hill in the Spanish American War and winner of the Noble Peace Prize for negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War. This was a man you did not piss off.

“Remember the Maine!”
 The key to Teddy Roosevelt was in his awareness of world events. While at Harvard he wrote a book, The Naval War of 1812, published in 1882, examining America’s naval engagements against the British, the greatest sea power of its time. This book manifested his belief that our country must have a strong modern navy. He believed sea power was America’s destiny and continually advocated for it until his death in 1919.
As Assistant Secretary of the Navy, under President McKinley, Roosevelt was aware of the aging of our Navy and began the process of updating the fleet when our battleship Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor. This brought us to war with Spain and its colonies. Though Teddy resigned as Assistant Secretary of the Navy to lead his own famous volunteer cavalry regiment, the war proved to Roosevelt that though the United States was victorious on land and sea, our Navy was out of date compared to the burgeoning sea power of Russia, Britain, and Japan amongst others. If we had to fight these newer powers and not the rotting Spanish Navy, we would lose.
Roosevelt ran on McKinley's ticket as Vice President in 1901 and when McKinley was assassinated Roosevelt became President. On the International scene, the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905 was a naval bloodbath. The opposing fleets were modern fighting machines for their day and pummeled each other. Japan ended in crushing Russia in most of the major sea battles. To Roosevelt, it signaled the time had come to refit the entire United States Navy into a modern fleet that could, for the first time in our history, project United States power throughout the world. He publically pressed to rebuild, and as a result, new larger "dreadnaught’’ battleships and up to date destroyer-torpedo ships were built by1907.

“Preparing for “The Great White Fleet”
 Once President Roosevelt knew that the “state of the art” Navy was ready, Teddy, who could never refrain from showing off anything, decided it was time to “strut his stuff “clear around all the oceans and major ports of the world. But hold up El Presidente! Not so fast. There were other logistics to consider.
One troubling aspect of projecting long-range sea power was learned from the Russian fleet’s most obvious weakness. All these ships required massive amounts of coal to fuel their giant engines plus fresh water, food and ammo. Russia was crippled by its inability to adequately resupply their ships due to their distance from major friendly ports. Japan, fighting closer to home, had less of a problem. Roosevelt, being a man who disdained failure, had to find ways to override this issue. Even with the new territories of Guam and the Philippines added as a result of our victory in the Spanish American War, more places to supply the fleet with coal and supplies were needed. A fleet of coal and supply ships was the answer.  He procured 38 of them to follow the fleet at a distance.

“All aboard!”
The enormous fleet, it’s battleships and destroyers painted gleaming white with gold and red, white and blue highlights was ready to sail in the waning days of Roosevelt’s presidency. Journalists nicknamed it “The Great White Fleet”.
He gave the fleet orders to depart for a world tour from Hampton Roads, Virginia on Dec 16, 1907 and was there to cheer them on. It consisted of 16 modern, giant, dreadnaught battleships, 6 new torpedo equipped destroyers, 38 supply ships and 14,000 sailors to crew them. In two years they covered 43,000 nautical miles and visited twenty major ports of countries in the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and Mediterranean Oceans led by the flagship Connecticut under the command of Rear Admiral Robert Evans and later Charles S. Sperry.
It is interesting to note that this great voyage was being undertaken while the Panama Canal was being constructed but not ready for use. President Roosevelt had undertaken its construction in 1904 so that vessels could reach the Pacific from the Atlantic quickly. The "Great White Fleet” did not have that option. Instead, they had to take the circuitous route around the treacherous Cape Horn between the southernmost bottom of South America and Antarctica. This was the largest fleet to ever traverse this turbulent area and they did so without a major mishap.
In every port visited, “The Great White Fleet” was met by tremendous crowds. They sailed to Trinidad, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, The Philippines, Japan, China, Ceylon, Egypt, and Gibraltar. The fleet was seen on the high seas by virtually every major sea power. The Fleet also sent ships on a humanitarian mission to help the survivors of a major earthquake in Sicily that their ancestors remember to this day. Then the fleet sailed back arriving at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on Feb. 22, 1909. And who was waiting at the dock?? You got it! Teddy Roosevelt himself, cheering while inwardly wishing he was the Admiral that day.

There are many lessons to be found in the building and world display of ‘The Great White Fleet”. The heyday of the “dreadnaught” battleship only lasted a relatively short time in history. The ones that the U.S.A. built for this fleet quickly displayed engineering flaws such as far too deep keels, and bows that did not have flair to deflect heavy seas. They were not tested in battle at that time and later their guns had to be raised and refitted to work properly. The side armor of the ships was insufficient and of course, they consumed massive amounts of bulky coal. Future battleships would be built with big bow flairs to cut through the heaviest seas; they would be designed as a group and not singly to reducing cost and inefficiency and would be powered by diesel engines rather than cumbersome coal.
It is important to note that the competition to build bigger, better, and deadlier fleets amongst the world powers at the beginning of the twentieth century was one of the most important causes of World War I in 1914. When “The Great White Fleet’’ was built and deployed Roosevelt never imagined that he was adding to the lethal arms race that would take the life of his son, Quentin, in France. He never fully recovered from that loss. I am equally sure that his display of the giant fleet was a show of force, at that time, warding off the possibility of war with Japan which was already gobbling up parts of China and Korea with one eye on the Philippines. But that show of might had only a tenuous effect.
World War I led directly into World War II. Some historians claim it was actually one war with a pause in the middle. It was viciously fought at sea and dreadnaughts would meet their match in faster destroyers and deadly submarines.  All the combatant countries took heavy losses in the sinking of their largest dreadnaught battleships. Names like Arizona, Banham, Bismarck, Tirpitz, Ise, Mutso, Prince of Wales, Royal Oak, Yamamoto, and so many others have passed into history by being either sunk in war, scrapped for metal or as a museum. Today we and other nations are building aircraft carrier after aircraft carrier to project sea and air power on the oceans of the world.  Where does it end? I wonder what Teddy Roosevelt would say? I think I’ll visit Sagamore Hill and have a chat with him. I love that place and I am sure he would have something to say, even now.

Names of the dreadnaughts in the Great White Fleet.
Connecticut (Admirals Flagship), Kansas, Louisiana, Vermont, Georgia, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Virginia, Maine, Minnesota, Missouri, Ohio, Alabama, Illinois, Kearsage, Kentucky
(Alabama and Maine were later replaced by Nebraska and Wisconsin)
Names of torpedo boat destroyers; Hopkins, Hull, Lawrence, Stewart, Truxtun, Whipple.  

C. 2019 by Mark C.(Sea) Nuccio. All rights reserved.   
Contact the author at---mark@designedge.net  


 

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