Great White Fleet Journey Around the Globe

Great White Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg

On June 27, 1907, at the height of a crisis in Japanese-American relations, President Theodore Roosevelt decided to send the Atlantic battleship fleet to the Pacific in the fall. The 1904–5 Russo-Japanese War had demonstrated the military and naval might of Japan, while the decisive Russian defeat at Tsushima impressed on the public’s consciousness that a battle fleet, after steaming great distances, could arrive at its destination in no condition to fight. With nearly all U.S. battleships in the Atlantic Fleet, the U.S. naval force in the Pacific was no match for the Japanese Imperial Navy. Aware of these conditions, West Coast residents of the United States felt vulnerable to attack.

Coinciding with the Japanese-American diplomatic crisis in 1907, the Atlantic Fleet possessed a sufficient number of new first-class battleships available for a sustained exercise. Roosevelt seized the opportunity and ordered the Atlantic battleship fleet deployed to the Pacific Ocean. The exercise would test the new battleships’ mechanical systems and their ability to reach the Pacific in fit condition to engage an enemy as well as bolster the security of the West Coast. On July 2, Secretary of the Navy Victor H. Metcalf announced that “eighteen or twenty of the largest battleships would come around Cape Horn on a practice cruise, and be seen in San Francisco Harbor.”
President Roosevelt’s message precipitated a wave of invitations from countries along the route for the fleet to pay port visits. By this time, diplomatic relations with Japan had also improved as it became clear that the Japanese had no intention of declaring war. The Japanese ambassador extended his country’s invitation, pointing out that a visit by the American fleet to Japan would emphasize the “traditional relations of good understanding and mutual sympathy” between the two countries.

President Roosevelt did not send the battle fleet on its globe-girdling voyage principally to awe Japan. Rather, he intended to exercise the fleet, demonstrate America’s naval prowess to the nations of the world, and garner enthusiasm for the Navy among Americans at home as well as votes in Congress for naval construction. Seen in this light, the first half of the cruise would be an exercise in naval contingency planning, and the second half, an exercise in naval diplomacy at home and abroad.

The fourteen-month-long voyage was intended to be a grand pageant of American naval power. The squadrons were manned by 14,000 sailors. They covered some 43,000 nautical miles (80,000 km) and made twenty port calls on six continents. Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry assumed command of the fleet at San Francisco. Leaving that port on 7 July 1908 the U.S. Atlantic Fleet visited Honolulu; Auckland, New Zealand; Sydney, Melbourne, and Albany, Australia; Manila, Philippines; Yokohama, Japan; and Colombo, Ceylon; then arriving at Suez, Egypt, on 3 January 1909.

Great  White Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg

Great White  Fleet Journey  Around the Globe.jpg

Great White Fleet Journey  Around the Globe.jpg

Great White Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg

Great White  Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg
On October 17, 1908 the day before the fleet’s arrival to Japan, the Yokohama newspaper Boyaki Shimpo came out with what it called a “Fleet Banzai Number” and showered printed praise upon the fleet. When the U.S. ships arrived the next day, sixteen Japanese battleships and three cruisers accompanied them into the bay, while on shore school children sang “Hail Columbia” and the “Star-Spangled Banner.”​

Great White Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg

Japanese hospitality was indeed overflowing. The four flag officers of the fleet were accommodated at the Emperor’s Palace, while the ships’ captains occupied suites at Tokyo’s elegant Imperial Hotel. Junior officers received railroad passes, and selected enlisted men were given free trolley car privileges. For the entire week that the fleet was in Japan, there was a constant round of celebrations, balls, and parties. Admiral Togo of the Imperial Japanese Navy gave a garden party; Premier Katsura hosted a formal ball; and fifty thousand Tokyo residents honored the fleet with a torchlight parade.

During a champagne party in the Japanese battleship Mikasa, Sperry suffered an indignity, albeit an unintended one, from his Japanese Navy hosts. It occurred when a group of exuberant Imperial Navy cadets suddenly picked up Sperry and hurled him into the air three times, shouting “Banzai!” with each liftoff. In Japanese naval circles, the Banzai cheer and tossing were considered tributes. This was explained to a ruffled Sperry after he was placed back on the deck, gasping and trying to straighten out his twisted sash, dislocated sword, and wrinkled uniform. Sperry accepted the tribute as graciously as possible under the circumstances.

One of the first diplomatic gestures came about, not as part of an elaborately planned ceremony, but spontaneously during a crisis. On the night of October 22, an arch honoring the fleet caught fire, and the flames began creeping up one side of the arch toward a Japanese flag anchored on a pole at the top.

Three U.S. Sailors and a Marine raced toward the scene. The Marine, reaching the blazing arch first, climbed the clear side of the arch and retrieved the Japanese flag before the flames could engulf it. The Japanese crowd that had gathered went wild and hoisted the Marine onto their shoulders and paraded about the streets. The Great White Fleet had scored a small but important diplomatic coup.

The fleet’s Japan visit had the desired result: it generated goodwill between both countries and eased tensions that might otherwise have led to open conflict. Much of the credit goes to Sperry, whose skill as adiplomat and professionalism as an officer were crucial.

After their stop in Japan, half the fleet steamed back to Manila for a month’s gunnery practice, and the other eight ships set course for the Formosa (Taiwan) Strait and the Chinese port of Amoy (Xiamen). The Peking government was prepared to welcome sixteen battleships, but when only eight arrived, the local officials were disappointed and embarrassed. This unintended slight was due to operational requirements of the fleet.

At Amoy, a specially built entertainment center awaited the officers and enlisted men of the fleet. All food and drink was brought in from Shanghai, along with rickshaws, mandarin chairs, horses, and wagons. It was at Amoy that many of the Sailors were introduced to the oriental delicacy of shark fin soup.

Great White  Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg

Great White Fleet Journey Around the Globe.jpg

Great  White  Fleet Journey  Around the Globe.jpg

Great White  Fleet Journey Around  the Globe.jpg

Great White  Fleet  Journey Around the Globe.jpg

Great White  Fleet  Journey Around  the Globe.jpg
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