(1800-1913) The Great White Fleet and their fate

Read about the United States naval fleet, their visit to New Zealand and the fate of these gleaming white ships. 


Ship visits by former ally USA have come under scrutiny once again. With all the protests of recent years it is perhaps a surprise that several generations of New Zealanders grew up accepting as matter of course goodwill visits by warships of other countries. Sometimes these visits engendered pleasure, other times awe and at other times reassurance. To risk life and limb to stop ships or to create a hazardous situation that might result in their stranding (and consequent greater risk to locals) was a spectacle that many think extremist not helpful to New Zealand. However it has come about and has resulted in our country becoming isolated and to some extent, for a time at least, disadvantaged in matters of trade and alliances with the US and UK. Ship visits have emanated from a number of countries, France, Germany, Chile, Japan, Korea, Russia, India, Netherlands and Austria yes Austria, until World War One it had an Adriatic seaboard.

British warships since colonial times have provided Empire and Commonwealth links, while Australia the last of our allies still makes regular though low key visits. It was the US which made the most spectacular stop-overs, several indeed last century. However it was the visit of the Great White fleet in 1908 which included New Zealand in a world event and which was an unforgettable pageant for those who saw it. The cruise marked the coming of age of the US as a world power and still ranks as the greatest peacetime voyage in Naval History. The fleet was made up of sixteen battleships in four divisions, a flotilla of destroyers and three other ships.

The assembly commanded by Rear Admiral Robley D. Evans USN was farewelled by President Theodore Roosevelt as it left Hampton Roads Norfolk Virginia on Dec sixteenth 1907. It was welcomed back by the same president on Feb eighteenth 1909. The armada called at Trinidad, Rio de Janeiro, Punta Arenas (Chile in the Straits of Magellan, the Panama Canal was not open then) Valparaiso (Chile), Callao (Peru) Magdelena Bay (Mexico) and US west coast ports where command was handed over to Rear Admiral Charles S. Sperry USN.

On the seventh of July that year the refilled fleet sailed out through Golden Gate bound for Diamond Head and Pearl Harbour going on to Pago Pago, Auckland and Australian ports. Then it was north to Japan, Yokohama and south again to the Philippines. The Malacca Strait was the channel they took through to the Indian Ocean and Colombo in one time Ceylon. A long haul up through the Red Sea and the Suez Canal where the USS Georgia grounded temporarily brought them to the Mediterranean where a dozen ports were visited. USS Connecticut and USS Illinois were sent to help at Messina which had just been devastated by an earthquake.

The Great White Fleet finally sailed from Gibraltar for the US. The gleaming white ships with their ornate gilt bow scrolls and buff painted upper-works were manned by fourteen thousand men and had steamed roughly sixty eight thousand kms in the fourteen months and consumed four hundred and thirty seven thousand tonnes of coal, a fact which gave rise to anther other name – The Great Black Smoke Fleet.

On return the ships were painted a drab grey and refilled with multi- tubular masts (basket or cage masts such a feature of US ships for many years). The world had changed while they were away. HMS Dreadnought and HMS Bellerphon had been completed and USS South Carolina and USS Michigan were in the process of being finished, all of which rendered the world voyagers obsolescent. As a result during the First World War, apart from patrol, escort, troop transporting and training duties they played little part. USS Minnesota however suffered heavy damage from a mine laid by U117. USS Kearsage, the only one not named after a state survived as a repair ship but lost her name to an aircraft carrier in the Second World War becoming AB1. The last survivor USS Oregon as hulk IX 22 she was towed to Guam during that war and was sold in 1956 after an earlier stranding. The Great White Fleet was in Auckland for five days and the Admiral in his address to citizens described a visit to New Zealand in 1869 in an earlier, the famous USS Kearsage which sank the Confederate raider CSS Alabama. At the time of the visit HMS Powerful, HMS Encounter and HMS Pioneer added to the numbers in a packed harbour.