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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 27

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 29
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p381  Chapter XXVIII

The Work and the Life at Bremerton

Devonshire's Visit — Conditions in Alaska — Building Sub‑Chasers — The Yeomanettes — Presented with Diamond-Studded Sword — Detached and Ordered to Washington — Acting Chief of Naval Operations.

At Bremerton, during the latter part of the war, the only rest we had was on Sunday afternoon. We drove work straight through until Sunday noon. We always had a picnic on Sundays and took the crowd six or eight miles up the bay where we landed, built a fire and rested. I usually took along blankets and went into the woods by myself and slept until called for clam chowder.

The water front at Seattle was always a danger spot for us. One one occasion, when a large number of I. W. W.'s occupied the wharf for a purpose unknown to us, Commander Miller Freeman brought in two hundred of the newly enlisted men and stationed them at points about a hundred feet apart, along the main street abreast the wharf, with instructions to stand there until relieved. When the I. W. W.'s asked these youngsters why they were there they replied that they did not know. This was true. It was a mystery to them, and suspecting that it might not be well for them to attempt any demonstration, the radicals, one by one, drifted away and did not return, and trouble was averted.

At Bremerton I had an eighteen-knot Herschoff launch which could take me to Seattle in fifty minutes. When we began to enlist men, I sent to Oregon a young officer named Frazer. As the recruits came in it was quite evident that most of the patriots in the state felt that they were qualified to be officers. The position of paymaster was particularly favored for he enrolled  p382 eleven. Then he telegraphed me asking if I could extend the age of chaplains. I directed him to enroll no more chaplains or paymasters. The pay of the former in the Navy was $2,500 and, as most of the preachers in Oregon received only about $800 a year, the Navy pay looked big to them. I feared that we would leave the state without any clergymen. Of the eleven paymasters, two proved to be British subjects who had forgotten to mention that fact when they enrolled, but we accepted the other nine and before long were able to use them and several hundred more, throughout the Navy.

At one meeting in Oregon which Lieutenant Frazer held in a church, there was very little enthusiasm for enlistment, or even for the war. Tired and angered Frazer finally exclaimed, "Isn't there a single red‑blooded American present?"

For a few seconds there was no answer; then a tall man who looked like Abraham Lincoln arose and said:

"Yes, officer, there is one, and that's myself."

Then and there Frazer made him an assistant paymaster, and the man is still in Bremerton in the pay section of the yard.

I have always held that it is unwise for the medical profession to use Latin terms, because they are sometimes misleading. As commandant, each morning I examined the sick list. Once I noticed that an officer had been sent to the hospital for an operation for "wartognosis." I thought this must be some terrible disease, and my sympathies for the officer were aroused. His wife was at a party at my house that day and Mrs. Coontz asked concerning the seriousness of the operation on her husband.

"Serious!" exclaimed the woman, "my husband is simply a vain man. Have has always had a wart on his nose, and now that he has become a naval officer he wants to get rid of it. So he went to the hospital this morning and they cut it off."

Hence the name "wartognosis."

 p383  In the spring of 1917, the Duke of Devonshire made a visit to Canada, to assist in raising the British fifth Victory Loan. His trip took him as far west as Victoria, B. C. I was directed by the Navy Department to proceed there with a small party to greet him. In addition to my wife I was accompanied by Captain and Mrs. Wettengel, Captain and Mrs. Ely, and Captain and Mrs. Merritt. We went on a special steamer from Tacoma. At Seattle we found hundreds of army officers, with their wives and children, bound on the same mission.

The Canadian authorities had expected to entertain ten representatives of the Navy and ninety from the Army. An error in the telegraphic message, however, made the Army's quota read "nine hundred." General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Irons was doing his best to muster that number. While on the way to Victoria the committee there asked us to radio the names of our guests. I sent my list, and the Army attempted to do the same, but found it impossible to transmit the entire list of nine hundred names during the three hours that we were en route. The Canadians were amazed when they saw the hundreds of officers in the Army delegation and did not understand what it meant until the mistake in the telegram was discovered. Our Navy delegation had excellent accommodations at the Empress Hotel, but I never learned how the junior officers of the Army, who were there in large numbers, were quartered. There was a round of official and social festivities, and the loan went over.

In May, 1918, an unsatisfactory condition developed in Alaska. The I. W. W.'s were active, especially among the salmon canneries. Upon advising the department of the situation, I was ordered to make a hurried trip there, which I did in June.

I have a long memory, and when the early reports came in, there was mention of a man whom I remembered as a German. I had met him in Europe. He had a fortune at stake, and I think he lost all of it.

This trip was the last one I made to Alaska. I went as  p384 far as Juneau, while my wife went over the White Pass, via Skagway. After communicating with two United States sub‑chasers I visited Governor Riggs and his wife. We reached Juneau at eight o'clock in the evening, ship's time, which was Seattle daylight saving time. I had had my dinner, but at Juneau it was only six o'clock. The governor's aide was at the dock and told me that the governor's dinner was awaiting my arrival. He was entertaining a party of twenty in my honor and I dared not confess that I had eaten on board the steamer. I felt compelled to partake of the full course meal, which I did, but suffered no ill effects. I have never told this to Mrs. Riggs.​a

In 1918 the Department asked the Puget Sound Yard if we could build sub‑chasers. We told them we could. They gave us twenty-five, numbered from 288 to 312, inclusive. We turned them out for less than any other yard or shipbuilding concern. The greatest problem we had with respect to them was the manner of launching, but our constructors overcame that difficulty with a contrivance that hove them overboard. Later, we sent several of them to the east coast, under Lieutenant Roscoe Howard. Some of them he took all the way across that Atlantic, and others as far as Madeira. Howard, who was a yachtsman, was a tower of strength to me during the war. He loved the sea and always wanted to be in the Navy.

Among other things, we had to enroll ensigns, and also to find good material in the enlisted force and prepare them for service as officers. Howard was the coach, and he developed some efficient officers. Among them I recall John Pierce, of Olympia, and E. W. Dort whom I later found as postmaster in San Diego.

I applied for sea duty, but was told that after I had filled every line billet in the thirteenth naval district, including the navy yard, with reserves, I could go myself. One by one I arranged for the officers to go to sea. They were all clamoring for duty aboard ship, but their places  p385 had to be filled ashore by good men and this was a difficult thing to do.

I had an excellent set of yeomanettes who came from places all the way from Wyoming to Alaska. The Alaskan girls were strong and robust, and any one of them could have licked me in an open fight. They were anxious to go to France, and the only way open for them to obtain their objective was by preparing themselves to be fighters, the same as the men. We organized among them several companies of infantry. There were too many volunteers and we had to make selection of the best. They were equipped with rifles, accoutrements and leggings. They drilled every day after office hours, and when they were off duty, until they became experts in the handling of arms, in firing and target practice, and in rowing and managing cutters and whale boats.

Had the war lasted a few months longer I feel positive that they would have been accepted for service, and would have gone to France. I believe they would have been a powerful influence in making the men fight harder. The sight of these girls from the northwest and Alaska going into battle would have inspired their brethren in arms. The yeomanettes still have their reunions from time to time.

In August, 1918, I took these girls to the Fair in Spokane, where they gave a wonderful exhibition of drills. They had a dress arrangement whereby the flagstaffs were concealed in their leggings, and the flags were covered by their skirts. Short skirts had not then come into style. At a given signal they hauled out the flags and went through various maneuvers and drills with them. The officials of the Fair paid the expenses of their trip.

We were quartered at the Hotel Davenport which, in my opinion, is one of the best hostelries in the world; it is a credit to Spokane. I gave strict orders as to the conduct and liberty of the young women to our master-at‑arms, Amorette Crossley, a husky girl from Oregon. The  p386 first night one of the yeomanettes was absent at taps muster, and after a search she was found on the roof of the hotel with a beau. I had said that I would court-martial any offense, and, accordingly, when we returned to Bremerton, I gave the young woman a deck court. It had to be done, although the Navy Department had advised me to hold as few such proceedings as possible. The affair was widely discussed throughout the northwest, and I mitigated her sentence as much as possible. There was no more trouble among the yeomanettes.

In the spring of 1918 the Navy Relief Society sent out an appeal for funds. In our section of the country we felt the necessity of aiding the Society in its work. My wife was president of its Puget Sound chapter. After consulting with some active workers in Seattle and vicinity, it was decided to have an entertainment lasting for six days on the grounds of the University of Washington. Mr. Frank Waterhouse advanced $22,000 to finance the affair, and Dr. Henry Suzzallo, the patriotic president of the university, assisted us in every way, and there were many others who came forward to help.

Commander Miller Freeman commanded the Naval Training Station in Seattle, which was established on the grounds of the university. We ran the performances afternoon and evening and had many kinds of entertainments. Some famous baseball players had enlisted in the Navy and we had a twenty-three inning game that lasted until after nine o'clock. The score was 2 to 1. We gave an open‑air concert in the university stadium each night, and also had boat races in which our bluejackets and yeomanettes participated. There was also a good vaudeville show. The $22,000 furnished by Mr. Waterhouse grew to $137,000 net, for the week's work. We agreed to give financial assistance to certain hospitals in Seattle and Bremerton. When she went east in September, my wife carried with her Liberty Bonds to the amount of more than $43,000, and turned them over to the Navy Relief Society.

 p387  One Saturday afternoon, toward the end of my stay in Bremerton, I was invited to Seattle to visit the training stations and see the drills. I was somewhat indisposed and wished to decline. My wife, however, urged me to go and I reluctantly consented. After the evolutions, I noticed from my seat on the platform, that the troops were all pressing in, and that on one side of the stand there were several thousands of people. I asked Freeman what it was all about. He said:

"This, Admiral, is a mass movement."

I thought I knew a great deal about tactics but as I had never heard of such a maneuver, I decided not to show my ignorance. When all was quiet, Dr. Suzzallo asked me to step to his side of the platform, which I did. He then began to address the audience and I realized that something was about to happen. As he finished Mr. Waterhouse produced a diamond-studded sword, which was presented to me on behalf of the people of the 13th Naval District, including all the territory from Point Barrow on the north to the southern boundary of Oregon, and to the eastern boundary of Wyoming.

This sword has a beautiful amethyst in the top of the handle and eighty-nine diamonds, thirteen of which surround a large center stone and represent the 13th Naval District. The other seventy‑six form my initial, "R. E. C." I am not competent to describe fittingly this wonderful gift. It has a wonderfully engraved sea‑horse at the bottom of the scabbard. I was so overcome with emotion that I found myself unable to make suitable response.

The day I was at Spokane my orders of detachment came. The duties I had been performing were divided between Rear Admiral James H. Glennon, who became commandant of the 13th District, and Captain Harry A. Field who was assigned as commandant of the yard.

My family and I journeyed east over the Great Northern and upon entering the drawing room found it filled with presents. I never left a place where so much appreciation  p388 was shown. There was even a letter from each of the yeomanettes.

I am opposed to permitting officers to receive presents, and had said so many times at Bremerton. The day before we left there a committee of officers came to me and said that I was wanted at the dry dock. When I went there I found a platform had been erected and that it was surrounded by thousands of workmen. I waited to see what was going to happen. Several speeches were made, and the last man to address the crowd said he was aware of my unwillingness to receive presents, and that everyone wished to respect my wishes. They felt, however, that they must give me something. Accordingly, they had decided to present me with a Bible believing that I would not refuse the book. I accepted it. At the same time they gave me a volume containing the signatures of thousands of the employees of the yard.

We hurried to Washington and there I was offered as the flagship of the 7th Division either the Idaho, which was not then completed, or the Wyoming, then in the North Sea, or the Delaware, which was returning from a foreign station.

The Secretary of the Navy had written me that, after my long wait, I was to be given the best division of the fleet. I appreciated this, and was taking the usual ten‑day course in operations, expecting at once to go to the Wyoming, when the Secretary informed me that Admiral Benson was to go abroad and that I must remain to handle matters in Washington.

This was a crushing blow but I had to accept it. Of course I did not know that the war was so soon to end. Pratt, the assistant, had to go to Paris with our papers, and I became the Acting Chief of Naval Operations.​b

After leaving the coast, the Seattle Association of Masters, Mates and Pilots sent me an honorary member­ship card in their organization. They are affiliated with union labor. By permission of the Secretary of the Navy I accepted the honor.

Thayer's Notes:

a Renee Coudert Riggs died in 1963; and, as she was the author of several published books on Alaska, she must surely have read Adm. Coontz's book and finally learned it there, or have been told by someone who had. . . .

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b Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, pp134‑135.

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