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Chapter 11

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
Thence Round Cape Horn

Robert Erwin Johnson

published by
United States Naval Institute
Annapolis, Maryland

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
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Chapter 13
This site is not affiliated with the US Naval Academy.

 p179  12. Pacific Fleet in the Atlantic Ocean

There had been plans, before 1917, for the employment of the Pacific Fleet in the event of hostilities, but they had not progressed beyond the planning stage and had had relatively little effect on the operations of the Pacific Fleet and the Pacific Reserve Fleet. The first attempt at a War Plans Portfolio for the Pacific seems to have been made in 1904; however, the first comprehensive plan was not made until 1913. Naturally, the Pacific Fleet plans were most concerned with Japan and Mexico. War Plans Orange and Green envisioned wars with those nations, respectively.1

War Plan Orange apparently provided for withdrawal of most of the United States naval forces from Asiatic and western Pacific waters as far to the eastward as Pearl Harbor and for the mobilization of all effective warships on the Pacific coast. No serious offensive operations seem to have been contemplated until such time as the battle­ships of the Atlantic Fleet could arrive in Pacific waters, but this moment would be facilitated greatly by the opening of the Panama Canal, then approaching completion. The state of defenses of American island possessions was so poor that it would have been futile to try to hold them. The 1909 decision that Pearl Harbor should be the westernmost major base meant that it would be defended, although development of its facilities and defenses lagged far behind the plans of the strategists. But political realities had to be considered, and there was no likelihood that large sums would be voted for the protection of far‑distant island possessions.

Available records yield no hint that the armored cruisers were to have been used offensively against Japanese communications before American battle­ships arrived on the scene. Nor could this have been expected. Many of the armored cruisers were in reserve and could hardly have been readied for service before the Atlantic Fleet arrived  p180 in the Pacific Ocean. And despite their obvious obsolescence, they were virtually the only cruisers available to the United States Navy.

Plainly, the role of the Navy in a Mexican war would be much less important, and War Plan Green seems to have been concerned only with a blockade of the Mexican coast and the occupation of some of the more important seaports. Any invasion other than that by land across the Texas border probably would have been supported by forces in the Gulf of Mexico, for the important regions of Mexico are much more accessible from that coast than from the Pacific seaboard. The Pacific Fleet thus would have had a much less spectacular, but nevertheless important, part in a conflict with Mexico.2

Also in 1913, the then Captain Fullam, aide for inspections to Secretary Meyer, submitted a memorandum on steps to be taken in anticipation of war with Japan. His paper was concerned with the preparation of all units and facilities in order that mobilization might proceed without confusion. It is interesting to note that no less than five of the eight points proposed by Fullam were concerned with personnel procurement. Little more than two years later he was to have reason to wish that some of his suggestions had been acted on by the Department.

The opening of the Panama Canal to traffic in 1914 ended the comparative isolation of the Pacific coast and cleared away the main obstacle to a division of the battle­ship fleet. Even the archexponent of concentration, Theodore Roosevelt, had thought that a number of the capital ships should be stationed in the Pacific as soon as the canal was in use, because it would make strategic concentration possible even with vessels on both coasts. But the Navy Department had no intention of dividing the fleet in 1914, and even the Pacific coast states made no demand that additional warships be assigned to the Pacific Fleet.​3 Despite American neutrality in the war that had just come to Europe, both the government and the public felt that the greatest danger lay in the German High Seas Fleet. If it evaded or defeated the British Grand Fleet, it would menace the Atlantic coast of the United States; consequently, the modern warships were retained in the Atlantic Fleet almost by unanimous consent. Few men outside the Navy seemed to realize that the German vessels could  p181 not operate thousands of miles from a base, particularly with the Grand Fleet intact in their wakes. Even if the Grand Fleet were defeated, it was inconceivable that the High Seas Fleet would emerge from such a battle unscathed and ready for a transatlantic campaign, but this fact too was overlooked. In 1915, the older battle­ships of the Naval Academy Practice Squadron did pass through the canal, but they returned to the Atlantic at the conclusion of their cruise.

During the first two years of World War I, the United States Navy continued on its peaceful course, outwardly content with Secretary Daniels' assurances of its readiness for any eventuality. Many officers, including those commanding in the Pacific, doubted this, but their demands for preparedness measures fell on deaf ears. Secretary Daniels has received praise for his conduct of naval affairs, but it seems evident that the Daniels program did not contribute immediately to the readiness of the United States Navy for entry into the conflict in 1917.

Admiral Caperton was informed in 1916 that some of his ships would be required for service in the Atlantic in event of hostilities with Germany. He was ordered to dispatch the armored cruiser San Diego (ex‑California), the first-class cruiser Milwaukee, and the protected cruisers Raleigh and Albany to the fleet rendezvous in Chesapeake Bay as soon as the mobilization order was received.

In October 1916, the President of the Associated Chambers of Commerce of the Pacific Coast informed Daniels that he had been directed to protest against the rumored transfer of the armored cruisers to the Atlantic, and the Chief of Naval Operations replied that no such change was contemplated. Whether or not Secretary Daniels realized it, to his senior officers in the Pacific it was inconceivable that the obsolete, but still power­ful, armored cruisers should remain on the west coast if Germany became an enemy. At the beginning of 1917, the large ships had been withdrawn from Mexican waters, and Admiral Fullam thought they should be detached from further patrol duty in order that they might rehearse in company the scouting role to which they were likely to be assigned. Nevertheless, as late as 27 March 1917, Admiral Benson informed Caperton that it was the intention of the Navy Department gradually to withdraw almost all of the smaller cruisers, gunboats, and destroyers for use on the Atlantic coast patrol, leaving the armored cruisers to guard the  p182 Pacific coast. Of the latter, the Huntington (ex‑West Virginia) would also be ordered to the eastern seaboard if her aviation unit could be installed in time.

Early in March 1917, the destroyer Hopkins was ordered to carry out a careful reconnaissance of the coast of Lower California to detect German agents reported to be active in that region, but her commanding officer found nothing to confirm the reports.

As international tension mounted, the Department issued another order whereby the Pacific Fleet torpedo vessels were to be prepared for departure eastward when so ordered. In the closing days of March, most of the effective warships on the Pacific coast were in commission and fairly well prepared for service, due in large part to the efforts of Rear Admiral Fullam, but no definite information as to the contemplated employment of the Pacific Fleet seems to have been received.

When the mobilization order was issued on 6 April 1917, the flagship of the Pacific Fleet was not among its addressees; nevertheless, the vessels of that command proceeded to their assigned stations. At least one commanding officer had little idea as to whom he should look for fuel, supplies, and further orders — the commanding officer of the Yorktown made inquiries for such to Admiral Caperton on 12 April. And six days later, Fullam added a postscript to his report to Admiral Benson:

By the way, what am I?

1. Commander of Reserve Force?

2. Commander of Scout Force?

or 3. 2nd in command on the Pacific?

All Reserve Ships are now in full Reserve commission! Understand, my dear Benson, makes no difference to me what I am, just so I have something to do that will utilize my time. . . .​4

A month later, some order was emerging from the initial uncertainty. The Pacific Reserve Fleet was abolished early in May, and Fullam shifted his flag from the Pueblo (ex‑Colorado) to break it in the San Diego as Commander, Patrol Force, Pacific Fleet. And on 9 May, Caperton was informed that he would command the Pittsburgh, Pueblo, South Dakota, and Frederick (ex‑Maryland) on distant service.

The distant service for which Caperton's scouting force was destined  p183 was a patrol of the South Atlantic Ocean within the following geographical limits:

From the Brazilian coast at Latitude 5° South, east to Longitude 30° West, thence south (true) to Latitude 15° South, thence in general parallel to the American coast to Latitude 35° South, Longitude 35° West, thence west to the mouth of the Rio de la Plata.

He was advised that French naval forces would operate in the area to the northward and westward, while British warships would be cruising to the southward. His mission was "to search for and capture or destroy all enemy vessels within your area of operations, and to cooperate with the forces of the Entente Allies in all possible ways to the same end." Caperton was to assume that Brazilian and Uruguayan ports would be open to his ships, and coal would be supplied by colliers sailing regularly from Hampton Roads. In addition, his orders read:

You will retain the rank and title of Admiral, Commander-in‑Chief of the Pacific Fleet, but on account of the wide separation of your forces from the Pacific coast, the administration of the forces remaining in the Pacific will be left to the Commander of the Pacific Patrol Force.​5

Admiral Caperton proceeded to Balboa, Canal Zone, with three ships, and there he was joined by the Frederick bringing welcome drafts of men for the other cruisers. She also brought less welcome German measles and mumps, and all of the ships were quickly infected. The measles epidemic ran its course in ten weeks, but the sick bays of the cruisers contained sailors suffering from mumps as late as December 1918.

Before passing through the canal, the armored cruisers were docked at Balboa. Their progress was so leisurely that they did not arrive at Bahia, Brazil, until 14 June 1917, and there a base was established for the Pueblo and South Dakota. The Pittsburgh was to operate out of Rio de Janeiro and the Frederick from Montevideo. The patrol area of 1,000,000 square miles was large enough in all conscience for only four ships. Although the auxiliary cruisers Steuben and DeKalb originally had been assigned to Caperton, they were employed as transports and never joined his flag. Caperton's plans called for each of his four ships to spend ten days on station cruising at five knots. The passages to and from the patrol area were to require  p184 five days each, with the vessels ordered to proceed at ten knots by day and five knots during hours of darkness. These speeds would be dangerously low if U‑boats were in the area, but coal consumption at higher speeds would reduce the endurance of the armored cruisers to an undesirable extent.

Before the patrols were established, Admiral Caperton used his ships to foster the friendship of Latin America for the United States. He had indicated his belief that the mission of his fleet was in part "to assist bringing the South American Republics into an open espousal of the policies of the United States and to promote the solidification of the South American countries in their mutual relations."6

At Rio de Janeiro, the armored cruisers were accorded a tumultuous welcome, and their reception at Montevideo was just as cordial. The Argentine government asked that Caperton touch at Bahia Blanca, an ocean port, probably hoping to avoid such incidents as might be caused by the large German populace of Buenos Aires. However, the admiral insisted on visiting the capital.

In addition to the unfriendly feeling which might manifest itself at Buenos Aires, the voyage to that city was not without danger. It is located on the broad and shallow Rio de la Plata, some one hundred miles from Montevideo. For the most part, the depth of the estuary was somewhat less than the minimum amount of water necessary to float the big armored cruisers, but several feet of soft mud blanketed the river bottom. Moreover, it was the pampero season, and that offshore wind had been known to lower the river level to such an extent that ships in mid‑channel had grounded. Even if the warships did not run aground, they would be certain to suck so much mud into their condenser main injections as to impair seriously the functioning of the main engines. Fortunately, the fleet engineer pointed out that the condensers could be cross-connected, with one overboard discharge substituted for both main injections. This obviated the difficulty; the armored cruisers were almost the only vessels in the United States Navy in which this arrangement was possible.

The run up the Rio de la Plata was made without incident at twelve knots, with the ships plowing furrows in the mud on the channel bottom. They received a cordial welcome at Buenos Aires, and officers and men alike were entertained most hospitably. It was noted  p185 that the armored cruisers were the largest vessels which had ever visited the Argentine capital.

However valuable the Buenos Aires visit may have been from the diplomatic standpoint, one cannot escape the feeling that Admiral Caperton was most unwise in risking his ships in the Rio de la Plata. To be sure, they suffered no damage other than losing much of the paint from their bottom strakes, but there were not a few wrecks concealed in the mud at the channel bottom, and it requires little imagination to envisage the effect had one of the armored cruisers struck a submerged wreck at twelve knots, although the ships might well have been unmanageable at a lower speed under such conditions. When it is considered that the United States was at war and that Caperton's force was so small, the good will gained from the visit must count little compared with the loss of material and prestige had even one cruiser been stranded.

Having completed its diplomatic duties, the Pacific Fleet settled down to the routine of patrolling the South Atlantic. The cruising proceeded without incident, and no sign of enemy raiders was seen. By November 1917, the Navy Department had found it desirable to place Caperton's ships under the orders of the Commander in Chief, Atlantic Fleet, but the armored cruisers retained their identity as the Pacific Fleet. Soon after the Armistice was declared on 11 November 1918, the Pueblo, South Dakota, and Frederick were assigned to Rear Admiral Albert Gleaves's Transport and Cruiser Force and helped to ferry American troops from Europe. In their stead, Caperton received three old and small cruisers and an obsolete gunboat. The cruiser Chicago became his flagship in place of the Pittsburgh which was detached for duty in European waters.

Meanwhile, the portion of the Pacific Fleet which remained in that ocean suffered the tribulations common to naval forces in a backwater far from the war zone. Since Fullam had expressed repeatedly his view that there was virtually no danger of German activity in the eastern Pacific, it is not surprising that his force was reduced quickly. (The Patrol Force originally included the armored cruisers San Diego and Saratoga, the battle­ship Oregon, the protected cruiser Marblehead, the gunboats Vicksburg and Yorktown, and the destroyers Perry and Lawrence. The submarines and their tender Cheyenne composed a separate command, but Fullam exercised  p186 general supervision.) The flagship San Diego and the Saratoga were detached for duty in the Atlantic as were the destroyers, and Fullam broke his flag in the Oregon. The submarines based at Pearl Harbor and San Pedro were also sent to the war zone with the exception of some of the older F‑and H‑type boats which were retained in the Pacific primarily for use in training crews for the new submarines building in west coast yards.

The Patrol Force was abolished in July 1917, and its ships were redesignated as Division Two, Pacific Fleet. Fullam was retained in command, and in addition, continued to hold supervisory authority over the submarines and the Pacific coast naval districts. He was also senior officer of Allied naval forces in the eastern Pacific, but exercised little actual control over ships of foreign navies. The extent of his authority is not clear; at most he seems to have served in a co‑ordinating capacity with the right to request British or Japanese vessels for which no American warships were available.

A few small and weak extemporized men-o'‑war maintained a loose patrol of Mexican waters, but their commanding officers had strict orders to avoid any incidents that might cause Mexican officials or private citizens to take offense. The major fueling base for these vessels was at Pichilinque, and supplies of gasoline and lubricating oil were landed at Corinto, Nicaragua, and Amapala, Honduras, for the use of the 110‑foot wooden submarine chasers assigned to patrol those waters. In each case, the government concerned had offered the use of the port, and Fullam ordered that the supplies be left unguarded until losses proved that guards were necessary. He felt that the presence of Marines might be an irritant to local authorities, and was determined to avoid friction if possible.

The heavy ships of Division Two, the Oregon and Cheyenne, were relatively inactive. The latter served as submarine tender at San Pedro where her two twelve-inch guns were virtually the only harbor defense, while the old battle­ship which had starred in the Spanish-American War now contented herself with unspectacular supporting roles. She remained at San Francisco for a time to defend that port, went to San Diego to serve as Fullam's flagship, and cruised along the coast occasionally to stimulate recruiting and bond-selling campaigns.

 p187  There were the usual nervous citizens who saw German U‑boats off the Pacific coast, but none of their reports was found to be correct. More persistent were rumors of German surface raiders operating in the eastern Pacific, and one such in November 1917 led the Navy Department to ask that the Imperial Japanese Navy send a cruiser in search of a raider supposedly operating in the Honolulu area. Needless to say, the Japanese complied readily, but no enemy vessel was found. Admiral Fullam was humiliated by the incident, and he requested permission to arm the colliers Nanshan and Brutus as auxiliary cruisers so he would have ships of his own to dispatch in search of German raiders in waters near American possessions.

The nearest thing to a German raider encountered by Fullam's ships was the absurdly small and slow American gas schooner Alexander Agassiz. Reports of her suspicious character reached naval officers from Mazatlán, whence it was feared that she would sail to capture a merchantman that might be converted for raiding activity. The officers found it somewhat difficult to take the would‑be raider seriously, but when she stood out of Mazatlán on 18 March 1918, the gunboat Vicksburg was in the offing and took possession as soon as the Agassiz cleared neutral waters. The prize had no registration papers, and boarding officers found a German flag and a few small arms. This was enough to warrant her seizure, but added little glory to the record of Division Two, Pacific Fleet.

Of all the naval forces on the Pacific coast, probably the bases made the most important contribution in World War I. Destroyers, submarines, and submarine chasers were built, commissioned, and sent to the war zone in considerable numbers. Many of the steel cargo ships built on the west coast for the Emergency Fleet Corporation were taken over by the Naval Overseas Transport Service, and to the naval district in which they were built went the duty of outfitting and manning these vessels, all of which went to the Atlantic also. Both the Mare Island and the Puget Sound Navy Yards built small warships, and the former was at work on the superdreadnought California, the first battle­ship, and the last, built at a Pacific coast navy yard.

The most serious loss suffered in the eastern Pacific came on 17 December 1917 when the submarine F‑1, cruising in company with several sisters, collided with one of them and sank with nineteen  p188 men. Among other less serious accidents, the Coast Guard cutter McCulloch was sunk in collision off Port Hueneme, California, with the loss of one life.

The cessation of hostilities came as a surprise to the Pacific coast, as to the rest of the country. Shipyards, government and private, were really just hitting their stride, and would have shown an even more astonishing capability for building and fitting out vessels of all types had the war continued. No plans for cutting back production had been made, and the Armistice threw the whole program into confusion.

So the record of the Pacific Fleet in World War I was little more spectacular than that compiled by the Pacific Squadron in conflicts since the Mexican War. But its duties were performed adequately, and Admiral Fullam proved himself an able leader in spite of his undistinguished position.

The Author's Notes:

1 War Plans for 1913 are still classified so this discussion is based on unclassified correspondence referring to War Plans Orange and Green.

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2 It must be noted that this is largely speculation. The sources open to me contained few references to War Plan Green, but these would seem to support my supposition.

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3 The Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, did point out the danger inherent in the weakness of his force, but his letter seems to have elicited no reply. Howard to Daniels, 15 April 1915, "General Correspondence of the Office of the Secretary of the Navy."

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4 Fullam to Benson, 12 April 1917, "W. F. Fullam Papers."

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5 Daniels to Caperton, 9 May 1917, "Office of the Secretary, Confidential Correspondence, 1917‑1919 (Declassified)."

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6 Caperton to Daniels, 21 June 1917, "General Correspondence."

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