About 180,000 people lined every high place on the hills, islands and mountains looking toward the Golden Gate that Wednesday -- May 6, 1908 -- trying to spot the USS Connecticut. It was the flagship leading the 4-mile parade of 16 American warships and support vessels that constituted "The Great White Fleet."
The worldwide cruise of the country's newest and best ships was President Theodore Roosevelt's idea. It showed what his foreign policy was all about: "Speak softly and carry a big stick."
Congress had appropriated only half the funds necessary to finance the cruise. Roosevelt sent the ships anyway, saying that if Congress wanted the Navy back, it could provide the rest of the money.
The ships, painted white and trimmed with gilt, left Virginia on Dec. 16, 1907. By the time the fleet returned to its home port, it would have traveled 43,000 miles, made 20 ports of call and stopped at six continents.
"The flagship passed under the outer redoubts of the Presidio at 30 minutes past noon and received a salute of 21 guns from Lancaster battery. While these guns were saluting the rifles at Fort Baker across the channel were answering alternatively. ... When the guns of the fortresses were stilled the guns of the flagship responded. At Goat Island (Yerba Buena) the ships received another salute and the flagship again gave a courteous reply," the San Francisco Call reported the day after the fleet's arrival.
The parade of ships slowed down and swung east and south at Goat Island, then maneuvered into a squadron formation, four abreast, and awaited the signal to drop anchor.
The Bay Area was ready to receive the ships and 14,000 men of the Great White Fleet.
A committee led by James Phelan, former San Francisco mayor and future state senator, had raised the money to entertain the fleet's men and officers.
Although a successful fundraiser, the committee couldn't pry money from the Southern Pacific and Santa Fe railroads. The two rail bodies were criticized by the committee, which pointed out that because of the fleet's visit, 450,000 more passengers than normal used their services from May 5 to May 17. Additionally, the biggest day the two railroads ever had locally was May 6, when 180,000 passengers bought tickets.
The naval officers were hosted at theater parties and given two expenses-paid days at hotels. About $19,000 was spent on the enlisted men for music, sightseeing and athletic programs. A clubhouse was built for the Navy men. Finding it still had $4,400 after the visit, the committee voted to keep the clubhouse open for all sailors on future visits.
The fleet left San Francisco on July 7, continuing its worldwide cruise. At every stop, including Australia and Japan, it got warm receptions. The Great White Fleet returned to Virginia on Feb. 22, 1909. The tour had been a grand success.
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