The smoke rising from the funnels of the passing battleships hung in the air. There was no breeze in the South China Sea in mid-October of 1908 as the vessels of President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet began their run from the Philippines to Japan. By Sunday, 11 October, the fleet passed the northern end of Luzon.1 During the late afternoon dog watch one of the men serving in the bowels of the battleship Wisconsin was taking a breath of fresh air on the forecastle before descending to his station deep in the floating steel fortress to begin his watch. An old boatswain who happened to be on deck took out his pipe and made a sweeping motion toward the horizon, saying, "Boy, she is going to blow; we'll be wallowin' in a typhoon before morning."2
The fleet, comprising 16 battleships and their support vessels, could ill-afford to weather such a storm at this critical time, for tensions were high that autumn. The ships were on an unprecedented maneuver to circumnavigate the globe. The cruise of the Battle Fleet, later dubbed in the press the Great White Fleet, was to serve several purposes, the most important being simple prestige.3 In a time when a nation's world status was reflected in the size and number of its battleships, a successful global parade of the fleet would force acknowledgement of the United States' status as a world power.4 No cruise of this sort had ever been tried. Many Americans feared the venture would fail, with ships suffering catastrophic breakdowns that would reveal their hidden weaknesses.
Another reason for the cruise was to stage a show of force in the Pacific Ocean, where the Japanese sphere of influence was spreading. Only three years before, Japan had dramatically defeated Russia at the naval Battle of Tsushima Strait. President Roosevelt received the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the Russo-Japanese War. But Japan was dissatisfied with the outcome of the subsequent treaty.5 And anti-immigrant sentiments in California against the Japanese erupted into an international incident between the two countries.6 Finally, the unintended consequences of the Battle Fleet's visit to Australia in August and September damaged relations even further. Speeches and events during ceremonies there were laced with a distinctly anti-Japanese message, reflecting Australian fears.
With Japan and the United States having competing interests that increasingly conflicted, Roosevelt had believed that a show of force in the Pacific would be useful. He also realized, possibly belatedly, that it may also be dangerous.7
Odds Were . . .
Many Americans thought that taking the fleet to the Pacific would bring on war with Japan. Even on 10 October-the date of its departure from Manila for the Japanese homeland-no one knew how the force would be received.8 The U.S. Office of Naval Intelligence reported that the Japanese Navy, comprising 160 ships—including ten battleships-was at sea and "in a state of war."9 In Great Britain, the admiralty was giving Japan, its ally, five-to-four odds on what it expected would be the upcoming war.10 Germany offered to help guard the U.S. East Coast should a war draw in Great Britain on the side of Japan, and moved a detachment of the High Seas Fleet to the Azores in anticipation. The U.S. government was concerned enough to send a squadron of cruisers and torpedo boats to Samoa. At the last minute, however, they were recalled. The Germans had also dispatched a cruiser force to Samoa to coordinate with the Americans.
Now, as the Great White Fleet made its way to Japan, the deteriorating weather was adding to these concerns. Not only could it scatter the battleship fleet, but also the gleaming white hulls of the vessels would be visible long before the darker, battle-gray Japanese warships could be spotted. Repeated requests by Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry, the fleet commander, to repaint the ships had been rebuffed. Such an action could be construed as hostile, he was told, and the United States did not want to inflame the situation.11
From Newest to Oldest
The fleet was proceeding across the South China Sea in two columns, with the ships following each other at a distance of about 800 yards.12 The line stretched for more than three miles. The 16 battleships were divided into four divisions and accompanied by five smaller auxiliary vessels-but no screening cruisers or destroyers, as one would expect to find in later years. The newest-and largest ships in the fleet were those of the Connecticut class, with the Connecticut serving as the flagship. She displaced 16,000 tons-17,700 tons with a full load of ammunition and coal. Barely two years old, she was 450 feet long, 76.5 feet at the beam, and carried her largest weapons-four 12-inch guns-in two twin-gunned turrets. The smallest and oldest of the battleships, the Kearsarge and Kentucky, carried larger but outdated and less capable guns. Each mounted four 13-inchers but had a normal displacement of only 11,500 tons and was only 368 feet long.13
The auxiliaries accompanying the fleet—the refrigerator ship Glacier, supply ship Culgoa, repair ship Panther, and the hospital ship Relief—usually operated between the two columns of battleships. Normally, they were joined by the yacht Yankton, which the fleet commander used for ceremonies. However, she had been sent ahead to Yokohama to make arrangements for the fleet's arrival.14
Within two hours of the boatswain's dog-watch prediction, Ordinary Seaman Jack McSherry noted the seas were "frothing with whitecaps and the wind had stiffened to a gale." The barometers on the vessels' bridges dropped. On the Connecticut, the pressure was falling precipitously before the fleet cleared Luzon. Orders were given to stow forward ventilators and make certain all was secure. The wind had already risen to a steady 22 knots. Though none of the men knew it, the typhoon would be the worst experienced in that part of the world in more than 40 years. The weather station at Manila had to search its records back to 1867 before it could find a similar meteorological monster.15
The Fleet Scatters
By the afternoon of 12 October, the seas had grown into dark mountains of crushing water. The wind was now a constant 39 knots, and the fleet slowed to nine knots.16 Rear Admiral Seaton Schroeder—commander of the Fourth Division, consisting of the fleet's oldest and slowest ships with the least freeboard—received permission to further reduce his division's speed. He ordered it down to eight knots and then to seven. Still, the Kearsarge plunged so hard into a trough that her fore-topgallant snapped off, taking away her wireless communications and forcing her to pull out of line and tend to the damage. Even as the remainder of the Fourth Division pulled away from her, the bulk of the fleet was leaving the division behind. The fleet was being scattered before the onslaught of hostile weather and, potentially, a hostile fleet.
With the Fourth Division detached, Admiral Schroeder was given freedom of action and chose to protect his vulnerable ships. Carefully watching the wind direction and the barometer, he ordered the division to steam east-northeast at six knots. By doing so, he was able to avoid the brunt of the typhoon.17
As night approached, the sea continued to rise. On the First Division's Vermont, roaring breakers raged across the deck, smashed into the gun turrets, and melted away with an angry hiss only to reappear moments later. Ships disappeared into wave troughs so that only the tops of their masts could be seen.18 On board the Louisiana, the Third Division flagship, waves roared across the decks, crashed into the turrets, winches, and other equipment, sending seas shooting 50 or 60 feet into the air and twice deluging the chart house. There, the men scrambled to stay out of the four inches of water sloshing back and forth with each heave of the ship. On the Nebraska in the Second Division, the captain, navigator, and executive officer settled into the pilot house, where they remained for the duration of the storm.19
By morning, the ships of the Fourth Division—the Wisconsin, Illinois, Kentucky, and Kearsarge—had seemingly been swept from the earth as far as the first three divisions were concerned. The division had slowed to four knots. From Rear Admiral Schroeder's Wisconsin, only the Illinois and Kentucky could be seen, and Seaman McSherry said they "were miles away astern and both gallantly doing their best to keep formation."
The battle against the elements nevertheless continued, and soon other ships joined the Kearsarge in reporting damage. The Third Division's Virginia had left one ventilator in place to allow air to get down to the sickbay, where men ill from the storm were languishing. But the frail ventilator, no match for Neptune's rage, snapped off. A disconcerting roar arose as water poured down the opening, showering the sick men. The Virginia was forced to leave the column to stanch the flow of water. The fleet was becoming ever more scattered.20
Men Versus Sea
Against the onslaught of waves, the ships were buttoned down as best they could be.21 On board the Minnesota, trouble was spotted on the quarterdeck: A ventilator top was loose and had to be secured to avoid flooding below. The dangerous duty had to be completed quickly, between rolls of the ship as she slipped between frothy mountains and valleys in the sea. The four Sailors who drew the assignment included Ordinary Seaman Tom Gladden; one of the ship's football players, a man known as "Foggy"; and Jack McSherry. When the deck was momentarily clear of the waves, the four men charged onto it and secured the ventilator. After they completed their work, they ran for the hatch and safety. At that moment, a wave cascaded over the lifelines on the starboard side and barreled across the wooden deck. Knocking Gladden off his feet, the torrent pushed him through the gap between the 12-inch turret and the superstructure, over the port lifelines, and into the sea.
The Minnesota's crewmen worked quickly to save their mate. "Man overboard" was immediately passed to the bridge over the voice tube, and the man-overboard pennant shot up to the yardarm. "Foggy," thinking quickly and acting in complete disregard for his own safety, ran out on deck after Gladden and managed to cast him a life preserver in an impressive display of his passing ability.22
Following the Minnesota in line was the Vermont. As Gladden passed astern of the Minnesota, clearing her screws, Sailors in the Vermont sprang into action. The ship was smartly maneuvered to create a lee area to ease rescue efforts. Crewmen tossed lines to Gladden, and he managed to grab one cast by Chief Boatswain's Mate James Sullivan. The wet seaman was pulled on board, McSherry noted, "cool and unruffled as if he were simply emerging from a pleasure plunge." Gladden merely commented that while in the sea he "felt a long way from home, but sure that some of the ships would get me."23
Not So Fortunate
Elsewhere in the fleet, similar events were transpiring. On board the Illinois, another man went overboard. Because the Fourth Division had skirted the storm, both the Illinois and the Kentucky, the next vessel astern, managed to launch boats. The Sailor was soon pulled into one of the Kentucky boats.24
Gunner's Mate William Fuller of the Second Division's Rhode Island was not so fortunate. He and Seaman N. Bjorenson had been sent out on the ship's foredeck to secure gun racks when the ship rolled and a huge wave engulfed them.25 Bjorenson managed to catch himself in the safety netting and was hauled back on board. Fuller, however, was washed clear of the ship. His shipmates manned a whaleboat, but before it could be launched Captain Joseph B. Murdock made a decision that likely returned to haunt him. He ordered the boat not to be launched. Given the situation, he felt the need to explain to the waiting crewmen that "I would rather lose one man than six or eight." Fuller could be seen in the water 50 to 75 feet away from the Rhode Island, which was much farther into the storm than the lllinois and Kentucky. One witness reported that he raised his hand and appeared to yell, "So long, fellas." Unfortunately, the Rhode Island was the last ship in its line, and Fuller was lost to the storm.26
Conditions on the ships made the time pass slowly, as many Sailors feared they, too, would become victims to the storm. Seaman Howard Voit of the First Division's Kansas expressed the concerns that many crewmen had during the storm: "I was trying to sleep in my hammock when a monstrous wave caught our ship and she seemed to stand on end. I thought for a few seconds that the old girl was doomed. I thought if another wave hit her just right, she would roll over. But she fooled us." The story was played out again and again throughout the fleet. On board the Third Division's Missouri, even the men on watch high up on the open bridge were continually covered with cold sea spray. The storm had forced the First Division virtually to heave to and, in Midshipman Caswell Saufley's words, the ships "wallowed like a herd of swine."27
In the Wisconsin, the Sailor who had heard the boatswain's storm warning the day before was having the ride of his life. His station was in the steering engine room, all the way aft and below at the rudder mechanism. There, the motion of the lurching vessel would have been particularly accentuated. In addition, the propeller shafts passed close by his station, adding to the noise and disconcerting situation. If the ship foundered, he had no chance of escape. As the Wisconsin repeatedly breached waves and slid down into the troughs, the stern flew out of the water, and the propellers and shafts would run free, without the resistance of the water, spinning like the wheels of a locomotive charging downhill. He would forever remember the roar of the propeller shafts and feel his "inwards sagging this way and that."
No Pleasure Cruise
For those few men who had retained their appetites in the plunging ships, meals were a challenge. Dinner generally consisted of coffee poured from pots slung on straps from the overhead. Beans were served in bowls. However, with the ship's ventilators secured, the linoleum decks had become slippery from condensation. The air in the ships had become thick and heavy from the breath of hundreds of men and water that had found its way in. The conditions were steamy and nauseating. Those who tried to take their dinner had to learn to skate and slide to and fro on the heaving, slippery deck.28
Ahead of the fleet, on board the tiny Yankton, the storm seemed even more frightening. The yacht, 185-feet long and displacing only 975 tons, was a mere toy on the raging waves.29 Operating under the full power of her small engine, she made only four knots. According to one Sailor, those on board feared that the vessel's "staunch timbers . . . would give way or that the engines would be jarred out of gear," leaving her helpless to the forces of the storm.30
Finally, on the afternoon of 13 October, the storm's fury began to abate. Admiral Sperry's concerns again turned to the Japanese fleet. He had to gather his scattered fleet, assess damage, and prepare for possible action without giving the appearance of hostile intentions.
In the maelstrom, many of the ships had sustained damage. In addition to the Kearsarge's lost foremast and wireless antenna, the Wisconsin, Illinois, New Jersey, and Virginia had their whaleboats smashed and washed way. The Virginia also suffered flooding from her destroyed ventilator. Railings were twisted and broken, portholes shattered, and wireless aerials destroyed.31
While the fleet had gotten off relatively easy, the storm's wrath was felt elsewhere. After killing some 800 people in northern Luzon, the powerful typhoon continued toward Amoy, China, where it killed an estimated 2,700 people.32 It also flattened the temporary city near Amoy that was being built in anticipation of the American fleet's visit. Embarrassed when it learned that only eight of the fleet's 16 battleships would be visiting, the Chinese imperial court newspaper, in a move prompted by internal politics, stated that this was because only the eight survived the typhoon, a believable lie given the force of the storm.33
As crews on the damaged vessels started their repairs, the fleet began to reassemble, and Tokyo was notified that the battleships' arrival would be delayed by 24 hours.34 The Fourth Division, which had skirted the worst of the storm, took two days to rendezvous with the remainder of the fleet; the Kearsarge joined the other ships only a few hours before their arrival off Yokohama.35 After having left the Philippines before the remainder of the squadron, the Yankton did not arrive until three days after the rest of the fleet. She had been feared lost.36
As the American fleet approached Japan, a line of Japanese warships came into view. Instead of being bent on the destruction of the battleships, the Japanese cruisers Soya, Mogami, and Tatsuta escorted them to Yokohama. The visit was a series of celebrations with political undertones but without a hint of the previously expected hostilities. Many American naval officers and government officials breathed a sigh of relief, while American newspapers played up the success and friendliness of the visit.37
As it turned out, the Great White Fleet's battle was against the Typhoon of '08, not against the Japanese. The Fleet had survived the greatest storm in years. The Minnesota's Jack McSherry, one of the young men who had gone out on the ship's forecastle during the storm, went on to serve for three and half decades in the Navy and Naval Reserve. Looking back on his years at sea and the many storms he weathered, he commented "We have seen lots of storms at sea, but that typhoon that hit us when we were on our way from Manila to Yokohama . . . in 1908, still stands out as the worse [sic] one that we ever ran into."38
2. Jack L. McSherry. Things We Remember (Harrisburg, PA: Jack McSherry, 1966), p. 93 from an undated and untitled article in the Kansas City Star.
3. Robert A. Hart. The Great White Fleet: Its Voyage Around the World, 1907-1909 (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 1965), p. viii.
4. Antony Preston. Battleships of World War I: An Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Battleships of All Nations, 1914-1918 (New York: Galahad Books, 1972), p. 7; John D. Alden. The American Steel Navy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1972), p. 334.
5. Edmund Morris. Theodore Rex (New York: Random House, 2001) p. 416; Hart, p. 31.
6. Brayton Harris. The Age of the Battleship, 1890-1922 (New York: Franklin Watts Inc., 1965), p. 117.
7. Hart, The Great White Fleet, pp. 24, 32-33, 197.
8. Roman J. Miller. Around the World with the Battleships (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1909), p. 180.
9. Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 215.
10. Kenneth J. Hagan. The People's Navy—The Making of American Sea Power (New York: The Free Press, 1991), p. 235; Hart, p. 32.
11. Hart, The Great White Fleet, pp. 125-126, 208-209, 214, 217.
12. "Fleet Tossed About in a Storm," Colorado Springs Gazette, 17 October 1908, p. 9.
13. Norman Friedman. U.S. Battleships: An Illustrated Design History (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985, p. 38; and Robert D. Jones. With the American Fleet From the Atlantic to the Pacific (Seattle: Harrison Publishing Co., 1908), pp. 115, 187, and 192.
14. Hart, The Great White Fleet, pp. 51, 176-177; Franklin Matthews. With the Battle Fleet (New York: B. W. Huebsch, 1908), pp. 21, 57; "Beset by Another Typhoon," Nebraska State Journal, 9 October 1908, p. 2.
15. McSherry, Things We Remember, pp. 91, 93; Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 217; Matthews, Back to Hampton Roads, pp. 175-176.
16. Seaton Schroeder. A Half Century of Naval Service (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1922), p. 356; Matthews, Back to Hampton Roads, p. 176.
17. Schroeder, A Half Century of Naval Service, p. 357.
18. Roman J. Miller, Around the World with the Battleships (Chicago: A. C. McClurg & Co., 1909), p. 181.
19. Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 172; Matthews, Back to Hampton Roads, p. 177; Robert E. Coontz. From the Mississippi to the Sea (Philadelphia: Dorrance & Company, Inc., 1930), p. 287.
20. Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 173; Matthews, Back to Hampton Roads, p. 178.
21. Samuel Carter III. The Incredible Great White Fleet (New York: Crowell-Collier Press, 1971), p. 112.
22. Jones, With the American Fleet, pp. 157-58; McSherry, Things We Remember, pp. 91-92.
23. Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 218; Miller, Around the World, p. 184; McSherry, Things We Remember, p. 91; Jones, p. 129.
24. Schroeder, A Half Century of Naval Service, p. 359.
25. Jones, With the American Fleet, p. 146.
26. Carter, The Incredible Great White Fleet, p. 112; James R. Reckner. Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1988), p. 112.
27. Carter, The Incredible Great White Fleet, p. 112; Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 172; Reckner, Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet, p. 112.
28. McSherry, Things We Remember, p. 94; Matthews, Back to Hampton Roads, p. 178.
29. James L. Mooney. Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships, Vol. VIII, (Washington, DC: Naval Historical Center, 1981), p. 514.
30. "Cruise of Yankton," Nevada State Journal, 19 February 1909, p. 4.
31. McSherry, Things We Remember, p. 94; Miller, Around the World, p. 182; "American Fleet Delayed by Storm," New York Times, 17 October 1908, p. 1; Carter, The Incredible Great White Fleet, pp. 112-113; Matthews, Back to Hampton Roads, p. 178.
32. "Eight Hundred Flood Victims," Fitchburg [Massachusetts] Daily Sentinel, 28 October 1908, p. 16; Hart, The Great White Fleet, p. 247; "2,700 Dead in Typhoon," New York Times, 21 October 1908, p.1.
33. Hart, The Great White Fleet, pp. 248-249.
34. "American Fleet Delayed by Storm," New York Times, 17 October 1908, p. 1
35. "Tokio Welcomes Admiral Sperry," New York Times, 19 October 1908, p. 1
36. "Cruise of Yankton," Nevada State Journal, 19 February 1909, p. 4.
37. Carter, pp. 113-114.
38. McSherry, Things We Remember, p. 91.