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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 15

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.
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please let me know!


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Chapter 17

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p221  Chapter XVI

Aboard the "Enterprise"

My Duties on the Massachusetts School Ship; Executive Officer — Winter in Boston — Ibsen — Cruise of the Enterprise — England — The Paris Exposition — Gibraltar and Madeira — A Tropical Storm — Learning to Dance at Thirty-five.

I had barely reached my home in Missouri when I received orders directing me to report on board the Independence, at Mare Island, October 31. My ire was aroused, as I had been at sea since March 3, 1896. I wrote to the Bureau of Navigation, setting forth the facts, and incidentally stating that my baggage had not yet arrived home. The Personnel Bill had shifted to the Army the duty of carrying our effects, and as the old land grant railroads were used transportation was slow.

Return mail brought me orders to proceed to the school ship Enterprise, the state ship of Massachusetts, but the date of my return to duty was the same — October 31. That meant more sea service, but as I was to be executive officer, and the state was to pay me an additional hundred and twenty-five dollars a month, I was satisfied and accepted the assignment, for we needed the money.

The winter in Boston was hard and cold. As usual the Enterprise had all rigging taken off, the spar decks housed in, and was converted into a school. There were probably one hundred students, some of them taking the line, and others the engineering course. There were only two of us to stand day duty, my friend and old shipmate, Bertolette, and I, but we could leave the ship every second day, from four in the afternoon until the next morning.

 p222  Frederick M. Wise was in command of the ship until April, when E. M. Hughes, of the Boston, came to relieve him. The school ship system is excellent, and I regret that only the states of Massachusetts, New York and Pennsylvania maintain it. Practically every graduate goes to sea in one capacity or another, and during the World War, and even in the Spanish War, many of them served with great credit. My recollection is that the Massachusetts school ship costs $55,000 a year, and that the federal government then paid, and still pays, $25,000 a year, as its part of the expense of maintenance.

As executive I taught seaman­ship, geography and English. Bertolette taught navigation, and we had a civilian engineer and some professors for the other branches. When Mitchell joined us as an additional watch officer we hoped for an easier time on the cruises. The old craft needed repairs and it required time to have them made. When these were completed we took the Governor of Massachusetts and the school commissioners, headed by Rear Admiral G. E. Belknap, U. S. N., retired, on a trial cruise.

After we had been in Boston for several months our attention was called to the fact that we must make some social visits.​a Accordingly, on one cold winter day Lieutenant G. G. Mitchell and I hired a carriage and started out.

At the first place we called the wife sent down a visitor, recently arrived from England, to entertain us. A few formal remarks had been exchanged, when she turned to me and said,

"Mr. Coontz, what is your opinion of Ibsen?"

The question startled and amazed me, for while I had heard of Ibsen, I had forgotten whether he was a prizefighter, a writer or an actor. My brain had to work quickly, and I finally managed to say that I had fully reached my conclusions regarding  p223 Ibsen, and that authorities seemed to differ. Then a happy thought struck me; I turned to Mitchell and said,

"Mitchell, what do you think of Ibsen?"

Mitchell knew as little about him as I did. He flushed and began to stammer. Just then the hostess entered the room, and the current of conversation turned to other channels. When we returned to the ship that first thing we did was to find out who Ibsen was.

My wife had been ill during our residence in Boston, and decided to take our son and visit Alaska, while I went on a European cruise on the Enterprise. We sailed out of Boston on June 30, 1900, for Southampton, England.

On this trip one of our young cadets perpetrated a trick that might have had serious consequences. Our captain suffered from heart trouble, and one afternoon when he was on deck there was a dense fog. A fog horn sounded close aboard, and sail was shortened and extra lookouts placed. Our horn was kept continuously sounding. After an interval the other horn sounded again, so close that it seemed to be actually on board our ship. Just then one of the mates, upon going to the pilot house under the bridge, found Cadet A. E. Castle hidden there. He had the spare horn and was using it. Castle was quarantined for the remainder of the trip. The boy had plenty of money and when we arrived at Southampton he sent one of his classmates to buy him twelve cans of Eagle brand condensed milk, and according to reliable testimony consumed the contents of all of them. I am loath to ask anyone to believe this story, but it can be proved.

There were three commissioned line officers on board the Enterprise. The captain took the middle and afternoon watches, I the forenoon and first night  p224 watch, and Bertolette the morning and two dog watches. We had as mates two old‑time sailors, Mr. Tyrrell and Mr. Nelson. They were able men, but very poorly paid. Navigation was stressed on the Enterprise, and the second-year men ran the day's work all the way across the Atlantic and back, and became practical navigators.

With favorable winds we made Southampton in twenty‑one days, sailed up the harbor and anchored there for a week. Those who had the necessary money went to London. I did not, so I made a trip to the south of England, and looked up the tombs of some of my ancestors who lived atº Wiltshire. Others had left there, in 1675, to join William Penn in America. I found I could not get a cup of coffee in that part of the country, and drinking their tea did not appeal to me.

We sent our boys to London in uniform. Mrs. Fiske, the actress, saw several of them, inquired if they were Americans and asked their purpose in London. She provided them with tickets to see her performance. We appreciated her courtesy very much, and a year later, when she was in Boston, she was surprised to see the second and third rows of the theater filled with cadets in uniform. At the end of the first act one of them presented her with a beautiful bouquet of flowers, and made a short complimentary speech.

Incidentally, while our ship was tied up at Southampton, I visited and inspected the Isle of Wight, where Queen Victoria had a summer residence.

An overnight run from Southampton brought us to Havre, France. A gale of wind drove us to Bassin Bellot, where we tied up and remained for ten days. We divided into two groups, which gave each one five days of leave for trips to Paris. I took the second contingent of fifty boys to the French capital. We traveled third class and were  p225 given a special rate. I registered the youngsters at one hotel and engaged a room for myself at the Metropole.

I did not know a person in Paris. I called upon Lieutenant Sims, our attaché, but he was away from the city, and I spent the entire five days there alone, visiting the great Expedition of 1900, which was then in progress. The August heat was intense, and I usually rested for three hours each afternoon between my trips to the big show. It was the first time I had ever had an opportunity to see real art.

From Havre we ran to Gibraltar, coaled the ship and visited Tangier, before going on to the Madeira Islands. At Tangier I set foot for the first time on the African coast, satisfying a long-cherished desire. Ever since I was a boy and heard Paul Du Chailly deliver his travel lecture on his wonderful African adventures I had wished to go there.

With a favorable breeze we made the run to Madeira in three days, and prepared to enjoy its scenery and wonders. The St. Mary's, the New York school ship, was there with Reeder, George Evans and Wiley among her officers. We had the usual boat races and baseball games between the cadets of the two ships. There was a good hotel at Funchal. I remember the Reed family and the manner in which they entertained us at their beautiful home, LaQuinta. In Madeira one can go up the mountainside either on a cog railroad or on a sleigh-like vehicle. This contrivance is hauled up and down over the cobblestone roads, which are slippery. Either method of travel is exhilarating, and it is delightfully cool on the mountain. We had accumulated much soiled clothing and sent it to the convent to be laundered. Our courtesy to the nuns there was repaid the next year.

We cleared from Madeira on September 6, and slowly ran down under sail to catch the trade winds  p226 for the westward voyage. With light winds it took us ten days to reach 22 degrees north. We practically floated with the current most of the time. Once the navigator declared he could see the peak of Teneriffe on the Canary Islands. Finally we reached the trade winds, which were very light, and began our long and weary passage across the Atlantic. The only dangers on the trip were heavy tropical squalls. We had only eight grown men in the crew and one hundred boys. We diligently drilled each one at his station in order to be prepared for an emergency. They stood watch and watch.

Thirty days passed and food was becoming low. It was not until October that the long looked for blow reached us. Then I realized just what a tropical storm is. The atmosphere became oppressive, the sky lowering, the sea green, and a general feeling of apprehension prevailed. We slowly shortened sail, located the center of the storm and got ready for the wind.

The captain had his wife and daughter on board by permission of the Navy Department and the State of Massachusetts. When the full force of the storm hit us we had to take in all sail, and let the ship roll along as best she could while we tried to keep her headed in the right direction. We ran life lines across the spar deck, fore and aft, but as the storm increased we saw that we were certain to lose some of our boats. The situation, together with the loss of sleep, caused us to get calloused, and I remember hearing one of the wardroom officers make a bet as to which boat would go first. We lost some of our port-side boats, and when they were swept away we had axes ready to cut the after fall in case one dropped by the bow. Our big steam launch was actually lifted up and carried inboard, which was fortunate. We were very much  p227 relieved when the barometer began to rise and the wind shifted, for we then felt that we would weather the storm.

It was hours before we dared to get up a little steam, and when we did we had a terrible accident. A cadet named Quinn, on his first cruise, was heaving coal in the fire room when he backed into one of the air blowers, which cut off his right hand at the wrist. He actually left the engine room, came up on deck, and to the forward bridge, with his hand hanging by a small strip of skin. He cried to me, "Oh, Mr. Coontz, Mr. Coontz, my hand is broken."

The quartermaster and I tied a tourniquet around his arm and carried him below. The surgeon decided that the lower part of his arm must be amputated to save him. In all that rolling sea we strapped him to a mess table, which we lashed in the center of the main deck as securely as possible, and prepared for the operation. I watched his pulse while others of our men tried to give him the chloroform. No less than seven of these strong, able-bodied seamen fainted from time to time and dropped on the main decks as they attempted to administer the anaesthetic. Having had some experience, I gave the boy chloroform myself, at the same time holding his pulse.

The lad eventually recovered, and went ashore at Boston, never to return to the sea again. The State of Massachusetts gave him a pension of $2,500, and a few years ago, while I was Chief of Naval Operations, I received a letter from him, telling me of his success in managing a factory in New Jersey, and saying that he was happily married.

On October 16, forty days out from Madeira, we reached the haven of Boston. We were ten days overdue and the commissioners and our families were much worried. We were glad to reach home safely and to get some food other than old corned  p228 beef and hard tack. The news of our long cruise and the heavy storm off Bermuda served to arouse great interest in our ship and the school. That fall we had an excess of candidates for the entrance examinations, and accepted more cadets than we should for the winter and the next cruise.

A third watch officer, Ensign W. G. Richardson, U. S. N., retired (later killed in an automobile accident), now came to us and our duties the following winter were somewhat lightened. The school was on a satisfactory basis and, educationally, we had a successful winter. Although my time on shore with my family was limited, I enjoyed Boston thoroughly. Through friends I had opportunity to attend all the good theatrical productions, and to see other phases of Boston culture.

At the age of thirty-five years, and after attending many dances where I sat on the sidelines and watched my wife participate in the Terpsicorean art, I determined to learn to dance. I went to the Tremont Dancing Academy and told the director just what I wanted, and that I must have a girl about five feet, seven inches in height as a partner. They furnished me a six‑foot Swedish girl at a dollar a lesson, and where she led I followed. How well I learned in six lessons to trip the light fantastic I shall leave to others to say.

Thayer's Note:

a See Ganoe, MacArthur Close‑Up, pp139‑140.

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