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Great White Fleet Assists Following Messina Earthquake

Jan. 3, 2015 | By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
A street in Messina, Sicily, showing damage caused by the earthquake that hit Dec. 28, 1908. Photographed in January 1909. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph from the Collection of Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright (who was assigned to USS Connecticut during the relief mission to Messina).

When President Theodore Roosevelt's Great White Fleet embarked on its historic 14-month world cruise in 1907, its mission was to promote goodwill and foster partnerships with other countries, but also show American might and seapower. Even then, partnerships and presence mattered. As the fleet pulled into any of its 20 ports across six continents, the officers and crew were often handled like royalty, treated to parades and parties. Along the way, however, the fleet was given the opportunity to show they could give as much as they received: On January 3, 1909, the first of several American ships arrived in Messina, Italy which had been devastated by a massive earthquake and tsunami just six days earlier on Dec. 28, 1908.

The decision to send the 16 battleships of the Great White Fleet on a voyage around the world came during a particularly turbulent time for the United States. It had gained territory in the Philippines and Guam following its victory in the 1898 Spanish-American War, which required naval resources for protection. Roosevelt, a former assistant Secretary of the Navy, believed it would take a strong navy for a nation to project its power and prestige abroad. When he became president after the assassination of President William McKinley in 1901, Roosevelt began building up his navy. Shipyards churned out 11 battleships in three years from 1904-1907. A naval base was also established in 1904 at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to provide security during the construction of the Panama Canal.

As the United States continued to expand its reach, Roosevelt mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1906, ending the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese, however, felt Roosevelt favored the Russians. In California, anti-Japanese feelings began to arise due to steady a stream of Japanese immigrants, which in turn sparked anti-American protests in Japan. And so it was under those conditions Roosevelt decided his 16-battleship fleet, painted white and gilded in gold, would circumnavigate the world to impress upon Japan and other countries that the U.S. Navy could shift its presence from the Atlantic to the Pacific. They left Hampton Roads Dec. 16, 1907.

A little more than a year later, as the Great White Fleet was nearing the conclusion of its 14-month voyage, just before dawn on Dec. 28, 1908, a powerful earthquake and tsunami struck southern Italy, devastating the Sicilian city of Messina. The death toll was terrible, with estimates of those killed running up to two hundred thousand. Those who didn't die immediately from the earthquake would succumb to starvation, disease and injury. And it was at that moment the Great White Fleet's "goodwill" cruise went from rhetoric to reality.

USS Scorpion (1898-1929) was the first U.S. Navy ship to provide aid after the Dec. 28, 1908 earthquake that struck Messina, Italy. Based as the station ship at Constantinople, Turkey, the former yacht arrived at Messina on Jan. 3, 1909. In this photo, USS Scorpion is at the New York Navy Yard, Brooklyn, N.Y., circa April 1898, carrying her battery of four 5"/40 guns located on her sides, fore and aft of the superstructure from when she was converted for the Spanish-American War service. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph.

Although its presence in the Mediterranean was minimal at the time, the United States did have the gunboat USS Scorpion on station at Constantinople, Turkey. The former luxury yacht left Dec. 31 and arrived at Messina on Jan. 3 to begin U.S. humanitarian relief to the stricken region. Other nations' navies sent men and ships to help Italian authorities with recovery and relief work. Among these were the British, whose large Mediterranean Fleet soon had two battleships, five cruisers and a destroyer at the scene. The Russians, whose training squadron was also in the vicinity, provided men from several battleships, cruisers and gunboats. While digging through the remains of collapsed buildings to rescue survivors and locate the bodies of the dead, some of the Russian sailors lost their own lives when an aftershock buried them in rubble.

The greatest response in terms of aid, however, came from the U.S. Navy. The U.S. Atlantic Fleet's battleship force was steaming up the Red Sea toward the Suez Canal nearing the end of its passage from the Far East during its great world cruise.

Messina Earthquake, Dec. 28, 1908 -- Refugees waiting for transportation at Messina, Sicily, where USS Culgoa and USS Yankton fed many hungry earthquake survivors. Photographed in January 1909. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command Photograph from the Collection of Lt. Cmdr. Richard Wainwright (who was assigned to USS Connecticut during the relief mission to Messina).

The fleet's Commander in Chief, Rear Adm. Charles S. Sperry, ordered the supply ship Culgoa, carrying hundreds of tons of food, to head for the disaster zone as soon as she could get through the canal. She left Port Said, Egypt, on Jan. 4 and arrived at Messina four days later. She remained in the area until Jan. 15. While Culgoa was on her way, six Navy surgeons from the battleships, as well as medical supplies, were put aboard the tender Yankton (another converted yacht) and on Jan. 5, set off from Port Said, arriving at the stricken city on Jan. 9. They were followed by Sperry's flagship, the battleship Connecticut, which called at Messina on Jan. 9, while en route to Naples. The battleship Illinois arrived on Jan. 14 to help recover the bodies of U.S. Consul Arthur S. Cheney and his wife, Laura, from beneath the ruins.

This mission, involving hazardous tunneling through the ruined consulate building, was soon completed. Illinois sailed the next day for Valetta, Malta, where she rejoined her division. A large quantity of supplies, originally intended for Sperry's fleet, along with a hastily loaded prefabricated hospital left the United States at the end of December on board the Navy supply ship Celtic, arriving at Naples Jan. 19 and then taken to Messina. Celtic and her crew were in the Sicily-Naples area for about two months, distributing urgently needed supplies to towns along the Sicilian coast, erecting temporary shelters and otherwise helping the quake's survivors.

When Celtic left to return home on March 21, Assistant Surgeon Martin Donelson remained in Sicily with a detachment to construct housing and provide further medical assistance. Donelson was ordered back to the United States on June 10, 1909, bringing to completion more than five months of Sicilian earthquake relief work by U.S. Navy personnel.

Just as it was 106 years ago, the U.S. Navy continues to build and maintain partnerships around the world with a strong presence. It's those relationships that have allowed freedom of trade and navigation to provide stability and security for the global economy, according to Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus during a speech in September to an audience focused on international relationships. "No matter how big, no matter how capable, no one country can do everything. We have to rely on partners worldwide. The more interoperable we are, the more we exercise together, the more we operate together, the better we will be when a crisis comes," Mabus said.