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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 19

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 21
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p271  Chapter XX

Executive Officer of the "Nebraska"

Instruction at Newport News and Schenectady — The Moran Yard at Seattle — Building the Nebraska — The Valencia Disaster — Board of Inspection and Survey — Executive of the Nebraska — The Battleship a Winner in Sports — To Magdalena Bay — Start of the Round-the‑World Cruise.

Always desirous of traveling new routes, we went east via St. Louis and over the Chesapeake & Ohio Railroad. At Newport News we stopped at the old Warwick Hotel, and I had four weeks of instruction on the equipment of battle­ships, particularly with regard to interior communications. The senior officer, John T. Newton, was called to serve on a board, and I was left in his place, and was in the position of having authority, without knowledge. I kept silent on all electrical matters, and as far as possible looked wise. Incidentally, I learned all about testing dynamos — and it developed later that it was lucky that I had that knowledge.

After a month in Newport News and a few days in Washington, I left my family in Brooklyn while I spent a week at the electrical works in Schenectady. There I was the guest of Lieutenant Commander Harry A. Field. My family and I ran up to Boston for a few days to see old friends, and then went west over the Delaware & Hudson and the Great Northern roads.

At Seattle, we stayed at the old Washington Hotel, then at the top of a hill and accessible only by tramway. Since then the New Washington Hotel has been built in the heart of the city.

I found the Moran Brothers a strict concern with which to deal. My predecessor had had many disagreements  p272 with them, and finally had to be detached. I endeavored to be pleasant. From time to time, our dealings, even to the smallest detail, were in writing. The naval officers associated with me were Ruhm, the constructor; Crenshaw, engineer, who relieved Potts and later Knox, ordnance. Lieutenants W. F. Hamberger and J. H. Aigner were towers of strength. For my own protection, it became necessary to have every blueprint and every plan signed by all four of us, before they were forwarded to the department.

Work on the ship was delayed, yet the Moran Brothers were excellent boiler builders, and did good work in the engineering department of the Nebraska. Robert Moran was a sturdy character and strong in his opinions. He is still living.

My family had a home at Broadway and Jefferson street, then a very good part of Seattle, and we had many relatives and friends there, to say nothing of the Alaskans who stopped to see us. We had an enjoyable time socially. On November 5, 1904, my daughter Bertha was born there.

In 1905, Naval Constructor Ruhm and I assisted in the formation of the Aero Club of the Northwest. W. E. Boeing was the promoter of the organization. I was chosen vice-president of the club, and we furnished the money to start it. Our efforts have borne fruit.

In the early spring of 1906, occurred the great disaster of the sinking of the steamer Valencia on the Canadian side of the Straits of Juan de Fuca, north of Cape Flattery, with the loss of one hundred and forty-seven lives. A great cry went up from all over the country, and a board of investigation was appointed, of which Rear Admiral Burwell was chairman. Later an auxiliary board was named, consisting of Crenshaw, Hamberger and me, to inspect all vessels on the Pacific Northwest coast, flying the American flag. It required several months in which to complete this work, and I regret to say that our report, so far as I know, has never been  p273 made public. Certain influences must have been too powerful to allow it come out. Fire hose, life preservers, boats, boat falls, water tight bulkheads and other equipment were all examined and reported upon.

Incidentally, there were many other poorly equipped steamers on the ocean at that time. On one of the Alaskan steamers, I casually kicked the bow of a lifeboat, and my foot went through its side! Accidents and disasters like the Valencia and the more recent Vestris cause great indignation and protest, at the time, but they seem to be soon forgotten. Seamen, who are boat handlers, are becoming extinct. There will be a big shakeup some day, resulting in greater attention to the safety of passengers on all ocean ships.

In the fall of 1906, I was made recorder of the Pacific Board of Inspection and Survey, and not only had the pleasure of seeing vessels like the California and the South Dakota tried out, but learned much more of my profession. First runs were usually held in Santa Barbara channel, or in the open sea, and we had several trials of the California before she passed her requisite speed test.

The department granted extensions of time to the contractors for the completion of the Nebraska, and sent out a board of inspection, headed first by Captain Clover and then by Captain Southerland, with Eberle as recorder in each case. Incidentally, in their reports they approved of every action taken by Ruhm, Knox, Crenshaw and me.

The Nebraska had her engine trial run in Puget Sound off Vashon Island, in July, 1906, and the only noteworthy trouble experienced on the trip was the loss of both bower anchors, let go in the windlass house by some one unknown. At the high speed the battle­ship was making, the noise of the chains running out the pipes was so great that many aboard thought that one of the boilers had exploded; an amusing incident occurred in the lower pilot house, where two officers attempted to get through one door at the same time. Their bodies were jammed  p274 together, and after the excitement was over, it is said to have been necessary to pry them apart.

I had received advices from Washington that I was to be the executive officer of the Nebraska. This pleased me very much. Outside of having been on the Oregon in 1896, I had never but once even visited a battle­ship. The Nebraska new and clean was towed over to the Puget Sound Navy Yard on May 31, 1907, and lay there for a month while the Bureau of Navigation was endeavoring to assign officers and crew to her.

While making out station bills and other accounts, in June, I lived in Bremerton, and paid two dollars a week for a room. I had my meals at the town's only restaurant, in what is now Pacific avenue, at a cost of twenty-five cents each. The general public was served breakfast after the navy yard workers had finished their morning meal, and lunch before the same crowd came out of the shops at noon, and dinners after the workmen had eaten. Patrons entering the restaurant were required to lay their quarters beside their plates, on the oilcloth table cover, before they could get service. The management was taking no chances. The first time I went to this eating place, I was given a seat at a long table, at which sat two ladies, Mrs. James Wickersham, the wife of Alaska's delegate in Congress, and Mrs. Alexander N. Mitchell, the wife of a distant kinsman. From that time on I had some one with whom to converse.

The Nebraska was placed in commission July 1, 1907. She had a full marine guard, a complete band, a few men in the engineers' department, and only two on deck — a quartermaster and a seaman. Most of her officers had already reported, and she had an excellent personnel. Laning was navigator; Crenshaw, chief engineer; Knox, ordnance officer; and John Halligan, Abele, Kimberly, Soule, Caffee, Carter, Wickersham, John Rodgers, Beall, Page, Graves and Pond were watch officers. Abele, unfortunately, was soon detached. Her surgeon was Berryhill  p275 and his junior was Baker. The paymaster was John D. Barber, and Andresen was marine officer.

Our experiences were unusual. We started to coal the ship the morning after she was commissioned, having only the musicians in the band to do the work. We greatly needed men to man the ship, and to keep it clean. After some delay, fifty apprentices were sent us from Mare Island. We had further instructions to enlist our own force. We elected to get them from Washington and Oregon and sent out recruiting parties. John Rodgers had charge of one such party in Portland, and he almost denuded the sailor boarding houses of firemen and seamen. They were a hard looking crowd when they arrived, but once in a bluejacket's uniform, each man soon took hold, and with their knowledge of seaman­ship and engine room work helped the Nebraska make the wonderful record she did. Incidentally, they also helped in football.

Captain Nicholson was assigned to command the Nebraska, and he arrived at the yard about August 10. Boarding houses were opened in Bremerton and in Charleston to accommodate our families. The old Anderson house was closed because of a disagreement between the owner and the woman who managed it. In the emergency of the demand for accommodations, my wife interviewed the two separately. After hearing their grievances, she got them together and they agreed to reopen the old hotel. This was the salvation of the families of the officers who wanted quarters. To aid matters, I found a small partly furnished cottage close to the Anderson house which I leased for a small rental. I also retained my quarters in Seattle while the Nebraska was on her cruise around the world.

Soon after we went into commission, an additional number of midshipmen, of the class of 1907, reported for duty on the battle­ship. They were an excellent lot of young officers. I recall Page, Ingram, White, Heim, Smith, Jewell, Montgomery and Dichman. We were very short of officers at the time. That situation had long  p276 prevailed, and even today we have not reached our 5,499 line officers allowed by law.

We decided to make the Nebraska a winner in sports, and started with baseball. We had a pitcher, a catcher, three basemen and a short stop, but no outfielders, at first, so we used dummies. All they could do was to muff a ball, pick it up and throw it in.

According to the yarns told by our rivals, when we needed a catcher, we used a boy who worked in a saloon owned by his uncle in Bremerton. The uncle refused to allow him to enlist, as he said he needed him in his business. The story goes that in order to get the services of the lad as a catcher on our team, the crew of the Nebraska bought the saloon. This was what was said when we won the champion­ship of the fleet, but there wasn't much of truth in it. The boy, however, became a big leaguer, after his discharge from the navy. When he played in the east his old shipmates used to attend the games, and noted how well he had developed.​a

Two of the men on our team were McCrary and Butler. Both of them are now lieutenants in the navy. McCrary was a remarkably good pitcher and Butler was nearly as good. Our first big game was with the New Jerseys. In the series with them, we won the first and third games and lost the second. We also organized a football team under the leader­ship of Jonas Ingram. In the course of many months of playing this team never lost a game.

In the fall of 1907, the University of Washington challenged our team and the challenge was accepted. The game was played on the grounds of the State University at Seattle, and the newspapers announced that so far as the university was concerned it would be merely a practice game. On the way to the grounds I saw bluejackets making bets on our boys. I sought to stop them, but they wagered every cent they had. A few minutes after the contest started the university team was on the defensive, and we beat them 19 to 5, before thousands of students,  p277 bluejackets and the general public. Our reputation was made and we kept it for several years. As late as 1911, when I was in command of the Massachusetts in New York harbor, I attended a game between the Nebraska team and one from the Idaho, at one of the baseball parks. It ended in a tie. That was the last big stand of the Nebraska team. It played for four seasons without a defeat!

We had a wonderful cheer leader, Calvin P. Page, who subsequently died after a long illness. On board ship, or alongside the dock Page could get up enthusiasm at any time.

The ship started off well socially. Through the kindness of Captain Cottman, we had the use of the sail loft at the navy yard, once a week, and there we gave dances and receptions and parties. The Nebraska was another of those ships where the officers and men worked hard and played hard. I have learned during my experience that these are the successful ships. All kinds of games were played at one time or another. I recall a peanut race, where the contestants had to lie on their stomachs on the floor, with their hands tied behind them, and blow a peanut forty feet. Soule was generally the peanut race winner.

Another time we had a canvas curtain stretched the entire length of the ballroom, the lower edge being about two feet above the floor of the sail loft. The men stood on one side and the girls on the other. The girls placed their feet under the canvas, and each man grabbed the ankles of the girl he wanted. The curtain was raised and he then danced off with his choice. One set of legs was false. John Rodgers chose those good-looking ankles, and was made to dance with the dummy.

Our recruiting parties gradually increased the size of our crew, but it was many months before the Nebraska was completely and properly outfitted. In November, 1907, on the last day of grace, we fired our big guns off Fort Worden, and a little later were ordered south for  p278 a shake-down cruise, going as far as Magdalena Bay. The Tennessee and the Washington were there, and as usual we had boat races. The many ships that had visited Magdalena Bay since we were there on the Adams had scared away practically all the game, but much to our delight we found our old clam bed still intact. We had certain ranges on shore that told us where the clam bed was located.

We were working hard to get the Nebraska ready to join the Atlantic Fleet. We wanted her to be one of the ships chosen to make the trip around the world; and once more back at Puget Sound we put forth every effort to gain what we were after. By great exertions, we got her away in sufficiently good condition to take part in that extended cruise. It was decided that the Nebraska and the Wisconsin should relieve the Maine and the Alabama, which were great coal burners. They were given a special trip home, around the world by way of the Philippine Islands and Suez.

Most of us left our families in Seattle when we started on the long voyage. We met the big fleet outside San Francisco, and took our place in the line. There were eighteen battle­ships, eight armored cruisers, and many auxiliaries.

While anchored in the harbor the Governor of Nebraska and a party came to the city and presented us with a Bible and several beautiful gifts, on behalf of the state. The Governor had never been on salt water before, and as San Francisco Bay was choppy, he became quite ill. He had a speech to deliver, and it was necessary to get him in condition in time for the ceremony. Our surgeon Berryhill did so. When he arose to make his address he repeated time and again, his opening statement, that Nebraska was a place of homes. We forgave him, however, and the festivities continued. It was at a late hour that the Governor waved a feeble farewell from the steam launch, as it left the gangway for the San Francisco dock.

I have met people from my home city of Hannibal,  p279 in all parts of the world, and strangely enough, with one exception, never one who was in any trouble. One day while we were in San Francisco harbor, I was entertaining Mr. & Mrs. Charles S. Fee and family in the cabin of the Nebraska. Mrs. Fee, as a young girl, had lived less than three blocks from my own home. A message was sent down to me from the deck, stating that a young man wanted to see me on a most urgent matter. I excused myself, went on deck and asked the young man his name. He gave me a name, and then said,

"Of course, Mr. Coontz, I am from Hannibal, and you know that is not my real name, but I have been in serious trouble. In fact, in southern California I had to serve a term in jail for horse stealing. I have just been released, have no money, no clothes and of friends, but I am anxious to make a new start. I have a sister in the city, who does not know of my imprisonment, and when I saw your name in the papers I decided to come to you for help."

The boy was so ragged that I did not wish to embarrass him by asking him to go down to my cabin; so I had a good square meal sent to the pilot house for him, and ascertained that for ten dollars he could get a fairly decent suit of clothes on the water front, a shave and a bath.

As he left the ship he handed me a small pocket knife and said,

"Mr. Coontz, this is the last thing I have in the world, but after what you have done for me, I want you to take it."

As he felt that way, I accepted it.

The mentioning of that knife reminds me of another incident that happened several years prior, on one Independence Day, when I was in one of the South Sea islands. I had been invited to take luncheon with the German Vice Consul. Finding that I was about ten minutes ahead of time in going to the consulate, I sat down on a bench and accidentally dropped my knife to the ground. I picked it up, and as I turned I saw,  p280 ""W. H. H., Hannibal, Missouri" cut in the back of the bench upon which I was sitting. It struck me as remarkable that anyone from my home town had ever been in that faraway place, and I began to think of all the people I knew there whose surnames began with the letter "H." I was unable to recall any with the initial "W. H. H.", and it worried me.

One day, twelve years later, in Seattle, I told the story to Stanley Clark, of Hannibal, and he suggested the name "Will H. Hays." The reason I could not remember it was because Hays lived in Hannibal with his uncle whose name was Munger, for only a few years, and that during my absence from there.

In July, just as the fleet was about to leave San Francisco on its voyage around the world, diphtheria broke out on board the Nebraska, and we were hurried off to quarantine. Unfortunately, many of our best men had to be left there. The fleet sailed without us, and later we made our way, as best we could, to rejoin it at Honolulu. When we reached there the disease reappeared, and we were compelled to tie up at the new quarantine station, and abandon thought of seeing our friends in the city. The men on the other ships were having a good time. Only once, and that on the last day we were there, did we get on shore.

Thayer's Note:

a My best guess is that the boy was Charlie Mullen (1889‑1963), a native of Seattle, who was 17 at the time; he went on to play with the Yankees and the White Sox: see his page at

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