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US White Fleet Goodwill tour logo

 

This gold badge celebrates the visit of the Great White Fleet to NSW in August 1908.

Photo kindly provided by Shane Newton professional prospector Australia via David Bullock

The Visit

President Roosevelt sent a part of his country's awesome fleet of Battleships on a goodwill tour of Australia and New Zealand in 1908. The ships had just finished a tour of South America, and the President addressed the men at Newport, Rhode Island, saying he wanted a first class fighting navy or none at all.

Australian Prime Minister Alfred Deakin had invited the Fleet's visit. This upset the British authorities who claimed the invitation should not have been issued directly. Deakin used his column in the London Morning Post to mention that Australians had 'never seen a single British battleship in these waters'. Now sixteen such vessels were expected all at once--from America. The sight of them, Deakin wrote, 'may well awaken fresh emotions'.

Considerable interest in the impending visit was generated by continual press coverage. In Melbourne an intricate and extensive plan for entertaining the US crews with State functions was formulated by endless committees and sub-committees. For the Australian part of the tour co-ordination was provided by the Defence Department.

One such body was the committee arranging the 'naval and military smoking night' scheduled for Friday night, September 4. The programme sub-committee reported that the Victorian Navy Band would play, and that a quartet of NCOs from the Victorian Scottish Regiment would sing some American songs. A highlight of the performance would be Band Sergeant King's solo drum performance. Sgt King was Australia's champion drummer.

The tour of the battleships would begin at Auckland, New Zealand, followed by Sydney, Australia, before reaching Melbourne, the last stop of the Australasian leg.

THE SHIPS

Led by Admiral Sperry in his flagship, USS Connecticut, the White Fleet comprised sixteen Battleships. In a last minute hitch, USS Nebraska was unable to undertake the tour as there had been an outbreak of scarlet fever on board. The US Navy however ensured that she was quickly replaced. The fleet was accompanied for parts of the tour by auxiliaries including supply ships and coalers.

BATTLESHIPS

LENGTH

DRAUGHT OFFICERS MEN

CONNECTICUT

450'

24' 6"

41

815

KANSAS

450'

24' 6"

41

815

LOUISIANA

450'

24' 6"

41

815

VERMONT

450'

24' 6"

41

815

GEORGIA

435'

23' 9"

40

772

VIRGINIA

435'

23' 9"

40

772

NEW JERSEY

435'

23' 9"

40

772

RHODE ISLAND

435'

23' 9"

40

772

MINNESOTA

450'

24' 6"

41

815

OHIO

388'

23' 7"

41

628

MAINE

388'

24' 3"

36

614

MISSOURI

388'

23' 8"

40

612

ALABAMA

368'

23' 8"

34

647

ILLINOIS

380'

24' 0"

34

647

KENTUCKY

368'

23' 10"

35

616

KEARSARGE

368'

23' 10"

39

618

FLEET

AUXILIARIES

CULGOA, GLACIER,

RELIEF, PANTHER,

YANKTON, AJAX

 
 
USS Kansas in Australia
USS Kansas in Australia.
 


SPLENDID ENTERTAINMENTS

Melbourne (as with Auckland and Sydney earlier) turned on a marvellous round of events, dinners, illuminated Public Buildings, the largest military review then seen in the nation, receptions, decorations everywhere, speeches and generous private hospitality. It all began with the arrival of the battleships, greeted at Port Phillip Heads by throngs of sightseers, and in the bay by flotillas of large and small ships and boats. The US White Fleet anchored off Williamstown in two rows astern.

What did the US sailors make of the specially-prepared outline of HMAS Cerberus anchored at the mouth of the River Yarra as she returned gun salutes and saluted Admiral Sperry's birthday. By then nearly 40 years old, and from an earlier naval era, the antiquated 'Guardian of Hades' still spat flames and billowed smoke--but, by comparison with the formidable American 'Machines of War', she was now slightly embarrassing. The US Admiral officially landed at St Kilda Pier on Sunday 31 August from which he attended a reception by Australia's Prime Minister and his cabinet.

 

American sailors in Melbourne 
The American sailors marched proudly through
Melbourne Streets. This photograph, kindly
provided by Phil Tedeschi of Chardon, Ohio,
is from a postcard titled: "Naval Parade of
American Sailors at Melbourne, Australia,
August 31, 1908.

A visit to Bendigo was provided by the Government of Victoria for 300 US sailors on Wednesday 2 September.

The Military review on Thursday 3 September was undoubtedly the highlight of the visit. It was held at Flemington Racecourse. Imagine the magnificence of the review which comprised:

A SOUR NOTE OF RACISM

 The Age, Melbourne, 28 July 1908

The above item had hinted at a rumour that had begun to circulate before the arrival of the fleet suggesting that the crews of the battleships were largely 'coloured'. The Age was right in its assumption that few of the the US Navy personnel were African-Americans. This was just as well because at one of the dinner functions at Melbourne's Victoria Barracks, open only to naval petty officers and military NCOs, extraordinary statements were made by Australia's federal minister for Defence. The audience had dined well and sang well. Then came stirring speeches by Australia's Governor-General and the Governor of Victoria. Next came the speech, objectionable on all counts by today's standards, by the Defence Minister, Mr Ewing:

 'When you go home', he told the visiting US sailors, 'and they ask you where you have been, don't tell them that you have been in Australia. Say it was a white man's country (prolonged cheers). Tell them that we look to Britons, Americans and Australians to people this white country (loud cheers). It will take all we can do and all you can do to accomplish this, and we will have to fight together in any fight that comes (tremendous cheering)'. Earlier in Sydney, the Mayor there had told the US visitors 'You will be helping us to keep an eye on the yellow man'. Perhaps some Australians conceived that the American battlewagons were painted white for a reason.

The US White Fleet departed Melbourne on Saturday 5 September 1908. Overall it had been a tremendous visit, more than rewarding the efforts that had been lavished on it. Even the Freemasons of Victoria and Melbourne City newsboys had been given an opportunity to welcome the visitors.


Do you have photos, memorabilia of the White Fleet's Visit?


 
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