If I asked you what last Saturday, May 17, 2008 was, what would you say? Gorgeous? Ninety degrees? The perfect day to golf or go boating? All that is true, but did you know it was also Armed Forces Day? I'm sure the many military families in our area did, and to all American citizens who were out there enjoying themselves in a country that, despite its problems, is still free and full of opportunity, I say...I hope you did. Many members of the Armed Forces have made, and are still making, heavy sacrifices, in the name of that freedom. This particular Armed Forces Day also commemorated something of major importance that happened in Tacoma one hundred years ago, May 27, 1908. I'm shocked to realize how few people know about it.
Did you ever hear of the Great White Fleet? Beginning in December of 1907, then President Theodore Roosevelt sent a fleet of sixteen American battleships on a mission of peace and goodwill. They were symbolically painted white. It began in Hampton Roads, Virginia, went around the horn of South America to San Francisco with the intention of visiting our "neighbors" around the Pacific Ocean, but was extended into a world tour. It took fourteen months, 46,000 miles, and stopped in numerous countries. While in the Mediterranean, ships from the fleet helped victims of an earthquake in Italy. The Great White Fleet was a worldwide sensation! It put America on the map! Men fought for a place in line to enlist in the Navy and be a part of it. My great-uncle Ross C. Anway was one of them. He joined the adventure in San Francisco.
After the ships reached San Francisco, the first leg of the journey completed, they made a trip north to Puget Sound, visiting Port Angeles, Port Townsend, the shipyard in Bremerton, the city of Seattle,and other spots. But lucky Tacoma was visited by the largest number of ships of any place in Puget Sound. On May 27, 1908, the citizens were awed by EIGHT gleaming white American battleships, plus a hospital ship, in our own Commencement Bay. It was a day to celebrate!
One hundred years later, my husband and I were among a mere handful of spectators who gathered at tiny Jack Hyde Park, on the waterfront just below Old Town. The Navy League of the United States, Tacoma Council had organized a beautiful ceremony, complete with a Parade of the Colors by the Hornet Division of the U.S. Naval Sea Cadet Corps, and the presentation of centennial plaques to Tacoma's Mayor Bill Baarsma and LCDR Robert W. Thomas, Executive Officer of the USS Maine. Navy League Tacoma's President, Mary Olsen, did the presentation and both she and her husband Roger Olsen, Secretary of the League, spoke eloquently about the history being remembered. So did Mayor Baarsma and LCDR Thomas.
I had not met our mayor personally until that day, but as he stood there in the sunshine, with sparkling water and Brown's point behind him, I saw a bit of who this civic leader is and what he stands for. He was animated as he described the scene in 1908, waving an arm to indicate how, a century before, the ships would have been RIGHT THERE just off shore from where we stood. He told us about a banner placed across Pacific Avenue, the streets absolutely filled with sailors marching to the wild cheers of the citizens of Tacoma, and how the stores were all closed until one o'clock in the afternoon so employees wouldn't miss the event.
Mayor Baarsma, like the others, could have been somewhere else last Saturday morning, but it was important to him to be nowhere but THERE. I thought to myself as he spoke with respect and appreciation for his city's history, that he did so with as much enthusiasm and sincerity as if he had a crowd of thousands listening. He honored our city, our country's story and the past and present members of the Armed Forces, by treating the occasion with the dignity it deserved.
After the ceremony ended and the flag was withdrawn, I thanked Mary and Roger Olsen, Mayor Baarsma, and LCDR Thomas, and showed them something I'd brought along. It was a beribboned military-type medal in a little wooden box, a gift to my great-uncle from the city of Yokohama, Japan. It read "Welcome to our guests from America". Then everyone left, feeling like we'd been a small but special group, fellow travelers through time.
History is all around us: buildings, places, and the spirit of great and ordinary people who shaped the world. The old Tacoma City Hall building still stands, as it did in the photos of May 27,1908, a witness to that proud day. As Americans, take time to learn about the past, to give some thought to the huge contributions of the Armed Forces, to appreciate what we have and are, and hopefully will continue to be.
Special thanks to the Tacoma Council of the Navy League of the United States.
Note to all those other history buffs out there:
You may have missed this event, but it isn't too late to take in some others in the area, or at least educate yourself about the Great White Fleet. Please check out these excellent websites:
Great White Fleet
Museum of History and Industry
Tacoma Navy League
Port of Seattle
Naval Historical Center