Circling the Globe: The Voyage of the Great White Fleet

Great White Fleet leave the United States
Great Fleet Fleet departs Hampton Roads, December 1907. Photograph Courtesy of the US Naval History & Heritage Command

A Rising Power

In the years after its triumph in the Spanish-American War, the United States quickly grew in power and prestige on the world stage. A newly established imperial power with possessions that included Guam, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, it was felt that the United States needed to substantially increase its naval power to retain its new global status. Led by the energy of President Theodore Roosevelt, the US Navy built eleven new battleships between 1904 and 1907.

While this construction program greatly grew the fleet, the combat effectiveness of many of the ships was jeopardized in 1906 with the arrival of the all-big gun HMS Dreadnought. Despite this development, the expansion of naval strength was fortuitous as Japan, recently triumphant in the Russo-Japanese War after victories at Tsushima and Port Arthur, presented a growing threat in the Pacific.

Concerns with Japan

Relations with Japan were further stressed in 1906, by a series of laws which discriminated against Japanese immigrants in California. Touching off anti-American riots in Japan, these laws were ultimately repealed at Roosevelt's insistence. While this aided in calming the situation, relations remained strained and Roosevelt became concerned about the US Navy's lack of strength in the Pacific. To impress upon the Japanese that the United States could shift its main battle fleet to the Pacific with ease, he began devising a world cruise of the nation's battleships.

Roosevelt had effectively utilized naval demonstrations for political purposes in the past as earlier that year he had deployed eight battleships to the Mediterranean to make a statement during the Franco-German Algeciras Conference.

Support at Home

In addition to sending a message to the Japanese, Roosevelt wished to provide the American public with a clear understanding that the nation was prepared for a war at sea and sought to secure support for the construction of additional warships.

From an operational standpoint, Roosevelt and naval leaders were eager to learn about the endurance of American battleships and how they would stand up during long voyages. Initially announcing that the fleet would be moving to the West Coast for training exercises, the battleships gathered at Hampton Roads in late 1907 to take part in the Jamestown Exposition.

Preparations

Planning for the proposed voyage required a full assessment of the US Navy's facilities on the West Coast as well as across the Pacific. The former were of particular importance as it was expected the fleet would require a full refit and overhaul after steaming around South America (the Panama Canal was not yet open). Concerns immediately arose that the only navy yard capable of servicing the fleet was at Bremerton, WA as the main channel into San Francisco's Mare Island Navy Yard was too shallow for battleships. This necessitated the re-opening of a civilian yard on Hunter's Point in San Francisco.

The US Navy also found that arrangements were needed to ensure that the fleet could be refueled during the voyage. Lacking a global network of coaling stations, provisions were made to have colliers meet the fleet at prearranged locations to permit refueling.

Difficulties soon arose in contracting sufficient American-flagged ships and awkwardly, especially given the point of the cruise, the majority of the colliers employed were of British registry.

Around the World

Sailing under command of Rear Admiral Robley Evans, the fleet consisted of the battleships USS Kearsarge, USS Alabama, USS Illinois, USS Rhode Island , USS Maine, USS Missouri, USS Ohio, USS Virginia, USS Georgia, USS New Jersey, USS Louisiana, USS Connecticut, USS Kentucky, USS Vermont, USS Kansas, and USS Minnesota. These were supported by a Torpedo Flotilla of seven destroyers and five fleet auxiliaries. Departing the Chesapeake on December 16, 1907, the fleet steamed past the presidential yacht Mayflower as they left Hampton Roads.

Flying his flag from Connecticut, Evans announced that the fleet would be returning home via the Pacific and circumnavigating the globe.

While it is unclear whether this information was leaked from the fleet or became public after the ships' arrival on the West Coast, it was not met with universal approval. While some were concerned that the nation's Atlantic naval defenses would be weakened by the fleet's prolonged absence, others were concerned about the cost. Senator Eugene Hale, the chairman of the Senate Naval Appropriation Committee, threatened to cut the fleet's funding.

To the Pacific

Responding in typical fashion, Roosevelt replied that he already had the money and dared Congressional leaders to "try and get it back." While the leaders wrangled in Washington, Evans and his fleet continued with their voyage. On December 23, 1907, they made their first port call at Trinidad before pressing on to Rio de Janeiro. En route, the men conducted the usual "Crossing the Line" ceremonies to initiate those sailors who had never crossed the Equator. Arriving in Rio on January 12, 1908, the port call proved eventful as Evans suffered an attack of gout and several sailors became involved in a bar fight.

Departing Rio, Evans steered for the Straits of Magellan and the Pacific. Entering the straits, the ships made a brief call at Punta Arenas before transiting the dangerous passage without incident. Reaching Callao, Peru on February 20, the men enjoyed a nine-day celebration in honor of George Washington's birthday. Moving on, the fleet paused for one month at Magdalena Bay, Baja California for gunnery practice. With this complete, Evans moved up the West Coast making stops at San Diego, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Monterey, and San Francisco.

Across the Pacific

While in port at San Francisco, Evans' health continued to worsen and command of the fleet passed to Rear Admiral Charles Sperry. While the men were treated as royalty in San Francisco, some elements of the fleet traveled north to Washington, before the fleet reassembled on July 7. Before departing, Maine and Alabama were replaced by USS Nebraska and USS Wisconsin due to their high fuel consumption. In addition, the Torpedo Flotilla was detached. Steaming into the Pacific, Sperry took the fleet to Honolulu for a six-day stop before proceeding on to Auckland, New Zealand.

Entering port on August 9, the men were regaled with parties and warmly received. Pushing on to Australia, the fleet made stops at Sydney and Melbourne and was met with great acclaim. Steaming north, Sperry reached Manila on October 2, however liberty was not granted due to a cholera epidemic. Departing for Japan eight days later, the fleet endured a severe typhoon off Formosa before reaching Yokohama on October 18. Due to the diplomatic situation, Sperry limited liberty to those sailors with exemplary records with the goal of preventing any incidents.

Greeted with exceptional hospitality, Sperry and his officers were housed at the Emperor's Palace and the famed Imperial Hotel. In port for a week, the men of the fleet were treated to constant parties and celebrations, including one hosted by famed Admiral Togo Heihachiro. During the visit, no incidents occurred and the goal of bolstering good will between the two nations was achieved.

The Voyage Home

Dividing his fleet in two, Sperry departed Yokohama on October 25, with half heading for a visit to Amoy, China and the other to the Philippines for gunnery practice. After a brief call in Amoy, the detached ships sailed for Manila where they rejoined the fleet for maneuvers. Preparing to head for home, the Great White Fleet departed Manila on December 1 and made a week-long stop at Colombo, Ceylon before reaching the Suez Canal on January 3, 1909. While coaling at Port Said, Sperry was alerted to a severe earthquake at Messina, Sicily. Dispatching Connecticut and Illinois to provide aid, the rest of the fleet divided to make calls around the Mediterranean.

Regrouping on February 6, Sperry made final port call at Gibraltar before entering the Atlantic and setting a course for Hampton Roads. Reaching home on February 22, the fleet was met by Roosevelt aboard Mayflower and cheering crowds ashore. Lasting fourteen months, the cruise aided in the conclusion of the Root-Takahira Agreement between the United States and Japan and demonstrated that modern battleships were capable of long journeys without significant mechanical breakdowns. In addition, the voyage led to several changes in ship design including the elimination of guns near the waterline, the removal of old-style fighting tops, as well as improvements to ventilation systems and crew housing.

Operationally, the voyage provided thorough sea training for both the officers and men and led to improvements in coal economy, formation steaming, and gunnery. As a final recommendation, Sperry suggested that the US Navy change the color of its ships from white to gray. While this had been advocated for some time, it was put into effect after the fleet's return.