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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 18

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 20

This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p260  Chapter XIX

The Trip to Honolulu

To Samoa Aboard the Adams — To Bremerton Yard via Honolulu — Adams Out of Commission — A Keg of Nails — Navigator of the Buffalo — The Governor of Lonely Komandorski — "Land Ho" — Midway Islands — Promoted to Lieutenant Commander — From Hannibal to Honolulu to Testify.

Our families came north to see us off, and those of the officers who were to remain in Samoa followed by a mail steamer. The Sierra, the Ventura, and the Sonoma, of the Australian line of steamers, stopped at Samoa.

We left San Francisco Bay on April 24, 1904, and proceeded under sail to Honolulu. My recollection is that it took us fifteen days to reach the Hawaiian Islands. The biggest day's run under sail was two hundred miles. We had six days at Honolulu with the opportunity of greeting old acquaintances, and noted the great improvements in the city since we last visited it.

Among my friends there were Mr. and Mrs. Lake who managed the Alexander Young hotel, and Mr. and Mrs. Pond. One night I had both families on board for dinner. About half-past ten while we were sitting on the quarter deck, the captain came on board. I introduced him to my friends and he asked if they would remain on the ship for a half hour. They assented and I next heard the popping of corks in the pantry; shortly afterwards we were invited to his cabin for champagne punch. The captain said that whenever the Lakes and the Ponds were together, the occasion should be properly celebrated.

Our voyage from Honolulu to Samoa was mostly under sail. It was a long, hot trip, and I recall that when we were near the Equator, the pitch in the seams of the  p261 Adams oozed out, especially when there was no breeze. Our only diversion was shuffleboard. The ship had no electric lights, no ice plant and no fans, and we had to make the best of things as they were. We reached the harbor of Pago Pago, Samoa, about June 1, where we remained for several days, transferring most of our officers to the Wheeling which had been ordered home. I swung a hammock on deck, and although we had specially rigged double awnings, the rain came through.

I had an amusing experience in Samoa. I purchased a tapa in a small store, paying four dollars for it. A few hours later the dealer came alongside the ship and said that when he sold it to me he thought I was the paymaster, and as he was anxious to curry favor with that officer, he had let me have the tapa cheap, but as he had learned that I was not the paymaster, he wanted me to give him four dollars more. I declined, but kept the tapa!

In our honor old Manga called a gathering of his chiefs of the tribe, at which I represented the captain. They brought me a gourd of native drink, called "Kava," which the women made by mashing the fruit with their feet. I attempted to drink all of it, but was stopped and told that I must take only one draught of it, and then pass the gourd.

Commander Underwood was Governor of Samoa at the time of our visit. He and Captain Fox had been cadets together at the naval academy. The Governor's new house had been completed, and Samoa had an ice plant. We saw the Fita-Fitas in all the glory of their uniforms. They are the natives who act as the island constabulary. We were glad, however, to leave the island, as the rainy season was on at the time.

Loading heavily with coal, we started the Wheeling on her trip homeward. Lackey joined us as chief engineer; Goodhue, as pay officer; and Whitten and Blackburn, as watch officers. Two pay clerks also came home  p262 on the ship. Standley, Spear and Stone remained in Samoa.

When we left San Francisco, we had orders to bring back Ensign R. A. Koch, but we were unable to find him in the island. On reaching Bremerton, we had instructions to detach him, yet we had not seen him. To solve the problem of Koch's whereabouts the captain telegraphed to the department, and then learned that several months before, during some quick transfers at Honolulu, the missing ensign had been ordered to China. We felt much relieved when we found that everything was all right with him.

On the way north we carried one hundred and sixty-four men — many more than the ship could accommodate comfortably. The galley was small and the men had to eat in two shifts. The cook, Amos Kinnard, a colored man, was reported by the master-at‑arms, Geneau, for slovenliness, and Geneau was on shore at the same time. The cook, who was not possessed of much intelligence, picked up a colored prize fighter in the city, and knowing that Geneau was also in the town, started out to look for him. When they found him they proceeded to beat him without mercy. In the fight they threw him upon a stone sidewalk, and while one held him, the other jumped on his head. When he was rescued Geneau was half crazy. He obtained a pistol and went in search of his two assailants. He found the prize fighter first, and shot him dead. We had, of course, to leave him there under arrest and in jail; but of this more later.

From Honolulu to Bremerton is 2,400 miles and we did not reach there until toward the end of July. The families of some of our officers were in Seattle. We knew that the ship was to go out of commission in August, and as I had been at sea since March 3, 1896, and it was then August, 1904, I thought myself entitled to shore duty. I had been asked to go to the naval academy,  p263 and applied for that assignment. My friend Russell, then in Washington, sought to help me out, but the Bureau of Navigation was adamant and telegraphed that I was to go as navigator on the Buffalo, then at Mare Island, and proceed with that ship to New York. I thought it unjust then, and still think so.

August in Bremerton is hot, but the nights are cool. We lived at a navy boarding house, known as the Anderson, in Charleston, the town adjacent to Bremerton. It accommodated about ten families and the rate was five dollars a week for adults, and less for children. We were happy, however, and I only regret that the cost of living has advanced since that time.

The Wheeling was to go out of commission on August 12. The ship had her inspection and passed creditably, especially respecting her double bottoms. Late in the afternoon of the 11, the yard constructor told us that all stores were checked in as correct, except that ten pounds of brass nails were missing. We asked what could be done, and were told that they could be purchased at Schwabacker's in Seattle for about ten dollars. The captain was greatly annoyed, as he had long been away from his home and family, and wanted to start east the next day. He requested me to put the ship out of commission at ten o'clock, and said that he would pay for the nails. A carpenter who had been left on board by the constructor came to me and told me not to worry about the nails; that we would go out of commission on time the next day. I was awakened at the night by a small box being shoved under the curtain of my stateroom. I guessed what it was. The following morning I found it was addressed to me, and that upon one corner of it was the name "Schwabacker." I unwrapped it and told the captain that everything was all right. When the constructor came down at nine forty-five, I handed to him ten pounds of brass nails. He seemed surprised, but turned them over to an assistant who took them to the construction department and poured them into the same box from  p264 which they had been taken during the night! Twenty-five years have elapsed since that incident. Some of the participants are dead, and I no longer hesitate to tell the story.

Disappointed in my orders, I gathered my family and went to San Francisco, and then to Vallejo, where, late in August, I reported on the old Buffalo. She was then a training ship, and her orders were to proceed to the Bering Sea to visit the Komandorski Islands, thence to Midway Islands, thence to Honolulu, and back to San Francisco. The statement in my telegram from the Bureau of Navigation — wherein the destination of the ship was given as New York — was evidently an error.

I was back in San Francisco in time to attend the wedding of John S. Graham and Miss Frances Moore. I acted as best man.

The Buffalo was like a big barn. She had 710 men on board. W. H. Everett was captain; Griffin, executive; Robertson (later relieved by Casey Morgan), engineer; and I relieved Valentine S. Nelson, as navigator. Anderson must have been one of the best of navigators. His books were filled with star sights, and of his sun navigation.

At four o'clock, on the first morning at sea, a burly negro mess attendant woke me and brought in a cup of strong coffee. I protested, but he said Mr. Anderson was in the habit of getting up at four in the morning, and took coffee before his star sights. The boy waited until I drank the coffee. I told him that thereafter he need not bring it until five o'clock, and often I did not drink it.

Navigating on the Buffalo from San Francisco to Alaska was not easy. The variations change fast, and the ship made fourteen knots, an exceptional speed at that time. The government had a new lighthouse at Unimak Pass, and the old volcano Shishaldin was belching forth red fire, so that we could see her for a hundred miles or more off the coast.

We made Unalaska safely, late in October. There we  p265 coaled, and met many Arctic ships including the Petrel, the McArthur, the Thetis, the McCulloch, and the Shearwater (British), and had an opportunity to straighten out our large number of apprentices. It was a mistake to send those boys to Alaska in the Buffalo, and expect them to learn much.

Each ship in port insisted upon having an entertainment.

On leaving Alaska we passed close by Bogoslov Island which had appeared out of the ocean, only a short time before, and was still hot and steaming. Even its color was unreal. We made a direct run west across Bering Sea, and I rarely saw the sun at meridian — I got a forenoon sight about nine forty-five, and an afternoon sight about two fifteen, and by bringing the two together for noon, got a noon position.

Our diversion was a coal bunker fire. We had to run through a fog, for the harbor of Nikolski, Komandorski, but fortunately made a good land fall. Using ninety fathoms of chain, we anchored off Toporkat where the Russian governor came on board and gave us all the information the captain desired regarding pelagic sealing which he reported was still carried on by the natives of a certain unnamed country. The governor drank everything we placed before him, and when the time came for his departure, he still wanted to remain aboard the ship. We pitied him in that terrible out of the way place, dismal, damp and dark, as it was, but we were obliged to place him in a boat and send him ashore with Ensign Fowler. Fowler was an ex‑football player and had instructions to land his passenger on the beach at all costs, and to get away with the whaler. He executed the orders given him.

Once away from the Komandorskis, which we circumnavigated during one clear period, we saw the barren Kamchatka coast mountains of eastern Asia. Of all the views of waste and desolation, this was the worst; it looked like another world.

 p266  Midway Island is almost due south of the Komandorskis, and we practically ran down the 180th meridian, going so close that I did not use the extra twenty-four hours' time in my navigation. The sea was rough and rather disagreeable during the entire voyage. I was new to the captain and he had had such a competent navigator in Nelson, that he was a little watchful of me. Midway is a very small island and quite flat. Strong currents surge about it, as was shown in the 'seventies, when the Saginaw went ashore on Ocean Island nearby. The morning we were to pick up the island I was fortunate in getting sight of three stars, and in locating the ship's position accurately. After that the weather got thick. The captain repeatedly asked me what time we would sight the island. I finally told him at ten o'clock. We were running due east at ten o'clock, but could not see land, and the captain again asked me what to do.

I answered, "Run on this course for five minutes, and if we fail to sight the island, head due south until the weather clears."

Just then, the man aloft sang out, "Land ho!"

He had sighted the windmill on the island, and my reputation as a navigator was safe.

At Midway, we sent cables, took on nine passengers, and gave the islanders all the newspapers, magazines and food we could spare. We landed our passengers at Honolulu, and awaited orders. Niblack was in naval command there. I had the pleasure of meeting Captain Bowes of the Amaranth, whose ship I aided off Sitka, in 1889. The island railroad was in operation to Haleiwa, and I spent a day there and had a good swim in the surf. On October 11 I had a cable from Russell, reading "Midway Island, then San Francisco," and on the 20, we again headed west, with stores for Midway.

Our instructions were to communicate with and bring home one of the cable operators on the island, as well as to land stores. We anchored in the open to the west of the island, and did not have much lee. When the cable  p267 operator came out to the ship, he brought his wife with him, much to our surprise. We had never heard of her, and the captain had no orders to bring her home. We held a conference and decided to allow her to come on board. The captain cabled his arrival and departure at the same time, and when we left Midway, the quartermasters were instructed not to look aft toward the island, until it disappeared below the horizon.

The lady had to live below in the ward room with all its attendant inconveniences, but she accepted the situation gracefully, and having three dresses in her wardrobe, all of which were much out of fashion, she alternated in wearing them at dinner.

Our run from Midway to San Francisco was wonderful. We made it in nine days, using the great circle course. I was able to get Jupiter at sunset each night for a sure check on longitude, and had the sun for the latitude every day. We entered a fog as usual between the Farallones and the Golden Gate, and fearing to turn back, made our way to a point near Alcatraz, and anchored. A few days after landing our passengers, we went on to Mare Island, and I found there for my examination for promotion to the grade of lieutenant commander. I was then forty years of age.

I still remember the board, comprising B. F. Tilley, F. J. Drake and C. B. T. Moore, with A. N. Mitchell as recorder. These officers were all busy men and anxious to conclude their work. My record was read to them by Mitchell. The senior member told me they intended to pass me anyhow, and that all I should write in answer to the questions was for my own information. That did not satisfy me, however, and at the end of the day the Board met again and asked Mitchell how many pages I had written. He told them thirty-eight, adding that I wrote an extremely fine hand. They closed the examination right there.

I was detached and ordered home, December 8, and on December 14 left San Francisco for Hannibal, accompanied  p268 by my family. It was one of the coldest winters which had ever been experienced in that part of Missouri. I was anxious to see some country relatives, and shortly before Christmas my Uncle John and I drove to Ralls County to visit the Robinsons, Spaldings, Harts, Bells, Coontzes, Smiths and Nortons. We were surfeited with honey, sorghum molasses, buttermilk, cider, ham and chicken.

We were driving from the home of my cousin Ruth, to the old town of Cincinnati, Missouri — or at least what remained of it — when I noticed that Uncle John seemed to be a little nervous.

"What's the matter, Uncle John?" I inquired.

"Well," he said, "it seems to me that they have changed the road a little since I was along this way the last time."

"When was that?" I asked, as a matter of curiosity.

"1854," he replied.

That was fifty years before.

We arrived home Christmas Eve, very cold from the last twenty miles of the drive. When I entered my sister's house, where we were staying, my wife met me with a telegram ordering me to proceed to Honolulu, by the steamer China, sailing from San Francisco, January 10. I was wanted there as a witness for master-at‑arms Geneau who was to be tried for murder in the first degree, for having killed the negro prize fighter who assaulted him. This was a keen disappointment, but I was obliged to go.

We had a good Christmas, notwithstanding, and enjoyed seeing all our kin and old friends, including the Joneses, Mahans, Pettibones, Loudons, Knotts, Schofields, Browns and others.

I went west over the Wabash and the Santa Fe to avoid all possible snow. I had as a fellow traveler Mrs. B. G. Rector, of Ralls County, Missouri, who was going to San Francisco. My time there was brief, and I was able to see only my sister-in‑law, my friends, the Arnolds and a few others.

 p269  The old China encountered a heavy gale just outside the Golden Gate, and it continued with us most of the way to Honolulu. I attended meals, simply to show that a naval officer doesn't get seasick.

Reporting, on my arrival, I found Geneau's situation rather serious. There had been several recent murders in Honolulu and in other parts of the Islands, some of them of an atrocious character, especially the killing of young Mr. Damon, by a Japanese. Geneau had as his attorneys Douthit and Watson, able young men, just starting to practice law in Honolulu. We decided to seek an all‑white jury. We were successful in this, and the foreman was G. P. Wilder. We fought the prosecution's case stubbornly, and even had the members of the jury feel the depression in Geneau's head made by the negro prize fighter when he jumped on him. I testified for two days. We placed Geneau, himself, on the stand, and also produced papers showing that he had served aboard the Oregon during the Spanish War. The case went to the jury on January 23, and they returned a verdict of manslaughter in the third degree, with a strong recommendation for mercy. The judge imposed a fine of one dollar and costs which amounted to eighteen dollars, and Geneau was released on January 25. My recollection is that the judge paid the fine, and that the jury paid the costs.

I stayed at the Alexander Young Hotel, and slept under a sheet. It was, as I have said, in January. My old friends entertained me outside of court hours. I made a special report on Pearl Harbor.

My parting with Geneau was very affecting.

I returned to the States on the Korea, having as my roommate, Assistant Paymaster Emmett C. Gudger, of whom I was to see much in later years. The Korea was a large ship, and I was surprised to see that there was dancing on the upper deck every night.

Gudger and I continued on east after spending one day in San Francisco. We traveled via the Santa Fe, and  p270 south of the Mojave Desert, in California, we ran into floods. At Drake, Arizona, we were held up for several days; in fact, so long, that the passengers organized a town site on the waste lands, covered with cactus, and sold lots.

When I reached home I found a message from the Bureau of Navigation inquiring why I had not reported my return. I explained that I should not have been expected to report before my arrival!

In a few days, orders came directing me to proceed to Newport News, Virginia, for a month's instruction, and from there to Schenectady, New York, for another week of instruction. I was then to go to Seattle as inspector of equipment at the Moran Brothers yard, where the Nebraska was being built.

It had been very cold in Missouri during my absence in Hawaii, and both my mother and my wife had been and still were quite ill. My diary says that the thermometer registered thirty degrees below zero on February 13, and that despite the fact fires were kept burning all night, all water pipes were frozen.

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