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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 31

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 33
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p422  Chapter XXXII

Control of the Oil Situation

Naval Oil Reserves — Visits to Haiti and San Domingo — The Bay of Panama — Sinking of the Iowa — To Jamaica and Virgin Islands — Denby Visits Porto Rico — Accomplishments as Chief of Naval Operations.

The first information I had regarding the transfer of the Naval Oil Reserves, to the best of my recollection, was given to me by the Secretary of the Navy, late in April, or early in May, 1921. He either sent for me, or came to my office. Colonel Roosevelt was present at the time. When we indicated objections to the plan, the Secretary told me frankly that the transfer of the oil reserves to the Department of the Interior had been determined, and the subject was not open to discussion. I gained the impression that the Secretary had come directly from the White House, and that this was the result of a cabinet meeting, or a specific presidential order. Subsequent developments have altered that belief.

Some time later Rear Admiral Griffin, Chief of the Bureau of Engineering, came to my office and asked for my assistance in having the order of transfer so worded that the rights of the Navy would not be endangered. I told him the matter must be handled by the Secretary, but that I would gladly help in any such effort. We went to the Secretary together, and he assured us that the rights of the Navy under the order would be conserved. The order was subsequently prepared and taken to the President for signature. In October the Secretary signed an order transferring fuel oil activities from his office to engineering. After November 1 I abandoned all hope of the Navy controlling the oil situation.

 p423  I had an experience which illustrates the fact that one never knows when an act of kindness will be reciprocated. My chauffeur was driving up Twentieth Street in Washington in heavy traffic and collided with an old car driven by a colored boy who had stopped without giving warning. In the Police Court next day the judge asked if anyone had seen the accident. A fine looking man about thirty years of age stepped forward and said, "Yes, your honor, I did. Admiral Coontz's man was not at fault at all. This boy stopped suddenly without a signal."

The judge dismissed the case, and I advanced to thank the stranger.

"That's all right, Admiral," said he, "you did me a good turn once when I was on the Nebraska in 1907, when my mother was sick, and this was my chance to even up."

I had no way of knowing whether or not he saw the accident.

In September, 1922, my wife and I made a long deferred visit to our friends, Senator and Mrs. –––––––––. We had never been to Valley Forge and the Senator decided to take us there. On the way a heavy storm came up and we stopped at a small tavern for lunch.

Our orders were taken by a colored waiter in khaki uniform. He volunteered the information that he had been in the service in France, and was only temporarily working as a waiter, for he believed an ex‑soldier should have a better job. Our order included four bottles of near beer, and as the colored soldier-waiter departed to fill it he whispered to my host, "The bottles of beer I am bringing you have no labels."

When he returned with the food and the beer he again became loquacious, telling of his overseas service, and saying that he was from North Carolina and did not belong in Pennsylvania. His narrative of his exploits was beginning to get a little tiresome when the Senator said, "Look here, George, do you know who that gentleman is?" pointing to me.

 p424  "No, sah," replied the negro.

"That man," continued the Senator, "is the Chief of Naval Operations of the United States Navy."

The darky rolled his eyes, dropped a plate, and exclaimed, "My Gawd, is dat Josephus Daniels!"

With that he ran from the room and we never saw him again. When the Senator came to pay the bill the item of the four bottles of beer was not included.

Secretary Denby was desirous of visiting the fleet which was to assemble in the Bay of Panama. The Department had many applications for passage from Members of Congress who also wanted to make the trip. It was decided that the Henderson should take them, and they left Washington soon after the adjournment of the session. Captain Hayne Ellis accompanied the Secretary as his aide. I was directed to go with the party also and, as Hill had gone to sea, I took Commander Crenshaw as my aide. We had nearly a hundred passengers, including eight Senators and seventy Representatives, and a few newspaper men. I was fortunate in rooming with Senator Howell, of Nebraska, who was just beginning his service in the Senate. We renewed our acquaintance and friendship which went back to the days when we were both at the Naval Academy.

The Henderson was commanded by Captain McArthur who was with me when he was a midshipman. We encountered a storm soon after leaving the Capes of the Chesapeake. Off Hatteras, in a brisk westerly wind, we heeled over some ten degrees and remained in that position for eight hours. The wind then subsided, the weather cleared up, and we proceeded to Port au Prince, Haiti, which was to be our first stop. We had "pony" races on deck during the day and movies at night. At Port au Prince, after the usual ceremony and reception, we drove in automobiles to the northern center of the island, where we found the work being done by our marines most satisfactory. We stopped for lunch at one  p425 of their many stations, and had the usual round of speeches after the Sunday church services. In the distance we could see the newly built road winding down the southern side of the mountain toward Cape Haitian.

The night of our arrival we were given a reception at club, and when the band began to play, I asked my dinner hostess if she cared to dance. She was a bit flustered at first, but we started off, and soon everyone in the hall was dancing. I learned later that it was the first time there had been dancing on Sunday in the Island of Haiti. Evidently, I corrupted their customs, for I am informed that now they dance there every Sunday night. We remained in the island only a short time, and the party had only a cursory glimpse of the western part of Haiti.

We had a pleasant run across the Caribbean to Colon, and a slow trip through the canal to Panama. We anchored overnight in Gatun Lake. Half way through the canal we were met by a large committee of civilians and officers of the Army and Navy, from Panama. They were introduced to our guests whom they entertained later in Ancon, where the Henderson was moored. The members of the Congressional delegation proceeded to Panama City, old Panama, the army fortification and post, and all the other places of interest.

The entire party was taken out to sea on board the Maryland, the flagship of Admiral Hilary P. Jones, to view the maneuvers. They had the opportunity of seeing the great experiment when the Iowa was fired at by the Mississippi and sunk in a spectacular manner. She was electrically controlled and zigzaged while being fired upon. It was a thrilling sight. The Iowa had been my flagship in 1911, and I nearly wept as the waters engulfed her.

Our stay in Ancon was marred by the illness of Congressman Hicks, of New York, and of Henry Reuterdahl, the artist, who was making a last effort to regain his health. Both of these gentlemen have since died. Mr.  p426 South, our minister to Panama, and his lovely wife started the social whirl with a party at their home. Receptions were tendered to us by President Porras, of Panama, and by Colonel Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Morrow, the Governor of the Canal Zone. Admiral Jones concluded the festivities with a reception aboard the Maryland.

When we were through with the maneuvers and the various exploring and fishing trips we headed for Kingston, Jamaica. There the weather was uncomfortably warm, and we made our stay as brief as possible. One afternoon the party was invited to the residence of the Governor in the outskirts of Jamaica. Wine flowed freely, and not wishing to indulge, I strolled about the grounds. A swing attracted my attention, and being as fond of that sort of amusement as a child is, I was joined by the wife of one of the British officials, and we began to swing high. The camera men of the fleet caught us, and the photograph appeared in the Sunday papers of the States under the caption, "The Chief of Naval Operations Takes a Vacation."

From Kingston we went to Port San Antonio, which lies directly across the island. It was a beautiful trip, but the road is more winding than any I have seen elsewhere, except perhaps near Newport News, Virginia. On the north side of the island we were given a wonderful luncheon at a ranch which overlooks the ocean and the surrounding country. Port San Antonio is a delightful spot, cool and sheltered. I recommend the place as the best I know for honeymooners. We cleaned up a bit after a dusty ride, had a dance, and started for San Domingo. The harbor of San Domingo is open to south and southeast storms. We anchored as close to the shore as possible and, nearby the wreck of the Memphis was plainly to be seen.​a

Our visit was a hurried one, but some of the party had an opportunity to go to the old cathedrals and to look up the place where Columbus and some of his voyageurs were said to have been buried. Most of us made the trip  p427 to the top of the mountains near the center of the island. Governor Russell and his committee explained everything to us and the Congressmen were well satisfied. San Domingo has developed well under our tutelage.

The party was given an opportunity to look at Culebra, and then we went straight to St. Thomas the capital of the Virgin Islands. St. Thomas is famous in song and story. According to tradition Old Bluebeard had his castle there. The swimming on the west side of the island is fine and, after our hot trip, we found it most refreshing.

Two destroyers took the party to the Island of St. Croix, where we landed at Frederichstad in the surf, and traveled by automobile to Christianstad. The road ran through the sugar plantations owned and operated by the Danes. Most of the plantation houses were like feudal castles, and reminiscent of the past. We visited the tomb of the mother of Alexander Hamilton, and saw the little house in Christianstad, where the first secretary of the Treasury of the United States worked as a youth. There were many objects of interest for our camera men to record on this trip. We addressed the Islanders in the old government building at Christianstad, and the destroyers then took us back to St. Thomas in time for Governor Hough's ball.

Up to the time the United States purchased the Danish West Indies their business was prosperous. Since then, however, their trade had decreased largely on account of our liquor laws; and the islands have had a hard struggle financially. Our government has to make certain annual appropriations to aid them. In time, I believe, because of its strategic position St. Thomas will again come into its own, and St. Croix, with its sugar plantations, will also prosper.

Our last port of call was San Juan, Porto Rico; it took the pilots a long time to place the Henderson alongside the San Juan wharf. We were present at the inauguration  p428 of Governor Horace M. Towner,º and considered it a pleasure to take part in that event.

At the state banquet many of the native Porto Ricans spoke freely of their hopes, and it was well for the Senators and Representatives who were with us to have an opportunity to size them up, and to learn their views. We were quartered at the beautiful hotel in the northeastern section of the city, where the breezes were strong and cooling.

Porto Rico is the second most thickly settled country in the world. Actually it is overpopulated.

The most interesting part of the visit there was our trip to the interior of the island. We climbed the mountains in automobiles, and were the guests of one of the largest landowners of the island. We passed many small towns and tobacco plantations.

We stopped at the grave of one of the national heroes, and Mr. Denby was called upon for a speech. I do not think he knew much about the hero, nor had he prepared any remarks, but having been in Congress for six years, he was able to make a forceful address which related mostly to generic matters. Two years later, when I was Commander-in‑Chief of the United States fleet, I was at the same place, and in my speech on that occasion recalled to the people the address which Secretary Denby had made to them.

Our home-bound trip was quiet and uneventful. All of us needed the rest that came to us at sea. We placed the Henderson alongside the dock in the Washington navy yard on scheduled time. I believe the expedition well repaid the Members of Congress for their time and trouble, for they gained much first-hand information of conditions in the Caribbean and on the Isthmus.

While we were at Panama Mr. Denby announced the contemplated fleet changes. He had decided that Admiral Eberle was to be Chief of Naval Operations; Admiral Jones, chairman of the executive committee of the General Board; and I was to be Commander-in‑Chief of the  p429 United States fleet. He also gave out the other assignments. I had not asked Mr. Denby to give me this command, and felt highly honored when he selected me for it. From that time on, my time was spent in winding up my affairs in the office of operations, and in making preparations and schedules for the activities of the fleet during the next two years.

It has always been my desire to have our fleet make long foreign cruises. We had previously considered an Australian‑New Zealand voyage, and it was now decided that it should be undertaken in 1925.

So many things are involved in preparing fleet schedules that it is necessary to figure upon them for years in advance. Having participated in the voyage around the world in 1908‑09, I knew the advantage of such cruises. This time we desired to try out vessels other than battle­ships.

In the spring of 1923 President Harding decided that he would that year make his long anticipated trip to Alaska. Admiral Rodman was selected as the officer to represent the Navy. I had to remain in Washington until after the Selection Board met in July. Its action was approved by the President by cable.

I resigned as Chief of Naval Operations, July 21, 1923, and Admiral Eberle succeeded me on that date. I feel that the outstanding achievements of my term of four years as Chief of Naval Operations may be summed up as follows:

1. The strengthening of the office of Naval Operations.
2. The saving of the program for 86,000 enlisted men, after the Limitation of Arms Conference.
3. The adoption of a definite naval policy, and its promulgation after having been signed by the Secretary of the Navy and the President of the United States.
4. The definite formation of a United States Fleet.
5. The development of foreign cruises.

These accomplishments will stand out as the years go  p430 by. I failed in my attempt to have two armored cruisers outfitted and placed in commission to carry midshipmen on their annual practice cruises and also to carry the naval reserves at other times.

When I left operations the order had been issued to equip them and place them in commission. Why it was revoked, after my departure, I never learned. I had arranged to have the money provided. I regard it as a grave menace to the efficiency of the fleet to withdraw three battle­ships from the Scouting Fleet, year after year, in order that they may make the midshipmen cruise. It is false economy.

The foreign cruises of the fleet should be revived for the contentment of the service, the best interests of the Navy, and the promotion of the morale. In my judgment each Chief of Operations should effect some outstanding improvement in naval matters. I failed to put through my plan for the amalgamation of the line, the construction corps and the civil engineers, although I had the support of the chairman of the House committee on naval affairs, and of the ranking minority member. This amalgamation would result in great saving to the government by reductions in the total number of officers, and the accommodation of work at the navy yards and stations, and in the Department.

When I left the Department, I took a short vacation at Eaglesmere, Pennsylvania, accompanied by my wife and daughter, and our friend, Miss Ball, of Alaska and Virginia. The place was quiet and restful and just suited to our needs. A week later the family parted at Harrisburg. I went to St. Louis, and there met my flag secretary, L. P. Warren. We went on to the Coast.

Thayer's Note:

a Lost to a giant wave in the port of Santo Domingo during a hurricane on Aug. 29, 1916. Dr. George Pararas-Carayannis' Tsunami Page chronicles the event and its aftermath, in great detail and with many photographs and weather maps, and discusses the cause of the wreck and the findings of the naval court of inquiry.

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