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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 32

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 34
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p431  Chapter XXXIII

Commander-in‑Chief of the United States Fleet

Death of President Harding — Raise My Flag as Commander-in‑Chief of the United States Fleet on Board the Seattle — Congressional Committee of Inspection Aboard Chaumont — Winter Maneuvers at Panama — My Remedy for Weight Reduction — We Visit the Eastern Star at Union, Washington — The Selection Board.

President Harding died in San Francisco the night that Warren, my flag secretary, and I arrived in Los Angeles.

I hoisted my flag as Commander-in‑Chief of the United States fleet on board the Seattle in the harbor of San Diego, August 4, 1923. Years before, I had reached the determination that if I ever did get a big command on the Pacific, I would raise my flag at San Diego. The opportunity was a long time in coming, but it arrived at last.

Having had previous experience as to the kind of staff that was needed, I selected mine with great care. Rear Admiral W. C. Cole was made Chief of Staff. He had to give up his command of the special service squadron in order to accept and assist me. The other members were: Lieutenant Commander Warren, flag aide; Captain Sinclair Gannon, assistant chief of staff; Colonel J. C. Beaumont, fleet marine officer; Captain James C. Pryor, medical corps, fleet surgeon; Captain William A. Merritt, supply corps, fleet paymaster; Commander John F. Shafroth, flag secretary; Commander Newton H. White, aide for aviation; Commander W. W. Smyth, fleet tactical officer; Commander R. C. Davis, fleet engineer officer; and Commander Stanford C. Hooper, fleet communication officer.

I have always believed that a commander should select  p432 for his staff officers who are personally known to him. He must have absolute confidence in each one, and know what each will do under given conditions no matter what question may arise. I also believe that a commander-in‑chief should have all the members of his staff mess with him. Thus he becomes better acquainted with them and, by their talk at the table, he can gauge whether or not affairs are running smoothly and properly. By January first I had my entire staff messing with me.

Soon after we settled in San Diego the transport Chaumont, Captain Enochs commanding, arrived, bringing a delegation of Congressmen for the purpose of investigating naval conditions on the Pacific Ocean, as far north as Seattle and the Bremerton yard. The lawmakers had an excellent opportunity to inspect all activities in San Diego, and they gave particular attention to the training station, the marine barracks, the air base and the destroyer base. San Diego, as usual, did herself proud.

At San Pedro there were similar inspections, and the Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce had a chance to exhibit its harbor. Representative Walter F. Lineberger conducted his fellow-members while the party was there, and Representative William Kettner looked after them while they were in San Diego.

At San Francisco the old question of the Alameda base was again brought up and its advantages considered but, as usual, without result.

Again turning their prows northward the Seattle and Chaumont entered the Columbia River. The submarine base at Astoria was inspected, and the party was then taken to Portland by automobile. From there, after looking over the great docks, they took the beautiful river ride up the Columbia, and were hospitably entertained at luncheon at the home of Mr. Mayer. As we sat at his table we could get glimpses of the river, and of the beautiful country, east and west, for many miles.

The Seattle and the Chaumont made their way separately  p433 to Puget Sound. The Seattle ran into a dense fog and stuck her nose on the beach at Marrowstone Lighthouse, while the Chaumont got through in safety. The Seattle was pulled off without serious damage, and resumed her itinerary.

The Congressional party divided at Seattle, some of the members going east at once, while others returned to San Diego and San Francisco, and later went to inspect the California oil reserves. The Department ordered the flagship to New York for slight repairs, before beginning the winter maneuvers which were to take place at Panama. After that a part of the fleet was scheduled to visit Culebra.

Stopping only long enough to take part in the funeral ceremonies of the victims of the disaster to the destroyer Honda,​a the Seattle continued on to Panama. This great catastrophe was one of the unfortunate incidents, that at times happen in all navies. I believe that the report of the court of inquiry was the best answer that could be made in the circumstances. The people of the country are prone to criticize. I make no excuse for accidents of that character, but I would like those who criticize to compare the disasters that occur to vessels in the American navy with those that happen in foreign navies. It has been said that several foreign nations have lost more men in a single catastrophe than we have lost in our entire naval history. This may not be true. We can only hope to avoid such disasters by doing everything we can, in the way of precaution, to prevent them.

Our trip east was quiet and uneventful. At Panama we made preliminary arrangements with the Army for the coming maneuvers, and the necessary orders and plans for the entire season were worked out while we were lying at the New York navy yard. In December I succeeded in obtaining the services of Commander Rowcliff who succeeded Davis on my staff. Lieutenant Tully Shelley was also added and Griswold came later in place  p434 of Smyth. I had a strong staff; they were all competent and loyal.

The maneuvers off Panama were similar to those that have since been conducted, except that we had neither a sufficient air force nor enough cruisers to execute the program as planned. What we did have, however, after the exercises were over, was a splendid critique, at Colon. Great ingenuity was employed by the scouting fleet.

On our trip to Culebra, where the commander-in‑chief accompanied the fleet, we ran into very rough weather, because of having set our courses too far to the southward. The training vessels, not being able to make as much speed as the larger ships, were instructed to make their way as best they could. We were surprised, therefore, when we came to the moment of battle, south of Culebra, to find the train ahead of us, ready to observe the engagement. The fleet made its base at Culebra, and from there went out for maneuvers and drills. The entire program was satisfactory. By the authority of the Secretary of the Navy a party of newspaper men was sent to watch the operations. They made the trip on the Henderson and were quartered among the various vessels of the fleet. Among those on the Seattle were Mr. F. G. Bonfils, of the Denver Post, Mr. W. S. Dickey, of the Kansas City Journal, Mr. F. B. Noyes, of the Washington Evening Star, Mr. F. B. McLennan of the Topeka State Journal, Mr. C. S. Forbes of the Nashville Banner, and several others. I had known Mr. Bonfils' family for many years.

They were taken to the Virgin Islands and to Porto Rico. The trip to Porto Rico was not unlike the one made there by Secretary Denby, in 1923. Governor Towner was absent, but Mrs. Towner was a gracious hostess.

On one of my visits to Porto Rico, I was assigned to the haunted room in the old castle used as the Governor's mansion, but the ghosts did not appear. I have been on  p435 the lookout for ghosts for sixty years, but have never seen any.

My friends know that I lay claim to having the only effective plan for reducing one's weight. I have helped many people with this wonderful method which was discovered by Surgeon Bloedorn, of the Navy. At Governor Williams' dinner, given the night before the ball, the subject of obesity was mentioned, and when I told of my diet, all the fat men and women immediately demanded a copy. I furnished it without charge. About two months later Rear Admiral Cole received a letter from a lady in Connecticut in which she said, "Tell Admiral Coontz, please, that his remedy worked. The Governor of the Virgin Islands lost twenty pounds, and his wife, thirty; George, my husband, lost forty pounds. I pulled off thirty pounds, and Rosita, our daughter, also lost thirty pounds, and has become engaged to marry a naval officer!"

Working hard all day in Washington, and attending a dinner party nearly every night, while I was chief of Naval Operations, increased my weight until I tipped the beam at one hundred and ninety-eight pounds. Bloedorn's method takes off a pound a day, and when I had reduced thirteen pounds in as many days, my family began to enter strenuous objection. I continued, however, until I reduced twenty-five pounds in twenty‑one days, and now my weight does not vary three pounds throughout the year. The remedy will be found in the appendix to this volume.

It was decided that during the maneuvers, the ships should spend ten days in visiting various ports on the Atlantic seaboard from Galveston to Boston. When the time came for them to move, it was found that the boilers of three of the battle­ships were in such condition as to make them unfit for the trip. I reported the fact to the Department and was instructed to leave three or four ships in the south. This action prompted an investigation of the Navy, by Congress, in the spring of 1924. Some  p436 one allowed the reports to get into the newspapers. The criticism and comment which followed did not aid us any in getting the appropriation necessary for repairs.

When the Seattle reached New York, I received a telegram asking me to proceed to Washington to give testimony in the oil investigation.​b I appeared before the grand jury and was questioned by Mr. Pomerene and Mr. Roberts, government counsel. The foreman of the grand jury suggested that instead of interrogating me, that I be allowed to state all that I knew on the subject of oil. Counsel agreed, and I made my statement. Soon after we sailed south Secretary Denby resigned. I desire to bear testimony to the absolute honesty of Edwin Denby. His own integrity was so pronounced that he never suspected any one in high authority of being venal.

The ships assembled at Culebra, and finished their work there. We gave our final entertainment on board the California close inshore on the west side. The sea was smooth and we were able to handle boat-loads of people from Porto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

While in these waters, we investigated certain harbors in the Virgin Islands, and reported with respect to their desirability as naval bases. The Seattle was directed to make Puget Sound, her home port. This was done at my request.

Once again, we boomed through the canal and proceeded north, stopping three days at each of the ports of San Diego, San Pedro and San Francisco. Owing to a shortage of funds, only a part of her repairs could be completed at that time, and, in consequence, our stay in the north was prolonged.

The climate of Puget Sound in summer is excellent. The days are long and there is little rain. The people of Seattle and vicinity are always pleased to have the fleet in their waters.

While I was at Culebra I had a letter from a representative of the Elinor Chapter of the Eastern Star, of Union, Washington, asking that some of our officers  p437 visit them. I read it to the mess, and said that when any one so far away extended us an invitation, we should accept it. I replied to the ladies that we would be glad to visit them when we were in Puget Sound, which would be in three or four months.

I had been in Union twice before, and my last visit there was not altogether pleasant. A high ranking army officer came to Bremerton in quest of information about Hood Canal. Captain Bradshaw and I took him there in the winter time. The roads were bad, and our automobile became disabled on the way. Fortunately, the accident happened near the only farm house for miles around, and we were able to get aid. We arrived late at night and drove to an old hotel which we believed was still being operated. We found it closed and went to a near‑by grocery to ask the cause.

"Well," said the grocer, "you know old McReavy kept that hotel for many years, and besides his regular guests, some fellows from Seattle used to come up on the steamer Saturday nights, go on a big drunk and leave for home on Sunday evening. They'd be sobered up by the time they reached Seattle the next morning. But now that prohibition has gone into effect, the hotel had to go out of business. The regular patronage was not sufficient."

This incident, however, did not deter me from making arrangements to visit the Eastern Star Chapter, at Union, when we returned to Bremerton. I made an appointment and took with me all of my staff and the ship officers who were Masons, and the wives who were then at the yard, and made the trip to Union. People came in from many miles around, from as far south as Shelton and Olympia, and from as far north as Potlatch, Dosewallops and Liliwaups,​c and I believe there was one representative from Humptulips. We had a most enjoyable occasion and appreciated meeting the people who had come from so far to greet us.

I recall the red, white and blue cake that went with the raspberry ice cream. The festivities concluded with a  p438 dance, and we returned to the flagship in the early hours of the morning. Later, I was able to return their courtesy by tendering the people of Union and vicinity a reception on board the Seattle, at which we served supper, and gave a moving picture show for their benefit.

In May, 1924, my son was married in Washington, to Miss Virginia Byars, of Alcova, Arlington County, Virginia.​d He was then on shore duty, at the Bureau of Navigation.

Having been ordered to duty on the Selection Board which met in Washington, early in June, I decided to go south on a destroyer and visit several of the vessels of the fleet then at San Pedro and San Diego. The destroyer made a fast trip and I had several days in the southern ports.

I reached Washington just in time to see the Army and Navy baseball game. Commander W. W. Smyth made the trip with me, as my aide, at his own expense. I had to seek a favor of the Board when it met. My niece, Miss Jeannie Whitecotton, was to be married to Camden R. McAtee,​e in Washington, on the day the Board assembled. The ceremony was at noon, and it was my pleasure to give the bride away at the altar. The Board adjourned for two hours while the wedding was being performed.

I am a firm believer in the necessity of Selection Boards, and in the honesty and fairness of their decisions. I have served on eight such boards, and, in fact, have had to vote on almost every admiral on the active list, with the exception of the senior, Rear Admiral Philip Andrews. I wish that whenever a particularly interesting and important case is considered by Congress, that the members of the naval committee would ask the Department for the records of those officers selected for promotion. It would be surprising to know of the number of officers who receive nine votes on the final ballot.

Incidentally, I am strongly in favor of the Britten bill. I believe it will be eminently successful. I do not believe  p439 in selection to grades below Lieutenant Commander. Of the thousands of records I have handled, practically all have shown me that, as a rule, an officer does not get into his full stride until he reaches the grade of senior lieutenant. At that period, he is either on the high road to a successful career, or he has displayed those traits and characteristics which indicate that he is not fitted for the higher ranks. I do believe, however, that officers, such as those at present in the grade of captain who have had creditable war service, either in the Spanish War, or in the World War, should be given the honorary title, either of Commodore, or Rear Admiral, when involuntarily retired.

As we are allowed by law only 5500 line officers, including only fifty-five rear admirals, it would appear that a midshipman starting out from the Naval Academy has a small chance of attaining the highest grade. On its face, it would seem that he would have only one chance in one hundred. The fact is, however, that the average man, in good health, who fulfills his duties and applies himself, has a much better chance than one in one hundred.

The battle­ship fleet visited Puget Sound, as usual, during the summer of 1924, and was divided among the various ports. The ships mobilized in Seattle harbor, in August, and were most hospitably received by the citizens of the city. Up to that time, the various divisions had been maneuvered and drilled from the bases of Tacoma, Port Townsend, Port Angeles and Bellingham. The usual trip was given to Mount Ranier, and the horseback ride up the mountain towards the glacier, which some of us took, was particularly enjoyable.

While we were in the Puget Sound region, my wife and daughter went to my wife's old home in Sitka, Alaska, and to the Yukon headwaters, over the White Pass railroad.

We held our annual boat race for the Battenburg Cup on Lake Washington. The Seattle Yacht Club furnished the luncheon, and large yachts from which to view the  p440 race, which was very close. The Seattle joined the battle fleet, and took part in all the entertainments.

Longview, Washington, celebrated its first anniversary in August, 1924. I attended with my wife, Colonel Beaumont, Commander White, Lieutenant Shelley, and Mrs. Halsell. We were the guests of Mr. & Mrs. R. A. Long. The one-year‑old city was a marvel, with hotels, schools, business houses, wharves and lumber mills — all very creditable and substantial evidences of development. From there we went to Bellingham by rail and were entertained by our old friends, Congressman and Mrs. Hadley. As time passes the harbor of Bellingham will be appreciated.

Thayer's Notes:

a A very peculiar mistake for a high-ranking naval officer to make. There was no destroyer Honda, the reference being to the disaster at Honda Point, California: details are given in Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, U. S. Navy, pp224‑228 (Adm. Pratt was the president of the court of inquiry).

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b This was the Congressional investigation into the corruption in the executive branch relating to oil leases, which have come to be known as the Teapot Dome scandal.

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c Today's official spellings are Dosewallips and Lilliwaup.

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d Alcova was not exactly a town, but the name of a house owned by the bride's father, Virginia State Senator Joseph Cloyd Byars, and also of a land development he carved out of the land around it; the name has survived in Alcova Heights, a neighborhood of Arlington, Va. Several pages online have information on the scheme; see for example the Alcova Heights Citizens Association.

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e The printed text has "Camden C. McAtee". I made the correction following a unanimity of web sources, among them this aggregator page at MyHeritage.

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Page updated: 8 Feb 22