The Great White Fleet Returns Home
By DAVID F. WINKLER
After the Great White Fleet’s successful visit to Japan
in October 1908, the fleet split up to enable simultaneous port calls to China and the Philippines. Eight
battleships called on the southern Chinese port of Amoy.
To accommodate the Americans, the Chinese spent
$400,000 to build a temporary “Pleasure City” outside of
city limits, with pavilions as well as baseball and football
fields for the officers and enlisted Sailors.
Unfortunately, a typhoon that delayed the Americans’
earlier arrival to Japan flattened the temporary structures, forcing the Chinese to expend another $400,000
to rebuild the reception structures. During their stay, the
Chinese treated the Americans to music, dance and
magic shows that concluded with fireworks so intense
that the bursting shells set the Pleasure City afire and
left the pavilions again in ruins.
After the fleet was reconstituted at Manila, the 16
battleships departed the Philippines on Dec. 1, 1908, to
return to Hampton Roads, Va., via the Indian Ocean,
Suez Canal, Mediterranean Sea and North Atlantic.
During a stop at Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), Thomas
Lipton, who created the Lipton Tea brand, presented
the fleet with complimentary tea.
On Dec. 28, a devastating earthquake and tidal wave
left much of the area around Messina, Sicily, in ruins.
With the Great White Fleet arriving in Egypt, Adm.
Charles S. Sperry ordered the supply ship Culgoa
westward into the Mediterranean with food and relief supplies. The supply ship Yankton followed in Culgoa’s wake
with medical supplies and surgeons from the battleships.
Once coaled, the battleships Illinois and Connecticut
also raced to Messina. There, Sailors and Marines joined
with other relief forces to help the local population.
Meanwhile, the other ships dispersed to make calls to
ports along the Mediterranean littoral waters.
Forming up at Gibraltar at the end of January, the
Great White Fleet departed on Feb. 6, 1909, for the
final leg of its journey.
The fleet returned to Hampton Roads Feb. 22,
George Washington’s birthday. Rain did not dampen
the enthusiasm of the thousands of Americans on hand
to witness the historic event.
President Theodore Roosevelt, embarked on the
presidential yacht Mayflower, waved in response to the
numerous gun salutes he received from the returning
warships as they steamed past in review. After the ships
U.S. NAVAL HISTORICAL CENTER
President Theodore Roosevelt, standing on the 12-inch gun
turret at right, addresses the crew of USS Connecticut upon
the battleship’s return Feb. 22, 1909, to Hampton Roads,
Va., from the Atlantic Fleet’s cruise around the world.
anchored, the president then visited from battleship to
One photographer captured the commander in chief
standing beside a gun mount congratulating the crew
for being part of the first battle fleet to ever circumnavigate the world. Roosevelt would declare “this was the
most important service I had rendered for peace.”
The president’s initiative to send the fleet around
the world identified deficiencies such as logistical support. To improve refueling at sea, the Navy would
switch to oil to power its ships. To sustain operations
in the Pacific, millions would be spent on facilities on
the West Coast, in Hawaii and in the Philippines.
The cruise also improved the fleet’s ability to work
in concert and demonstrated the importance of the
Navy as a tool of diplomacy. With its global trek, the
U.S. Navy demonstrated it was a force to be reckoned
with at the dawn of a new century. ■
Sources: The World Cruise of the Great White Fleet, Michael
Crawford, ed. (Naval Historical Center, 2008); Robert C. Hart,
The Great White Fleet: Its Voyage Around The World, 1907-
1909 (Little Brown and Co., 1965); Henry J. Hendrix, “The
Homecoming of the Great White Fleet” (from the Naval Historical Foundation newsletter Pull Together, winter 2008 edition).
Dr. David F. Winkler is a historian with the Naval Historical