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Great White Fleet (16 Dec 1907 - 22 Feb 1909)

The "Great White Fleet" sent around the world by President Theodore Roosevelt from 16 December 1907 to 22 February 1909 consisted of sixteen new battleships of the Atlantic Fleet. The fourteen-month long voyage was a grand pageant of American sea power. The squadrons were manned by 14,000 sailors. They covered some 43,000 miles and made twenty port calls on six continents. The battleships were painted white, except for gilded scrollwork on their bows. The Atlantic Fleet battleships only later came to be known as the "Great White Fleet." At the outbreak of the Spanish-American War in 1898 the US Navy had painted all of its ships gray and did not return to the white and spar colors until after the conclusion of hostilities.

The battleships were accompanied during the first leg of their voyage by a "Torpedo Flotilla" of six early destroyers, as well as by several auxiliary ships. The destroyers and their tender did not actually steam in company with the battleships, but followed their own itinerary from Hampton Roads to San Francisco. Two battleships were detached from the fleet at San Francisco, and two others substituted.

With the USS Connecticut as flagship under the command of Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans, the fleet sailed from Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 16 December 1907 for Trinidad, British West Indies, thence to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil; Sandy Point, Chile; Callao, Peru; Magdalena Bay, Mexico, and up the west coast, arriving at San Francisco, 6 May 1908. After the arrival of the fleet off the west coast, the USS Glacier was detached and later became the supply ship of the Pacific Fleet. At this time also, the USS Nebraska, Captain Reginald F. Nicholson, and the USS Wisconsin, Captain Frank E. Beatty, were substituted for the USS Maine and USS Alabama.

At San Francisco, Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry assumed command of the Fleet, owing to the poor health of Admiral Evans. Leaving that port on 7 July, 1908, the U.S. Atlantic Fleet visited Honolulu, Hawaii; Auckland, New Zealand; Sydney, Melbourne and Albany, Australia; Manila, Philippine Islands; Yokohama, Japan; Colombo, Ceylon; arriving at Suez, Egypt, on 3 January 1909.

In Egypt, word was received of an earthquake in Sicily, thus affording an opportunity for the United States to show it's friendship to Italy by offering aid to the sufferers. The Connecticut, Illinois, Culgoa and Yankton were dispatched to Messina at once. The crew of the Illinois recovered the bodies of the American consul and his wife, entombed in the ruins. The Scorpion, the Fleet's station ship at Constantinople, and the Celtic, a refrigerator ship fitted out in New York, were hurried to Messina, relieving the Connecticut and Illinois, so that they could continue on the cruise. Leaving Messina on 9 January 1909, the Fleet stopped at Naples, Italy, thence to Gibraltar, arriving at Hampton Roads, Virginia, on 22 February 1909. There President Roosevelt reviewed the Fleet as it passed into the roadstead.

In 1898, with victory over Spain at the end of the Spanish-American War, the United States entered the mainstream of international affairs as a world power, acquiring as possessions the Philippines and Guam in the Pacific, then Puerto Rico in the Caribbean. This war was in some sense a defensive war. Spain was fighting a losing battle against independence movements in Cuba and the Phillipines, and by the last years of the 19th Century was on the verge of losing grip of its overseas empire. Absent American seizure of these possesions, there was every chance that Japan could have picked up the Phillipines, while Germany was eager for new possessions in the New World, having lost the Scramble for Africa.

From the 1890s there was an appreciation in Britain that the world order, under which there had been unprecedented economic growth, could no longer be sustained by British seapower alone. The last significant foreign-policy dispute between the United States and Britain occurred in 1895 over an American demand that Britain submit to international arbitration its dispute with Venezuela about the western boundary of British Guiana, near which gold had been discovered. Secretary of State, Richard Olney accused Britain in 1895 of violating the Monroe Doctrine by attempting to appropriate lands claimed by Venezuela in a gold-producing area bordering British Guiana. The territorial dispute was settled by arbitration. Because neither the United States nor Britain wanted trouble, the dispute was resolved amicably. Despite the jingoism triggered by the Second Venezuelan Crisis of 1902, there was a degree of rapprochement between the United States and the United Kingdom over the decade up to 1904, and this was perhaps a factor in decisions, taken on wider grounds, by which strategically Britain was to abandon the Western Hemisphere. The British Empire faced rising challenges from Germany and Russia, in addition to traditional tensions with France and the United States. Britain concluded therefore to resolve its outstanding disputes with the United States, meeting American demands that it explicitly accept the Monroe Doctrine; submiting British Guiana's border dispute with Venezuela to international arbitration; and agreeing to US construction, operation, and fortification of an inter-oceanic canal through Central America.

As Germany continued its naval buildup, the British were increasingly focused on home waters, rather than distant dominions. Admiral Sir John Fisher began redistributing the fleet late in 1904. The Anglo-Japanese treaty of 1905 enabled the British to call back most of their naval forces from Asia and concentrate them in home waters. The Pacific, South Atlantic, and North American squadrons were completely withdrawn, while the Australian, Chinese and East Indian squadrons were unified into a single Eastern Fleet at Singapore. With the ships made available, and new construction, two new fleets were created: the Atlantic Fleet (at first stationed at Gibraltar, where it could support either fleets in the home islands or in the Mediterranean), and the Home Fleet was resurrected in 1906, to reinforce the Channel Fleet. [some of these innovatations were not completed until 1912 by Winston Churchill].

As the British concentrated the warships of the Grand Fleet against Germany, so too Germany concentrated against the High Seas Fleet against Britain. The possibilities of Germany adventures in the New World were greatly diminished, as were the needs for American naval forces to guard against such possibilities. At the same time, the withdrawal of the British Empire from the Pacific, and the growth of the Imperial Japanese Navy, now made the ever-expanding Japanese Empire the presumptive hegemon of the Western Pacific.

By the end of 1905, the United States Navy, focused for a decade on the German threat in the Atlantic, now faced a Japanese threat in the Pacific.

The idea of sending the new battle fleet around the world was the brainchild of the energetic "Teddy" Roosevelt, former colonel of the Rough Riders and one-time assistant secretary of the Navy. Assuming the presidency after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt brought to the White House a deep conviction that only through a strong navy could a nation project its power and prestige abroad. From 1904 to 1907, American shipyards turned out 11 new battleships to give the Navy awesome battle capabilities.

In 1906, hostilities with Japan seemed possible; the Japanese navy dominated the Pacific and posed a potential threat to the Philippines. America's problems with Japan arose shortly after Roosevelt mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1906, ending the Russo-Japanese War. In that conflict the Russian fleet had been annihilated by the Japanese. But despite their triumphs over the Russians on the high seas, the Japanese failed to get all they felt they deserved at the peace table and blamed Roosevelt for it. In the same year, anti-Japanese feelings were sweeping California. The San Francisco Board of Education ordered the segregation of all immigrant and descendent Japanese school children.

The Philippine Islands, some 7,000 in number, formed a natural barrier between Japan and the rich resources of east and southeast Asia. Capture of the Philippine Islands was crucial to Japan's effort to control the Southwest Pacific, seize the resource-rich Dutch East Indies, and protect its Southeast Asia flank. In October 1907 Roosevelt ordered a defense study of the Philippines, which eventually shifted the main focus of American naval defense in the Pacific from Subic Bay eastwards to seemingly more secure Pearl Harbor. The US military had reluctantly concluded that the Philippines must be sacrificed if the Japanese attacked.

Most of the American battle fleet was concentrated in the Atlantic, and there were only a handful of armored cruisers on duty in the Pacific. In the event of war with Japan, this small contingent that made up the Asiatic Battle Fleet would have to abandon the Philippines for West Coast ports until the United States had strength enough to go on the offensive.

Among other moves to regain lost ground, and restore a parity in the diplomatic relations of the two governments, the American fleet was ordered to proceed to the Pacific Ocean. Moving the fleet from the Atlantic around Cape Horn to San Francisco was done at the recommendation of Adm. George Dewey.

The Atlantic battleship fleet had been assembled in Hampton Roads in connection with the Jamestown Exposition during early June 1907. On 27 June 1907 Roosevelt decided to transfer the American battleship fleet to the Pacific. Shortly thereafter there were reports that the fleet would visit the West Coast (via Magellan Strait). The rumors were confirmed on 23 August 1907 Secretary Loeb when he announced that the fleet would start for San Francisco in December 1907. The timing of the announcement of the world tour, is unclear, with some accounts claiming the news was intercepted as soon as the fleet departed Hampton Roads, while other contend it was not until after the fleet had reached San Francisco.

Once the plans for the cruise became public, not everyone was impressed. Some critics were worried that the Atlantic naval defenses would be weakened by taking away so many ships. Senator Eugene Hale from Maine, chairman of the Naval Appropriations Committee, threatened to withhold money for the cruise. But this didn't bother Roosevelt, who replied in his typically brusque and forthright fashion that he already had the money and dared Congress to "try and get it back."

Though other small squadrons of warships from other countries had previously circumnavigated the globe, the Great White Fleet was the first attempt with an entire battle fleet. The journey of the Russian fleet to the Sea of Japan was comparable, but their devastating defeat by the Japanese Navy was at least partially a result of the problems encountered during and caused by the Rusisan's long journey from the Baltic to the Pacific. Roosevelt was sending a message to the Japanese: unlike the Russians in 1905, the US battle fleet could be transferred intact as a fighting force from its concentration in the Atlantic to the Pacific, if the need arose. Roosevelt knew the the Japanese (and British and Germans) did not believe this to be possible. The President wanted to find out what condition the fleet would be in after such a transit. As he stated before the fleet's departure, "I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not in time of war."

The acceptance by Japan and the world of the fact that the fleet actually was to be moved, and its successful voyage, entirely changed the situation. Japanese statesmen believed that the American fleet's visit to the Pacific marked the beginning of a new era in Asiatic affairs. They would have preferred for the whole American navy to stay in the Atlantic, but they accepted the new condition with the best grace possible. They realized that when the American fleet rounded the Horn it completely altered the balance of power in the East.

On 22 February 1909 - Washington's Birthday - the Great White Fleet steamed home at last, to be welcomed at Hampton Roads by T. R. in the presidential yacht.

In 1907 the Revenue Marine [United States Coast Guard before 1915] adopted the same paint standard as the Great White Fleet of the US Navy. Almost the same white and spar paint scheme is still in use by the modern US Coast Guard. The US Coast Guard has also painted its ships gray during World War I, World War II and other times of hostilities.

Great White Fleet, Ltd. (GWF), the shipping arm of Chiquita Brands, operates a container liner service between North America and ports in Central America. GWF can accommodate both reefer and dry cargoes as well as RoRo and vehicles. As one of the largest carriers to Central America, GWF offers strategically located ports, a reliable sailing schedule, state-of-the art container ships, the ability to handle both dry and refrigerated containerized cargo, integrated trucking and ocean services, and knowledgeable staff who create customized solutions for shipping needs. The Great White Fleet name can be traced back to 1907, when President Teddy Roosevelt sent a fleet of warships on a worldwide tour. These ships were painted white instead of the now customary gray, and became known as the Great White Fleet. At the same time, the United Fruit Company also painted the ships white to reflect the tropical sunlight and allow banana temperatures to be more easily maintained. As the United Fruit Company fleet of big, fast, white-painted reefer vessels grew, they too became known as the Great White Fleet.




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