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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 13

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

Admiral Robert E. Coontz

published by
Dorrance & Company

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 15

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p194  Chapter XIV

"Sealed Orders"

My Son Kenneth Born in San Francisco — To Honolulu — The Hawaiian Islands — To the Survey Ship Patterson — To San Diego — The Maine Blown Up — A Telegraphic Error — Transferred to the Charleston — Raw Recruits — "Sealed Orders" — The 180th Meridian.

In the spring of 1897 my wife and I established ourselves in a boarding house at the corner of Hyde and Pine Streets, San Francisco, where my son Kenneth was born, May 5, 1897. Mrs. Brotherton, the landlady, was a southern woman, kindly and generous, but did not make a financial success of her business.

Once a man and child came to her door seeking a first-class boarding house. He told her that at the last place where they had lived he actually believed dogs' meat was served. Mrs. Brotherton expressed sympathy, and added that she always served Katz meat on her table. The prospective guest did not understand. He stared at her, then took the child by the hand and left the house, not to return. Katz was the butcher from whom Mrs. Brotherton purchased her meats.

Meanwhile the Philadelphia was ordered from San Diego to Honolulu, and I was instructed to join her there. The Naniwa, a Japanese vessel, was proceeding there at the same time. The Philadelphia was the first to arrive. She entered the harbor and tied up, as usual, with two anchors down and her stern secured by wire hawsers to the reef on the beach. This reef is now filled in, and upon it are wharves, warehouses and the quarantine station.

Conditions made it necessary for the Philadelphia to remain in Hawaiian waters until the following October.

A few days after my son was born I sailed for Honolulu  p195 on the old Alameda. This steamer made the trip once a month. The Philadelphia was in Honolulu from April until October, and we formed the acquaintance of many of the residents, so that the time was most enjoyably occupied. Several of our officers had their wives in the Islands. Steamers arrived infrequently; there were neither cables nor radio; and thus we settled down and became a part of the town. It took nearly an entire day to go out to the beach at Waikiki for a swim. In recent years there has been a very marked development in the Hawaiian capital, and Honolulu is now a thoroughly cosmopolitan city.

I was one of the founders of the Nuannu Valley Tennis Club, and spent much time there with friends, with the Carters, the Damons and the Eldredges, all of whom lived in the Valley. There were many cliques in Honolulu then, but they all came together at the big social functions given by the Hawaiians, the British, the Americans, and our navy. Baseball was one of our recreations, and having kept in practice, I was a member of the team.

Few of the ship's boats, except those of the admiral and the captain, were used in the harbor. Each officer had his own boatman who slept on the dock and was always within hail day or night.

Sugar was the great commercial product of the Islands. When the newspapers from the States came in, they were eagerly read by all the people, to learn the latest quotations on sugar.

Ammunition was kept alongside the guns of the Philadelphia, and a part of the gun crew slept there. This was probably unnecessary, although it did not look so at that time. Only once did our ship leave Honolulu, and that was after the foreign vessels had departed. She then cruised to the Island of Maui, and most of the time we were anchored at Lahaina, which was to become famous, in 1925, as our fleet base. Landing at Lahaina in those days was difficult. The pier was small and the sea  p196 choppy. I did not go ashore myself, as we were getting ready for target practice. Some of the local inhabitants, however, came off to the ship to visit us. The view of the mountains behind Lahaina is superb. One of our officers inquired the origin of the name "Lahaina." He was told that King Kamehameha who conquered the island and united the Hawaiian group, upon landing there, stepped out of his canoe, took off his head covering, wiped his forehead, and exclaimed, "Lahaina," which being interpreted means, "Hell, ain't it hot?"​a

On the return of the Philadelphia to Honolulu, after the Lahaina trip, we found orders to proceed to Mare Island, transfer our crew to the Baltimore, and return with despatch to Honolulu. The orders turned out to be high‑up orders, the desire of the President to see how quickly this could be done. We were ready to leave the islands, as the stay throughout the long summer, particularly in July and August, had made us feel the need of a cooler climate. The ship's bottom was foul, and the trip to San Francisco required nine days. I had been absent from home since May, and had left my thirteen days' old son in San Francisco, so, when we anchored, and I learned that we were to remain for a few hours, I asked the captain's permission to go on shore.

We had changed captains as well as commanders-in‑chief, at Honolulu, in June. Joseph N. Miller had relieved Admiral Beardslee, and Nehemiah M. Dyer had succeeded Captain Cotton. Dyer had come in from the merchant service during the Civil War, and was a real Massachusetts seadog. I had had no trouble with him, however, at Honolulu, as I was always especially watchful when serving with "sundowners." I was, therefore, much surprised to have him tell me that I could not go ashore until we reached Mare Island. I said, "Aye, aye, sir," and left the cabin.

On the way to Mare Island I thought the matter over and concluded I would leave him if I could. I went on duty the moment we arrived at the navy yard, and had  p197 my friend Lieutenant John B. Blish send a message to Washington offering to do coast survey duty in Alaska. I had always realized that I needed this kind of work, and, as the Baltimore was a sister ship of the Philadelphia, I felt I could learn nothing new on her. To my surprise and gratification I received orders by wire the next day detaching me, and ordering me to proceed to Seattle to join the coast survey vessel, Patterson, just down from Alaska. When the orders came Captain Dyer sent for me. I reported in his cabin where he told me that he wished me to stay on the Baltimore. He said he felt that he had been very hasty the day before in not permitting me to go on shore for an hour, and that he had appreciated my services on the Philadelphia. I said I was sorry, but it was too late. It did not take me long to pack up and get away from the Philadelphia, but I regretted to leave the fine old flagship on which I had had such wonderful and varied experiences. I was to report without delay, but ran down to San Francisco for a few hours, saw my family, and boarded the train for Seattle.

The Patterson was one of the famous survey ships of that time. She did a full season's work each year in Alaska, and in time surveyed all those waters. Her commanding officer was E. K. Moore, and her executive, John J. Knapp. I relieved Hoggatt, who later resigned from the navy and became governor of the territory. Gilmer, my classmate, was also detached about the same time. Guy Brown came to her when we arrived in San Francisco and relieved Knapp.

Brown had been with us on the Philadelphia, and it was there that he met the young lady whom he married. She was an Oakland girl, young, pretty, vivacious, and a great favorite among the officers, but Brown got the inside track and she passed up all of the others for him. The Philadelphia had a poop deck that extended out over the after part of the quarter deck. Leaning on the rail at its forward end one moonlight night in Honolulu harbor,  p198 while I was below on duty, Brown stood with the girl directly over my head, and I heard him propose to her. It all happened before I could make a noise or move away.

After a short stay in San Francisco Bay the Patterson steamed and sailed down to San Diego for the written. My classmate, Slocum, was on board. His wife, Mrs. Brown and Mrs. Coontz lived in San Diego, at that time considered to be a sailor's paradise. The people were genial, kindly, and appreciative, and the climate was excellent. I was friendly with the members of the Zlac Club, and my wife, with the Columbias, and we saw a great deal of the social life in the city.

I had to make a search for a pinnacle rock north of Ballast Point in lower San Diego Bay. Time and again vessels had reported striking this rock, yet effort had failed to find it. Suddenly, one day after a long and extended search, our lead hit something near where we had expected to find the rock. In a short time we had located a sharp pinnacle, which later was removed by the government. Up to that time vessels had to make a sharp turn of ninety degrees to the left at Ballast Point in entering San Diego harbor. Now, they are able to go straight up the channel and into anchorage.

In the course of my survey work in San Diego harbor I had to take up all the main triangulation stones and records that had been buried by Augustus Rodgers in 1852. I found them in the various locations around the bay, and the surveys had been so well made that the stones were replaced exactly where we found them.

The Patterson had returned to San Francisco, and the present Rear Admiral Schofield had just reported, when the battle­ship Maine was blown up in Havana harbor. We received orders to proceed to Oakland Creek across the bay, dismantle the ship and stand by. I realized there was serious trouble ahead and that it might mean war, but did not think it would come as soon as it did.

I asked and received permission to return to San Diego  p199 to visit my family. While there a telegram came to me reading, "Do you want to go east on Charleston?"

The Charleston was at Mare Island fitting out, and the impression I got from the telegram was that she was going to the east coast.

I replied, "Yes, I do," and soon after went back to San Francisco. It developed that the message should have read, "Do you wish to go east or Charleston?"

Naturally my wire was not intelligible to Captain Forse, who, in the meantime, had got his orders. Because of the error in the telegram I went to the Philippines. The result was, I made altogether a forty-three months' cruise, and had the distinction of going from the grade of ensign to lieutenant commander in nine years, without any shore duty.

"All's well that ends well," but I could not foretell that it would end well!

At Oakland Creek, we transferred everything on the ship's books to Mare Island, and stood by for orders. Captain Forse, who had succeeded Captain Moore in command of the Patterson, was ordered to the east coast within a month; Brown, the executive was assigned to the Philadelphia, and by May 1st, Slocum went to the Charleston.

We had news of the Battle of Manila Bay while we were packing up to join our vessel. At Mare Island, everything was in confusion, a condition to be expected when war comes and the nation is not prepared. The Charleston was commanded by Captain Henry Glass, with Lieutenant Commander Blocklinger as executive and Lieutenant Braunersreuther as navigator. The other officers were Bostwick, Slocum, Waldo Evans, Moffett and myself, Doctors Percy and Farenholt, Chief Engineer R. W. Galt, Assistant Engineer McKean and Paymaster J. S. Phillips. Among the junior officers, most of whom were in the class of '96, were Marshall, Leiper, and Henry. The others I do not recall. Our marine officer was John T. Myers. There was a perfect unanimity  p200 of spirit in the ward room, and everything we undertook succeeded. As soon as she was commissioned the ship quickly fitted out at Mare Island, and we got away for Honolulu on May 22nd, with a crew that had to be whipped into shape before we reached Manila. We had about forty men fresh from the farms of California, but they were the best we could get at the time. We were short of trained men and had no reserves. We encountered a blow, as usual, off San Francisco, and I shall never forget those poor seasick devils lying around forward, while the old‑timers of the crew sang, "For when you return to your own native land there'll be no one to welcome you home!" It must have encouraged them!

I had the quarter-deck division with a fine eight‑inch gun and smaller battery, and most of those green Californians. I recall a disagreeable experience. I mustered the men on the windward side of the ship one morning, and one of them became ill. Not knowing the weather side from the lee he proceeded to the rail and began to cough and expectorate. Suddenly the head and shoulders of Captain Henry Glass appeared above the hatch, and in a stern voice he said, "Mr. Coontz, teach your people instantly, never to spit to windward. I was looking out my port, and part of that gentleman's deposit hit me in the face!"

I had to explain to the men the terrible crime committed by one of them in spitting to windward and hitting the captain! Perhaps I should have advised the captain not to put his face at the port when he looked out! Captain Glass was a hard driver and was ably seconded by Blocklinger, both of whom had served in the Civil War.

We reached Honolulu about the end of the month and awaited the transports with troops from Oregon, California, Washington and Utah. They came on old‑time ships like the Sidney. Honolulu did herself proud and overwhelmed us with gifts and attentions. Just before getting into Honolulu I went over my diary to find the  p201 names of the numerous people I had known there, and who had been kind to me. When the committee came on board to welcome us on behalf of the Islands I was able to call every man by his name when I greeted him. They were surprised at my good memory.

At Honolulu we received sealed orders. The term "sealed orders" is more or less a misnomer. Twenty-four hours out from Honolulu, on our way to join Commodore Dewey, Captain Glass mustered all hands on the quarter deck, ripped off the seal and read his orders. They were, in effect, to proceed to the Island of Guam, capture it in the name of the United States, take the necessary steps regarding its fighting population, and then proceed on to Manila.

Very few of us had ever heard of Guam, except in a vague way. Some had an idea where the island was located, and some remembered that in the early days some American traders cleared for Guam. We got out our geographies and found that the distance from Honolulu to Guam was 3,300 miles. We had coaled to capacity, and the current was with us. Our course was about west by south, but our speed on account of our convoys, was not great. We spent days drilling our recruits, and had the convoy do the same. Once, on the way, the captain left the ship in his gig and inspected the transports. By the time we crossed the 180th meridian, we felt that we were ready for the enemy.

We had three newspaper men with us representing the San Francisco Chronicle, the San Francisco Examiner, and the Associated Press. They were all good fellows and we introduced them to the navy.

Mention of the 180th meridian brings to mind an incident that occurred on one of the occasions when I crossed this great bug‑bear. The navigator had been setting the clock back about twenty minutes every twenty-four hours, and the day we crossed this meridian he advanced it three and a half minutes much to the amazement of the  p202 watch officer with whom he was not on especially good terms. What the captain said to him I never knew.

Some persons cannot grasp navigation, and in this connection I recall another incident when crossing the equator, bound for the South Seas. On the day following, the navigators' morning sight showed a set to the eastward instead of to westward, and his afternoon sight put us away to the westward of our course. Again, the next morning, we had a set to the eastward, and I realized that something was radically wrong. Before taking any action I asked the senior watch officer, now a rear admiral, to take a set of sights and report to me. He did and we concluded that when we crossed the equator, the navigator had changed the equation of time, making an error of some twenty‑two miles in his meridian altitude. I called him on the quarter deck, and gave him five minutes in which to report his error to the captain, otherwise, I said, I would have to take him in myself. He blustered for a moment, what went to the captain and made a confession of his blunder. These were the only two times I ever saw navigators get confused on the 180th meridian, or the equator.

Here is a good story vouched for by the captain of a Pacific mail steamer. In the old days mail steamers did not stop at Honolulu, but made a direct run across from San Francisco to Yokohama. On one of these trips the captain had a very inquisitive passenger. He was especially interested in navigation, and would make inquiries as to position, speed and probabilities, until the captain became tired of his questions. One day the skipper announced that the ship would cross the 180th meridian about 12:30 the next day. The passenger asked how he could tell exactly when he reached it.

"This way," replied the captain, "we expect to sight the 180th meridian red buoy."

At lunch on the following day the traveler asked the captain if he still expected to sight the buoy at 12:30. Just then the quartermaster came in and reported that the  p203 180th meridian buoy was in sight, dead ahead. The word was quickly passed along the table, and the captain granted the passengers the privilege of the upper bridge. Soon they sighted a red buoy dead ahead, and as they passed it, they saw plainly a big white number painted on its side, "180."

The incident caused a good deal of discussion until the ship reached Yokohama, when one of the passengers mustered courage to ask the captain how he did the trick. He told him that several days before, he had taken one of the ship's spare buoys, had it painted red and marked "180." When all the passengers were down at lunch it was hove overboard, and the ship's course changed so slightly that the passengers were kept in ignorance until she made a complete 360 degrees turn, when she headed back on her course again, and naturally was bound to pass the buoy. How often the inquisitive one told the story, and how many people thought he was a first-class prevaricator, the captain never learned.

Thayer's Note:

a A folk etymology, of course. The true derivation is contested; two of the more solid possibilities are given by the Hawaiian Dictionaries at Ulukau Hawaiian Electronic Library.

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