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This Day in History: The Great White Fleet

On this day in 1909, sixteen American battleships arrive at Hampton Roads, Virginia. This “Great White Fleet” of U.S. Navy vessels had just completed a circumnavigation of the globe.


Our battleships travelled 43,000 miles, making 20 port calls on six different continents.  It was the greatest peacetime display of naval power until that time. American might was on display to the world!


The naval deployment was the brainchild of none other than Theodore Roosevelt.


“For the man who made famous the phrase ‘speak softly and carry a big stick,’ maritime power was uniquely suited to safeguard the interests of the nation,” former Secretary of the Navy Donald C. Winter explained.


The Great White Fleet was an answer to many concerns.

The Great White Fleet departs Hampton Roads, Virginia.

The United States had recently acquired lands in the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, and it needed to defend those new territories overseas. Meanwhile, the Japanese had made quite a display of their own military might in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War. 


The situation seemed especially delicate because Japanese-American relations were a bit rocky. Japan and others needed to know that we could defend ourselves—and we could even travel great distances to do it.


Roosevelt knew what he had to do. The American naval fleet must be stronger—and it couldn’t be stuck in the Atlantic. He set about upgrading and expanding our Navy. Then, he would display our new battleships to the world.


The fleet of huge white battleships—the Great White Fleet—left Hampton Roads, Virginia, on December 16 accompanied by torpedo boat destroyers and other auxiliary vessels. Over the course of the next several months, the Fleet would stop in various ports, including Trinidad, Brazil, Chile, and Peru. It even made its way through the dangerous Straits of Magellan at the tip of South America.


The vessels finally arrived in San Francisco on May 7, 1908.


Americans were ecstatic! One newspaper estimated that 800,000 people gathered to watch the Fleet arrive that day. A patriotic fervor gripped the crowd. “Aren’t you glad you’re an American?” the San Francisco Call reported one girl exclaiming. “She had felt the deep thrill of patriotism,” the reporter concluded, “the same thrill that made 800,000 hearts beat faster as the fleet cut the narrow strip of water between the hills.”


A few changes were made in San Francisco. Two battleships were replaced with more fuel-efficient ones. The Fleet’s commander was replaced because he had fallen ill.

"Welcome home!": New York Herald political cartoon by William Allen Rogers. Uncle Sam, George Washington, and Theodore Roosevelt welcome the Great White Fleet home.

With these changes made, the Fleet continued its trek around the globe. Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and Egypt were just a few of the port calls made, but the Fleet would also stop in January 1909 to help the victims of an earthquake in Sicily.


The adventures of the crew during this 14-month expedition are their own story, but one interesting moment came when the Fleet got caught in a typhoon. “Something happened that you’re just not going to believe,” a sailor described. “One of the sailors on a ship in our squadron was picked up and washed overboard by a big wave. Then that same wave carried him over to another ship in another squadron and it threw him up on the deck.”


The Fleet finally returned home on February 22, 1909. The arrival coincided with George Washington’s birthday.


The voyage was a resounding success. The ships had survived the long journey without any major maintenance issues. Better yet, ideas were gained for naval improvements, and diplomatic visits had gone well.


“We just wanted to let the world know we were prepared for anything they wanted to kick up,” one sailor shrugged.


Absolutely. Just a bunch of Americans doing what Americans do.

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