The President also wanted to find out what condition the fleet would be in after such a transit. As he stated before the fleet’s departure, “I want all failures, blunders and shortcomings to be made apparent in time of peace and not in time of war.”
But, more importantly, Roosevelt felt that a successful cruise of this magnitude would provide the American people with an example of US naval prepardness, strength and range. Such an impression, he hoped, would help him get the desired appropriations for four more battleships.
With the exception of the few highest ranking naval officials, nobody was aware of Roosevelt’s intention to send the fleet around the world. Even the President’s own cabinet didn’t know about it. All anyone knew was that the fleet would be steaming from the east to West Coast in a training exercise.
Once the plans for the cruise became public, not everyone was impressed. Some critics felt that this show of force would encourage a Japanese attack on the fleet. Others were worried that the Atlantic naval defenses would be weakened by taking away so many ships. Also, it was reasoned, since the Panama Canal was unfinished, the ships would have to pass through the Straits of Magellan, an area that posed considerable danger because of tricky currents and great storms.
Senator Eugene Hale from Maine, chairman of the Naval Appropriations Committee, threatened to withhold money for the cruise. But this didn’t bother Roosevelt, who replied in his typically brusque and forthright fashion that he already had the money and dared Congress to “try and get it back.”
Nobody took Roosevelt up on his challenge and the Great White Fleet got underway that December morning, with the coal-burning ships’ stacks spewing billowing clouds of black smoke into the gray sky. Aboard the flagship Connecticut, Rear Adm. Evans looked out with pride upon the majestic fleet under his command. He had stated earlier that his ships “were ready at the drop of a hat for a feast, a frolic or a fight”.
Late on the first day of steaming, Evans passed the word to the officers and men of the fleet that after a short stay on the West Coast, the fleet would return home by way of the Pacific, through the Suez Canal, into the Mediterranean and then to the Atlantic. In short, they would be transiting the globe. When this announcement became general knowledge the next day, countries throughout the world tendered their invitations for the fleet to visit their ports.
The first leg of the cruise took the fleet into the South Atlantic. On Dec. 23, the fleet made its first port visit, at Port of Spain in Trinidad, a small island off the coast of Venezuela.
Trinidad, as most of the sailors discovered, rated a pretty low score when it came to liberty. According to one sailor, it was one of the most boring places he’d been to and he remarked, “When we pulled in, there were no people around and almost everything was closed up. Just one building was open that had any beer in it. By the time we made it to shore, the stuff was hot as hell. It was just like drinking boiler water.”
Another sailor noted that, aside from “looking at the flowers and visiting a leper colony,” there wasn’t much to do. When the fleet left Port of Spain Dec. 29, enroute to Brazil, there were few if any, who longed to stay. All hoped for better liberty in the future. It couldn’t get any worse.
On Jan.6, the fleet steamed across the equator and “Crossing the Line” ceremonies made up the plan of the day. Some 12,000 sailors were introduced to Davy Jones. Following proper initiation rights that included suffering through various indignities to make them worthy, all were welcomed into the exhaulted realm of King Neptune.