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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
From the Mississippi
to the Sea

by
Admiral Robert E. Coontz


published by
Dorrance & Company
Philadelphia
1930

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!

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Chapter 19
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p244  Chapter XVIII

Back to the "Philadelphia"

Made Senior Watch Officer — Panama Revolution — Our Consul at Guayaquil and Four Barrels of Whiskey — Winning in a Chinese Gambling House — The Dead at Panama — An Unpleasant Cruise — Return to San Francisco — Dinner Party Tricks — Magdalena Bay — The Adams — We Win a $5,000 Boat Race — The Glory of San Diego.

Upon reaching San Francisco I learned that the Philadelphia was under orders to sail within a few days for Panama, where another revolution was threatened. I decided that my family should go to Olympia, Washington, and then return to Missouri, as I had only recently received word that my sister was engaged to be married and that the wedding would occur in April.

It was rather a gloomy crowd that started from San Francisco on December 20 for Panama. We did not know how long we would be gone, and as far as we could see there was no ship that would be likely to relieve us for many months. Panama was the old mosquito and yellow fever-infested isthmus. We stopped at Pichilinque to take on a further supply of the miserably poor coal left at that station, and then moved on to our destination, arriving January 6, 1902.

The captain of the vessel was William W. Mead, still living, the executive W. S. Hughes, and the navigator, R. M. Hughes. When I reported aboard the ship at San Francisco the captain informed me that he had some unexpected news for me. He said he was in urgent need of a senior watch officer to straighten out the ship, and that he knew from  p245 my reputation that I was the man to do it. Therefore, he had telegraphed the Department for permission to have me as his senior watch officer. I said I was thirty-seven years old and had been standing watch for fifteen years, that I could still stand it, as for the past two years I had never stood less than three watches in crossing the Atlantic. One officer, named Hand, was invalided the day I joined the vessel, and died shortly thereafter of appendicitis, at Mare Island. The other watch officers were Scales, my old friend, Macy, Stitt and Forman. Burd was chief engineer, Leeds Kerr, pay officer, and Kavanagh was doing engineering duty. The doctors were Drake and Morgan, and Bradman was marine officer. On the way south we had target practice, which was not very successful.

Upon arriving at Panama I was sent to pay a call on our consul,º Mr. J. M. Gudger, of North Carolina. In the troublesome times that followed, Mr. Gudger was aboard our ship many times. The revolutionists were active and matters much unsettled. We soon got under way and circled through the waters south of Panama, seeking information regarding certain ships, and then returned to a good anchorage, not far from Dead Man's Island.

At times both British and French vessels came into the harbor of Panama to observe the progress of the revolution. I find in my diary that the culmination of the revolution was as follows:

"Morning watch. Sent steamer in at 5:30 with Defrees. At 6:05 sighted three steamers to the southward. The leading one, Almirante Padilla, passed in board of us, and when ahead went to quarters, broke the Columbianº flag, and commenced firing on the Lantara, the seized Chilean transport, anchored about one‑half mile ashore of us. I informed the captain that we were in the line of fire, sent six  p246 pounders to quarters and then, about 6:35, went to general quarters. After fifteen minutes firing joined itº in by the Chicuto (Government), and Darien, revolutionists, the Padilla and Darien drew off to westward, followed by Chicuto. The third steamer was English, the Quito of Guayaquil,a and her captain came on board here. The firing was carried on by six pounders, twelve pounders, one pounders, etc., and Colt or Gatling. At 8 the Lantara, being on fire, Stitt was sent in one launch to the wounded, and I went with the executive officer to the other. I picked out one wounded officer from the port side. He was gritty! He had been shot through both buttocks. We put him in the bottom of the launch, stuffed his wounds with waste, and tied him up. We could see the shell in him. The other launch got another badly wounded man, who died on board at 10:45. General Alban, the Governor of Panama, was wounded on the Lantara, and died on board before noon. At 11:00 the Padilla and Darien withdrew. They were warned not to bombard Panama. The Chicuto was warned not to get in line with us."

We sent our wounded man to the hospital and he had a remarkable recovery. While I was on board the Lantara the shells were still exploding from the heat of the burning vessel, and the executive and I wasted no time in leaving. I have always regretted that we did not know General Alban's body was locked in one of the staterooms.

Insurgent rumors continued and we kept very strict watches. Captain Mead was relieved by Captain W. W. Reisinger about the end of January. Thereafter I was on shore in Panama only three times. There were still swarms of mosquitoes. The channel to the steamer wharves had filled, and the commanding officer directed me to make a survey, which I did with the assistance of Macy and Kavanagh.  p247 In some places there was a showing of only eleven feet at low water.

About the end of February we received orders from the Department to proceed to Guayaquil, Ecuador. We hove up anchor March 4, and started south across the equator. The ship's bottom was foul and our speed was slow. Vessels quickly become foul in Panama Bay, and stories are told of ships remaining there that stalagmites and stalactites connect the ship with the bottom of the bay.

We crossed the line without incident and with no exercises, as the Philadelphia was termed a dead ship. We anchored at Puna, thirty miles down the river from Guayaquil. The tides in the river were strong and could not be bucked by small boats. We went up on flood tide and came down on the ebb.

I remember my visit to Guayaquil with Paymaster Kerr and Lieutenant Kavanagh. We left the ship at four in the morning and reached the city at eight. The heat was intense, but we saw much of the town and purchased some Panama hats. I bought a very handsome one for four dollars. Beside it were some hats that were apparently similar, and Kavanagh said he would take one. When it was rolled up the proprietor of the story demanded twenty dollars for it. Kavanagh hesitated a moment and then paid the amount. He said no sport would make a purchase and then back out of it. That night we slept at the best hotel, or tried to sleep. The mosquitoes came through the nettings and feasted on us.

The next morning the captain asked me to accompany him to see the consul. When we arrived it was still early, and there was no one in sight at the consulate, but beside the door were four barrels of Maryland rye whiskey. Soon our consul came down dressed in a smoking jacket, and as soon as  p248 he greeted us began to explain how he happened to have so much liquor. He said that being a southerner he had always been accustomed to good whiskey, and that for a time he had lived in Baltimore. There he had acquired a taste for Maryland rye, and when he came to Guayaquil he found that he could not drink the "rot‑gut stuff" sold there, so he had written to Baltimore and ordered four quarts of rye whiskey. Being advanced in age, he said, his penmanship was not good, and the word "quart" was mistaken for "barrel!"

The railroad to Quito was under construction at that time, and the inhabitants arranged an excursion for us to Victoria, the terminus of the road. Nine officers went on the trip. Our hosts invited some ladies who could speak a little English, and we also had some music. We rode sixty miles before we started to climb. As we turned and looked back along the railroad, the view became more beautiful with every mile.

At one o'clock we reached Duncan where we met more Americans and some Englishmen and their wives. For two or three hours we had a wonderful time. We returned to Guayaquil about seven o'clock and reached the ship at half-past one in the morning. Some of our hosts expressed a desire to visit the Philadelphia, and we invited them to come aboard the next day. Kerr and I telegraphed to the ship that they were coming, but when I arose in the morning, I found that no arrangements had been made for their reception, so Kerr and I hurriedly prepared some refreshments. Our guests arrived at 2:30. They were quite hungry and ate the baked beans and hard tack and prunes, and drank the coffee placed before them, and pronounced it a first‑class meal.

From Guayaquil we returned to Panama and settled down. The department had informed us there was no relief ship in sight. On the Atlantic side of the Isthmus were various small vessels such as the Castine and the Marietta, and their officers exchanged visits with us.

 p249  I made one trip to Colon with Kavanagh and went with him to a Chinese gaming house. He lost steadily, and I attempted to give him advise. He said I had better try the game myself. I did, and much to my surprise, began to win! By ten o'clock all of my pockets were filled with silver dollars, and it was with difficulty that I was able to walk. Kavanagh followed my betting and partly recouped, when suddenly the bank closed. We managed to get back to the hotel safely. I tied my winnings in a cloth and placed them in the center of my bed. We left there the next morning and returned to Panama. It was not necessary for me, after that, to draw any money for some time. I had had the luck of a novice, and I have never since gambled.

Our apprentices won a three-mile boat race and a good sum of money from the British. The British led at the outset, but the strength of our young apprentices lasted longer than their rivals', who were older, and to the surprise of everyone, we won the contest by forty‑one seconds.

We heard that the Ranger was expected to relieve us. I cabled my friend, E. M. Burbeck, at San Diego, to get authentic information as to the date of her sailing, and in reply received the one word, "seventh." We were all very tired of Panama and the Isthmus. Our captain was socially inclined and knew all of the prominent Spaniards there. He was entertained lavishly and on Sundays always had a gathering of them on board. All the time, however, he was suffering from fever which he kept down by heavy doses of quinine. Some of our men died, and one of my jobs was to bury them on Dead Man's Isle. Every time I dug a grave on that island I came upon human bones. In times past thousands had died and been buried there, hence its name. The remains of many worthy United States naval officers, bluejackets and marines lie there. The most imposing spot in the cemetery was that surrounding the Tennessee monument. While we were in Panama, Lieutenant Commander Charles Laird came to relieve his classmate, Lieutenant Commander  p250 W. S. Hughes, and brought a new tombstone for his father-in‑law, whose body had been interred on the island.

The Ranger came into port on June 27, and we lost little time in making the necessary transfers and giving her our captain's instructions; then we headed north. Because of the foul bottom of the ship, our speed was reduced one‑half. At Cape San Lucas, Lower California, we ran into cooler weather, and were glad of the relief from the terrible heat from which we had suffered for seven months. I had the middle watch, and just as I reached the deck, was informed that Captain Reisinger had fallen dead in his cabin. The sudden change from the tropical heat, together with the great quantities of quinine he had taken, was more than he could withstand in his enfeebled condition. As there were no ice machines or other proper facilities for preserving the corpse, we decided to bury him on the shores of Magdalena Bay. We made him a coffin of lead and zinc, and placed it in a pine box. The next afternoon we entered the harbor quietly and placed him at rest with full military honors. We erected a cross at the head of his grave, and sadly resumed our voyage. Congress subsequently appropriated money for the removal of his remains to his home in Maryland.b

After one of the most unpleasant cruises I have ever made, we reached San Francisco, about July 16, 1902.

My family met me in San Francisco, having returned from a visit to Missouri where they attended the wedding of my younger sister. We found orders to put the old Boston in commission and have her accompany us to Puget Sound where the Philadelphia was to go out of commission.

I was made temporary executive and navigator of the Boston, and given the duty of getting the stores on board. We made the voyage to Puget Sound with Laird commanding; Defrees, as assistant navigator; Winchell, as engineer, and several other officers. We worked like  p251 beavers and succeeded in getting away from Mare Island in eleven days. In the meantime, Charles P. Perkins was ordered to command the Philadelphia. He was an expert on compasses, and I had to adjust ours in San Pablo Bay. I did my best on their compensation and received his commendation.

The Boston was to accompany the Philadelphia to Puget Sound, but as conditions showed, each of them really needed a convoy. Our steering gear would not work, our engines were in trouble and the entire voyage was a nightmare. The cabin table which had not been secured, caught the commanding officer when the ship rolled and pinned him to the side of the vessel, crippling one of his legs for months. We reached our destination at the end of nine days. The department ordered an investigation of the condition of the Boston and decided to send our officers and men to the Concord.

Fortunately, just at that time, I received my orders as navigator of the Adams, then fitting out as a training ship at Mare Island. I went to Olympia for a four days' visit to my brother-in‑law, Dr. Wyman, and to rest before going upon my new assignment. In those days we used training ships to advantage. I have often wondered why we are not able to do so today. We took the raw apprentices from Goat Island and made cruises down the California coast as far as Lower California, and in three months turned out good, practical seamen. Of course, our ship organizations called for good petty officers, and that was the best part of it. Those petty officers taught the recruits quickly.

After spending twenty-four hours at home in San Francisco, I reached Mare Island, in August, 1902, and reported on the Adams one Sunday afternoon. John S. Graham, an ensign, had the deck, sized me up for a recent graduate of the naval academy, and told me I could sleep that night in the starboard after stateroom of the ship. I said nothing, but a little later, Guy Brown came on  p252 board and greeted me as lieutenant and navigator, and Graham "took to the woods."

Charles E. Fox was the commander of the Adams, Guy Brown, executive, and our watch officers Standley, Macy, Schofield, John Graham and George P. Brown. Our surgeon was Parker, our paymaster Hagner and our pay clerk Chas. A. Davis.

Hagner, who was only twenty‑one years old, had just been appointed as assistant paymaster by President Roosevelt, and came west with several officers. They made the acquaintance of a dapper stranger on the train, who left them at a small station in Nevada. As the train was pulling out young Hagner happened to look up the street and thought he saw his new found friend carrying his suitcase. In it were all his uniforms, pay accounts and civilian clothes. An examination of the bag left by the stranger showed that it contained only a soiled white shirt! When Hagner reported aboard the Adams, Guy Brown pretended not to believe his story, and for a time would not give him a stateroom, or allow him to be served.

The Adams, when commissioned and outfitted, was sent down to Goat Island for inspection by Captain Glass. We knew how strict Glass was and put forth our best efforts to have the ship in good condition. The young paymaster, hearing our discussion, and not getting any instructions himself, inquired what his duties would be at the inspection. He was referred to Standley. Two hours later, I happened to be going forward on the main deck and saw a crowd of bluejackets about the galley. I quickly realized what they were doing there when I heard these unusual orders given, "Out skillets," "Return skillets," "All cooks coal the galley." I did not interfere with the proceedings.

When the Adams first left Mare Island we stopped for a short time in San Pablo Bay shaking down the apprentices and seamen, correcting the compasses and having boat drill. At the end of three days, fresh provisions  p253 began to get low, and as we had no cold storage, the paymaster inquired at the mess what he should do. He was told by one of the watch officers who was a Californian to buy vegetables from the "hay" boat. He asked what that was and they told him that schooners went down regularly from Petaluma Creek, carrying fruits and vegetables for the San Francisco market. One after the officer of the day was startled when the paymaster, from the port afterside of the quarterdeck, hailed a passing schooner and when it came alongside, said he wished to purchase some fresh vegetables. The captain of the schooner told him to go to the devil; that they had no fresh vegetables and carried only hay.

We passed the inspection all right and soon headed for San Diego which was to be our home port for nearly a year and a half. Brown, our executive, wanted the ship to make a good impression there, and asked me to perform one of my "tricks" at a dinner party he intended to give on our arrival. In my earlier days, I had been a ventriloquist, but after having a corpse demand to be let out of a coffin, in a railroad station, at Decatur, Illinois, I abandoned the art for life. I was still able, however, to tell the date of a person's birth, by looking at the finger nail of the third finger of the left hand. Accordingly, on the night of Brown's party, he called upon me to do my stunt, and tell the birthdays and ages of the ladies.

I was able to work the trick successfully, until all save one lady of uncertain age, had had the correct finger nail examined. She was nervous and not at all desirous of having her age revealed, but the other ladies insisted. I took her hand and after studying it a moment gave the date of her birth and added that she was just twenty-three years old. She nearly fainted, but recovered sufficiently to compliment me upon my accuracy and to express great wonderment as to how I was able to tell her exact age.

About a month before we arrived in San Diego Brown had written to his wife and asked her to obtain, tactfully,  p254 and without revealing her purpose, the information which I later so mysteriously imparted to the ladies. When it was sent to me all I had to do was to memorize it. Anyhow, it was a nine days' wonder, and the Adams became a very popular ship.

The ship was a long time in getting ready for her work, but when we made the first southern voyage we were in shape for anything. Magdalena Bay was then at its best. It had not been ruined by people coming in and hunting and fishing. One could still kill deer in the mountains forty miles north of Magdalena; birds, particularly snipe, were plentiful; the waters were full of fish and turtle; and oysters "grew on the trees." I do not ask anyone to believe this last statement, but refer them to Rear Admiral Standley who was with me on many expeditions.

Our various trips to Magdalena Bay were of about the same character. We anchored not far from the wharf and at daylight began the drills in seamanship and ordnance, and in the handling of boats under sail and oars, and worked diligently until two‑thirty in the afternoon. After that, the boats were rigged out and volunteer crews sailed them until four o'clock. In each boat there were trolling lines. The Spanish mackerel were excellent. We had our own private clam bed which we used for years, and which was still there as late as 1908. We could eat all the ducks and game we killed — in fact, everything except the coyotes which no one seemed to care for.

Executive officer Brown left the ship only once on all of our Magdalena cruises. As navigator I accompanied some of our officers on several hunting and fishing trips which were generally taken each Friday afternoon. As a rule, the wind was generally from the north. With rare exceptions it was easy to get a beam breeze, coming and going. We carried tents, bedding and provisions, and explored every part of the north side of the vast expanse of Magdalena Bay.

Our first expedition taught us a lesson. We had allowed the paymaster who was new in the business to look  p255 out for provisions. At the first dinner we found he had taken only twelve potatoes for the entire trip, there were twelve officers and men in the boat. We wonder how much game and fish we would have to eat without potatoes. One afternoon when we returned to camp, we had a sad disappointment. A big crock of baked beans had been taken along and placed by the edge of the fire to warm. As we approached the place and could smell the beans, there was a terrible explosion and beans through the air and were scattered all about the camp. It seems to be a law of physics that if one side of a crock is heated, while the other side is cold, it will burst.

One of our men had been told that the warmest place to sleep while on camping trips was in the sand. He therefore dug himself a grave-like bed, lined it with newspapers, unrolled his blankets and turned in. Actually, the sand is cold and damp, especially along the seashore. The next morning when he awoke, we had to haul him out from his blankets and newspapers, and it required two stiff drinks of whiskey to revive him. Apparently, the experience did not injure him, for he is still living.

The tides in the eastern part of Magdalena Bay are very high. On one trip a member of our party hung his hammock in one of the oyster trees. About two o'clock in the morning we heard a cry, waterward from us. The man in the oyster tree called that he had been awakened by the sea seeping in through the bottom of his hammock. We rescued him and after that he was willing to sleep in a tent with the rest of his shipmates.

In December, 1902, by permission of the department, we had a wedding on board the Adams. Miss Helen Ray, daughter of a deceased naval officer, came out from Washington, D. C., with her mother, to marry Assistant Paymaster I. T. Hagner. He was twenty‑one and she was twenty. We gave them a pretty wedding on the ship, with the captain attending the ceremony, and started the happy couple off for Los Angeles.

The Mohican, another training ship, relieved the Alert,  p256 and whenever she and the Adams met there was great rivalry between their officers and crews, in all sports, from boat racing to baseball. We had three big boat races with the Mohican, winning the first and the third, and the Mohican winning the second. The last and decisive race was most exciting. The ships' crews bet all the money they had, and the Adams men won $5,000. The result was that the Mohican which sailed the next day for San Francisco carried some very sad sailormen. They had no money to spend when they landed.

I look back upon the Adams cruise, and the good times in San Diego, as among my pleasantest experiences. I recall an unfortunate, but amusing experience one evening at the home of Mr. U. S. Grant, a son of Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.President Grant. The hostess expressed a desire for welsh rarebit, and asked if any one of the officers present could make one. Macy said that he had learned how back in the days when he lived in Missouri. The ingredients were compounded and soon he had turned out as appetizing a dish as I had ever seen, but in bringing it into the drawing room, cook, rarebit and platter fell to the floor when Macy stumbled over a rug. Of course, the platter fell upside down. It was late at night, there was no more cheese in the house, and we were obliged to forgo our delicacy. Macy was greatly embarrassed, as it was our first visit at the Grant home; yet notwithstanding, he afterwards married Miss Miriam Grant, the daughter of the household.

In December, 1902, my old friend and shipmate David Peacock died in Los Angeles, of Bright's disease. The captain held the ship at San Diego for one day while I went to Los Angeles and attended his funeral.

We usually spent six weeks on the trips to Magdalena, and with a good breeze could make the down voyage, under sail, in four days. Returning, there was never much breeze, and as we had to contest against the northwest current, we always steamed, and we were six days on the way.

 p257  Between the Magdalena trips on which we made seamen out of the youthful apprentices, we often cruised in Santa Barbara Channel. At Mare Island we usually spent six weeks in light repairs, and on our return south, took another set of recruits from Goat Island.

Never again will there be such days as at San Diego! The city was not too big then to appreciate the army and navy. We were given the privilege of the country club for one dollar a month, and had special rates at all the hotels and boarding houses, both in San Diego and Coronado. It was the heyday of girls' boating clubs, and the orange and fruit ranches around the city were just being developed. We had a free tennis court at Fifth and E Streets, within a short distance of where most of us lived.

With a set of youngsters in the crew, we had various children's diseases, such as measles, scarlet fever and diphtheria. We lost a few from diphtheria. When quarantined, the entire ship's company occupied the city's big quarantine station buildings near where we were anchored. Only the captain, the executive and four quartermasters remained on board. When the boys were stricken they usually died quickly. I became an expert in examining throats, as we had only one doctor. Even though we were in quarantine and our spirits at a low ebb, we nevertheless celebrated Washington's birthday. We found a remarkable amount of talent among the officers and crew, and with nothing but the clothes we had brought with us in the ditty boxes and bags, we managed to rig up costumes and had a four hours' entertainment, which restored the morale of both officers and men.

There was only one stove in the entire building, and that was the cook stove in the kitchen. It was the only place to get warm. It was in February, and even in San Diego at that season of the year the air is chilly after the sun goes down. Usually we retired at eight o'clock.

While anchored at Prisoner's harbor, we had an amusing  p258 experience which I shall relate as it was told by Colonel Washington Meeks later on in Guam.

About twenty-five or thirty years ago, a large sign hung above the entrance of a building on Market street, about four blocks from the ferry. It read "Justinian Caire," and being an unusual name, it always attracted my attention. Mr. Caire owned an island in the channel across from the city of Santa Barbara, which he used as a sheep ranch and a winery. The Adams was anchored there in 1903.

Captain Fox detailed Lieutenant W. H. Standley and Surgeon E. G. Parker to go on shore, see the manager of the ranch and make arrangements for target practice. Inquiry developed the fact that Mr. Caire's manager was four miles up the mountain trail at a sheep ranch. The two officers engaged horses and after a beautiful ride up the mountain side to an altitude of two thousand feet reached the ranch. The advent of the ship and the coming of the two officers had been telephoned to the manager, but he did not know the nature of their business. When Standley and Parker arrived they dismounted and Standley introduced himself. Then turning to Dr. Parker who bowed low he said: "And this is the ship's doctor."

"But," protested the ranch manager, "I do not need a sheep doctor, for none of my sheep are sick!"

In September, 1903, John Schofield was detached from Mare Island and relieved by Ensign H. H. Evans. Ensign I. C. Johnson, recently graduated, joined us at San Diego, in February, of the following year, and G. P. Brown went to the Petrel. The morning that Johnson came on board the Adams to report, the diphtheria quarantine had just been lifted and the crew moved to the ship. The vessel was in a fearful condition from being fumigated, and the decks had not been scrubbed for eight or ten days, and our freeing ports were still closed. When Johnson, fresh from the naval academy, got out of the steam launch and came up the starboard gangway  p259 ladder, in full uniform, he stepped into a pool of water. I had him come up and report on the bridge, where, as executive officer, I was supervising the cleaning, and then directed that he be carried aft to the ward room hatch before he got into any more water. It was a poor introduction for a new officer, but it did not discourage Johnson. He has always made good.

Later on, Ensign Frederick J. Horne joined us and sailed on our last southern cruise. While we were in quarantine in San Diego, we had orders, unexpectedly, to proceed to Mare Island and outfit as a station ship at Samoa. At the same time the Mohican had orders to outfit as a station ship at Cavite. This ended the training voyages, as the Alert had already gone out of commission. Brown was detached and ordered home. I became the executive officer, G. L. P. Stone came to us as navigator, and Standley, for a time, was chief engineer. After we left San Diego in April, 1904, the old Adams never saw the port again. In San Francisco, we detached our apprentices, and at Mare Island proceeded to lay in stores and provisions and take a crew of bluejackets. Outside of a new paymaster, we went to the South Seas practically intact, as to officers.


Thayer's Notes:

a So the printed text: a hard-to‑understand garble, so I've left it. The steamer was the Quito. Guayaquil seems to have been its home port, and possibly the text should read the Quito, of Guayaquil.

[decorative delimiter]

b He is buried in Arlington National Cemetery.


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