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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 23

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 25
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p327  Chapter XXIV

In Authority at Guam

Board of Inspection and Survey — Mr. Gumbo — A Submarine Sinks — Governor of Guam — Spanish Laws and the Governor's Decrees — Typhoons — Eradicating the Hook Worm — Life on the Island.

Soon after I became a member of the Board of Inspection and Survey it was decided to hold a naval review in New York harbor. The Massachusetts, the Indiana, and the Iowa, in reserve in Philadelphia, were ordered into commission, for temporary duty. It fell to my lot to command the Massachusetts. C. S. Williams was assigned to command the Indiana, and E. A. Anderson the Iowa. We had to go to Philadelphia, organize, get our crews quickly, take the officers who had been sent to us, and get into condition for New York, within a very few days. We succeeded in accomplishing the task.

While we were awaiting the arrival of the Secretary of the Navy, at the mobilization in New York, several of the battle­ship commanders, including besides Williams, Anderson and myself, Benson of the Utah and Kellogg of the Maine, Anderson told us this story.

"In the class of '81 or '82 there was a cadet midshipman from Kentucky whom we will call Mr. Gumbo. He had managed to get through two years at the Academy and was studying White's Astronomy and the rudiments of navigation, but was making rough weather of it. His instructor was Lieutenant T., one of the leading officers of the class of 1867. Mr. Gumbo had been posted the preceding week in navigation and had come up  p328 Monday morning without having looked at his lesson. He therefore knew that he must proceed with caution. The subject for the day was 'Tides.' Lieutenant T. propounded this question,

" 'When the latitude of the place and the declination of the moon are the same, do you expect to have the higher or the lower of the two highs, next after the Greenwich upper transit?

" 'Yes, sir,' answered Mr. Gumbo.

" 'You do not appear to understand the question, Mr. Gumbo,' said Lieutenant T., and he repeated it.

" 'Yes, sir,' repeated Mr. Gumbo, now at a total loss to understand.

" 'The question requires a categorical answer, Mr. Gumbo; you know what that means, don't you?'

" 'Yes, sir.'

" 'You don't know much about tides, Mr. Gumbo?

" 'Oh, yes, sir.'

" 'Do we have them all over the earth?'

" 'Yes, sir.'

" 'Where do you live, Mr. Gumbo?'

" 'In Kentucky, on the Kentucky river, right on the bank.'

" 'And you would expect tides there, Mr. Gumbo?'

" 'Yes, sir.'

" 'Well, what kind of tide would you expect to find in your yard, on the Kentucky river?'

"Mr. Gumbo hesitated a moment, and then said, 'I would expect to find a dog tied there.' "

On the Inspection and Survey Board were Rock, Williams, Smith, and T. J. Senn, as recorder. The Board inspected battle­ships, such as the Utah, and many destroyers and submarines. While testing out one of the early submarines off Provincetown, Massachusetts, in December, 1911, the first time we attempted to submerge the vessel the depth control failed, and we all went to the bottom of the bay. I was given credit for being very cool during this  p329 accident, but I admit I was too frightened to move. Fortunately, we hit the bottom in less than two hundred feet of water, and on settling down the craft remained upright. After what seemed hours, we tried our third method of getting to the surface, and were finally successful. When once more we saw the blue light of heaven through the periscope, it was a most gratifying sight.

At Charleston, South Carolina, where we were testing out the destroyers at thirty-five knots, I went aft just before we reached this speed. When I attempted to return forward I was caught abaft one of the smokestacks and held there for an hour, while the sea washed over the deck. We lost one or two of our beam boats, but having started on this speed in rough water the Admiral would not slow down just for the loss of a boat or two. Around the smokestack was a brass rail about four feet high, and I held on to that whenever the rushing waters lifted my feet from the deck. It was an interesting and hair-raising experience. I saw nothing of Charleston except the depot, the navy yard and the harbor. We lived with my classmate, Rust, on the Baltimore.

The change in the status of the Bureau of Navigation sent Wilson to sea in December. On the first of January Wiley walked out of the front door of the Bureau and did not stop until he reached China. Strauss also went to sea. Another officer who was moved out of Washington at the same time was Commander Thomas Washington. There was apparently such a sudden and pressing need for his services on the Yorktown in the Pacific that he was given only a few days to prepare for the cruise. Later all of these officers became four star admirals.

On January 1, 1912, Rear Admiral Potter, aide for personnel, fell down the ice‑covered steps of the State, War and Navy building while on his way to  p330 the White House to attend the President's New Year's Day reception. As a result of the accident he was induced to apply for leave until the date of his retirement on May 10, following. That day Potts sent for me and said that conditions in the Island of Guam were unsatisfactory, and that after looking over the list he had decided I was the man to go out there and adjust matters. I was greatly surprised, because I was due for sea duty, and wanted to go to sea, knowing what I might miss if I did not. Before I could reply Captain Potts added, "And you will have to give me an awfully good reason why you should not go."

I left him without giving my answer, considered the matter, talked it over with my family, and went back to him the next morning.

"Captain Potts," I said, "I have ten good reasons why I should not go to Guam. One of them is that I have just leased a house in Washington; another is that my fourteen-year‑old son is preparing to enter the Naval Academy. Moreover, I have been promised sea duty, for which I am due. I always believe, however, in carrying out orders, irrespective of my personal desires, and I am, therefore, willing to go, provided I am permitted to sail on the April transport from San Francisco, and that you promise me the command of a battle­ship, the day I step on shore in the United States two years hence."

I also told him I wanted to be examined for promotion to the grade of Captain before I started for Guam. He agreed, but was not in charge of the Bureau long enough to fulfill any of the promises, except the examination.

We had settled down in Washington for a quiet winter. I had my children in school, and my niece, Miss Prudence Wyman, of Olympia, was en route east to spend the season with us. I decided that the  p331 time had come to ask my Missouri friends for an appointment to the Naval Academy for my only surviving son.

One afternoon, however, our doorbell rang and a lady asked to see me, and as I was not at home she told my wife that she was the wife of James Wickersham, the delegate in Congress, from Alaska, and that her husband wished to see me at his hotel that night. When I called upon Mr. Wickersham he told me that my fame was still green in Alaska because of the work I had done in the territory more than twenty years before. He offered to appoint my son to the Naval Academy as a cadet from Alaska. I told him the appointment could not then be made, as my son Kenneth was only fourteen years of age, and that I was bound for Guam; but that my son was a resident of Alaska, and could accept the appointment later.

"No," he said, "we'll make it out tomorrow."

We went to the Navy Department the next day, made out an appointment, dated it June 2, 1912, to take effect in May, 1913, and placed it in the safe in the Bureau of Navigation. It was a gracious thing from Mr. Wickersham to do and I have never forgotten it. His son, Darrell, had been a shipmate with me on the Nebraska.

On Christmas Day, 1911, we filled our house with midshipmen whom I had known while I was Commandant at the Academy, and who lived too far away for them to go home at Yuletide. These were strenuous days.

I consulted Ex‑Governor Dorn and Ex‑Governor Potts, and gleaned all the information I could regarding Guam and the conditions there. The official correspondence was very heavy and I took with me much of it to read on the transport sailing from San Francisco. I decided that my son should accompany me to Guam even though his stay would  p332 be short, and also my niece, who had been deprived of her visit to Washington. We stopped in Missouri to see my mother, who was nearing eighty.

The Bureau of Navigation had decided to send officers of high rank to Guam, and offered me the choice of three lieutenant commanders. I selected Raby to command the station ship Supply, A. W. Hinds to be captain of the yard and chief of public works, and three or four other details.

Hinds and his family met us in San Francisco, and Raby took command of the Supply at Bremerton. After a long struggle she sailed for Guam, heavily laden with island necessities and passengers, reaching Apra Harbor November 19.

Our party went out on the transport Logan and, having one of the best rooms on the vessel, we enjoyed the early part of the voyage. The Logan was slow, however, and we were late in reaching Honolulu, and remained there only twenty-four hours — scarce long enough to do more than register at the Alexander Young Hotel and see a few friends. As we were leaving Honolulu we received the news of the loss of the Titanic. We were twenty-three days out from San Francisco in reaching Guam. Soon after our arrival there my daughter developed a case of measles; she had suffered an attack of auto-intoxication soon after we left Honolulu and was critically ill.

Toward the end of April I relieved the Governor, and he took passage on a collier for Manila. I assembled the natives, told them I knew the general situation in Guam, and purposed having peace and contentment while I was there; that I would gradually take up their quarrels, their troubles and their grievances and settle them. Incidentally, I believed the most recent trouble in the Island had come about on account of a dog fight. The people are  p333 naturally rather docile, but when once aroused they are strong-minded and clannish.

Several months before my arrival a gentleman accompanied by his dog was passing a plantation. Suddenly another dog jumped over a fence and immediately there was a dog fight. During the mêlée the owners of the canines became engaged in a quarrel. Later the controversy spread to the islanders and they took issue with one another on the affair. I was told in Washington that even the Governor had taken sides with the owner of one of the dogs. Be that as it may, I was there with a big job on my hands.

The government of Guam is conducted in a peculiar manner. The Spanish law is still the law of the islands. The Governor may issue any order or decree he deems advisable, and this supersedes the Spanish statute. It is an unusual mixture of authority, but it works well.​a

When I received Guam I found that my predecessors had proclaimed one hundred and eighty specific laws, and the natives told me they were sometimes confused. I announced that during my term as governor new laws would be extremely few. I issued three — one of them a necessary enactment on the subject of bankruptcy and insolvency.

In my opinion the governors had been too lenient in exercising capital punishment. In the jail was a life prisoner who had killed his father. A young woman, scarce twenty, was behind the jail bars in plain view of my bedroom windows. She and another native girl had fallen in love with the same man. The prisoner had enticed her rival to her home where she feasted her so well that her guest lay down on a floor mat and fell asleep. Thereupon she procured a can of gasoline, poured its contents in a circle about the sleeping girl and over her, and applied a match. The girl was burned  p334 to death. The court sentenced her to be executed, but sympathy was strong and her punishment was reduced to imprisonment for life.

At eight o'clock each morning the operator of the cable station in Sumay telephoned the news received from San Francisco. My chief clerk who was a stenographer made notes of the reports, and they were issued in concise form and distributed to the whites and the leading natives. San Francisco, under the cable rule, was not allowed to send accounts of scandals, a regulation which I approved. I did, however, succeed in having baseball scores sent daily, and once the result of a prize fight slipped through.

I was anxious to visit the south central part of the island, and early in June had a chance to do so, in company with Commander Hinds and Judge Duarte. Years before Duarte had been an officer in the Spanish infantry. While stationed at Guam he married into a prominent family, and when the island was captured by the Americans he decided to remain there. He was well known to all old timers.

It was easy enough to reach Inarajan, at the southeast end of the island. The town had been made sanitary by the commissioner. The trail through the northwest center of the island, however, was difficult at times. We took bulls along to ride when necessary. Most of the route lay over great hot plains which some day will be covered with cocoanut and pineapple trees.

In my first address to the people I told them that I would be a hanging governor. If the person who committed a crime were insane it would do no harm to hang him, and if he were not crazy, the ends of justice would best be served by hanging. There were no murders in the island while I was there. My successors were also hanging governors,  p335 and after the next murderer was executed in the center of the plaza at the capital of Guam, and the public was invited to witness the hanging, there was little trouble of this character.

Most people think that life in Guam is intolerable. It depends entirely on the individual. Two years is a long enough term there and one of eighteen months is preferable. The navy enlists a crew of several hundred men at the Guam naval station, at reduced rates of pay, to handle certain government work. The governor is also the commandant of the naval station. His office is the same for both duties, but as soon as he leaves the governor's office he runs into entirely different lines of work.

The Navy Department has an appropriation, "For care of lepers at Guam, and for other purposes." These other purposes are mainly educational. The hospitals are run under navy supervision. The governor levies the local taxes and has the distribution of them. The funds from this source ordinarily equal the appropriations of Congress.

The first real American governor of Guam who held office for any material length of time was Commander R. P. Leary. Order No. 2 of Governor Leary was a classic. It stated, in effect, that the day before, during his inspection of a certain part of the island, particularly in the town of Sinajana, where the Caroline Islanders had lived since their unexpected landing there years before, he was horrified to note that the women wore no clothing. He expressed the wish that thereafter, when he visited the town, the women would cover their nakedness. I believe they carried out the governor's wishes.

I was at the capture of Guam, in 1898,​b and it was almost fourteen years later that I became its eighth American governor. We lived in a palace built by the Spanish, and my offices, and those of the  p336 island treasurer and the captain of the yard, were on the lower floor of the building. The palace was about a hundred and sixty feet long. There was one room sixty feet in length that could be used as a banquet hall, several bedrooms, large and small, and a small dining-room. Verandas ran all alongside the sides of the palace, which had no doors, but instead heavy wooden shutters painted green. They were called "typhoon shutters." Typhoons in Guam are very severe. One comes to know when they are to be expected and when they begin to subside. They form about a thousand miles southeast of Guam, and it is a question whether or not they will hit the island on their way to the Philippine Islands and the Chinese coast before they turn to the eastward.

For centuries the Spanish priests have made a study of typhoons at the observatory in Manila. Their intensity on the island depends upon the distance from the center of the storm to Guam. The Yosemite was lost in a typhoon about 1900, and it is true that she jumped the reef at Guam and was driven out to sea many miles before she finally sank. When a typhoon is approaching the air becomes oppressive, the heat is intense and the wind blows a gale. It is then time to make preparations for safety.

The mean summer temperature is eighty-seven degrees, and in the winter eighty-three degrees. The most marked difference between winter and summer in Guam is in February. Then it is coldest, and one sleeps under a sheet; the rest of the year one sleeps uncovered.

I found that baseball was the national game in Guam. There were several good teams, one of them composed of officers, to which I became attached as a poor right fielder. There was also the cable team, from the cable station at Sumay, and two native teams. We soon decided to form a league  p337 and in September after my arrival we organized the Guam Mid‑winter League. The competition, of course, was very strong. Any passing ship that had a nine wishing to play baseball with our people was always welcome. On account of the heat, unless the score was tied, games were stopped at the end of the seventh inning.

The native children suffered from hookworm and other ills and were skinny, undernourished and morose. Under the supervision of Captain Kindleberger, of the Marine Corps, we began to work for the eradication of the hookworm, particularly among the school children. I had only five members of the Medical Corps under my command, including the medical officer attached to the Supply. By hard work and the valued assistance of their petty officers and nurses, they handled fifteen thousand people. We had hospitals that could accommodate about eighty hookworm children at one time. We took this number from the same school if possible, kept them for two weeks, gave them the treatment every other day, then discharged them and took them in again six months later for a final application of the remedy. It worked successfully. The parents of the first two or three groups of children placed in the hospital were fearful, and besieged the doctors and nurses with complaints. As soon as a child recovers from the hookworm disease its entire nature changes, and its outlook on life is very different. Soon we found that those who were cured made so much noise on the plaza in front of the palace at recess that it was almost unbearable.

One of the unusual sights in Guam is the "growing fences." Hardwood trees are cut down and split into fence posts which are driven into the ground. Soon the posts are covered with foliage. This is called the "growing fence."

We had to send for our Christmas presents from  p338 the States as early as August in order to have them reach Guam in time for the Yuletide festivities. In 1912 we sent for fifteen hundred baseballs and the same number of bats, and put them on the Christmas tree and gave them alike to the native boys and girls. They took the place of the old‑time sticks and clubs and cocoanuts. The girls learned to play baseball almost as well as the boys. Both native boys and girls were much better fielders than they were batters. I can assign no special reason for this except perhaps that their eyesight was not keen and they lacked proper training.

The routine of a day at Guam, when the governor was not visiting some part of the island away from the capital — I visited in turn each community — was to arise fairly early while it was cool and have breakfast served on a screened veranda. I always had papaya, a glass of fresh cocoanut milk and generally a couple of eggs on toast or fried bananas, and some good black coffee, finishing off with hardtack and native honey. I am very fond of cocoanut milk. I was in my office until one o'clock when we had lunch, after which we rested for a short time during the intense heat of the day, returning to work until four or four-thirty. From that time until six‑thirty practically all the men and some of the ladies played tennis. Then there was a refreshing shower and tub bath and by seven-thirty or eight we were ready for dinner. Socially there was some activity nearly every night. Each officer in turn did his part.

The governor had seven acres of garden. The Federal Government allowed him one gardener and the civil government three Japanese who also worked in the garden. As an abundance of food was raised it was the practice of the governor to sell some of it very cheaply to the officers and employees. In this way enough money was raised each month to pay the three Japanese gardeners  p339 fourteen dollars each. Prices were very low for vegetables, and I remember that one month Captain Brackett, of the Marines, had a bill which amounted only to two dollars, sixty-eight and a half cents. We raised many kinds of vegetables and fruit — breadfruit, oranges, grapefruit, three kinds of bananas, grapes, tomatoes, corn, fifty-pound watermelons, radishes, papaya, cocoanuts, and alligator pears. Bananas and corn grew together in one field. Up to the time I left Guam no insect had invaded the Island and it is sincerely to be hoped they never will. After the decimating epidemic, in many places, coffee was left to grow wild.

Here is the inscription from the Rubaiyat on a plaque hanging on the wall of the governor's summer house:

"Yon rising moon that looks for us again,

How oft, hereafter, shall she wax and wane;

How oft, hereafter, rising, look for us,

Through this same garden, and for one, in vain."

Thayer's Notes:

a The system is similar to that of the praetorian edict in ancient Rome, where it also worked well.

[decorative delimiter]

b pp204‑206.

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