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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 21

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 23
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p296  Chapter XXII

Promotion to Commander

Twenty-three Applications for War College Fail — Continue as Executive of Nebraska — Commandant of Midshipmen at Annapolis — A Fifty-Mile Walk — Twenty-fifth Class Anniversary — Improvement in Athletics — Successful Cadet Season, 1910‑11 — John Paul Jones' Body.

Early in March I went to Allentown, Pennsylvania, to see my mother, who had come east to visit my younger sister. When we retired on the night of March 3 the weather was fine, but on the following morning, when we awoke, the snow was already several feet deep, and still falling. I was obliged to remain for several days and on returning to the ship found my orders to Washington for examination for promotion to the grade of Commander. A vacancy had occurred while I was in the Mediterranean. The great blizzard had passed, but we still could see its effects along the railroad en route to Washington. My examination lasted only twenty-four hours, and I returned to New York. Each officer was given thirty days' leave, if he wished it, and reward the end of March I made a hurried trip to Seattle to bring my wife and son and daughter to New York.

I made application to go to the War College, and expected to be sent there in July. Captain Nicholson was detached from the Nebraska early in May, and made chief of the Bureau of Navigation, and Captain John T. Newton ordered as his relief. Captain Newton informed me that the Department had acquiesced in his request that I remain as executive of the Nebraska. He said it would be well for me  p297 to finish a year as executive of a battle­ship, with the rank of commander. Thus I failed to make the War College. My record shows that I applied for the War College twenty-three times without result.

I had been on duty with Captain Newton twice before and found him a capable and just officer, who expected his subordinates to do their duty; when so done he gave full credit for it. The Nebraska changed many of her officers, and early in July started for the southern drill grounds. I sent my family to a little place on the Pemigewasset River near Woodstock, New Hampshire, and settled myself down for the routine work of the Navy.

Our stay at the navy yard in New York was long and hot. Money came slowly, and consequently the repairs lagged. There was no hope of beating the ship back into shape until we could get away from the yard and go to the open sea.

We had a young officer, who, to use an expression common in those days, thought himself a "lady killer." One day at the Waldorf two of our juniors — Ingram and Page — were strolling by the dining-room and saw their fellow officer seated at a table with two ladies. A few minutes later a waiter handed the officer a note. When he looked at it he was surprised to read, "Here we are again! Meet me at the elevator in five minutes. Christine."

The two youngsters concealed themselves behind some palms and saw the officer go out and walk up and down in front of the elevator and carefully scrutinize every woman who passed. The incident would have been closed if at the lunch table on the following day the "killer" himself had not boasted of having received a flattering note from a girl whom he had apparently forgotten.

Two hours later he was called to the telephone, and a sweet voice told him she was Christine, and wanted to know why he had not come out to see  p298 her. He insisted that he had done so and explained that he was on a tour of duty which would not end for a day or so, but invited her to come on board ship for tea at three o'clock the next afternoon. The young lady consented and asked the privilege of bringing a friend. As there were only a few officers on board, the young man invited me to have tea with them.

The next afternoon one of the most costly limousines I have ever seen drove up to the starboard gangway, and two attractive and well-dressed young ladies got out. As they came up the gangway, the "lady killer" met them, and Miss Christine calmly told him that she had known him in Bremerton. I was walking up and down the port side of the quarterdeck while he was welcoming them and trying to remember who they were, when suddenly the girl looked over at me and said, "Why, there's Mr. Coontz! I haven't seen him since he was in Puget Sound."

I feigned surprise, but said, "Yes, I remember you now. You are Miss Christine Hall, but who is your friend?"

She introduced her as Miss Vade Mecum. The officer took charge of Miss Hall and walked with her to the far end of the quarterdeck, while I sent for a young man to entertain Miss Mecum. Miss Hall confided to her host that she was a southern girl who had come to New York to go on the stage; that she was at the Blank Theater doing a small part, but soon hoped to be a star. She said she did not know many people in New York and was lonely and glad to come aboard the Nebraska and see all the other officers whom she had previously known.

We went below for tea, and before she left the ship Miss Hall had promised to see the young officer at her home on 88th Street the following afternoon at five o'clock, immediately after the matinée. He  p299 stayed aboard ship until the next afternoon, but reached 88th Street in time for his appointment. The address given him, he found, to his disappointment, was a vacant lot. He made inquiries, but in vain.

We sailed the next morning at ten, and while we were at luncheon word came down to the ward room that the "killer" was wanted at the telephone. Although we were at sea he rushed on deck to the telephone before he realized that we were not running telephone wires from the sea to the shore. The two girls were friends of Ingram and Page, from North Carolina. One of them was a Miss Duke, who could afford a limousine, but the name of the other girl I have forgotten. They enacted their part of the little joke perfectly.

On the way south, while firing at night, two barrels of alcohol on the quarterdeck were set on fire by concussion. I remember the bravery of Ensign Arthur G. Caffee who, with one other man, rolled the blazing barrels over the side into the sea, exposing themselves to instant death from explosion.

One night while I was on the quarterdeck watching the towing of the target the hawser parted, and the inboard end, after hitting me several times, lifted me high in the air and dropped me just inside the after netting. These few inches saved my life, for had I gone overboard the port propeller would have struck me. I was badly bruised for a long time.

The weather in August and September was what we termed "rotten" for the drill grounds. There were numerous delays and plenty of trouble with drill practice. Late one afternoon a Rhode Island boat, which was many miles from her mother ship, came alongside the Nebraska. We hoisted her up with a crane while the ship was rolling heavily, and landed her on our upper deck, with all her crew  p300 alive, but not without some damage to the boat. The Rhode Island was very happy when she received our radio and learned that her crew and boat were safe.

While we were in New York Captain Bowyer, of the Illinois, was ordered to the Naval Academy as superintendent and in conversation with me one day asked what positions I could fill at the Academy. I enumerated about six from Commandant of Midshipmen down. Early in September I received a letter from him stating that he wanted an officer to take charge of buildings and grounds at the Academy and inquired if I felt qualified to undertake it. I was surprised, but answered that a Line Officer of the Navy should be qualified for any position, afloat or ashore, and that I was willing, if he wanted me, to make the effort. About the middle of September my orders came. I hastened to New Hampshire, got my family, stopped at Allentown to pick up my mother and niece and went by way of Washington to Missouri for a few days, leaving my wife and children at the Ebbitt House in Washington to await my return.

I reported at the Naval Academy September 30, 1909. I had never been on duty there before, and in the twenty-eight years I had been in the Navy had never lived in a government house. I assumed the new job and evidently made good.

Those were the days when an officer had to ride a horse one hundred miles in three days, a bicycle ninety miles, or walk fifty miles as a test of his physical condition. While in 1896 I could ride a bicycle I had not mounted one since the time; and although I was familiar with horses and mules in my early childhood and had ridden bareback and without a bridle, I could not qualify as a jockey thirty years afterwards. Therefore, I elected to take the fifty-mile walk. Bullard and I tramped the  p301 distance, had our physical examination and three days later walked another fifty miles, imitating the man who was willing to wager that he could drink 1 gallon of beer. Before he made the bet, he excused himself for a moment, went to a nearby saloon and drank that much beer to see if he could do it; then he returned and made the wager. Of course, he won.

The third day after we had completed the last of our fifty-mile walk I discovered a large egg‑like swelling on my right shoulder. I learned later that it was the result of the blow I had received at sea, from the heavy hawser. Doctor Riggs, the present Surgeon General, operated upon me and removed the tumor. I remember sitting up in bed a few days later and watching the Thanksgiving Day football game which was played on Worden Field in the snow.

Captain Bowyer was seriously injured by the hundred-mile horseback ride and never fully recovered.

One morning in December the Superintendent sent for me and said a decision had been reached in Washington that morning to appoint me the next Commandant of Midshipmen. I was most agreeably surprised, because, in those days, to be selected as Commandant at the age of forty-five was unusual. The promotion was to take effect the following summer, and I proceeded happily with the remaining work on the buildings and grounds, that had to be finished. We were fortunate enough to arrange for Commander W. C. Cole, as my relief.

During the graduation period at the Academy, in July, 1910, my class of 1885 had its twenty-fifth anniversary, and we wished to have as many members as possible present at the reunion. Being Commandant of Midshipmen, I was able to be helpful in making the arrangements. Twenty‑one officers responded. We had our meeting at the  p302 Maryland Hotel, and together visited every familiar spot in the Academy grounds and in Annapolis. Our house had eight bedrooms and five baths and I was able to accommodate many of my classmen. We hope to have a fiftieth anniversary in 1935.​a

There was one incident at the reunion and school dinner of the graduates that was very affecting. The formations were held in front of the chapel and while we were awaiting the arrival of representatives of various classes, a feeble old man tottered down the path leading to the Superintendent's office and gazed intently and affectionately at some of the old timers. Finally one of the officers said to his neighbor, "Isn't that ––––––––– walking down the path?"

"It certainly looks like him," replied his classmate, "but he has been dead for years."

The first officer was not satisfied and approaching the old man he said, "You can't fool me! You are –––––––––, but how have you arisen from the dead?"

The poor fellow burst into tears, and said that after the disgrace of several courts-martial, when he was dismissed from the service, or resigned, I have forgotten which, he concluded that the best thing he could do was to announce his death. He did so, but when he read of his class being represented at the dinner, the desire to see them drew him back to the Academy once more, where he sought to look at his former comrades from a distance, hoping that none would recognize him. He was taken in by his classmates and made happy, at least for a day.

Judging from its effects on one of my classmates Annapolis at that time must have sold very bad whiskey. Evidently, he had not been away from home alone before, and needed the guidance of someone. Twenty-four hours after he left our reunion I received a telegram from him which read,  p303 "Hackensack, New Jersey. Please express a regular navy watch to Mr. –––––––––, Morristown, New Jersey."

I saw no reason why I should not comply with the request, and promptly sent the timepiece. Two days later another telegram came saying, "Please express one of the navy watches to Mrs. ––––––––– at New Haven, Connecticut." I sent the second watch, but on the third day my curiosity was aroused by another telegram, "Please send one of the same watches to Miss –––––––––, York, Maine."

I again complied, but not without thinking that there must be something wrong with my classmate's mind. There were, however, no further orders for watches. Four weeks went by and not hearing from him again, I wrote, "Dear B.: In accordance with your request by telegraph, I sent watches to the following . . . . . . . . . The amount is $42.50. Your classmate."

In nine days I received the money, and the subject was never referred to either by B. or his wife.

I had an experience that showed me the influence of the chairman of the Senate Committee on Naval Affairs who at that time was George C. Perkins, of California. Our new power house could not be used, as it needed repairs and there were no funds available for the purpose. The Superintendent sent me to Washington to see Senator Perkins, and somewhat hesitatingly I laid the case before him. He listened to me and then said, "Your arguments are convincing and you will have the money."

"Whom else shall I see, Senator?" I asked.

"Nobody," he replied. "I have told you that you will get the money. Take this House bill, and write in the proper places the amount of money needed."

I did as he told me. The appropriation went through the Conference Committee and Congress without a change, and we got the money.

 p304  The summer cruise of the midshipmen, in 1910, was commanded by Commander (now Rear Admiral) George R. Clark.​b Three battle­ships were used. Gove, the preceding commandant, had been ordered to the Delaware in April. I moved to the Commandant's house in May, 1910, and when Clark left I became Acting Commandant for the summer and in August full Commandant. I had the efficient aid of Commander McVay as assistant commandant.

The midshipmen of the fourth class — the class of 1914 — began coming in on June 10. They were a fine set of boys and were put through the various drills and exercises and taught French during the summer. The class made a good start, produced some remarkably fine football players and has always been known throughout the service as a steady and reliable list of officers. It is necessary to sustain the interest of cadets, and that summer we had swimming races, boat races and baseball games among the different divisions.

Several of these youngsters I knew very well. One, in particular, Homer Ingram, was a brother of Jonas and "Bill" and lived at our house much of the time while he was a candidate and was nursing a broken arm.

Captain Bowyer was ill much of the time that year and I was practically in command. With his permission I instituted several reforms which I believed had long been needed. We stabilized the times of recitations and drills and, by changing the routine, I managed to give the youngsters an added half hour of sleep in the morning, remembering how I, myself, had longed for that extra thirty minutes when I was a midshipman many years before. Jenson, our athletic officer, was injured while horseback riding and while not fully recovered he wanted to go to sea. In his absence I selected a former shipmate and tried officer, Harris Laning, to come  p305 to the Academy and work out my ideas regarding athletics. I am amused when I read that the improvement in the Athletic Association was started by someone else. The records show clearly that Laning was responsible for it. It was following his work at the Academy that we entered upon a period when we won football games.

The 1910 game was the most exciting because none had been played for two years. About two weeks before the Army-Navy game was scheduled to take place an epidemic of dysentery broke out in the most peculiar manner among the midshipmen. At first a few of the mess were affected and then others and finally the players themselves began to succumb to the disease. The situation was desperate, because even with two of the good football players out of the game we were certain to lose. In the circumstances we took the team, with all its substitutes, and put them in the Officers' Club where everything they ate was cooked by one of the professors, Arturo Fernandez, who is still living. They were all in condition when the time arrived for the game. Some of the midshipmen, however, were too ill to see it.

We made a most thorough investigation. We had officers Jessop, Steele, Poteet, Enochs, and Buchanan go to the various messes and eat only one kind of food. Finally the doctors discovered that the trouble was due to croton oil. It was disclosed that some of the mess attendants were betting on the Army team, and the only sure way to win their wagers was to see that the Navy team or some of its players were incapacitated and to make them so they had resorted to the use of croton oil.

By authority of the superintendent I arrested three men at the same time in various parts of the building. My recollection is that at least one of them confessed. All three were placed outside the  p306 walls and not allowed to re‑enter the Academy grounds. Subsequently, I believe an attempt was made to bring an action in court, but nothing came of it.

We bear the Army 3‑0; the next year we beat them 3‑0 and the year after that 6‑0. Colonel R. M. Thompson​c gave the midshipmen team and the West Point boys a trip to New York in 1910 to enable them to fraternize and become better acquainted.

Custom decreed one fancy dress ball at the Academy each winter, but gradually it came to be the practice that most of those who attended sat in the gallery and watched the few on the floor who had gone to the trouble and expense of getting costumes. Something had to be done, and the following year when we sent out the invitations, we added a line saying that only ladies over forty years of age would be allowed in the gallery. The result was that the number of gallery spectators was remarkably small, and we had an extraordinarily large crowd on the dance floor. My wife and Mrs. Jessop represented "Old Dutch Cleanser," and were unrecognized until the time came for unmasking. I appeared as a foreign naval attaché who spoke English only with difficulty. A lady, now living, was wholly deceived and corrected my English and helped me to converse. Unfortunately, when we were told to unmask she was with me, and has never spoken to me since.

While I was a member of the Academic Board we had some very difficult problems to handle. One of them was the institution presented by the class of 1908 whose final examinations were in 1910. The tests were so severe that two‑thirds of the classmen failed in navigation the first time and a part of them the second time. In the end, after the examinations were changed, all the cadets passed. In the handling of humans, whether candidates  p307 or midshipmen, the greatest care must be taken to see that justice is done and sometimes cast-iron rules have to be violated.

Senator James P. Clarke, of Arkansas, came to Annapolis one day with a letter of introduction to me. He interceded on behalf of a youngster who had been rejected because he had made a "one" out of a possible "four" points in spelling, although he had passed in all the other subjects. I introduced the Senator to the five members of the Academic Board and the case was given careful consideration, with the result that the boy entered, graduated well and is still in the service.

There was also the case of another young man, a first classman, who was unsatisfactory in navigation and was to be given a re‑examination at the end of the year. The matter was forgotten until May. In the meantime he went through the second and last term satisfactorily but failed on the re‑examination for the first term. It was a troublesome proposition, but we exercised a little common sense and gave him another examination on his early work, which he passed. He was graduated and did efficient work in the service for many years before he died. The Academy at that time had not grown unwieldy and did not require such a large staff of officers as it does at the present time. We had a most successful academic season, 1910‑1911.

The body of John Paul Jones was in my care for nearly a year, beneath the main staircase in Bancroft Hall. We were waiting for an appropriation to build a tomb under the chapel where his remains could be suitably interred. The Honorable George A. Loud, a Representative from Michigan, sponsored the necessary legislation which provided the funds. It seemed a sacrilege to keep the corpse of the great naval hero in so undignified a place for  p308 so long a time even though there were many visitors who journeyed to Annapolis to do him honor.

During my incumbency in charge of buildings and grounds the question of saving the historical flags came up for consideration and with the aid of Mr. Beekman Winthrop we raised three thousand dollars for the work which was done by a Massachusetts lady. Later my successor, Cole, was given $30,000 to complete the work. It was money well expended.

Mr. Winthrop was also responsible for the preservation of the old trees on the grounds. He procured the services of a tree specialist, who came to Annapolis and instructed our head man, Casey, in the care of the trees. We paid him three thousand dollars. As a result the trees on the grounds are in good condition today.

In May, 1911, Captain Bowyer had to leave the Academy and go to the Naval Hospital in Washington. Later he died in Florida. If there ever was a man with an iron will to hold off disease and death, it was John M. Bowyer. He came from a staunch race of mid‑westerners who went from the Carolinas to Indiana and then on to Iowa. He was succeeded by Captain John H. Gibbons. The day Captain Gibbons reported I took command of the practice cruise ship. I was just finishing my second year as Commandant of Midshipmen, and Captain Gibbons told me he had selected George W. Logan as my relief and wanted him to assume his duties on September 1st.

An itinerary for a practice cruise was submitted to the Superintendent by the department. It was to extend north as far as Halifax and south to Trinidad, but most of the time was to be spent in the Caribbean. I had had wonderful cruises in Northern Europe while on the Enterprise, and as I knew what it meant to the midshipmen to have cool  p309 weather at the end of their year, I submitted a proposal that included Ireland, Germany, Norway and Spain. The Superintendent allowed me to go to Washington to discuss it with the Bureau of Navigation. I was successful in my efforts and believe that the cruise of 1911 has not been surpassed.

Thayer's Notes:

a Adm. Coontz died on Jan. 26, 1935, just short of that reunion.

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b A few years after this was written, Adm. Clark in his retirement would be the lead author of a very fine book on the history of the Navy; it is onsite, in full: A Short History of the United States Navy (J. B. Lippincott, Philadelphia, 1939).

[decorative delimiter]

c Robert Means Thompson, a retired Navy officer whose title of Colonel came to him from serving on the staff of the Governor of New Jersey during the Spanish-American War. He was active in Navy sports and was twice President of the American Olympic Association.

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