by Paul R. Spitzzeri
With America’s ascendance during the 20th century to the pinnacle of the world’s economic powers came a correlative rise to the peak of military dominance. It was long a goal for policy makers in Washington to have the United States play a prominent role in the Pacific and this, of course, required a well-equipped navy which bases on the west coast of the continent as well as in Hawaii (the station at Pearl Harbor being established in 1908) and elsewhere in the Pacific Rim.
The Navy’s “Naval History and Heritage Command” web page for the port community of San Pedro in Los Angeles notes that tensions between America and Japan in 1919 led to a reorganization of U.S. Navy fleets with newer vessels sent to the Pacific and older ones moved to a scouting force in the Atlantic. It was decided by leaders in the Navy that San Pedro was a better home port than San Diego because it had deeper water for the larger battleships in the fleet. This led Admiral Hugh Rodman to bring the Pacific Fleet to the port in August 1919.
The visit of the fleet also came under a year after, thanks to the fresh troops of the American Expeditionary Force, the end of the First World War and with patriotic pride still very prevalent, the arrival of the fleet engendered a “Pacific Fleet Festival,” held from 9 to 13 August 1919. The featured object from the Museum’s collection for this post is the official program for the event and it contains a good deal of interesting material about the five days of celebration.
There is a “Historical Sketch of American Navy” by W. Boyd Gatewood, recently editor of a San Bernardino newspaper who then became the regional manager for the United Press Association, later renamed United Press International (UPI.) The journalist began by stating that “when today we are swept with that profound pride and patriotism invariably inspired by our magnificent Navy,” it was not always that way.
Gatewood noted that there was some considerable opposition in the First Continental Congress in 1775 to the establishment of an American naval force, though this overcome and one was founded at the end of the year. There were, however, some struggles with pirates in Africa and other conflicts and the “national humiliations and indignities suffered” led to the establishment of the Department of the Navy in 1798.
It was added that it was this branch of the military that made all the difference during the War of 1812 against Great Britain, including the battles on Lake Erie and Lake Champlain, making heroes of commodores Oliver Hazard Perry and Thomas Macdonough. There was little, Gatewood wrote, that naval forces did until the Civil War and its famous fight between the Merrimac and the Monitor, though it should be pointed out that the seizure of Alta California during the Mexican-American War was largely the work of Commodore Robert F. Stockton and forces under his command. All the journalist wrote was that the Navy took Veracruz during that conflict.
After 1865, it was stated, “the monitors . . . made the American Navy the most powerful in the world” but with the end of the Civil War and the Reconstruction era, it was not given the attention it needed. A change, Gatewood continued, came “in 1890, [as] the country again aroused to an impending war and the necessity of a navy to preserve peace” and so “the White Squadron was launched, [including] the ill-fated Maine.”
Armored cruisers and battleships followed and were utilized heavily in the Spanish-American War in 1898, with the Navy playing a central role in that conflict. It was briefly noted that the branch played “an inspirational part” in the recent war and, though Gatewood, said another article in the program would discuss “the most glorious of American naval campaigns,” no such essay was included.
Angel City Mayor Meredith P. Snyder, who recently secured election after three previous terms at the end of the 19th and first years of the 20th centuries by besting incumbent Frederic T. Woodman, led an official reception committee that included business leaders like William M. Garland, Frederick W. Blanchard, and film impresario Cecil B. de Mille, vice-chair of the aviation committee, along with federal, county and state officials, county supervisors and Los Angeles City Council members, including its president, Boyle Workman.
Beyond this, there were committees for officers, sailors, a grand ball, a banquet and a reception for the Secretary of the Navy Josephus Daniels. There were many of the Los Angeles elite involved in these, including many women (albeit wives and daughters of powerful men) and among the names were those above as well as Earl, O’Melveny, Brunswig, Coulter, Banning, Flint, Hellman, Sartori, Guasti, Jevne, Van Nuys, Lasky, Chandler, Letts and more.
Mayor Snyder’s welcome opened with “it is an hour or [of] great pride for Los Angeles when the officers and men of the Pacific fleet enter her gates. All that we have in the city today belongs to the Pacific fleet. All that we have is laid at the feet of the gallant officers and splendid sons of the most glorious navy in the world.”
The chief executive added that the visit “means that at last the Pacific coast has been given the recognition which the Atlantic coast has had all these years. It places the west on a basis with the east. It gives Los Angeles new impetus politically, socially and commercially.” Snyder went on to suggest that the presence of the fleet was a commercial boon as “it will be a powerful means of developing foreign trade, as well as a cause of increasing local commerce.”
Established in the area, the men of the fleet and their families would build homes in the Angel City and elsewhere and “come to share our hopes and aspirations and our activities.” Reiterating that this arrival “gives Los Angeles a new dignity, with new official standing on the Atlantic coast,” the city could “offer to the officers and men of the Pacific Fleet the greatest hospitality in the world.”
A list of the ships included a half-dozen dreadnoughts, the main type of battleship in the era, a pair of battleships, a quartet of cruisers, and 33 destroyers, while the fleet staff included its commander, Admiral Rodman, who assumed his role in July and who retired in 1923, along with Captain Nathan Twining, as chief of staff, four commanders, three lieutenant commanders, two lieutenants and an ensign.
The Fleet arrived on the afternoon of the 9th after sailing from San Diego and the Los Angeles Express reported:
Beautiful, majestic and awesome, the new Pacific fleet swung in from the southwest today and dropped anchors in and off the Port of Los Angeles, while some 200,000 men, women and children cheered and shouted, waved flags and handkerchiefs and sounded sirens and whistles of very description.
There were actually two sets of event programs, one for Los Angeles and the other for Long Beach, with this latter taking on greater importance with its own port and as the second most populous city in the county. So, in that coastal metropolis, there were banquets; balls and dances; evenings on the Pike entertainment zone; religious services on Sunday the 10th; auto rides; a band concert and community sing; sports events, and more.
The Los Angeles program added its own auto trips and lunches at country clubs, social clubs, and hotels for officers; a rodeo hosted by motion picture industry leaders with an address by Secretary Daniels at Exposition Park; a boxing tournament and athletic meet at the same site; balls and banquets at the original Shrine Auditorium; “open air street dances and block parties” for enlisted men on Olive Street between 6th and 9th streets; dances; and other events.
Arrangements included transportation provided by the Pacific Electric streetcar system, recommendations for travel to avoid crowds from the Automobile Club of Southern California and the Motor Car Dealers’ Association, and railroad service from the Southern Pacific and Salt Lake lines, which ran trains each half-hour from Los Angeles to the harbor area from 8:30 and 9:00 a.m., respectively, until late in the evening.
As for the massive presence at the harbor, it was noted that “the Fleet will come to anchor off the lighthouse at the end of the breakwater [at San Pedro] in formation stretching towards Long Beach, the last vessel in line reaching approximately to a point opposite the Long Beach pleasure pier.” The outer group included battleships and cruisers with destroyers and other small craft closer to the shore.
Mayor Snyder and the Los Angeles reception committee headed out to the flagship, the “Super-Dreadnaught” New Mexico, which was fully powered by electricity, and exchanged greetings with Secretary Daniels and Admiral Rodman. Daniels then reviewed the fleet, which was comprised of some 4,000 personnel after which the public could board and review the vessels. The Express added:
The coming to anchor was accomplished under fire of the greatest cheering that ever rang from a Southland shore. The shouts echoed and reechoed over the surge of the sea; the greeting, the concert of cheers, with the accompaniment—of whistles and sirens could be heard aboard every ship.
As to the great throngs of well-wishers, it was said they gathered wherever possible from Pt. Fermin at the southern tip of San Pedro to Long Beach, with some staying in lodgings in the area so as not to miss the spectacle. Others were said to have come from Arizona, Nevada, and the Imperial Valley east of San Diego “where the only fleets are made up of schooners that run on wheels.”
Streetcars were virtually overloaded and highways jammed with autos, motorcycles, bicycles and even “here and there [horse-drawn] carriages.” Restaurants were crowded so that it seemed that food would run out, while the Los Angeles Police Department drew lines to limit where people stood and, in some cases, used ropes for crowd control, especially “on the bluff [at San Pedro] where it was feared the crowd in its eagerness might cause accidents.”
Never to be outdone in its enthusiasm for such events, the Los Angeles Times proclaimed that the arrival was to bring an “Epochal Ovation for [the] Armada” and averred that
When the heavy anchors of the Pacific Fleet plunge into the waters off Los Angeles Harbor this afternoon, they will take an everlasting grip upon the hearts of the people of the West, for the huge gray ships of battle that have come to Southern California are the pride of the nation’s floating fortresses, manned by the flower of the American navy.
The Angel City was expected to be “as an empty hulk, drained of most of its humanity” as enormous crowds were anticipated “to witness the coming of the greatest armada of fighting ships that ever sailed the Pacific. The paper added that aircraft were to fly above the ships “dipping and diving and whirling around their fighting tops, raining flowers upon the heads of the crews.” In the waters of the harbor, “a mosquito fleet” of decorated pleasure craft would be “dipping their flags” in honor of the Fleet.
In its edition of the 12th, the San Pedro Pilot opined that “in addition to voting the navy department 146 acres of submerged land in the outer harbor for a Submarine Base, Los Angeles should secure 37 acres of land from the Southern Pacific on the bluff overlooking the site in order to make room for the improvements contemplated by the enlarged plans of the department.”
There was an informal Pacific Torpedo Flotilla home at San Pedro from 1913 to 1917, during which year the San Pedro Submarine Base was established for coastal defense during the world war. A second torpedo flotilla along with tenders that allowed for sub crews to berth and mess on them were also at the base, which, however, was shuttered in 1923.
As for the home of the Pacific Fleet, it remained there until 1940 when Long Beach gave land on its eastern part of Terminal Island for naval purposes, this becoming the Long Beach Naval Shipyard and which was opened just prior to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that led to America’s entry in the Second World War. The Long Beach facility closed in 1997.
Another element to the Pacific Fleet Festival program was a poem, “Welcome to the Fleet” by John Steven McGroarty, author of the Mission Play at San Gabriel and designated poet laureate of California in 1933. Here is a sampling of his versification:
Welcome, oh, welcome, ships of the line,
At last in the long quest over,
With arms wide flung in the sun and shine
Waits the golden land like a lover;
The gloried hills with their peaks of snow,
They becken [sic] through cloud-wracks rifted,
And the upland slopes in the morning glow,
With the flames of the poppies lifted.
There was never a fleet like this sailed et
Since God first made green water;
And never has fleet such welcome met
In peace or in war’s red slaughter;
There was never welcome as this shall be,
In the lit of song or of story,
To the shiups that sailed from the wintry sea
To the golden coasts of glory.
Finally, the publication has five pages of photos showing vessels; crews at work and posed on the deck of one ship; an aircraft flying over the fleet; the massive guns on a battleship; and submarines docked at the harbor, among others.
In an editorial on the last day of the festival, the Long Beach Press praised the personnel of the Fleet, though it hedged a bit on the enlisted men, suggesting that they, “for the most part are fine, manly, wholesome young Americans.” Stating that Long Beach, Los Angeles and other regional cities were impressed by those in the Fleet, the paper concluded that it was a benefit to have them “to grace ball-rooms and banquet halls and outing places” and that “friendships are being made that will be lasting.” Lastly, it was deemed important that, “it may be believed that many a romance will develop from the coming of these gallant men among the fair women of this Southland.”
We should add that, not too long before the program was published, Adrian D. Temple, a son of former Homestead owner (1888-1899) John Harrison Temple and his wife Anita Davoust, was in the Navy, while he and several of his brothers served their country during the recent world war. The program is a very interesting document of the rise of American naval and military power in the early 20th century, patriotism in the post-World War One period, and of greater Los Angeles’ pride about its role in the stationing of armed forces in the region.