Great White Fleet comes to life during historical presentation at museum annex

Naval History and Heritage Command
Story by Max Lonzanida

Date: 12.12.2018
Posted: 12.13.2018 15:27
News ID: 303473
Historical presentation at museum annex building

The Great White Fleet exhibit area in the gallery of the Hampton Roads Naval Museum occupies a cavernous space. Its glistening wood floors, stately columns, and large panorama of the sixteen battleships represent a mere echo what President Theodore Roosevelt would have saw when he sent the fleet off from Sewells Point in Norfolk on December 16, 1907. As Roosevelt looked on from his yacht, the Mayflower, he remarked “Did you see such a fleet? Isn’t it magnificent? Ought we all feel proud?” as he looked at the sixteen white battleships pass out of Hampton Roads to the open sea.

During a historical presentation earlier this week, the fleet and the 1907 Jamestown Exposition came to life for a group of service members at the museum’s History at H9 series aboard Naval Station Norfolk. Building H9 is a non-descript brick structure, and is located across the street from the nation’s second oldest brick baseball stadium, McClure Field. Just a stone’s throw away is Dillingham Boulevard, where over a dozen stately residences face the golf course.

Those homes were once part of the 1907 Jamestown Exposition, and are all occupied by Flag Officers; hence the name Admirals Row. The sign outside of the single story structure reads simply “HRNM Annex.” The annex houses the museum’s special collections and artifact processing facility, all housed in a temperature and humidity controlled spaces that preserve over 240 years of Naval History related to the Hampton Roads region.

The presentation was given by the museum’s Registrar, Katherine Renfrew and Jim Leuci, one of the museum’s volunteers for a group of about a dozen sailors from tenant commands; which included sailors from the pre-commissioning units USS Lyndon B. Johnson (DDG 1002) and USS Delbert Black (DDG 119). The presentation commenced with a brief history of the museum and the Naval History and Heritage Command. Thereafter historic pictures depicting the grandeur of the fleet graced the large flat screen monitor as Renfrew placed the significance of the fleet in context and took the sailors back in time to the early 1900s.

The fleet, with its 16 battleships painted a glistening white and powered by coal and steam, represented cutting edge technology at the time. The fleet would sail from Sewells Point through the Chesapeake Bay and onto open water. From there, over 15,000 sailors would sail over 43,000 nautical miles. They would visit 20 ports of call spread out through six continents over the course of 14 months. More importantly, the fleet was clearly visible at anchor from the shoreline of what was to become Naval Station Norfolk; and each battleship rendered a 21-gun salute as President Roosevelt’s yacht made its way past as he sent them off.

During the course of fourteen months, a lot occurred. The fleet received a wireless message from King Neptune; which signaled the start of a poignant crossing the line ceremony where Pollywogs would become Shellbacks. This brought some smiles from service members in the audience; arguably by those who experienced King Neptune’s ceremony after crossing the equator. Sailors experienced a bull fight during their stop in Peru; and over a hundred crew members would desert the fleet during its stop at Australia in August-September 1908. The desertions were due to newfound relationships that sailors made in the land down under, and the battleship USS Kearsarge remained behind to retrieve the deserters. The Chinese Government built a separate entertainment and reception complex for the fleet in Amoy; when they visited in October-November 1908. The fleet steamed through the Suez Canal and rode camels and saw pyramids in Egypt; and finally steamed through the Mediterranean on the way back to the Norfolk. President Theodore Roosevelt greeted the fleet as they returned on February 22, 1909.

After the presentation, Renfrew and Leuci provided a short guided tour. The group walked to the special collections area. Carefully sprawled out on a table awaiting the group were postcards encased in plastic that dated back to 1907 through 1909, which were sent home by sailors who participated in the cruise. A few in the group vividly remembered sending postcards back home while aboard; another remarked that the cursive handwriting on the backs of the postcards was not something taught in school anymore.

Renfrew then led the group to a long gray artifact cabinet and opened one of the drawers. Lying flat on the shelf was an ornately embroidered laundry bag, which belonged to one of the sailors that went around the world. Many in the group were glad to have sat in during the presentation and tour; and all were glad to know all of the educational, research, and outreach programs available through the Hampton Roads Naval Museum.

About the Museum:

The Hampton Roads Naval Museum is one of ten Navy museums that are operated by the Naval History & Heritage Command. It celebrates the long history of the U.S. Navy in the Hampton Roads region of Virginia and is co-located with Nauticus in downtown Norfolk, Virginia. Admission to the museum is free, simply by-pass the ticket line and take the stairs or elevator to the museum on the second deck. The museum’s annex aboard Naval Station Norfolk provides historical presentation for area commands, including assistance with historical research. To inquire about historical presentations or to make an appointment, contact their registrar at or at (757) 445-6844. The museum hosts a robust educational program for area schools and commands, with free educational programs to area schools aligned with state curriculum standards, a travelling sea chest program, a premier Lego outreach program, and historical presentations for area commands. To inquire, contact their Educational Director, Laura Orr at or at (757) 322-3018. The museum is also host to a robust volunteer corps, who serve as docents, support special events, and assist in museum archives. To inquire, contact their Volunteer Coordinator, Darcy Sink at or at (757) 322-2992. Lastly the museum proudly hosts military ceremonies, such as re-enlistments, retirements, and promotions for area commands aboard the U.S.S Wisconsin (BB 64) and in the museum’s gallery. To inquire, contact their special events coordinator, Tom Dandes at or call (757) 322-3106.