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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 35

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 37
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p460  Chapter XXXVI

Our Visit to New Zealand; the Fleet Leaves for Home

A Rough Passage to New Zealand — Visit to the Famous Springs at Rotorua — "The Admiral's Bath" — A Kiss on the Nose — Gifts Exchanged With the Arawa Tribe — New Zealanders' Sense of Humor — Statement by the Prime Minister — Wiley Goes to Apia — Our Visit to Tahiti — Its Peculiar Laws — The Czar's Ring.

We had a rough passage across the Tasman Sea to New Zealand. The main section of the battle fleet went to Auckland, while those ships that had been at Melbourne were ordered to southern ports. Admiral Magruder steamed to Tasmania for two days. Admiral Marvell was sent with the train to Dunedin, New Zealand, and Admiral Schofield, with the destroyers to Christchurch, New Zealand. They parted from the other vessels of the fleet a day before we reached Melbourne, and rejoined us at Wellington, forty-eight hours before our departure. The entertainments there were a repetition of those we had enjoyed in Australia.

New Zealand is territorially a much smaller country than is Australia, but the island has great possibilities. Wellington harbor is commodious, and could accommodate half the fleets of the world. At first, the weather was bad, but it cleared later, and we had an example of what a New Zealand winter is like. As is customary, we bought New Zealand rugs in large quantities.

Rotorua, the famous springs in the northern central part of the island, is the Mecca of all travelers, in that corner of the world, and we determined to visit there. I requested that three days of our visit be set apart from for that purpose, and the government worked the trip in on the program very nicely. About sixty officers and ladies,  p461 including Rear Admiral Leigh and his wife, made up the party. The government furnished a representative to accompany us and to attend to our wants. We left Wellington one night and the next morning reached Rotorua where we were quartered at the Grand Hotel.

The chiefs of the Arawa tribe gave us a reception in the open. In spite of the fact that all of them speak English, their address to me and my answer, and the speech of Admiral Wiley, were translated for them. They are a powerful and fine looking people. Their ancestors crossed the Pacific Ocean, which they call Kiwa, to New Zealand more than five hundred years ago. My chief difficulty with them was in answering the direct questions which they asked in their speeches. A Maori dance, which all of us attended, was held while we were there. I found a chance to take two of the famous baths, one of which was especially prepared for me, and was called "The Admiral's bath." I would enjoy spending six months at the Rotorua baths.

I was instructed in the Maori method of kissing by the celebrated guide Bella Papakura. We rubbed noses in the presence of a large crowd.

When I left the tribesmen they gave me a model of an Arawa canoe, of the same pattern as those which they have used for five hundred years. It was presented as a token of their great regard for the American nation, and in remembrance of the fleet's visit to their beloved Aotearoa, in 1925. Later I was able to return their courtesy by presenting a silver ship to the tribe.

New Zealand has adopted a progressive policy of reforesting, and we were taken to see thousands of small trees which had been set out and seemed to be growing nicely.

At Wellington, where most of the entertaining was done, my wife was presented with a beautiful rug by the members of the English Speaking Union. The Sunday night before we left Wellington, the Prime Minister gave  p462 us a farewell dinner, followed by a midnight dance in the ballroom of the capitol.

Some people assert that the British have no sense of humor, but I believe the Australians and the New Zealanders are not deficient in this respect. Over the after dinner coffee, the talk veered to conundrums — some of them were chestnuts, while others were original. The host propounded one to a young marine officer of our fleet, "What is the difference between a New Zealand girl and a lamp post?" Everyone around the table awaited the answer with expectancy.

"I do not know, sir," replied the marine, a bit confused.

"Well," continued the smiling host, "what was the use of your getting leave?"

Thousands saw the departure of the fleet from Wellington. Although it was an inclement day, the people lined the roads and cliffs for many miles to view the spectacle of the American ships as they sailed from the harbor.

I believe that what we accomplished by this great cruise is best shown in the letter that I made public at Wellington, August 23, 1925, in the answer of Mr. Coates, the Prime Minister, and in the editorial in one of the newspapers, entitled, "Farewell to our Friends."

These follow.

"U. S. S. Seattle,"

Wellington, N. Z.,

August 23, 1925.

"The Commander-in‑Chief of the United States Fleet views the parting from Wellington with a feeling of sadness. In the short space of two weeks, the various personnel of the detachments of the Fleet have grown to love your people and your country.

"The best part of our trip has been the meeting with your citizens, and of having heart to heart talks with  p463 them on matters of local and national interest, and thereby being able to get a broader viewpoint along all lines.

"Our 22,000 men who have visited your shores will go home able to speak intelligently of New Zealand, and you may be sure that they go as 22,000 friends, well wishers, and boosters for your wonderful country.

"The Commander-in‑Chief appreciates especially what the Government has done in the way of giving the pleasure of visiting Rotorua to so many officers and men.

"We sail in the morning for our native land, and as the days and nights pass at sea, New Zealand will be much in our thoughts. The distance of 7500 miles between our two countries will seemingly be lessened.

"Your hospitality, courtesy, and kindness have really overwhelmed us, and for all that you have done for us on behalf of each and every officer and man of the Fleet, I thank you.

R. E. Coontz,

Admiral, U. S. Navy."

From Prime Minister Coates

"To the Commander-in‑Chief,
United States Fleet.

"I thank you sincerely for your letter and for its very appreciative terms. It has given the Government and the people of New Zealand the greatest pleasure to have had the honour of this visit from your magnificent fleet, and to have had the opportunity of becoming acquainted with yourself, your officers, and men. It is a source of gratification to know that your visit has been so much enjoyed by all of you, and we are sure that it will greatly help in still further strengthening the bonds of friendship and goodwill already existing between the United States and this Dominion. We trust that the pleasant memories which you carry away with you will go far in promoting that spirit of brotherhood among  p464 the English speaking peopleº which is so essential in maintaining the peace of the world. To one and all we send our heartiest good wishes.

(Signed) J. G. Coates."

The Editorial reads:

"Farewell to Our Friends

"Our friends of the American Fleet have proved their friendship with us, establishing complete reciprocity of the goodwill which goes with friendship. In addition to this cordiality they leave another impression: the impression of their magnificent behaviour and splendid discipline of their fleet. In all history there is no better record of the bearing of a great fighting force in a foreign port. The Auckland record of the visit of this fleet is similar, and the Australian records are entirely to the same effect. We are, therefore, not only friendly to our departing visitors, but exceedingly proud of our American cousins, and anxious to see more of them and hear more about them.

"Another impression they are leaving is the impression of effective power. The divisions of the visiting fleet constitute the mightiest Armada ever seen in New Zealand waters, an Armada formidable by the immense strength of its battle­ships, by the swiftness and power of its great cruisers, by the number of its most handy destroyers, by the wonderful efficiency of its hospital ship, and the remarkable reliability and quick service of its aircraft. The efficiency of this great naval power is a revelation that throws the light of security on the future of the world in general and of the great Pacific area in particular.

"The understanding between the two countries, we realize as our friends steam out towards the inscrutable future, is the best possible. The world's situation we are both facing is, as the American Admiral said, 'intangible.' It is complicated by the apparent lack of human  p465 faith caused by the war — the worst destruction wrought by that catastrophic episode.

"In the spirit of justice and mutual respect, and in the firm belief that the good relations between us cannot be disturbed by anything in the list of human possibilities, we shake our friends' hands, and, with sincere regret at the parting, wish them pleasant voyage and success in all they undertake."

We met the battle fleet at a rendezvous northeast of Auckland, and together we proceeded again to Samoa. We passed close to the east side of the Tonga Islands. The chart shows several reefs off these islands, and when I began to consider them, I noted that our battle­ships had the deepest draft of any ships that had ever crossed that part of the ocean. We used our depth-sounding apparatus, however, and reached Samoa in safety.

Vice Admiral Wiley was one of the survivors of the wreck of the Vandalia, at Apia, in March, 1889.​a It was deemed fitting therefore, that he should take the West Virginia and the Maryland, to anchor off Apia. There he had opportunity to renew acquaintance with such of the survivors as were still living there. This was one more friendly act toward the Australian government, as well as toward the natives of Apia. It proved most satisfactory, and Admiral Wiley radioed an interesting account of this side cruise.

The vessels of the fleet oiled at Samoa, and Admiral Magruder used the planes of scout cruisers to investigate certain shoals that for a long time had been marked on the chart, "P. D.," meaning "Position doubtful." Even with plenty of sunlight, he failed to discover any of them, and they will probably be removed from our charts.

The Seattle was the only vessel on the cruise that burned coal. A collier met us at Samoa, and when I ascertained what the situation was, I decided to have her accompany us to Tahiti, in order that we might be  p466 assured of having enough fuel to carry us to San Diego. The price of coal at Tahiti was very high. We bade good‑bye to Governor Bryan and his staff, and the leading chiefs, and parted company with the battle fleet which started for Honolulu. En route they had the news of the disaster to Commander John Rodgers,​b and vessels were sent on at high speed to assist in the search for him. The Seattle was accompanied to Tahiti by four light cruisers, under Admiral Magruder, and the collier. The weather was rougher than I had expected to encounter, in that latitude, at that time of the year.

West of Tahiti, Admiral Magruder turned away from us, with the Richmond and the Trenton, to visit the Marquesas Islands. The Marblehead and the Memphis and the collier continued on with the flag ship to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti. We entered the harbor at dawn, as the sea was calmest at that time of day. We had but little water to spare over the reef.

During the World War the Germans bombarded Papeete, and killed several persons. When our airplanes from the Marblehead and the Memphis started in ahead of us, some of the natives who had not been advised of our coming, took to the hills.

Tahiti is the most beautiful island I have ever visited. It belongs to France. The harbor of Tahiti is picturesque and safe. There we found the yacht Kaimiloa and aboard her an American millionaire and his family.

Some of the laws of the island are peculiar. For example, land is sold by the foot on the beach, and the purchase extends back to the top of the mountain which is the dividing line between the beaches.

Immediately after we had exchanged calls with the governor and the consul, and various other French officials, the festivities began and lasted throughout the week. We swam every day we were at Tahiti. I had only two outings, both of them picnics. Small as the island is we were furnished with automobiles owned by the inhabitants. I was taken to the Cook monument  p467 which commemorates the visit of the great explorer, and I also visited the homes of Mr. & Mrs. Guild and my brother-in‑law, Alexander Arkhangelsky, and his wife.

Arkhangelsky, who was born in Moscow, Russia, and studied for the priesthood, broke away from the church while in Alaska, and married my wife's sister. He became a mining engineer. Being somewhat successful in mining ventures in the territory, he and his wife decided to divide their time between Alaska and Tahiti. As they have grown older, Tahiti now keeps them as residents throughout the year.

Next door to them live Zane Grey and his family. Grey has a yacht, and is a great South Sea fisherman.

Tahiti numbers among its inhabitants many unusual personalities; some who might be called cranks or freaks. They have gone down there for one purpose or another to test out their theories and their vagaries. No taxes are levied on land in Tahiti. The government revenue is derived from customs duties.

After we had entered the harbor a gentleman and his wife came on board and asked for Captain Kempff. That officer happened to be taking a bath at that moment, after a hard night at sea, and I received them. They proved to be Captain Kempff's brother and his bride and he was surprised to learn that they had come to Tahiti from the United States and bought a plantation.

I spent one night at the home of my brother-in‑law. While I was there he gave me a ring which was said to have been worn by the Czar of Russia when he was killed. The story is that after the fall of the Czar's government, my brother-in‑law decided to go to Russia and assist in the re‑habilitation of the country. The Russians, however, not only treated him badly but took his money and even deprived him of his clothes. As he was a mining engineer, they sent him to Ekaterinborg, and gave him a position as manager of the mines. While he was there, he met a man who told him that he had once been the janitor and keeper of the house where the Czar  p468 and the members of his family were killed. He said that in cleaning up the cellar, where the royal family was murdered, he had found the ring, in the refuse on the spot where the Czar stood when he was shot. The man said he was afraid to keep it any longer and gave it to my brother-in‑law, who two years later returned to Tahiti.

The ring is a plain gold band with a square‑cut sapphire in the four corners of which are crosses. It is said that the Czar was an amateur jeweler and that he amused himself by making rings. I have no reason to doubt the story, and when ever the proper claimant comes forward and proves his or her identity, I shall be glad to turn over the ring.

The people of Tahiti entertained us at two picnics in the country several miles from Papeete, and the events were greatly enjoyed and appreciated. The French maintain a small gunboat in the harbor. The town is a port of call between San Francisco and New Zealand, and also for a French merchant ship that makes the trip from France via Panama. Our visit to these wonderful islands more than fulfilled our expectations. The largest island is formed like a shoe, and has a high mountain range in the center. If the French were to give as much attention to health conditions in Tahiti, as the United States does in Guam, it would be a veritable earthly paradise.

We left Tahiti, September 13, 1925, at daylight, passed safely through the reef and set our course for San Diego. The distance was 3400 miles, and we did not have to change the course set until we sighted the Coronado Islands. On the trip the officers and men gave me a farewell dinner and entertainment at sea. During the entire voyage we were busy clearing up paper work. The run from Papeete to San Diego was made in thirteen days and we reached port with plenty of coal.

Thayer's Notes:

a The hurricane at Apia in 1889 and the fate of the Vandalia are told by R. E. Johnson in Thence Round Cape Horn, p141 f. (which includes a photograph).

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b Properly speaking, not a disaster since everyone came out alive and well, but a harrowing week for everyone involved. A quick and readable summary of the flight is given by Adm. George R. Clark et al., A Short History of the United States Navy, pp516‑517; a detailed official account, written in 1945 by the Aviation History Unit of the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations (Air), is also onsite.

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