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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 36

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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This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p469  Chapter XXXVII

I Haul Down my Flag as Commander-in‑Chief, at San Pedro

Twenty-five Years of Sea Duty — To Command Fifth Naval District — Senator Howell's Advice — Addresses on National Defense — Degree from University of Missouri — Death of My Son — "What Is the Flag?" — Retirement and Reminiscence.

I had letters from Admiral Eberle, Chief of Naval Operations, and from Admiral Shoemaker, Chief of the Bureau of Navigation, offering me my preference of duty when the cruise should be ended. My first choice was the New York Navy Yard because I knew that I could not get the command of the Puget Sound Yard, and the thirteenth naval district. Both Eberle and Shoemaker approved of the assignment, but I was deprived of it because Plunkett, who was in command at New York, did not go to sea; instead he was given another year there. I was then asked to take the Fifth Naval District, with headquarters at Norfolk, and accepted the post.

Before we reached San Diego radios came requesting me to represent the Navy at the American Legion Convention at Omaha, early in October, and asking me to advance the date of my detachment to October 3, which I did. On that day, on board the Seattle, at San Pedro, California, I hauled down my flag as Commander-in‑Chief of the United States Fleet.

I had served on board ship a total of twenty-five years, and was credited with twenty-three years and some months of sea service — some ship duty not being classed as sea service.

My four-star cruise lasted two years and two months — a little longer than is usual. I surrendered the command  p470 without regret, for I wished the next man to have his chance. In the aggregate I was a "seventeen gun" officer, so‑called, for seven years and eight months. This included duty as Governor of Guam, Chief of Naval Operations and Commander-in‑Chief of the United States Fleet.

With my last cruise over and my work with the great fleet finished, I enjoyed a few quiet days. Lieutenant Commander Hill met me on my arrival in Omaha, and I found everything ready for the Legion Convention. I was on the committee to welcome the President and Mrs. Coolidge. Hill did excellent work before the aviation committee, while I attended the convention. As we were representing the Navy, we were in uniform. When he entered the committee room, the chairman said, "Who are you?"

"Lieutenant Commander Hill of the United States Navy," he replied.

"What duty have you been performing?"

"Tactical officer of the United States Fleet in the recent Australia‑New Zealand cruise."

"You are the man we want. Come forward and sit down."

We rode in the parade behind the President, General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Pershing and General Drain, and attended all the banquets and luncheons. I spent four hours with my old classmate, Senator Robert B. Howell, and his wife, who showed me the strides Omaha had made since 1885.

The second morning of the convention General Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.Summerall, General Lejeune and I addressed the delegates, and that night Hill and I started east. My son, who was quite ill, was on his way to Washington and joined us in Chicago. Upon reaching Washington he was taken to the Naval Hospital. While he was convalescing I attended the War Mothers' Convention in Kansas City, the Sojourners' meeting in St. Louis, and also addressed the convention of the National Association of Manufacturers.  p471 I had twelve hours in Hannibal, and snow fell continuously while I was there.

At a banquet given in my honor in the Presbyterian Church, four hundred of my old friends and neighbors gathered to meet me. I was able to tell them how, in 1881, I had assisted in saving their church.​a

While I was in Hannibal a telegram from Washington informed me that my son's condition was more serious, but when I returned to Washington I found him improved.

On November 30 I took command of the Fifth Naval District and the Naval Operation Base, at Hampton Roads, Virginia, where I was to complete my naval career. This proved to be not only a pleasant but an instructive duty, embracing all branches of naval matters from aviation to supplies. Rear Admiral Cole, commanding the Norfolk Navy Yard, was a valuable assistant, and I had the co‑operation of everyone under my command. I regarded it as a smooth running job.

I had the pleasure of entertaining many foreign visitors, among them the Japanese, and maintained pleasant and cordial relations with the people of Norfolk and Portsmouth, and the four states of Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland and North Carolina.

As the naval base is eight miles from Norfolk, we had to depend more or less for our social life upon our own activities. My family had two "at homes" each month, one in the afternoon and one in the evening. We had an excellent band which provided music. The bluejackets were not forgotten and there were many sports and other forms of entertainment for them. Our weekly dress parades at the training station were popular and well attended. I had an excellent staff of assistants and their wives aided materially in promoting the social life. We were able to entertain some of the thousands of our friends from all parts of the world who came to visit us.

Our residence was built for the Jamestown Exposition,  p472 at which time it was occupied by Claude A. Swanson, then Governor of Virginia, and now United States Senator. It was supposed to be a replica of Monticello, the home of Thomas Jefferson, but when we visited Charlottesville, in 1927, we found that the house merely resembled it.

My old classmate, Senator Howell of Nebraska, was one of our guests while we were at the base. I recall this admonition which he gave me: "Don't take anyone's statement without investigation, and don't believe everything you hear."

He illustrated his advice with a story of his own experience. Some years before he had been on a hunting expedition in one of the Rocky Mountain states, with a newly elected member of Congress. They reached a lone ranch house late one afternoon and sought shelter for the night. After a good meal, and while the Congressman was enjoying his cigar and discussing politics and personalities, he turned to Howell and said, "Howell, I am strong in this precinct. At the recent election I received all of the votes cast, except three."

"Fine," commented Howell.

A few minutes later when the embryo legislator had left the table, the ranch owner's wife whispered, "Say, Mr. Howell, he did get all but three of the votes here, but he neglected to tell you that there are only five votes in the precinct."

I am reminded of this tale when I hear people say that eighty-two per cent of our expenditures go for national defense. I am prompted to say, "Show me!"

I took advantage of opportunities while I was at Hampton Roads to deliver addresses on national defense in various parts of my district, as well as in other sections of the country. In June, 1927, the University of Missouri, at Columbia, conferred on me the degree of Doctor of Laws. The faculty had deferred the honor for several years because of my inability to be present.

That year the Earl of Stradbroke, late Governor of  p473 Victoria, passed through Washington with his wife and son, en route to England. As I was absent from my post, on duty, my wife and daughter and Miss Frances Green, who had been his guests in Melbourne, went to Washington to entertain them.

I had the honor of introducing Richard E. Byrd, of Virginia, to his own people when he returned home from his flight across the Pole. I had assigned to aid him the lamented Floyd Bennett who came to such an untimely death. Hampton Roads is destined to be one of the great airports of the future.

Near the end of my tour of duty several Congressmen, including Mr. French, Mr. Oliver and Mr. Ayres, came down to Hampton Roads to inspect the Saratoga, and the needs of the training station. They expressed themselves as favorable to permanent buildings to replace the present dangerous barracks which are built of wood. Mr. Drewry successfully championed the matter before the house committee on Naval Affairs.

While at the base I was ordered, as President of the Court of Inquiry, to handle the Lake Denmark disaster.​b The investigation continued for several weeks, and I had the assistance of Long, Gayler and Rowan. While sitting on this tribunal a telegram came to me that changed my life from happiness to sorrow. It told me that all the previous diagnoses of my son's illness were wrong, and that his case was hopeless. He had driven me to Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, only twelve days before, where he was assured that he would be able to go to sea the next month. I hastened to Washington and talked with the doctors. As soon as possible my wife came and, with my son's wife and their son, we remained until the end came in September.

When a man loses his last son — and such a son — the cross seems greater than he is able to bear, but with other dependents it is necessary to carry on.

My son had been post commander in the Veterans of Foreign Wars and also commander of the District of  p474 Columbia organization. General Lejeune and I had taken the oath of allegiance at his hands. On September 26, 1926, he was laid to rest with Masonic rites in the National Cemetery at Arlington, close to the graves of Admiral George Dewey and William Jennings Bryan.

The following is an excerpt from the magazine of the Veterans of Foreign Wars:

"There was but one Kenneth Coontz, and he cannot be replaced. The Veterans of Foreign Wars, the Navy and the country have suffered an irreparable loss. Taking the position of Post Commander with twelve members, in eighteen months, by his energy and executive ability, he raised the member­ship to over 1000 and made it the largest post numerically in the United States."

While I was on duty as commandant of the Fifth Naval District, which comprises Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia and North Carolina, the mail brought me one day a letter which read as follows:

"Dear Sir: I am a young girl school teacher, assigned to this little place, about two hundred miles from the sea coast, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. We are sixteen miles from Blankville, which is the end of a branch railroad. There are no benches or desks in this one‑room log building, and the children take turns in working at the old blackboard.

"A few days ago, when I was talking of our country and our flag, one of the children said, 'Teacher, what is the flag?' Would you believe it, Mr. Commandant, when I tell you these children have never seen the American flag! And so I am writing to ask if you have an old flag at the navy base that the government no longer needs, which you might send to the school."

I admit that the letter shocked me, but before I left my office that day I wrote her that the Federal Government burned all old flags to prevent them from being desecrated, but I would guarantee that the children of her  p475 school would soon have a new flag. I asked her to have the men in the neighborhood cut a flag pole and set it up.

That evening I took her letter to a meeting of the Hampton Roads Sojourners and read it. The response was instantaneous. In thirty seconds they had voted to send the school a flag. Within a week a beautiful American banner was shipped to the little log school house in the mountains.

It was acknowledged in a wonderful letter of thanks and appreciation. A postscript stated that as there were no sailors in the village they could not bend on the hilliards to hoist and lower it, so they nailed the flag to a tree‑top.

If any Virginian is interested, I shall be glad to tell him more of the incident.

Jamestown, Yorktown, Williamsburg, and other historic places are convenient to Hampton Roads. We made it a rule to take our guests to these interesting old towns. During the latter part of my tour of duty at the naval base my functions were of a routine nature. The machine was well oiled and the great mass of business was conducted smoothly and with dispatch.

On June 11, 1928, having reached the age of retirement, I saw my two star flag hauled down. It was a beautiful banner with two white stars on a field of marine blue, which had been presented to me by the enlisted men of the Fifth Naval District.

At one o'clock that day I finished the last of my official work, and after clearing my desk sat alone in my office reviewing the events of my life. From the window I looked out on the waters of the Chesapeake, and it was almost from the same spot that, as a midshipman forty‑six years before, I saw the sea for the first time. I remember that in order to be certain that I saw it as soon as possible, I climbed to the main top gallant yard of the Constellation.

My mind worked fast as I thought of the long and tortuous road that led from life as a youth on the banks  p476 of the Mississippi to the highest position in the United States Navy. I went back over my years as a cadet at the Naval Academy, my first two years' cruise, the six years I spent in Alaska, my service on the Great Lakes, in the Bureau of Navigation, on the old Philadelphia — proud flagship of the Pacific — and on the Charleston, of the strenuous days at Manila, of the Enterprise, the Adams, the Buffalo, of the great Nebraska, of my life as Commandant at the Naval Academy, of Guam, Vera Cruz, Puget Sound and the World War, of my service as Chief of Naval Operations, the command of the Great Fleet, and the South Sea cruise — all of these thoughts raced through my mind, and, for the first time, I realized that I was about to be retired after forty-seven years of service. Just then there was a knock, and when I reached the door at the south entrance to the building and opened it, I saw thousands of people, officers, enlisted men, and civilians massed outside, and, as in a dream, I heard the thirteen‑gun salute.

Mayor Tyler read the resolutions of the City Council, expressing the sentiments of that body and thanking me, on behalf of the city, for my "interest and active co‑operation in all undertakings involving the progress, welfare and contentment of the people of this community."

I was deeply affected by it, and by the beautiful flowers presented to me as the gift of the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth, by Miss Mary Calvert Truxton and Miss Katherine Jones.

In a daze, I read my orders of detachment and of retirement, with a commendatory letter from Secretary Wilbur, and a personal tribute from former Secretary Denby.

I made my way down the Administration Walk, through the crowds, and heard their cheers. Mechanically I shook hands with scores of my old comrades, and as my flag came down at the sound of the bugle and I entered the waiting automobile with my family, a verse, written by our class poet, R. E. Lee Gibson, in an hour  p477 of loneliness after he had left the Naval Academy, came to mind:

"For, oh, to be with thee again,

Where'er thou art, — 'twere bliss to me!

In some old swell Pacific port,

Or, at black midnight, far a‑sea,

When gathered with the ones we love

You tip the glass with royal cheer

Bid God bless him, first says of me

I would to Heaven he were here."

Then I set my course to the West!

The End

Thayer's Notes:

a The incident is not told in this book.

[decorative delimiter]

b On July 10, 1926: a lightning bolt triggered the explosion of the entire Lake Denmark Naval Ammunition Storage Depot. See this excellent photoillustrated page at The Vane.

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Page updated: 17 Dec 16