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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 28

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.
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Chapter 30
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p389  Chapter XXIX


The League Navy Plan — Command of the Seventh Division — The Flagship Wyoming — Flag Transferred to the Nevada — Through the Panama Canal to Pacific Squadron at San Diego — $2,500 Worth of Pork Chops at Sacramento — Daniels Offers Post of Chief of Naval Operations.

After the Armistice we realized the stupendous task ahead of us in demobilization. The board, of which I was chairman, and McKean, A. H. Robertson and S. S. Robinson were members, began at once to work out a scheme for this great undertaking. We had orders to prepare the plan of the United States on the basis of a League Navy. We formulated it within a week, and sent it to President Wilson who was in Paris. The plan is now in the files of the Navy Department, and, had it been put into effect, the League Navy would be amply sufficient to control the nations of the world, by having component parts furnished by the individual countries, large and small.

Captain Pratt returned from Europe and relieved me about January 1, 1919,​a and at last I was at last able at last to go to sea. Secretary Daniels had given Admiral Sims his choice of duty, and he had decided upon the War College. Rear Admiral Henry B. Wilson was given command in the Atlantic, and Rear Admiral Hugh Rodman, in the Pacific. Under the rules of the Department, the Commander-in‑Chief of the Atlantic was to be the senior whenever the two fleets were joined.

Shortly before the end of my temporary duty in Washington the battle­ships and other vessels returned from European waters. It was about Christmas-time, and I took my family to New York to view the great parade  p390 of ships coming into New York harbor. The Mayflower was anchored near the Statue of Liberty. It was a grand and imposing sight and the spectacle was impaired only by the fact that the ships were held overnight outside the Ambrose channel buoy.

I hoisted my two‑star flag on the Wyoming in New York harbor on January 10, 1919. The ship was preparing for duty in West Indian waters. The New York, Admiral Rodman's flagship, was there, and we began to hear the real story of what had transpired in the North Sea. Captain Christy was in command of the Wyoming. The San Diego, which had been his previous command, was torpedoed and sunk near our own shores.

I designated as my flag secretary, Commander John N. Ferguson, and as my aide, Lieutenant Commander Harry W. Hill. These selections proved to be excellent. The officers were always active, vigilant and efficient. Originally I had as marine officer, Randolph Coyle, but he was soon relieved by Captain Brumbaugh who in turn was succeeded by Captain Julian P. Wilcox. Price was radio officer. When we sailed from New York I found my division was to be composed of the Wyoming, the Nevada and the Oklahoma. Captain William C. Cole was in command of the Nevada, and Captain Charles B. McVay, of the Oklahoma.

The ships needed repairs; there was a shortage of men; and it seemed almost impossible to get eleven battle­ships south at one time. Rear Admiral Wilson was ill and did not join us on that trip and, as second in command in his squadron, I had to take charge of the two divisions in the various maneuvers. Admiral Rodman was always present with the other. We carried out all forms of drills, exercises and target practice as best we could, and had sham battles with Guantanamo Bay as the base and center. Rear Admiral Huse had the train.

While the vessels of the fleet were in port for a weekend, McVay, Ferguson and I went ashore and walked along the west side of the bay. Suddenly we found ourselves  p391 confronted by a boa constrictor about twelve feet long, but he looked to us to be about fifty. Ferguson drew his automatic and fired four shots at the reptile, but in his excitement he missed each time. A huge swelling indicated that the snake had just had a full meal. It moved along to a nearby tree, where McVay, whose aim was better, shot and killed it.

It was about this time that attempts were being made to fly across the Atlantic.​b The question of dividing the fleet and sending the major part of it to the Pacific was also up for consideration.

In June, 1919, we had a rendezvous in the North River of New York City, and the various changes in the Atlantic and Pacific command were then made. It was decided that Rodman should have the Pacific and Wilson the Atlantic command. Eberle was chosen as second to Wilson, and I as second to Rodman. This was satisfactory to me, and in my new position I had the Wyoming, the Arkansas, the New York and the Texas. For the first time we had sixteen battle­ships, and have since endeavored to maintain or increase the number.

The Wyoming was one of the five ships sent out to watch and assist in the flight of our Navy planes across the ocean. When we returned about the middle of July, I proceeded to Norfolk where I raised my flag on the Nevada. We rendezvoused at that port July 18, 1919, ready for the Pacific.

At Hampton Roads Admiral Rodman summoned us to his cabin and told us what we were expected to do upon reaching the Pacific. Our passage out was uneventful, and I recall only a few matters of interest. It was my first trip through the Panama Canal. I had not been there since 1902, and it was difficult for me to realize that the great feat of building the canal had been accomplished, especially as I had seen the failure of the French. It seemed quite as remarkable to be able to sit on the veranda of the Tivoli Hotel at Ancon, with a gentle breeze blowing, and actually need a light overcoat. Clubs  p392 like the Union, the Century and the Strangers were in full operation on the Isthmus. I endeavored to find Dead Man's Island, and a few of the old landmarks without much success. Taboga, however, was still there.​c

While passing through the canal most of us spent the time on deck in order not to miss any of the sights. The Missouri was the first battle­ship to go through the canal in 1915, and my son was fortunate enough to be aboard her at the time.

En route from Panama to San Diego we sought to eliminate some of the so‑called "dark spots" in radio, but without any particular success. We were sitting on the quarterdeck one afternoon when we felt a sudden jar as if the ship had hit bottom. Apparently the same thing happened to other vessels, because signals were immediately sent out. Investigation showed that the shock was the effect of a tidal wave.

On our way north the Mississippi, second in line to the flagship, swung dangerously close to the New Mexico, on a right-hand turn, during maneuvers. Admiral Rodman was sitting on the quarterdeck of the New Mexico, his flagship, conversing with a newspaper correspondent. The ships passed each other with only fourteen feet between them, but to those on board it looked like fourteen inches. The Admiral did not move or utter a sound and the correspondent characterized him as the calmest man he had ever known. Rodman, however, declared he was so frightened that he could neither move nor speak.

At San Diego we began our triumphal march along the Pacific Coast. Secretary Daniels was at San Diego to welcome us. He reviewed the fleet in the open water south of the Coronado Hotel. Only a few of the ships went inside the harbor.

Personally I was glad to get back to California. I had been visiting the Pacific Coast since 1885, and my trips there with the Philadelphia, the Adams, and the Charleston were memorable ones. I felt that I knew most of the people of San Diego, and of Coronado as well. I  p393 found, however, that San Diego had grown to be a large city, and was no longer a town of 18,000 inhabitants.

From Coronado we steamed to San Pedro and Los Angeles harbor. There was a repetition of the previous banquets, balls and tally‑ho rides. I saw my old friend, Clara Kimball Young, and had an opportunity to repay her, in a small way, for what she had done for us in Puget Sound during the war. I had but little chance to see my friends and relatives in Los Angeles.

I was sent to Venice, California, to represent Admiral Rodman at an affair at Thomas Ince's studio. After I reached there, however, Admiral Rodman arrived also, and soon we were surrounded by a bevy of young women dressed as South Sea Islanders. Suddenly they closed in on us and the cameras clicked. It was one of the rare occasions when Admiral Rodman became angry. He called the operators to him, pulled out the plates and broke them. They were fortunate in saving their machines. Then he admonished them as to the proprieties in taking movie pictures.

With several members of my staff I attended a meeting in a crowded auditorium in Los Angeles, where several ladies, including Mrs. Daniels, spoke. My aide and I made our way to the street at the conclusion of the program. There we encountered a large lady who rushed up, and placing her arms about me kissed me before I could offer any residence. Then she said gleefully:

"I told these people I was going to kiss Admiral Rodman, and now I have done it!"

I don't know whether the joke was on Rodman or on me. Fortunately there were no camera men present.

Santa Barbara, one of the most picturesque cities of the Coast, was the next place we visited, and while there we lived at the old Potter Hotel. I regret that later it was burned. We were delightfully entertained, and I recall one dinner given by a New York millionaire who spent his winters there. The entire dinner service was of  p394 solid gold. I had never dined before amid such splendor and lavish display of wealth, even by royalty.

I found many Missourians at Santa Barbara, and especially enjoyed entertaining Mary Frances Buffum, the charming daughter of an old friend from home. We stopped at Port Hartford to visit San Luis Obispo and Atascadero. We had eighteen hours of entertainment which included three banquets, a dinner and a buffet supper.

North of San Pedro the fleet divided between Monterey and Santa Cruz. I like Monterey but prefer Santa Cruz because of old friendships, and the fact that many former Missourians reside there. I enjoyed seeing my cousin who had lived with our family in Shelby County, Missouri, in the 'forties. He went to California in 1849, and had a farm near Watsonville, until the town grew to encompass it. With his daughter and granddaughter, he came to Santa Cruz to see me. Each time I go there I visit him. He is now nearly a hundred years old. One Sunday morning in 1925 I found him sitting on his front porch reading a daily paper, without glasses.

Mr. John C. Hill, father of Lieutenant Commander Harry W. Hill, joined us at Santa Cruz, and took passage to San Francisco. When the first gun of the salute boomed forth at the Golden Gate, Mr. Hill proudly touched the lanyard of the saluting battery gun.

The next port of call was San Francisco, and there we had a notable reception. Our officers were detailed to attend various events not only in San Francisco, but also in Oakland, Berkeley, Vallejo and many other places around the bay. I led the parade in San Francisco and was received at the City Hall by the Governor, the Mayor and other dignitaries. In endeavoring to return downtown in an automobile for my next engagement, I could get through the crowd only by showing my New York City traffic pass, which I have used to advantage many times. Once it enabled me to get through a funeral procession and keep an appointment.

 p295  We had a pleasant trip to Sacramento and attended the Fair there. Our entertainment at the capital concluded with the usual banquet. In front of me on the table sat a pine box about two feet long and eight inches wide. I thought it a rather queer object to place on a banquet table. When the speech-making was over my curiosity was appeased. The toastmaster lifted the cover of the box revealing a fine, pretty little pig with a blue ribbon tied around its neck. It was a most unusual gift, but I accepted it as graciously as possible. When I read its pedigree I knew I had a real prize. It came from a long line of ancestors back in Ohio, and was valued at $2,500.

We returned to San Francisco that night, and reached the ship at four o'clock the next morning. I left my young porker on the deck, and the bluejackets built a pig palace near my cabin. It had a reception room and a bedroom. The only trouble the pig gave us was caused by visitors who insisted upon feeding it in violation of its dietary rules. We took it to Bremerton where I left it at a piggery. Some time afterwards I decided to have the pig's life insured. The morning I arranged to do so I received a telegram telling me that the little animal had died of hog cholera which was prevalent at that time. I lost $2,500 by reason of my procrastination.

On September 1, while the vessels were in San Francisco harbor, I attended a reception given by Captain Christy, then in command at Goat Island. Secretary Daniels was present, and as I was about to leave, he told me he wished to see me on an important matter. I did not have opportunity to confer with him until September 17 at Seattle, where I met him by appointment at the Washington Hotel. He offered me the position of Chief of Naval Operations, as successor to Admiral Benson. We discussed the subject and I accepted the post. That afternoon I called upon President Wilson who was at the same hotel.

It was on Sunday that Secretary Daniels had our conference, and following it we attended service at a Methodist  p396 church. The following morning one of the newspapers had a headline reading, "Twenty-five hundred people follow Josephus Daniels and Rear Admiral Coontz to church." I told Mr. Daniels that if we could get that many people to follow us to any church we attended, we might, by shifting churches each Sunday, help out the cause of religion.

A remarkable incident occurred during President Wilson's visit to Seattle. The I. W. W.'s who were strong there had resolved to break up his meeting. Admiral Rodman must have had secret information regarding their purpose, for when I attempted to get into the auditorium, where a seat had been reserved for me on the platform near that President, I found thousands of men armed with clubs closely surrounding the building. They were beating on the walls and creating a loud din. In the street Captain Moffett of the Mississippi had six or eight hundred unarmed bluejackets. The pandemonium and din decreased as Mr. Wilson proceeded with his address, and finally it ceased altogether. The bluejackets had been instructed to encircle the building and gradually force their way to the wall, so that whenever the I. W. W.'s attempted to hit the building so as to make a noise and disturb the meeting, they had to hit a bluejacket first. They did not hit many of them, and soon finding themselves outwitted left the place in disgust.

I observed at the meeting, as I had already that afternoon, that something seemed to be wrong with President Wilson; that he appeared to have lost his customary force and enthusiasm. It was only a few days later that he suffered a stroke of paralysis.

For the brief time we were in Bremerton in 1919, Commander Ferguson, of my staff, and his family lived in the only available dwelling in Charleston. It was a small cottage, and before prohibition had been occupied by a bartender who had left some of his effects in the house when he moved away. During my first call upon the commander he brought out a small book entitled, "Bartender's  p397 Guide," and called my attention to the questions and answers in it, particularly to one that told "how to make two barrels of whiskey out of one."

It said, "Get one full barrel of whiskey, and one empty barrel of the same size; pour half of the full barrel of whiskey into the empty barrel; fill each with water, and then secure the tops firmly and put in the bungs." Doubtless the same method is in use today.

My nomination as Chief of Naval Operations was sent to the Senate September 29th, but was not confirmed until October 24th. The Senate was Republican. I had been away from Washington practically twenty-three years. I knew only one member of the naval committee — Senator Poindexter. The newspapers announced that I was a Southerner and a Democrat. What a crime! Senator Page, of Vermont, chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs, explained to me afterwards that members of his committee did not know me and therefore had sent for my complete naval record, and after reading, had approved my nomination immediately, without debate.

On motion of Senator Poindexter I was unanimously confirmed in open session of the Senate. President Wilson who was then confined to his bed laboriously signed my commission which is now among my most valued possessions.

I think even a permanent Admiral is too young at the age of fifty-five to be made Chief of Naval Operations; sixty would be much better. Later I learned that Admiral Pratt had told Secretary Daniels that I was the only man in the Navy who was qualified to take the job without previous training. Rear Admiral Benson had suddenly been called to Paris.

When I reached Washington, October 31st, I found that Admiral Benson had turned over the office of Chief of Naval Operations to Rear Admiral J. S. McKean. McKean handed me an order signed by the Secretary that practically hamstrung operations. I took it at once  p398 to Mr. Daniels, and he agreed to modify it. The order remained unissued for several months, and was finally published under some such caption as "Instructions Regarding Correspondence."

Thayer's Notes:

a Adm. Pratt's biographer states that he returned to Washington at an unspecified date, was detached from Operations on January 5 and sent to Belfast, then assigned to the command of the New York on January 23 (Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, pp134‑135).

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b Turnbull & Lord, History of United States Naval Aviation, Chapter 15: "The Navy Flies the Atlantic".

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c For Dead Man's Island and Adm. Coontz's previous time in Panama, see Chapter XVIII; Taboga, however, has not been mentioned in the book before this.

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