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Bill Thayer

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Chapter 6

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Sea Duty

Yates Stirling

published by
G. P. Putnam's Sons
New York

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 8
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p92  Chapter VII

Staff Duty

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My tour of sea duty was over, February, 1902, and I was entitled to return home. I could not at that time know that within a little over a year I would have circled the globe and returned to the Orient.

I was particularly desirous of going home via San Francisco, for there was someone there I was most anxious to see — a girl. But Providence decided otherwise for me. I turned over my dearly beloved Paragua, with the profoundest regrets, to Lieutenant Bisset, and sailed from Manila in the Navy transport Solace.​a I was the navigator of the vessel and looked forward to an instructive cruise to California. The Solace stopped first at Shanghai, and there I found orders to join the Brooklyn. My friends on the Brooklyn engineered the change of orders without consulting me. They could not believe that I was displeased, for the Brooklyn was due in a month or less to return home via the Suez Canal. Our admiral was George Remey and the staff, whom I knew well, were Commander J. H. Shipley and Lieutenant R. R. Belknap. Captain Phil Brown of the Marines commanded the guard, and he and I were very old friends. I was senior watch officer, and all the other watch officers were ex‑gunboat captains. This fact caused a lot of fun to be poked at us by the senior officers. They called us "captain" in mock courtesy. The captain of the ship was C. C. Todd. He had been an officer at the Naval Academy when I was a cadet. He was a fine  p93 ship handler, and it was an education to me to watch him perform in narrow harbors. Ever since, I have made that my special hobby. I made it a point to handle the ships that I commanded and when acting as navigator and executive officer, always showed my willingness to do the piloting and taking the ship into port or alongside of dock. An officer's ability as a ship handler is a most requisite for promotion.

A rather amusing incident occurred at Hong Kong, where Major Brown and I, after numerous drinks at the British Hong Kong Club, invited the crack Hong Kong regiment to dine with us in the wardroom of the Brooklyn. I shall never forget our embarrassment when five officers of that regiment turned up in their full evening mess dress, medals and all, while we were all in simple service dress. Brown wanted us all to go and put on our tail coats, but the seniors of the mess refused to be bothered. I noticed, however, they did not refuse to partake of the good liquor we provided. The Hong Kong regiment gave Brown and me a return dinner, to which we both went dressed to kill. Brown was a good deal of an Anglophile; when he talked with Englishmen, one would take him for one.

On arrival in Manila the Brooklyn held target practice. I had the forward turret of 8‑inch guns. One of my gun pointers was a remarkable shot. He kept destroying the target until I received word not to let him shoot. Target practice was always hurried and not interesting. There was no competition and no incentive to get good results. We were all relieved when it was over. We broke our 200‑foot homeward-bound pennant finally and sailed for Singapore en route home, via Suez. It was a treat to be in a big mess again. There were about forty officers in the wardroom mess.

Brown and I had been friends for years. I found him a congenial companion, and we usually went ashore together.

Almost immediately after our arrival in New York, in May, 1902, the Brooklyn was sent to Havana, Cuba, to give passage back to the United States to General Leonard Wood and staff. As Governor General, Wood turned over the Government to the Cubans and came home with us.

Ping-pong was a new game at that time and Wood was keen about it, as he was about all games. I was supposed to play the best game in the wardroom. The General, his young staff officers, and I spent much time at it. Wood became the acknowledged  p94 champion, although we did our best to beat him. General Wood and Fighting Bob Evans seemed very much alike to me. Both were men of strong personality. They made people like them. Both had great will power. The secret of their success probably was their indomitable urge to succeed in anything they undertook.

After landing General Wood in New York, the Brooklyn joined the North Atlantic Squadron under Admiral Francis Higginson. Those who remember him will recall the hectic life we led. No one knew what was coming next. He seemed to glory in taking chances, and the hair of his captains became whiter after a season of strenuous maneuver.

In the squadron under Higginson were: the Kearsarge, completed after the Spanish War, the Massachusetts, Indiana, and Iowa, heroes of Santiago, and the Brooklyn, together with some cruisers and torpedo vessels. The Kentucky, the Oregon, and the New York were in the Philippines. That constituted the sum of our modern armored ships — battle­ships and cruisers. We did a lot of steaming; and maneuvers with this heterogeneous assortment of ships was nerve-racking at times. There were many near collisions.

There existed a certain amount of pretense of preparing for battle, but it seems to me, on looking back, that the greatest attention of admirals and captains alike was toward "Spit and polish." Maneuvers and target practice were things to get over with as soon as possible. The ships were kept spotlessly clean. You could see your face in the polished steel of the guns, but all dreaded target practice or anything else that would spoil the ship's appearance.

Target practice in our Navy had not changed its method for years. The target was a small point of aim, a pyramid of wood and canvas anchored about a mile away. The fall of shots was taken by simultaneous observations from the firing ship and a boat anchored at right angles to the line of fire. These observations were plotted on vertical targets representing a battle­ship. Until after the practice was plotted, no one knew whether a ship had done well or badly, and by that time everyone had lost interest.

The loading of the guns was slow and deliberate. There being no real competition, there was little incentive to consider critically the methods used. The Navy Department, especially the Bureau of Ordnance, seemed satisfied with results and that seemed reason enough for the ships to let well enough alone. We soon discovered  p95 that our whole system of shooting had got into a deep quagmire and needed to be helped out.

Lieutenant W. S. Sims was the champion of a new order of gunnery training. He first served in the Brooklyn on the Asiatic station and pounded a typewriter all day in the room next to mine. He had just arrived from France where he had been our Naval Attaché. He wore a French beard. He knew the British navy on the station, especially Captain Percy Scott, commanding one of Britain's armored cruisers, the Terrible. Scott at that time was thought by many of his brother officers as a harmless gunnery fanatic who was telling the conservative British admirals that their navy did not know how to shoot. After the Brooklyn sailed for home, Sims went to the Kentucky with Bob Evans, then an admiral, and continued to blast the Navy Department with descriptions of his proposed methods of training. He was not content only to criticize gunnery. He attacked the design and construction of our latest battle­ship, the Kentucky, on which he was then serving. According to Sims's lengthy reports, there was nothing right in this new ship: the gun sights were useless, the turret ports were wide open to shell fire, and the arrangements of turret and handling room in all turrets were a menace to safety. Sims described how a powder fire in the turret could travel quickly from there to the handling room and then to the magazine and blow up the ship in battle. These reports had gone to Washington​b and had become live bombs in the several Bureaus of the Navy Department, particularly those of Construction and Ordnance.

Lieutenant A. P. Niblack had devised a method of target practice and had been made Target Practice Inspector at the Navy Department. Niblack's plan was an improvement but it fell far short of what Sims was recommending. Sims severely criticized Niblack's methods. Sims and Niblack had been classmates at the Naval Academy and lifelong friends. They were both of the brainy type and could not be convinced; nor would they compromise. Now they were bitter enemies. I knew them both and greatly admired them. They were both fine officers, and the welfare of the Navy was their chief concern, no matter whose toes were trod upon. Sims was ruthless in his criticism of the Target Practice Office, and Niblack was sensitive. Both men got to the top in the Navy and both made their full contribution, but in different ways. Niblack was literary and wrote many educational articles for the  p96 younger officers of the Navy. Sims tackled the gunnery problem and achieved remarkable results.

After several months in the Brooklyn with the Atlantic Squadron, I went to the Puget Sound Navy Yard, commanded by my father, who had been made a rear admiral. I stopped in San Francisco on the way and by accident met Sims at the Palace Hotel. He was on his way to Washington. He was full of his subject. "Come on back and help me fight them," he said.

Sims found many officers who were willing to stand beside him and storm the defenses of the conservatives, who did not wish a change and did not want even to hear about one. What had been good enough for Farragut, Dewey, and Sampson was good enough for them. The young Navy knew that Sims was right, but it took time to persuade the doubters and those who felt their work was being unjustly censured and themselves humiliated. Any radical change such as this one naturally arouses resentment and jealousy among those who believed they had been carrying the Navy on their shoulders.

The fight between Sims and the Navy Department was fast and furious, but Sims won in the end and his method of gunnery training was adopted.

I remained at the Navy Yard with my father only long enough to make the acquaintance again of my father, mother, and sisters. We all lived in a big house at the Yard. My duties were light. I spent much of my spare time playing golf and going out in Seattle society.

The Navy Yard Puget Sound, near Seattle, Washington, had been established several years, yet there were many people in the eastern part of the country who believed because of its geographical situation, so far north in latitude, that it was ice‑bound during the winter. They had not figured out the effect of the warm Japanese current which gives to Seattle in winter almost as mild a climate as Charleston, South Carolina.

My father was sent a clipping from an Eastern newspaper in which no less a person than the Secretary of the Navy himself had stated that the Navy Yard, Puget Sound, in winter was completely blocked with ice. Father cut a half-dozen or more roses from bushes in front of his house, placed them in a box with the clipping, and wrote and signed: "Picked from the Commandant's from the yard in January." He sent the box addressed to the Secretary of the Navy. He never received a reply.

 p97  At that time promotion to all grades in the Navy was by seniority. Important commands were none too plentiful, and there had grown up a none too pleasant custom to "hound" on to the retired list any ranking officer who was believed to be in ill health. Everyone was looking for a chance to alleviate the stagnation in promotion.

There had been a rumor that my father was a sick man. He was always thin but actually in perfect health, both mentally and physically, and kept his faculties until his death at the age of eighty‑six. Without any previous warning orders suddenly arrived for him to proceed to the Asiatic Station to command the Philippine Division of that Fleet. To show his readiness, in case it was an attempt at "hounding," he wired back at once nominating me on his staff as flag lieutenant. Washington may have hoped that my father, having but two years before retiring for age, instead of going out to the Orient, might, if he were not a well man, retire at once.

The Wisconsin was repairing at the Navy Yard, and when her work was finished, my father hoisted his flag in her, and we sailed for Honolulu en route for the Philippines. The flagship of the Philippine Division, the Rainbow, a converted merchant ship, met the Wisconsin in Yokohama, and Father transferred to her, and we sailed for Manila. This vessel remained our flagship for nearly a year.

My mother and two sisters decided to visit the Orient and sailed subsequently in a Pacific liner. After a year in the Philippines, Father was given the Cruiser Division of the fleet, hoisting his flag in the New Orleans in the spring of 1904.

There were three rear admirals on the Asiatic Station: Philip Cooper, the Commander in Chief of the Fleet, with the Wisconsin as flagship; my father in the cruisers; and Charles Train, who had taken my father's place in the Philippines.

The Russo-Japanese War was on, and the fighting in Manchuria and at Port Arthur was in full swing. Therefore the New Orleans took station to observe, at Chefoo, China, which is just across the Gulf of Pichili from Port Arthur. On calm clear days we could hear the sound of heavy artillery. Chefoo was a clearinghouse for rumors, and at one time or another all the war correspondents visited there in hopes of obtaining news of the fighting from the thousands of refugees who escaped from the besieged areas across the gulf at night.

 p98  The remaining ships of Father's division of cruisers were scattered to other ports to observe the progress of the war. The division never to my knowledge was assembled. The organization of the Asiatic Fleet at that time seemed to have no real purpose except to give positions to superfluous rear admirals.

After we had been in the New Orleans perhaps two months, Father relieved Admiral Cooper as Commander in Chief. The exchange of command took place in Shanghai, or at least at Woosung, where the battle­ships had to anchor on account of their great draft. While we were there, the battle of August 10, 1904, between the Russian Port Arthur fleet, under Admiral Makaroff, and Admiral Togo's Japanese fleet, was fought. In this battle the homemade Japanese Shimosi powder being used blew the muzzles off the turret guns of many of the Japanese warships. But at this stage of the battle the accident to the flagship Tzarewitch's rudder threw the Russian column of ships into disorder. Not knowing they were victorious on account of the gun accidents of the Japanese, the Russian Fleet turned about and retreated into Port Arthur, from which harbor they never succeeded in escaping and were either sunk by their own crews or by Japanese shell fire.

The cruiser Askold and a destroyer escaped from the battle. The destroyer took refuge in Chefoo and the cruiser arrived at Woosung, where my father's flagship was anchored. The Russian anchored near the Wisconsin, and the Russian Admiral came on board at once to call. Father received him and learned of the condition of his ship, and also that three Japanese armored cruisers in hot pursuit were at the mouth of the Yangtze River.

I accompanied my father when he returned the call. There was no doubt about it, the Askold was badly damaged. She had suffered many casualties and also had been holed on the water line several times. That same afternoon the Russian warship went up the Whangpoo River and entered the British-owned drydock at Shanghai for repairs.

We learned through press reports that the Russian destroyer that had gone to Chefoo had interned and had placed herself under the protection of the Chinese Navy in that port. But, nevertheless, she had been seized, despite the Chinese Commodore's protest, by the two Japanese destroyers, and after a fight with the Russian crew, in which the Chinese naval men held aloof, had been captured and towed to sea.

 p99  That night Father and his staff went to a big dinner given by the Chinese Tao Tai (mayor) of Shanghai. I happened to sit next to the Japanese Consul General, who spoke excellent English. He quizzed me all through the dinner, knowing, of course, that I was the Admiral's son and flag lieutenant. The little Jap was very much annoyed because the Russian cruiser had refused to disarm and almost openly accused my father of encouraging this. He told me there were three armored cruisers outside the Yangtze, commanded by their illustrious Admiral Uriu, a graduate of the United States Naval Academy. He seemed to insinuate that that fact should cause my father to side with the Japanese. The Consul General declared emphatically that if the Russian continued in his refusal to disarm, Admiral Uriu would take forcible action the next day, for the Japanese ships were needed very urgently and could not afford to remain inactive at the entrance to the Yangtze.

I said rather abruptly:

"Oh, I hope he won't do that."

The Consul General replied: "Why, what will you do?" Feeling I had said quite enough, I only shook my head and attempted to look wise.

Our ships consisted of the battle­ships Wisconsin and Oregon, anchored at Woosung; the monitor Monadnock, five destroyers, and a naval collier at Shanghai. We were the only foreign squadron in the international port. The British warships were at Wei Hei Wei. Some said they were keeping out of the way. At that time Great Britain and Japan were in alliance.

According to International Law, the Askold was entitled to repair her damage to make her seaworthy and to receive sufficient fuel to enable her to reach the nearest Russian port, that of Vladivostok. The high-handed action against the interned Russian destroyer in Chefoo was not very encouraging to my father, as it might well be considered an augury of what could be expected in Shanghai, even after the Askold had disarmed. The Russian Admiral seemed to be standing on his rights under the law; so far he had refused to disarm. After all, why should the Russian disarm and become an easy victim in case the Japanese repeated the Chefoo procedure in Shanghai?

It certainly appeared that the American Admiral might find himself the center of an international incident at any moment. If both the Russian Admiral and the Japanese Admiral carried  p100 out their avowed intentions, the one of refusing to disarm and the other of attacking the Askold in Shanghai, a fight between the Russian and Japanese warships, in the midst of an excitable population of millions of Chinese, would be a terrible calamity worth the most serious risk to prevent.

My father knew that he must do all in his power to block the victory‑mad Japanese from taking the law in their own hands and precipitating a battle in the international port. Father, I knew, had carefully weighed the situation. There was the Standard Oil installation with quantities of oil, kerosene, and gasoline in tanks, located next to the drydock in which the Russian ship was lying. This oil, if set on fire, would spread to the river, menacing shipping, the warships, piers, and warehouses. If he failed to save the situation, Father would be condemned. He was determined to hold the Japanese to reason, yet he had to avoid taking any overt action that might precipitate a fight between his own ships and the Japanese. The task was not an easy one, but grave consequences were involved in its failure.

The next morning at daylight the monitor Monadnock was moored in the river off the entrance to the drydock. Three American destroyers were alongside the collier moored across the gate of the drydock, while two destroyers were at Woosung with the two battle­ships. Every American ship was cleared for action.

This is what the news-hungry correspondents saw the next morning, and the cable offices were kept busy.

About noon a small Japanese destroyer came up the Yangtze from the squadron off the entrance. When the Japanese vessel appeared, the Admiral sent me in a launch over to the destroyer Bainbridge, to tell her commanding officer, Lieutenant George Williams, to follow the Japanese destroyer, should she go up the Whangpoo River to Shanghai, and, if the Japanese attempted to torpedo the caisson of the drydock or start a fight with the Askold, to use force to stop her. There was no mistaking the seriousness of the Admiral's intentions. He had made up his mind that a Chefoo incident would not be duplicated in Shanghai.

The Japanese destroyer headed for the bar of the Whangpoo. Williams followed and, with a tremendous burst of speed, passed her while she was crossing the bar. The wash from the Bainbridge nearly capsized the smaller ship, which turned immediately and headed for the town of Woosung and there anchored. Williams continued on up the river. My mother and two sisters were  p101 on board the Bainbridge. They had arrived that morning in a steamer from Hong Kong and had breakfasted with us in the Wisconsin. Williams had offered to take them to Shanghai. They were already on board when the Japanese destroyer was sighted. There was no time to get them off the Bainbridge, and I was glad to see the Japanese boat anchor at Woosung.

I made a boarding visit to the Japanese ship in the Admiral's barge. The little captain of the destroyer was mad as a hatter. His first question was: "What was your destroyer trying to do?"

I replied: "Oh, he was just in a hurry."

After staying about an hour at anchor the Japanese vessel returned down the Yangtze. He must have sent a cable of what he had seen — two American battle­ships cleared for action — and that news was in Japan almost instantly.

Late that afternoon a tug emerged from the Whangpoo and came close alongside the Wisconsin. We sent a launch, and the Russian Admiral came on board. He told Father that he had waived his right under international law and ad agreed to permit his ship to be disarmed by the Chinese officials. He thanked him for his courtesy.

At the gangway the Russian made an eloquent gesture with his arms to show that he understood that our ships were prepared for battle; then, before Father could dodge, he kissed him on both cheeks. Father was much embarrassed. Not wishing to have the Russian feel too certain that all this preparation was other than routine, Father pointed to his two battle­ships and said: "You see, Admiral, I'm having the annual Admiral's inspection of all my ships and that is why they are cleared for action."

The Russian spoke English perfectly. He showed he was in no way fooled by Father's glib explanation and responded with another pair of kisses.

Now that the Askold was disarmed, it was unlikely that the Japanese would attempt to seize that ship in face of our squadron. The incident could be considered over in Shanghai, but it was not in Washington. Father was being bombarded with cable messages. He did not send a reply until he knew the Russian had disarmed and all danger of conflict was over. Gaucherie in Washington from one of our half-baked, so‑called diplomats in charge of Oriental affairs might have upset the applecart and even precipitated a fight with the Japanese, for I am sure my father meant business.

 p102  I quote from memory the most interesting of the Washington cables:

"Alarming, disquieting, and sensational press reports from Shanghai in all newspapers. What have you done? Report immediately what measures you have taken with all particulars and reasons for your action."

Father pondered over this message for some time. Finally he wrote and sent the following reply in our most secret cipher:

"Know nothing of sensational press reports. Only measures taken were of a precautionary nature. The Askold has disarmed and has been interned by the Chinese authorities."

This duty with my father was for me most beneficial from a professional standpoint. I shall never regret having served as his flag lieutenant in spite of all the petty objections and criticisms from those who are against sons serving on their fathers' staffs. In a way I was getting experience much beyond my years and rank from this intimate association with an admiral in command of a fleet. I had the feeling that at least some of the responsibility was on my shoulders. I gave the greatest attention and thought to all things affecting my father's interests.

The Oregon, one of our ships, was holding the gunnery trophy. Lieutenant Francis Boughter, the Fleet Gunnery Officer, and I worked out a plan to put the flagship Wisconsin in the running for it. The Wisconsin had been always a good shooting ship, but flagships have always been under a disadvantage in competing for the trophy because of the frequent interference with schedules due to the demands of the Admiral upon the ship's time. The crew of the Wisconsin were excellent, but her officers were mostly short timers and due to go home, their cruise being over. For this reason, the officers seemed to have lost interest in gunnery. The new method of training gun pointers and conducting target practices, instituted by Sims, had now been put into practice on the Asiatic station.

With the Admiral's approval, we managed to send all the short timers home on ships that were sailing and filled their places with the best officers available, without disrupting the gunnery setups in important shooting ships. It was not really a radical measure, but in carrying it out some officers were inconvenienced who had established themselves comfortably and did not wish to be disturbed. We lost much favor with the women, who were outraged that their husbands were forced to leave them after they had got  p103 all settled for the winter and spring in some comfortable spot in China where they had counted on seeing much of their husbands. Instead they would now be away most of the time cruising in the flagship. I was at a loss to understand their attitude, and I felt no sympathy for them. I told them quite plainly that their husbands and themselves should consider it an honor to be selected for the flagship.

The Fleet in the Atlantic, with Sims's help, we heard, was doing remarkable shooting, fast and accurate, and everyone coming out from home was telling us that the jinx this year would be broken and the gunnery trophies would leave the Asiatic and go to ships in the Atlantic Fleet.

We held the new record practice in Manila Bay. The Oregon and Wisconsin both made scores that at that time seemed incredible. The Wisconsin made all hits with her 13‑inch guns, and the speed of shooting was fast. The Oregon held the trophy, but the Wisconsin stood second among the battle­ships of the Navy. The next year, I believe, the Wisconsin won the trophy herself. My father received a most flattering letter from the Secretary of the Navy upon the excellent gunnery work of his fleet. The Asiatic Fleet that year won the gunnery trophy in each class of ship.

Thayer's Notes:

a For another naval officer's experience aboard the Solace, two years earlier — possibly under a different skipper — see Gerald E. Wheeler, Admiral William Veazie Pratt, p42.

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b Sims not only wrote the Navy Department on the subject of target practice, but even the President directly: C. S. Alden and Ralph Earle, Makers of Naval Tradition, p294 (the entire chapter is devoted to the character and career of Admiral Sims).

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