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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 34

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 36
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p451  Chapter XXXV

The Cruise to Australia and New Zealand

Crossing the Equator — Changes in Samoa — Reception and Entertainments at Melbourne — Farewell Statement to Australians.

On the cruise to Australia and New Zealand our fleet comprised forty-five vessels with more than 23,000 men on board. We had the best of the battle­ships and the best of the destroyers. The fleet formation was twenty miles square. We determined to test our communications, airplanes, and various formations. In reality, the trip was an overseas expedition, and was conducted along such lines. We had Commander S. C. Hooper, now the head of naval communications, on the staff, and in consequence learned much on the subject. What we then learned is now being put to use. Each morning the planes made off from the light cruisers, and returned later in the day. Their operations were without accident.

Several newspaper men and one Member of Congress were in the party.

The ceremonies attending the crossing of the equator were especially interesting. Thousands of our men were crossing the line for the first time on this cruise.

The following advance story of the event is taken from one of the newspaper publications:

"That section of the ocean along the Equator, known as 'The Line,' is the particular domain of King Neptune and Prime Minister David Jones. Neither of these gentlemen ever allows anyone to enter his realm without being initiated.

"Therefore, a day in advance of the arrival of the  p452 battle­ships, destroyers and train at the crossing, the fleet will be hailed by Davy Jones.

"Each ship will heave to and David will be received on board with high ceremony. David will inform captains where they are to stop the next day to pay tribute to his master, King Neptune.

"The following morning the ships will again ring up 'stop' on the engines, and as many King Neptunes will be piped over the side and paraded in regal array to their courts on the forecastles.

"In the grand old period of wine messes, officers could 'get out' of appearing before Neptune's court by paying a price in beer. Nowadays, of course, this is utterly ridiculous.

"Therefore, officers will appear first at court and present their alibis, which can only be certificates showing they previously had crossed the line.

"C. P. O.'s follow the officers, and then come the crews.

"The accused takes his seat before Neptune in a special chair which is located on the edge of the platform where the royal court sits. As soon as sentence is passed the defendant is shaved with an 18‑inch razor of sheet iron, the lather being composed of soap and molasses. He is next given a sweet flavored quinine pill.

"No sooner is the victim all shaven and beardless than the court bouncer presses a magic button, and the former does a giant corkscrew which lands him in a tank of water. Here he is received with open arms by the Bears, who assist him to the opposite side of the tank, where there is a slippery ladder. Each Bear carries a 'socko jimmie,' which accomplishes about the same thing as did the old cowhides.

"Leaving the tank, the novitiateº is honored by eight side-boys armed with extra special 'socko jimmies.' Satan is standing by, equipped with a long wand charged with electricity, which is called a 'fedooking tool.' If the victim hesitates to take what's coming to him from the side-boys, Satan reminds him of his importance by drawing a 12‑inch spark from the lee side of the accused's anatomy.

"All hands look on from decks, turrets and masts  p453 while they await their turn to pay this traditional honor to King Neptune and Davy Jones. The ceremony is handed down from the dim past of sailing ships. And an alibi is no more believed 'on the line' than it is at the police station."

These ceremonies were carried out July 5, 1925.

We had a smooth sea all the way and arrived at Samoa on time.

Only a small number of vessels could anchor in the harbor of Pago Pago. The main body of the fleet rested on a shelf northwest of the island Tutuila, where we oiled. Two tankers were placed in the harbor, and ships in turn went alongside and took on fuel.

I found Samoa greatly changed — and for the better. The governor was my old friend, Henry F. Bryan, of the class 1883. Old Chief Manga and his wife were still living. She seemed even more spirited than she did in 1904. The chief of the island to the northwest sent his daughter to me as a friendly hostage during our stay in the harbor. The girl was quite intelligent. She talked well, and dancing was not the least of her accomplishments. She and the old chief and his wife and granddaughter spent most of their time on the quarterdeck of the Seattle, where the hostage and the granddaughter gave an impressive exhibition of Samoan dances. Up to that time they wore their shoes but when the music started they removed them.

We had plenty of kava, and to show my appreciation I had to eat liberally of the native food. The governor had an automobile which he drove himself; he took me to the south side of the island, toward Leone, and I had some anxious moments when he carried me along the narrow road beside the cliffs.

The last afternoon we were there, the governor took me for a swim. As we dived off the wharf, we made the unpleasant discovery that there was a scum of oil on the surface of the water which was very unpleasant. We emerged as quickly as possible, and proceeded to our  p454 respective habitations, afloat and ashore, without dressing. It took me many days to get the oil off my body and out of my hair. The governor scrubbed himself so hard in an effort to get clean that he produced a rash.

British officers from Australia joined us at Samoa, and submitted their elaborate programs for entertainment. One of them was assigned to the battle fleet, and another joined our mess on the Seattle and remained with us until we reached Australia. Radio communication was used continuously in straightening out dates of functions, and in assigning the number of officers and men to be detailed to attend them.

Everything went well on the last leg of the voyage, until we began to get near to the coast of Australia. We gained a little on our schedule each day, and, as events developed later, it was fortunate that we did. As Melbourne is the capital of Australia,​a the government desired that the Seattle and that part of the battle fleet which accompanied her, and the light cruisers, should reach the city one hour before the other vessels should arrive at Sydney. Accordingly, the two divisions continued together to a designated point southeast of Australia. There, the major part of the battle fleet turned toward Sydney and the other ships rounded the cape and headed across the Tasman Sea. I had read much of the strong winds across the great Australian bight, and the Tasman Sea, and had had a little experience with them in 1908, but this time they were very real. Our speed was decreased from fourteen knots to seven, and we had several very anxious days. We lost all the mileage we had gained, and were fearful, at one time, that we could not make our schedule in reaching Melbourne.

About forty-eight hours before we arrived in port, I received a message from Rear Admiral Schofield, commanding the destroyer squadron, stating that the bridge on one of the destroyers had become loose and was in danger. I signalled him to slow down until the weather moderated, and to catch up if he could before we reached  p455 Melbourne. He decreased his speed, but as the weather later improved, the destroyer rejoined us at the last moment, and entered the harbor with the other ships.

To describe properly the receptions and courtesies shown our fleet in Australia and New Zealand would require a volume in itself. The events will have to be described briefly.

Our march up the bay from St. Phillips Head to Melbourne wharf was a triumphal one. In spite of rain, thousands of people crowded the shores, and other thousands came out in small craft and circled around us. Bands played, and the populace, their enthusiasm undampened by the rain, cheered. In excellent formation the fleet proceeded up the harbor. Planes from the cruisers were released at St. Phillips Head, thirty miles from Melbourne. We moored to the docks on time.

My wife, my daughter and Miss Green had been the guests of the Australian Government in an overland trip from Sydney, and were on the wharf to greet us, as were the wives of several other officers. Official calls were quickly exchanged. I found everyone, from the Governor-General and the Prime Minister down the line to the humblest citizen, apparently glad to meet and to entertain our forces. I was informed that 25,000 pounds had been allotted by the government for our entertainment. Every event and every function was well managed.

The Y. M. C. A. gave special attention to the welfare and comfort of our bluejackets. Many of our younger enlisted men were not accustomed to the use of liquor. When one of them on shore showed any signs of being under its influence, the Y. M. C. A. people took charge of him, put him to bed, and locked up his clothes. The order of the Commander-in‑Chief was that once a man was overtime, or under the influence of liquor, he could not go ashore again in that port. The effect was good.

The churches took a special interest in our men. We received a radio, after leaving Samoa, asking the number of officers and men of the various religious denominations.  p456 We replied, giving the numbers. On our first Sunday in Melbourne, special services were held, and were well attended. The members of each denomination invited our men by two's to their homes for dinner, and to spend the remainder of the day. Many lasting friendships were made.

Civilian officers and government representatives remained on board the Seattle day and night, ready to assist. The government provided a special train to take Rear Admiral Cole and a party of sixty selected officers on a three days' trip to cities and points of interest in Victoria. The train was made up of Pullman cars, and the journey extended as far as Murray River.

Many persons whom some of us had met on the visit of the fleet there in 1908, came to greet us and to renew acquaintance­ship. Lord Forster, the Governor General, and his wife, on one occasion, had a party at Government House for more than two hundred enlisted men. The governor had lost four sons, serving in the British Army in the early part of the World War.​b Mr. Bruce, the Prime Minister, was also wounded at Gallipoli.

Because of the entertainment program, I was personally enabled to leave Melbourne and its suburbs only once. On that occasion I attended a "Billy Tea" given by Mr. P. W. Tewksbury, in the hills twenty-five miles northeast of the city. How we managed to survive after partaking of so much of the bountiful feast which was provided and which was so tempting, I shall never be able to explain. Australians eat much meat and sweets. We missed fresh vegetables.

The people of Tasmania earnestly called upon us to make them a visit, and we had invitations also from Brisbane, Adelaide and other cities which we could not accept. I had always wanted to go to fascinating Tasmania. I had read For the Term of His Natural Life,​c and knew of the grewsome early days. I could not go there myself, however, but was able to send Rear Admiral  p457 Magruder​d with the light cruisers, to Hobart, for a stay of forty-eight hours.

The governor of Victoria, Earl Stradbroke, expressed a desire to visit Tasmania, and I was glad to authorize his passage on the Richmond. Later, he continued the trip to New Zealand on the same ship. It was his first visit there.

Racing seemed to be one of the chief sports of Australia. It enjoys about the same decree of popularity that baseball does in this country. I attended the races twice, going out each time in the governor's private car. I am not a gambler, but there I had to make wagers as the others did. One day I made twelve bets of a pound each, and lost eleven of them. My system was to bet on the name of the horse, and it did not work out profitably.

Two of the theaters in Melbourne gave special performances for us. At one of them, while I was sitting in a box assigned to me, Mr. Ward, the manager, came and chatted for a time with our party. He asked me if American theaters provided good dressing rooms for the actors and actresses back of the stages. I told him my experiences were limited. He then invited me to inspect the theater, and I was surprised to find how nicely everything was arranged, especially the comforts afforded for women.

When we had finished, Mr. Ward asked me to make a few remarks. I consented to do so, and took a position with my back to the curtain thinking I was addressing only the members of the theatrical company. While emphasizing a point, I was surprised to hear an outburst of applause behind me, and turning about I discovered that the curtain had been noiselessly raised and that I was addressing the entire audience as well as the actors and actresses.

All things must end, and at last the day came for us to sail. Thousands watched us as we left the wharf and harbor. Only a few members of our crews failed to  p458 appear when the time came for our departure, and most of these rejoined us in New Zealand.

I believe I can best tell the story of our Australian trip by setting forth here my farewell message.

The Admiral's Farewell

U. S. S. Seattle, Flagship,

Melbourne, Victoria,

August 5, 1925.

"On the eve of our departure from Australian waters, the Commander-in‑Chief of the United States Fleet is glad to have the opportunity to say a parting word. He believes that the visit of the portion of the United States Fleet that has made the cruise to the South Seas has been most successful. For three years it has been talked of and looked forward to and has finally come to a full and complete fruition.

"The arrangements for handling the Fleet during its stay in Australian waters and the care taken therewith have been phenomenal and successful. The visit has exceeded our fondest expectations. Those officers who were here in 1908 in junior capacities well remembered the open-hearted hospitality and kindness with which the Fleet was greeted. But the present stay has even put that memorable experience in the shade.

"In all his experience, the Commander-in‑Chief has never seen such an outpouring of friendship and kindness on the part of each and every one, high and low, as has been given to our Fleet. Our people have been taken into your homes and given great opportunities to see your wonderful country.

"It is with regret that decision had to be made not to visit others of your great cities on the east coast and in Western Australia. Time, repairs, overhauls and fuel and food replenishments did not permit.

"If there has been any case of a letter unanswered or a request not acceded to, the Commander-in‑Chief feels  p459 sure that when the writer or tenderer understands the vast volume of work imposed on the officers of the Fleet during occasions of this kind, they will pardon such errors of unintentional omission.

"The Fleet leaves Australia with the kindest thoughts for its people; with thankful hearts for the great courtesies extended; believes that Australia has a great future and a wonderful place in the world in the years to come, and bids them good‑bye and God‑speed along the road.

R. E. Coontz,

Admiral, U. S. Navy,


United States Fleet."

Thayer's Notes:

a Canberra only became Australia's capital in 1927. Melbourne was the capital at the time of the fleet's visit recorded here, but was no longer the capital by the time the book was published.

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b Although Henry Forster had four children, it seems, according to this page at ThePeerage, that only two were sons: one died in the first days of the war, and the other a few months after the war, the title of Baron Forster thus becoming extinct on their father's death.

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c A famous novel, a fictionalized account of the deportation of convicts to the early penal colony of Australia, and their life there. It is online.

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d Thomas Pickett Magruder (1867‑1938): a biographical sketch of him by Captain Edwin Pollock is onsite, as well as Adm. Magruder's book The United States Navy, an overview of that service between the two World Wars.

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Page updated: 17 Dec 16