Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Great White Fleet in Hawaii

As I write this, I’ve just returned from Honolulu, Hawaii, there for the U. S. Navy’s celebration of the 1908 visit to Hawaii of the Great White Fleet. Coming in the wake of the tremendous Great White Fleet celebration in Seattle, Washington, it was an inspiring event. Admiral Robert Willard, Commander U.S. Pacific Fleet, and Rear Admiral Tim Alexander, Commander Naval Group Hawaii and Commander Naval Surface Group Mid Pacific were our hosts for this gala occasion and Secretary of the Navy Don Winter was our honored guest and speaker.

For me, it is always a very enjoyable undertaking to bring TR to life for an appreciative audience. To perform as Theodore Roosevelt for the men and women of the United States Navy and for their families is an honor, a privilege and an inspiration to be my best.

In 1907, two naval officers were sent to Sagamore Hill to brief President Roosevelt on contingency plans for the use of the Navy in case of war with Japan. The officers detailed a war plan where all of America’s Atlantic battleships would muster at Hampton Roads, Virginia, navigate the Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America, and join with supporting ships at San Francisco and then off to Hawaii and an eventual attack against Japan.

Historian James Reckner, author of Teddy Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet, records that the officers were dumbfounded when TR embraced the plan and told the officers that he wanted them to carry out the plan as a training exercise soon as possible. In time, TR added that the fleet would continue to circumnavigate the world through the Indian Ocean, the Suez Canal, the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean to set the world on notice that the United States had arrived and was staking its claim to being a great naval power.

“With how many ships?” Reckner recounts the officers responding.

“With all of them!” says TR. “If there are fourteen battle ships ready, send fourteen; if sixteen are ready send sixteen!”

The Navy, the War Department and the Congress were also taken aback by Roosevelt’s orders. Some in Washington, D.C. officialdom thought that the plan would put our sailors and ships at great risk. Some in Congress were opposed to the cost, others simply opposed TR for being TR. Informed that Congressional opponents threatened to limit appropriations for the fleet, TR countered he had enough in the budget to send the fleet around to the Pacific. It would be up to Congress to supply the additional appropriations to bring them back. Obviously, Congressmen and Senators from the eastern seaboard were anxious to make sure the Atlantic fleet made it safely back to their home ports.

By all accounts, the voyage of the Great White Fleet was a resounding success. TR considered it the most important action he undertook for the promotion and preservation of peace. Steeped in the Washingtonian maxim that to prepare for war was the most effectual means of preserving peace, the voyage of the Great White Fleet was a fitting capstone to a public life devoted to a strong Navy.

As an undergraduate at Harvard, TR began work on what was to become his first book, A Naval History of the War of 1812. Published after his graduation from Harvard, the finished work was hailed on both sides of the Atlantic and included in the curriculums of both the US Naval Academy and the Royal Naval College. At nearly the same time, TR was encouraging his uncle, James Dunwoody Bulloch, to commit to writing the story only Bulloch could, The Secret Service of the Confederate States in Europe, the tale of how the Confederate Navy was built, in great part, in Liverpool, England, under Bulloch’s direction.

As Undersecretary of the US Navy in 1897 and 1898, Theodore Roosevelt did as much as any man to get the US Navy into fighting shape for the war with Spain. Famous are the stories of TR, serving as acting secretary when Secretary Long was away from the office, telegramming naval commanders around the globe to get them ready to fight.

As President, TR did more than any of his predecessors to build up a strong, modern, world class Navy. The tonnage added was exceeded in importance only by the higher degree of performance and professionalism that TR inspired through the ranks of Naval officers and seamen. Plagued by decades of poor leadership, a tradition of desertions and really poor conditions for the mass of sailors, the Navy needed to be put right, and TR was the man to do so.

In our Seattle celebration of the Great White Fleet, our co-sponsor was the United States Navy League, founded in 1902 with the purpose of building and sustaining popular support for the United States Navy and her personnel. Would you be surprised to learn that TR was a driving force behind the Navy League?

For decades after his death in 1919, Navy Day was celebrated on TR’s birthday, October 27. (In 1949, Armed Forces Day, the third Saturday in May, was established to unify separate celebrations for individual branches of the U.S. military.) Still today, the mention of Theodore Roosevelt brings a welling up of good feeling in the hearts of the men and women of the United States Navy and the United Sates Navy League.

Yesterday, Friday, July 18th, we joined together to celebrate the centennial of the Hawaii visit of the Great White Fleet. We did so on board and alongside the U.S.S. Missouri memorial, a most fitting location. The original U.S.S. Missouri (BB-11) was a Connecticut class battleship and one of the sixteen that made the journey around the world. By World War II, BB-11 had been scrapped and was replaced by her namesake, an Iowa class, laid down in 1941 and launched in 1944. The U.S.S. Missouri (BB-63) saw duty at Okinawa and Iwo Jima. On September 2, 1945, General Douglass MacArthur, on behalf of the United States, accepted the unconditional surrender of the Japanes Imperial government on the starboard deck of “Mighty Mo” in Tokyo Harbor. A giant coin marks the spot on the deck. In Korea, Mighty Mo’s big guns hurled 1,800 pound ordinance over 23 miles in defense of American and allied ground forces. The memorial is at Pearl Harbor and gives testimony to bravery and sacrifice of the U.S. Navy there on December 7, 1941. The Missouri stands resolute, saluting the U.S.S. Arizona Memorial just of the bow.

So, despite TR’s gun boat diplomacy, despite his having shown Japan that we could do in peace time what we would be ready to do in wartime, we were eventually attacked by Imperial Japan and her mighty Navy and naval air force. By the time 1941 had come about, the United States had allowed its military preparedness to slip drastically. The good will born of TR’s efforts, of his Portsmouth Treaty of 1905 which ended the Russo-Japanese War with terms extremely favorable to Japan, was of little deterrent to Japan’s aggression. The visit of the U.S. fleet was perhaps long forgotten or little known by the young Japanese pilots who attacked on that early December morning.

Still, TR demanded, through the sailing of the Great White Fleet, that the world, and especially Japan, acknowledge that the Pacific was as much an American Ocean as was the Atlantic and that America would protect her interests there with as much dedication, resoluteness and courage as it advanced its interests in the ocean that lay between Boston and Britain.

It’s hard to summarize here how good it felt to be a part of the celebration, how inspired I felt as I brought T.R. to life beneath the mighty cannon on the foredeck. Earlier in the day, I had a chance to tour the U.S.S. Crommelin (FFG-37), Commander Kevin J. Parker, and to meet the sailors on board. Each and every one of those men are happy in their work and resolute to serve with the highest capacity. As dusk approached on the Missouri, the Crommelin and the U.S.S. Chafee (DDG 90), passed in review, salutes were exchanged and four F-18s from the carrier Kitty Hawk (CV 63) flew over from starboard to port, their diamond formation adding a capping jewel to a ceremony that started with a rainbow bursting forth from the afternoon showers. We could not have asked for a more beautiful day or a more moving tribute to the world’s greatest navy and her sailors.

Secretary Winter was in Hawaii in conjunction with the Pacific Fleet’s participation in Rim Pac or Rim of the Pacific joint Naval Maneuvers. Military forces from Australia, Canada, Chile, Japan, Netherlands, Peru, Republic of Korea, Singapore, the United Kingdom join the United States Third Fleet and the U.S. Air Force and Marine Corps in joint training maneuvers that are surely in the cooperative spirit of the Great White Fleet. Vice-Admiral Samuel Locklear, Commander of the Third Fleet, took some time to join us at the celebration, as did guests from each of the participating nations.

Back home in Illinois, I’m amazed at what the men and women of the United States Navy are doing so that you and I might be free and live in peace. To each and every sailor and marine, to every airman and soldier, we owe a deep and unquenchable debt of gratitude. Go, Navy!

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