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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 25

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 27
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p355  Chapter XXVI

From Guam to Battleship

Native Customs — The Pago Road — Progress in the Island — Vessel's Condition Bad — At Vera Cruz — Liquor Forbidden on Ships — War Declared in Europe — Court Martial Duty — Rejoin Fleet — Dealings with Carranza — Georgia Makes Fine Showing at Target Practice — To Command Thirteenth Naval District

It was almost impossible to reach the eastern part of Guam, but, as I was determined to see every part of the island while I was governor and commandant, I formed a party to make the trip. We went by steamer to Umatac, the old capital, which had been destroyed by an earthquake several decades ago. Thence we proceeded to Merizo, on the extreme southwest point of the island, where we remained one day as the guests of the Catholic priest, Father Christobal. Accommodations were meager. The priest gave us fresh tomatoes from the church gardens and some native wine, and we reciprocated by giving him a block of ice. From Merizo we rode in two‑wheeled bull carts to the harbor of Inarajan, on the southeast coast, where there is a little bay which fishermen use as a haven. From there on we had to go bullback or walk, and I have a remarkable picture of my wife and Mrs. Raby and Mrs. Hinds riding bulls. At each place Captain Hinds, Doctor Eytinge and I held political and medical councils.

We crossed the rivers on rafts and the bulls were either towed across or swam over with the natives. It was a remarkable and interesting experience. One night, at Togcha, the headquarters of the Japanese who had the cocoanut concessions, we found only one building really fit for white women to occupy, and even that was open on all sides. There were so many Japanese and  p356 natives about that the ladies insisted I should occupy this open shelter with them. I had to turn in late at night in the dark and get out before daylight. The only way to take a bath at Togcha was to jump in the river. My steward came all the way from the capital with fresh vegetables and meat, and cooked us a real meal. We eventually reached the Pago river, and after camping there a short time our own carriages came up and took us safely across the island to the capital. The road to Pago was built by Captain A. W. Hinds.

On the highest elevation of the island we found a sign under a shrine with an ever-burning light stating that Governor So‑and‑so had built the road to that point in 1565. Overcoming many difficulties, Hinds continued the road down to the coast on the east side, finishing it in three months at a cost of only $3,000. I told him that beneath the sign we should write the statesman that the American government completed the highway to the coast in ninety days in 1913.

In July, 1913, I received a cablegram stating that I was detached as soon as I felt I could leave the island, and directing me, upon my departure, to turn over control to Captain Hinds. I also learned that I would be given command of a battle­ship on reaching the United States. I decided that, as the Supply was to make a trip to the Chinese coast in December, my family and I would go home that way, and take Captain Raby's family with us, as they had not been well.

On leaving Guam I was very much affected by the receipt of letters and tokens of affection from practically all of the leaders in the island. The five-mile road to the boat landing was lined with school children carrying flowers, which they threw at us as our carriage passed them. I have several photographs showing the highway thickly covered with them. I have always retained a warm spot in my heart for Guam and the Chamorros.

I attempted to clear up the court calendar, but found  p357 it would take a long time. Some of the suits had been pending for fourteen years. Soon after my arrival in Guam I selected as Chief Justice of the Court of Appeals the Hon. Pancracio Palting, a Filipino, who having been banished from his country had come to Guam, married into one of the prominent families of Guam and remained there. The salary of the office was ninety-nine dollars a month. We felt that if we paid anyone a salary of a hundred dollars a month he might become arrogant and proud. I found that Palting was loyal to the government and satisfactory to the people. Old Francis Portusach and Pedro Duarte, whom I had known when we took Guam, in 1898, were both living there in 1912. Portusach was a planter and Duarte was postmaster and worked also as a surveyor in the island government. Guam has made much progress since the Spanish regime. The Bank of Guam has been established under the supervision of the government; a large ice plant has been built; there is plenty of fresh water; and health conditions are excellent. I understand pineapple orchards are now being developed. I feel certain they will be successful and that their operation will be as beneficial to the people as the cocoanut and corn crops have been in the past.

The Supply sailed for Hongkong on September 23 and soon we began to cool off. Unfortunately, Jack Raby, now about to be graduated from the Naval Academy, was taken ill with amoebic dysentery. We managed to get him past Yokohama. Captain N. J. Blackwood, of the Medical Corps of the Navy, and his wife were passengers with us for a part of the voyage and aided us in getting our people safely by when quarantine was threatened.

My family shopped as long as money lasted in Hongkong, Shanghai and Yokohama.

We came home on the Empress of Asia, the new liner running from Hongkong to Vancouver. Outside of Yokohama we ran into a typhoon and it remained with  p358 us for the greater part of the voyage across the Pacific. We would have seen the Aleutian Island had it not been for the fact that the weather was bad and visibility low. There were days when only four of the many passengers aboard went to the dining room. My table provided two of the four.

We made the run in ten days. I found that navigators in the British merchant marine do not take as great care as our own naval navigators do. Once, on a merchant vessel, the captain asked me to help him compensate the compass and to find out the deviation. I did so, but the next time the navigator asked my assistance the captain would not allow me to help him. A forenoon sight and a meridian altitude are often a day's work.

When we sighted Vancouver the sun was shining and the snow-covered mountain peaks loomed up majestically. We debarked at Victoria, B. C., late at night and waited there for a Sound steamer for Seattle.

Someone had wired to Seattle that one of the women in my party might be a smuggler. When we reached there the customs inspector insisted upon having her searched. It was then between one and two o'clock in the morning and I protested vigorously against such an outrage, but could do little more at that time of night. She had nothing contraband in her possession.

En route home, I received advices from Washington that I was to command the Virginia, which was very satisfactory. Later word came that I was to command the Nebraska. This was equally satisfactory, but when I reached home I was informed by the Bureau of Navigation that I was to command the Georgia.

After a brief visit in Missouri I went on to Annapolis, where my son was a plebe at the Academy. I reached Washington about Thanksgiving time and went to the office of the chief of the Bureau of Navigation. While I was there who should walk in but Henry B. Wilson, Joseph Strauss, Thomas Washington and Henry A. Wiley. These officers had been ordered from Washington about the same time that I was. We had a good  p359 laugh over the coincidence that all of us had returned to the capital at the same time.

I saw the football game in Philadelphia, in which the Navy was defeated for the first time in several years, and then I proceeded to Boston, where, on December 1, I took command of the Georgia.

Conditions on that ship were about as discouraging as they could well be to a commander. The vessel had been at the navy yard for two months undergoing repairs and was extremely untidy. Within a short time after I had reported the ordnance officer, W. H. Allen, fell at the cabin door and broke his arm. He was transferred to the naval hospital at Boston. That afternoon I read in the newspapers that Lieutenant Wood had been injured at Newport by falling off a roof at a fire. The senior turret officer, Pickens, was detached within a few days. The ship had been the lowest in target practice the preceding year and, all in all, the outlook was gloomy. My executive officer was Hussey. Shortly afterward H. H. Michael was ordered as gunnery officer, and W. B. Wells came as navigator.

We determined to make something out of the vessel, and once clear of Boston, January 3, 1914, and bound for Vera Cruz, we whipped the crew into shape and started to accomplish our aim of reaching the top of the list in gunnery.

On reaching Vera Cruz, January 10, we reported to Rear Admiral Frank F. Fletcher, commanding the third division, and took our place in the line as the number two ship, replacing the Nebraska, which went north for her regular repairs.

The situation at Vera Cruz was nebulous and uncertain. The British were represented by Rear Admiral Craddock, with the Suffolk. He was the officer who later met his death in a brave fight between the British and Germans off Coronel. There were several other nations represented there, among them Germany. I think their vessel was the Dresden.

 p360  Admiral Fletcher took us into the Gulf regularly and taught us tactics and the system of keeping station in line and in‑the‑line formations. We prepared wooden affairs which we carried at our mastheads to help out in the drills. Like any other instruction that is often repeated, the drills become tiresome, but it brought us up properly in the way of retaining position and bearing. The Georgia, as ship number two, had a difficult position to hold, because it is well known that the ship nearest to the pivot has the most trouble in keeping to her proper place.

We went north in April to our home port, and had scarcely arrived there when the so‑called Vera Cruz incident occurred, during the administration of President Wilson. We were ordered to return as fast as we could to rejoin the fleet. Upon arriving we found Rear Admiral Beatty in command of our division. The signal came almost immediately from the flagship Wyoming that I was to command the Third Regiment, relieving Captain Edward Simpson, of the Minnesota. I had the largest regiment, as it included the battalions of the Virginia, the Georgia, the Nebraska and the New Jersey, as well as the Minnesota. W. L. Rodgers was in command of all the forces.

Captain Rodgers held several conferences during the next few days, as we expected to be ordered to the City of Mexico. We were well drilled for what we were to undertake. The marines and the army began to arrive in large armies. There were so many men afloat and ashore that an Army and Navy Club was organized in Vera Cruz.

Rear Admiral Badger was in command of the Atlantic Fleet. We waited, and as the weeks went by the Admiral took us out from time to time for various evolutions and small drills in gunnery. Once or twice we were sent to Tampico, where we always anchored in the swell outside the mouth of the harbor. There was little to do except to carry on drills and exercises, guard the ship  p361 when we had "northers" and wait for events to happen.

On July 1, 1914, by direction of the Hon. Josephus Daniels, the Secretary of the Navy, liquors of every description were prohibited aboard vessels of war and at all naval stations. This was an invention and was bitterly opposed by the many officers and ridiculed by many newspapers. Time has shown the wisdom of the Administration in this matter. There is no question, in my mind, but that liquor should never be allowed on shipboard or at naval stations, except for medicinal purposes. I go further and say that I do not believe that it should be used by officers of the merchant marine while at sea. If one ever needs all his mental faculties and all his skill, it is while at sea in any capacity, whether commanding a vessel or discharging any subordinate duties which involve the safety of passengers.

We were all watching events in Europe and were not surprised when war was declared on August 1, 1914. That afternoon Chief of Staff Hughes came over to the Georgia with orders for her to proceed to Port au Prince, Haiti, relieve the Connecticut and remain there indefinitely. We got under way before midnight. The British had already left Vera Cruz, and so had the Germans. We expected that the Karlsruhe or some other German ship would go to Port au Prince. We made there in two or three days, getting the war news by radio while en route. We relieved the Connecticut and settled down for a long stay. Commerce immediately dropped off at Port au Prince and, if I recall correctly, the price of coffee fell to four cents a pound.

The Washington, under command of Captain Eberle, was at San Domingo, and the South Carolina, under Captain Russell, was at Cape Haitien. These men were my classmates and we had our first cruise together in 1885.

As our men could not be granted liberty at Port au Prince, we hired a big baseball field and each day took the men out either to play or to see the games. My recollection is that we organized twelve baseball teams  p362 among the officers and crew of the ship. Four or five days each week we had boat races. The heat of the day was intense and the nights were never cool. Many of our men slept on the upper deck of the ship.

The impression among our officers was that Germany would be defeated within a few weeks, or within a few months, at most. H. O. Smith and I were the only officers aboard the Georgia who thought otherwise.

In October we were relieved by the Sacramento, under Commander McNamee, and sailed away from Port au Prince.

Our minister in Haiti was Mr. Bailly-Blanchard. It was he who rendered valuable assistance in finding the body of John Paul Jones. One night we sat up until two A.M. at his bungalow while he recounted the search for the remains of the great naval hero in Paris in a part of the city that had become covered up in the course of a century.

On our way north we stopped at Cape Haitien for several hours and transferred executives, the Georgia receiving Commander W. L. Littlefield. We then hurried on to Boston for a short stay, and there I was made president of the General Court Martial that tried Ensign R–––––––––​a in the celebrated case in which he was charged with robbing his shipmates over a period of many months.

It was one of the most remarkable cases I have ever known and the amount of plunder he had taken was amazing. He was always sharp in avoiding suspicion and was only caught by accident. His methods of deceiving his associates were remarkable. He even headed a subscription list to hire a detective to discover the culprit who was robbing the officers.

When the court adjourned I walked to the wharf where the Georgia lay and found the ship already had its lines singled, and within an hour we were out to sea, bound for the Gulf of Mexico. On the cruise I saw only four United States ports, Boston, Newport, Hampton Roads and Key West.

 p363  We joined the fleet in Guacanayabo Bay, and Admiral Beatty placed the vessels of his division in line, four miles apart, just within signalling distance, with instructions to have all vessels in readiness for practice as quickly as possible. Rear Admiral Coffman took command of our division on the retirement of Rear Admiral Beatty. Both were able men with common sense.

One afternoon, during a successful target practice, the signal came for the Georgia to proceed, with dispatch, to Vera Cruz. This was unexpected, but we made our way to the old anchorage. The Delaware was in port, with Captain W. L. Rodgers as senior officer. A few days after we arrived, orders came for the Delaware to leave, and for a time I was the senior officer present at Vera Cruz.

With Consul General Canada, since deceased, I handled matters with Carranza. I reported by radio to the Navy Department and to the Commander-in‑Chief once a day, and smiled when I saw the accounts in the newspapers and compared them with the reports that I had made.

At last the smaller craft around at Vera Cruz and, as trouble had arisen in Yucatan over the question of sisal, the Georgia was sent to Progresso. The question was settled while we were en route, and during the night we had orders to return to Vera Cruz.

After we had practically abandoned all thought of completing the target practice, we had instructions to proceed north by way of Progresso and Key West. We communicated with Commander Upham, of the Olympia, and then went on to the Florida port. In all my years in the Navy, this was my first visit to Key West. We hurriedly coaled and moved on to join the fleet at Hampton Roads.

We were allowed to finish our target practice off the Capes of Chesapeake. We made a remarkable showing, and our final score was so good that at the end of the year we were leading, and the multiple of the Georgia was 88.50 in gunnery. The next highest ship was the  p364 Texas, with a score of 66. In eighteen months the Georgia had been brought from the bottom of the list to the top. My most difficult task was to select and name to the Department the three officers who did most toward winning the victory. I named Michael, ordnance officer; Corley, who sat in the plotting room for hours at a time and gave direct and correct range, estimates and instructions; and W. A. Shaw, who had done much with the six‑inch gun battery, which, on a ship like the Georgia, is very hard to handle and to keep in condition. J. S. Woods was rated as next best.

After our final practice off the Virginia Capes, which was witnessed at long range by a British cruiser, we had ten days of cruising at full speed in the New York-Narragansett area, with the entire fleet. It was strenuous. I remained on the bridge approximately twenty‑one hours out of every twenty-four; that is, from six o'clock one morning until after three o'clock, eating my meals there and occasionally falling asleep while standing. We ran into some dense fogs and had the amusing experience of having two ships in line ahead of us follow a merchant ship's fog horn, so that when the mist cleared the Georgia was next to the flagship and the two stray vessels were some miles to the northward. They got back into formation with all possible dispatch. The drill ended at a most opportune time, for one of the big liners was plowing through between two of our ships just as the fog lifted.

The ships rendezvoused in Newport harbor. We had an unexpected experience there that sent four or five battle­ships dragging down on those next to them. Fortunately, no damage was done, but the incident called for a Court of Inquiry.

I expected to go to the War College July 1, and while in Newport I looked for quarters for my family, but made no commitments.

The Georgia reached Boston June 23, and that afternoon I received a telegram from the Commandant of the Navy Yard at Puget Sound asking me if I had any  p365 special preference as to the color that the commandant's house should be painted. I was surprised, but between the lines I read that I was to be sent to Bremerton instead of to the War College. The next morning I had a wire from Victor Blue telling me that the department had decided that I must go to Puget Sound as commandant of the yard and of the 13th Naval District. This command, including Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Wyoming, is by far the largest naval district in the United States.

I regretted not being able to go to the War College, but I had always wished that sooner or later I might be made Commandant of the Puget Sound Yard. When I was there in 1887 Sinclair Inlet had only one house. I had been there again in 1897 and many times after that, and had anticipated that the Puget Sound Yard would eventually be the largest, and possibly the most important, of all our navy yards.

We packed up quickly and left Boston, stopping on the way west, as usual, at my home in Hannibal, to see my relatives. My mother was getting old and I feared it might be the last time I would see her alive, and so it was. She told me she would like to go to her old home in Bowling Green, Missouri, famous in history, and see some of her childhood friends. There she could be quiet and peaceful. This was in July, 1915, and mother had not been there since 1850, when her family moved to Hannibal. I felt that not many of the girls she had known in her youth would then be living, after a lapse of sixty-five years, but notwithstanding, I consented to take her there.

We stayed at a new hotel at the old Springs, where the waters were said to have wonderful curative properties. After my first bath one of the burly attendants placed me on a table and gave me a vigorous thumping and rubbing. This treatment continued for five days and toward the last was very severe. I had made no protest  p366 and the attendant finally asked me what disease I was suffering from.

"Why," I replied, "I haven't any disease; there is nothing the matter with me."

"Well," he said, "why in the devil didn't you say so, and why have you let me thump you like this every day?"

There was no special answer to this question except that I thought it was a part of the program for which I was paying. He discontinued the rough treatment.

My mother searched the town, but found only two of her companions of sixty-five years ago. They were ex‑Governor and Mrs. R. A. Campbell. The Governor was eighty-eight years old. He still drove a one‑horse chaise and occasionally took us for a ride, once to the house where my mother lived in Bowling Green, once to the house where my grandfather lived in 1838 and then to the house where my mother lived in Bowling Green, and which we found without much difficulty. On the street corner in front of the dwelling on May 1, 1849, my mother stood and watched a thousand men, women, children and slaves from Pike County start for California. Some of these men and women achieved success on the Pacific Coast. For all I know, old "Joe" Bowers may have been one of the cavalcade.

Finding no more of her old friends alive, I suggested to mother that we go to the cemeteries. We did, and there on the tombstones was revealed the reason.

While at Bowling Green I saw Champ Clark at "Sunnyside" and had an opportunity to visit Vandalia, Missouri. The town was the home of my cousin, Frazer Coontz, who was its patriarch and its most outstanding citizen.

Thayer's Note:

a Earl Wayne Robinson (b. June 24, 1889 in North Dakota) was appointed to the Naval Academy in 1906 from that State, graduated in the Class of 1910, and was commissioned Ensign on March 7, 1912. While assigned to the New Jersey he was accused of systematic, repeated, and "skillful" larcenies from his fellow officers on the ship. On the witness stand he admitted the thefts; his attorneys brought in medical testimony showing that he was subject to fainting spells and epileptic seizures, but he was found guilty in November, 1914. The President approved the court martial proceedings and Robinson was sentenced to dismissal and five years imprisonment, which he served at the state prison in Concord, NH. He died in California on Oct. 17, 1960.

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