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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 20

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 22
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p281  Chapter XXI

Honolulu to Samoa

Auckland. — The Docks at Sydney. — Melbourne. — "Flag Officers Ashore" — Albany Farthest Point From Home — Learn Public Speaking — Ship Pets — Typhoons at Manila — Japanese "Banzai" — Return to Manila — Coaling and Target Practice — Colombo — The Elephants' Lunch — Christmas Aboard Ship — The Red Sea — Dinner in Tangier — Roosevelt Meets Fleet at Hampton Roads.

We started south from Honolulu in July, and made the run for Samoa. This was our chance to get the crew in shape, and to make the Nebraska a good ship once more. We made ready for the crossing of the equator. The Minnesota, which had been left at Honolulu for the mail, overtook us before we reached Samoa, and there, in a smooth sea, stopped in the center of a battle­ship formation and delivered it to us.

The ceremonies attending the crossing of the equator on this occasion were the most interesting I have ever seen. The men, as usual, put their time and their money into the preparations, and everything functioned to perfection. Of the nearly one thousand persons on the ship, probably there were eight hundred who had never crossed the line.

The New Jersey, commanded by Captain W. H. H. Southerland, was astern of us. He had instructed his officers of the deck never to be outside of distance in a formation, and, if anything, to be inside. They executed this order to the letter, and very often loomed up close astern of the Nebraska. On one occasion they got a little too far ahead and had to steer out to starboard — so much so that the quartermaster on the bridge suddenly cried out, "New Jersey coming alongside the starboard gangway, Sir!"

 p282  One officer who particularly objected to the proximity of the New Jersey was Surgeon Berryhill, who had a room well aft. It was the irony of fate that when the Nebraska was rammed the blow of the rammer went through the side of the battle­ship and into Surgeon Berryhill's room.

At Samoa, unfortunately, the big ships did not go inside the harbor. When we steamed by along the southern side of the island the people, both whites and natives, came out in their small boats and accompanied us to sea, as far as they reasonably could, and then, with sadness, turned back.

We were now well into the southern hemisphere, and our first port of call was Auckland, New Zealand, where we spent approximately six days. The chief reason for complaint on this cruise was the limited time that we remained in the big ports, and that too great attention was paid to the ranking officers, compared with that given to the others. When we went into port the signal would go up, "Flag Officers and Commanding Officers, repair on shore." The unfortunate executives were obliged to remain on board ship, and had opportunity only infrequently to go ashore, and possibly see the captains for a few minutes at some important function.

I was ashore at Auckland only once, in addition to an official visit. The governor's house could not accommodate a large crowd. At the entertainment which I was ordered to attend we were able to get inside the front door, but then the crowd forced us into a small side room. We stood there for thirty-five minutes without receiving any attention. Then some of the officers discovered that there was a window which looked out upon a greensward about six feet below. Through this window, one by one, we quietly leaped and made our escape.

Most of the officers had little money to spend in New Zealand, but some very beautiful rugs were purchased  p283 by those who could afford the expenditure. I have never regretted spending the money for those that I bought.

Auckland impressed me most favorably, and I foresaw then the great possibilities there for the development of the New Zealand colony.

Clearing away from there, we made the run for Sydney, New South Wales, and bucked the usual westerly breeze for four days until we reached the famous Sydney Heads. Sydney does not belie its reputation of being one of the best harbors in the world. The weather was wonderful the day we arrived there. Great crowds of people lined the shore all the way to the inner harbor. We were anchored by divisions in proximity to the landing, off Sydney, and everything was done that would add to our pleasure and comfort. Both officers and men thoroughly enjoyed themselves at Sydney. Unfortunately, being executive officer, I was on shore only three times while we were in the city. Once I attended a party given by Mrs. Dixson, the mother-in‑law of Captain Chester Wells, of the Navy, at her country place, and once I went to the bathing beach at Manly where I visited W. F. Brown, who had come out from Hannibal in 1871. He had been associated with Mr. Charles S. Fee in the office of the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad. Brown married an Australian lady and they had two daughters. He was still living when the fleet made its second trip to Australia in 1925.

My third occasion on shore was to see an open‑air entertainment given for our benefit by the school children in a large park. Later I went to Botany Bay, a place well known in historical annals.

From Sydney we journeyed by easy stages to Melbourne, and on the way brought the ships' companies back to normal by steady and frequent drills. I recall our entrance through the Heads at Fort St. Philip and steaming up the bay, the shores of which were crowded with people to welcome us.

Numerous small craft, from time to time, came alongside,  p284 or ahead or astern of us. The laws limiting the number of people to be carried on these boats must have been violated on that day.

Melbourne harbor was not then equipped with the spacious docks it now has. The fleet attempted a spectacular mooring, but our speed was too swift and four of the sixteen battle­ships carried away the first mooring anchors dropped, and sheered out to starboard, then coming back into column. Before we could pick up the lost anchors, the signal was flashed, "Flag Officers and Captains report on shore!" For the remainder of the time we were in Melbourne I saw our captain only once.

I was on shore twice at Melbourne. Once I went up to Ballarat, the historic old mining camp northwest of the city, accompanied by a party of bluejackets, commanded by Commander Wilson Buchanan, and we were driven about the place. Aside from the eating and the speech-making, I only remember meeting Brigadier General R. E. Williams, of the Australian Army, and John Gaven Reilly, an old friend of Mark Twain. I enjoyed Reilly's reminiscences. General Williams accompanied us on our return to Melbourne, and we became well acquainted. I was glad to find him still alive and well in 1925.

My other trip ashore was with Crenshaw. We went to a dinner and to a theater, where we saw the first two acts of The Red Mill. We were obliged to leave the theater after the second act to attend the Newsboys' Ball. I always wanted to see the rest of The Red Mill, and when I went back to Melbourne many years later I asked if it were still running, but it was not.

The Newsboys' Ball was the best attraction in Melbourne. It was not what its name would imply, but rather a benefit and social affair. I put myself down to attend because I could not get any of the younger officers to go. We detailed officers for each function in order that we might be properly represented.

When we entered the ballroom we found large flags  p285 draped about the walls, with the names of our ships painted upon them. As each officer wrote his name upon a lady's program for a dance, he added the name of the ship to which he was attached. When it became time for a particular dance he would stand under the flag of his ship and call the name of the girl whose partner he was to be.

With Bertolette, I left the ball at half-past three in the morning and walked to the wharf, where a steamer from the Vermont waited to take us out to our ship. We had much overtime among the men. They had been treated too well at Melbourne. The Admiral directed the Kansas to remain and pick them up, and rejoin us at Albany.

I found that the stories of the high westerly winds in that quarter of the globe, along the fortieth parallel of latitude, and of the great Australian bight, were true. We bucked strong westerly winds all the way to Albany, a flourishing city in the southwestern corner of Australia. There I felt that I was farther away from home than I could be in any other place in the world! Our colliers were slow in reaching us, and we were obliged to purchase any kind of coal obtainable.

In Albany I first determined to learn to deliver a public address. At a banquet there our Commander-in‑Chief made an awful fizzle of his remarks, and two other admirals whom he called upon were still worse. When the bluff old British Admiral arose and stood foursquare on his feet and made a ringing and eloquent speech I felt that some of us ought to learn how to do such things properly. Since then I have sought to have elocution and speech-making taught to all midshipmen at the Naval Academy. It is merely a matter of practice and good voice. Any old‑time officer who has served on sailing ships where he had to throw his voice to the fore royal yard and call men by name, can get away with it. Nowadays, I am glad to say, the Navy has some real orators  p286 who can get up without a moment's notice and talk on any subject.

At Albany, after collecting some native bears and wallabys, and sending several officers to represent us at Perth, we started north for Manila. The voyage was about 2,000 miles and we were due there by October 1. The sea was smooth and the weather very hot at first. From time to time a wallaby died, or jumped overboard and tried to swim back to Australia, or a bear breathed his last. Personally, I am opposed to having pets on board ship, and this means pets of any kind. It is very hard on them, and I have seen so many animals suffer and die in their confinement that I would not have even a canary on ship.

After a few days out it became doubtful whether or not we would be able to reach Manila, burning the poor coal we had been compelled to buy in Australia. The fourth division was therefore told to drop out and proceed slowly. Owing to the bad weather and to some error in navigation we lost about fifty miles in finding the entrance to the Straits of Sunda. When we found our location we proceeded north through the Sea of Macassar, and at one time saw the mountains on the Celebes.

It was exceedingly hereto again and everybody kept in the shade, except at drills and when on watch. The fourth division took a shorter route and made greater speed out of its coal than was expected, and to our surprise caught up with us. We ran close by Zamboanga and gave the people there an opportunity to come out in their boats and greet us. For many miles, we ran so slowly that they could parallel us, close aboard, and speak to their friends. It was really quite affecting to be down in that part of the world, and to talk with the homesick Americans there.

We reached Manila Bay on time and had a disagreeable stay there. We experienced at least three typhoons, one of them so heavy that some of the squadron had to put out to sea. There was much sickness, probably cholera,  p287 and the men were quarantined. The merchants, who had anticipated heavy sales, were disappointed and cabled to Washington, and, all in all, things were not happy. The Nebraska started to coal from a big collier, when a typhoon came, and the collier had to leave us and put to sea, to await more favorable weather. Our ship was in soiled condition for many days. We had occasion in the northeast part of Manila Bay to have our first target practice, and for a new battle­ship it was most successful. The turrets, in charge of A. F. Carter and A. G. Caffee, made remarkable scores. With an eight‑inch turret, Grafton A. Beall made fifteen hits out of sixteen shots. The result was that we became a star ship in gunnery, from the start.

We were twice at Manila during the cruise round the world, and when leaving there the first time en route to Japan we encountered a heavy storm, shortly after we had got outside the harbor. It continued all the way to Yokohama, and during a part of the time the vessels were battened down fore and aft. Boats were washed away and men were swept overboard from the deck. Some were picked up by battle­ships astern, but others were lost, and altogether we had a rough voyage. The only amusing incident was a disagreement between Admiral Wainwright and Admiral Schroeder as to whether the storm was a typhoon or simply a heavy northeast gale. The question was never decided, but those of us who experienced it knew that it really made no difference what the storm was called.

Captain Nicholson, Lieutenant Laning, the navigator, and I spent our nights in the pilot house of the Nebraska throughout the storm.

We reached Yokohama a day behind our schedule, much to our annoyance, and anchored off the city, in column, with a Japanese vessel to port of each of us. The Idzuma had a position opposite the Nebraska, and fifty or a hundred Japanese bluejackets and several of her officers came aboard, to be our guides and preceptors during the  p288 time we remained there. Everything possible was done by the Japanese to add to our enjoyment. They brought us large quantities of food, provided a series of entertainments, and arranged for short railroad trips. Everywhere we were greeted with the familiar Japanese word of welcome, banzai. As executive, my visits on shore were few.

The first mail brought me news of three deaths in my family, one being that of my only brother, aged thirty-four, who died suddenly at Parsons, Kansas, where he was engaged in the railroad business. When I opened the third letter and found that it contained report of the third death, I wrote our captain a note and locked myself in my stateroom for forty-eight hours.

I made one trip to Tokio. There I attended some lavish entertainments and saw exhibitions of the jiu‑jitsu. Baron Mitsui gave a party in our honor at his home. I remember three things about it: first, that as senior officer present, I had to make my first speech; second, that we sat on our feet, with our legs crossed under us; and third, that I was able to outstare the champion starer who was a geisha girl. I have always had remarkably good control of my eyes, and good vision. At the age of sixty-five, I can still get 20‑20 on each. The staring game was this. The geisha girl and her partner stood facing each other and looking directly into each other's eyes. The first one who flickered an eyelid was the loser. Suzuki, the girl opposite me, had been so accustomed to having her opponent fail after a few seconds, that when she saw that I could withstand the stare for several minutes she became nervous and blinked her eyes, thus losing the prize which the baron had offered. I recall that Andrews and McVay were at this party.

I took the trip to Mississippi Bay, saw the rice paddies and recalled my visit of nine years before. We walked up one hundred steps to a tea house in Yokohama, and the proprietor said he remembered that I had visited there before, but in this he was wrong, and he was unable  p289 to find my name on his register. We enjoyed the experience just the same.

Our return voyage to Manila was uneventful and quite in contrast to the trip up to Japan. We had a race between two dinghies of the Vermont and the Nebraska. With our powerful men we had hoped to win, but instead those on the Vermont the beat us badly.

We spent practically the entire month of November in target practice, drills and coaling in different parts of Manila Bay. The weather was very bad and we had hard work carrying out our program. When we finished our practice we had made a score of sixty-five, and thus became a star ship.

The fleet left Manila Bay for home on December 1, and we settled down to the work of getting the various ships in condition before reaching the States. We knew we would have to buck some mean weather all the way, but we did not anticipate the big storms we encountered. We passed Singapore, close aboard, five days out from Manila, and ran in near enough to have a good view of the city, through powerful glasses. We sailed along the various passages made famous in the stories of the East, and reached Colombo, Ceylon, about December 9. We rolled terribly before we could get a safe anchorage inside the breakwater.

Colombo is a made harbor and what has been done there is an excellent example for the construction of harbors in other parts of the world. The usual coaling and cleaning occupied our time for the first forty-eight hours, and I then had an opportunity to go with A. F. Carter up the mountain to Kandy. The trip by rail was remarkable, and as we climbed the mountain we were able to look back and have a wonderful view of the sea. The air was much cooler in the higher altitude, and a great relief from the intense heat of Colombo. We registered at the Queen's Hotel, and hired the only automobile in the city. The way the native driver swept us  p290 along the narrow roads overhanging the precipices gave us many a thrill.

We saw the Temple of Tooth, and asked to see the sacred white elephants. As it happened we arrived at the elephants' quarters a few minutes after noon, and made known our wishes to the attendants. After a short delay one of them came back, and in all seriousness, told us that the elephants were having lunch and begged to be excused! We had to accept the situation, and the result was that Carter and I never saw the sacred white elephants. We had a ride on the little lake close by, and returned to Colombo that night. We had good opportunity to observe the caste system, and were not favorably impressed with it.

The ship teams played baseball while we were in Colombo and the boys on the Nebraska won easily. By defeating the Missouri, the Kentucky and finally the New Jersey nines, we won the fleet champion­ship.​a

The governor gave a reception on December 20, and seven officers were detailed to attend. When we arrived at his palace we found there about one hundred and eighty British and American officers, and one lady — the governor's wife. It was desperately dull, and finally one of our officers discovered a rear entrance from an alley and bribed one of the attendants to let us out that way. I regret to say that, although the staff officer of a battle­ship, and forty-four years old, I yielded to the temptation to escape from the function. Six of the Nebraska officers, each in full uniform, made their exit, by way of the alley, and went to see the final game of baseball. Executives, of course, would not be guilty of such an offense at the present time!

I had dinner at the Galle Face Hotel in Colombo with Admiral and Mrs. Nicholson. The weather was very hot.

Leaving Ceylon, the next leg of the journey carried us across the Arabian Sea and up to the Red Sea. We spent Christmas in Arabian waters. The ward room had a special dinner and a Christmas tree and invited the  p291 captain. In the evening the crew gave an entertainment, but the heat was intense. Nevertheless, we were in good spirits and made the best of it.

John Rodgers, whose death I so much regret, was dressed to represent Santa Claus, and his impersonation was excellent. We made a sort of powder to look like snow, and this Rodgers attempted to scatter from the ward room trunks above the mess table. In the midst of the merry-making he dropped the sack of "snow" and it fell upon the head of poor Soule and dazed him as if it had been a block of ice rather than "snow." Rodgers delivered the Christmas presents, and everything was all right until he came to the seniors. Taking a toy horse from his satchel, he started down the long table, stopped and looked directly at me. He said he hoped the gift of a horse would stop the constant "horsing" of the officer of the deck. Thereupon, he suddenly turned from me and presented the horse to Captain Nicholson. It was a somewhat bold thing to do, but John was always bold and daring. Captain Nicholas entered into the spirit of the joke and the occasion and delivered a speech.

While we were on the Red Sea the temperature dropped to 69 degrees, and after what we had experienced in Colombo, it seemed like winter.

Seamen tell some wonderful yarns. They say that the red sand of the desert is blown by the wind, more than one hundred miles from Arabia to the Red Sea, and falls upon the decks of ships, sometimes getting into the machinery and causing the engines to stop. Many people do not believe the statement. My wife and daughter were doubters until they made a trip through the Red Sea themselves, and the captain of the President Hayez verified the story.

Ward room officers are always on the lookout for "suckers," as is evident from the story of the Bombay duck hunt in India. Shortly after we left Manila I chanced to ask Dr. Berryhill if he had ever been in India before, and knowing his reputation as a mighty haven't,  p292 if he had had any luck in hunting Bombay ducks. He told me he had once before been in India, had not succeeded in his Bombay duck hunt, but intended to try again, in case he could get the necessary leave of absence. I expressed the opinion that it could be arranged, and that he should take a couple of our young officers along in order that they might have a new experience. Volunteers were called for and one young officer promptly came forward. It was necessary to have a third officer and I nominated Ensign Beall to assist on the expedition.

Beall and the doctor succeeded in arousing the interest of the victim, told him at length how the ducks were hunted; discussed what kinds of guns and ammunition were needed, and the necessary equipment for the undertaking. The captain was let into the secret and several times gave suggestions as to the care which must be exercised in hunting Bombay ducks.

By the time we reached Colombo it had become a serious matter with the young officer, so much so that after the captain's first trip ashore he called the hunting party on the quarter deck and told them there would probably be some objection on the part of the civil authorities to the Bombay duck hunting expedition. Thus it was called off before the young officer had a chance to kill either Dr. Berryhill or Ensign Beall.

On December 31 we had the first annual signal contest. Each of the four contestants had previously settled on its best signaling ship, and then the two squadrons, of eight vessels each, made their choice. It narrowed down to the Nebraska in one squadron and to the Kentucky in the other. The final contest was very interesting and not a little thrilling. We beat the Kentucky thirty hoists to ten, and felt that for a new battle­ship joining the fleet, the Nebraska had established a reputation.

Before the final contest the Kentucky signalled to Ingram asking if he could raise five hundred dollars to bet on our team. Ingram said he could and asked how much more the Kentucky would wager. When they  p293 brought over the money it was a motley assortment of foreign coins.

I saw, at long range, the accident to the Illinois whale boat off Aden. A man fell overboard and in lowering the life boat the forward fall carried away, throwing the crew of thirteen into the water. Seven of them were drowned.

Some of the officers who could afford the trip went to Cairo by way of Ismailia, but I did not go. The journey through the Suez Canal was monotonous, as there was nothing to be seen on either side but stretches of sand. It was very disappointing.

At Port Said we coaled the ship and made a good start across the Mediterranean. It was a rough, uncomfortable trip for us. The destination of our division was Marseilles.

The Illinois of the fourth division and the Yankton were ordered to the assistance of the survivors of the Messina earthquake disaster.

At Marseilles we moored inside the breakwater and went through the usual coaling and cleaning. The scenery at Marseilles is not particularly attractive, but there are some interesting ancient ruins and historic spots. With several officers from the Nebraska I visited in Avignon at the home of the DeLeon family. We were royally entertained and shown where the popes lived from 1195 to 1360.​b They also gave us a tally‑ho ride along the old road over which Napoleon rushed back to Paris when he was recalled to take the throne.​c Along the way we saw some very old Roman amphitheaters.​d

Several of the ships of our division were sent from Marseilles to Tangier. Tangier had no attractions for me, however, as I had been there before, but I had to attend the big banquet given by the government. My dinner partner was the wife of the Danish Minister, and fortunately she spoke English. At about the seventeenth course she turned to me and asked if I could find her a place where she might smoke. When I escorted her to  p294 the smoking room she quickly lighted a cigarette and offered one to me. I recall the look which came over her face when I told her that I had never smoked.

The fleet made the voyage across the Atlantic south of the Azores. It was one of continuous horror for captains and executives. Boats were carried away, men were washed overboard, and things were most discouraging to the officers who wanted the vessels to look their best upon reaching Hampton Roads. We anchored at night in a fog outside Cape Henry, on February 21, 1909. During the darkness we slung men on stages over the side of our ship, and they painted her hull.

On the following day the fleet entered Hampton Roads. There were thousands of people on shore and in small craft out to see us come in, and we were relieved by President Roosevelt. The fleet had been absent from Hampton Roads since December, 1907, and had circumnavigated the globe. It was a great day for the families of the officers and men, and also for President Roosevelt. He visited the Georgia, which was in our division and was Admiral Wainwright's flagship. Each vessel sent its quota of officers and men to the Georgia to meet him, and when he had greeted them he climbed on the after turret and delivered a patriotic address. Incidentally, he said he was himself half Georgian, as his mother, who was a Miss Bullock, was a native of that state. We enjoyed the whole ceremony, and at night a banquet was given at the Hotel Chamberlain.

One Sunday afternoon at Old Point Comfort I was suddenly summoned to the deck, where I found that either the Kansas had drifted over and hit us or that we had accidentally collided with her. We had swung in opposite directions on the tide. I exchanged compliments with the officers of our sister ship until the tide was good enough to separate us.

One by one the battle­ships were ordered from Hampton Roads anchorage to their own yards. The Nebraska was assigned to New York for repairs, and about the  p295 end of the month we arrived there for a stay of three months, and a change of many of the officers and members of the crew. We were overwhelmed with invitations to social functions. Among them was one from the Lambs Club, which was giving a dinner to which we were expected to send two officers. I wished the Nebraska to make a good impression, and after consultation with the captain we selected two representatives who we thought were men of sufficient capacity to hold their liquor without exhibiting any evidence of intoxication.

On the morning after the Club function I was having breakfast in the ward room what one of them came down dressed in his evening clothes, and took his place at the table. He looked very sad.

"Have a good time last night?" I inquired.

"Yes sir," he replied.

"Where's your companion?" I asked.

"Stayed at the club all night."

"What's the matter?" I persisted. "You look so depressed."

"Well," he said, "Mr. Coontz, I am depressed, and I want to tell you why. I left the Lambs Club at five o'clock this morning, took a subway to the Brooklyn Bridge, came across the bridge and boarded the Sands Street car for the Navy Yard gate. All of these cars were crowded, and I want to tell you that every man, woman and child in them was drunk, except me."

"That's too bad," I said, "and I feel that as acting commanding officer, I must excuse you from quarters. I shall ask you to turn in until some time late this afternoon, and then we shall see what can be done about this terrible situation, especially the condition among the children."

He went to his room and did not appear again until dinner that night. The subject was never referred to thereafter.

Thayer's Notes:

a A page at Hampton Roads Naval Museum, "Pitchers and Catchers Report to the Fantail! Baseball During the Great White Fleet", is interesting; this is one of the photographs from it:

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b From 1309 to 1377 is more like it.

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c Adm. Coontz is not a historian. . . . Napoleon was not "recalled", but (as the admiral must surely have learned at the Naval Academy and forgotten over the course of a long life) escaped from Elba and seized the throne a second time.

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d At Nîmes and Arles.

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Page updated: 31 Dec 16