In the long and often spectacular visual history of Hampton Roads, few days can match Dec. 9, 1907.
Beginning that morning and continuing into the afternoon, six giant American battleships passed through the Virginia Capes and made their way into Hampton Roads, where they joined eight other monster warships already anchored in two 4-mile-long crescent lines that began a stone's throw from the Hotel Chamberlin at Old Point Comfort.
Even after Rear Adm. Robley D. "Fighting Bob" Evans hoisted his two-star flag up the mast of the USS Connecticut -- assuming command of what the Daily Press described as "the greatest naval movement in the history of the American People" -- there were still two more massive vessels steaming in from the Atlantic to take their places in what has since become famous as the Great White Fleet.
Two days passed before the USS Minnesota and USS Kentucky completed the impressive naval force for what President Theodore Roosevelt originally touted as a voyage from Hampton Roads around South America to the nation's West Coast.
But with the newly emergent navy of Japan looking for reasons to expand its sway in the Western Pacific --and the United States still figuring out how to protect its newly won overseas possessions in the Philippines -- the president didn't hesitate to use the original trip as a springboard for a round-the-world demonstration that marked the United States' own arrival as a global naval power.
"There had never been anything like it -- a fleet this size -- a voyage this long -- and going around the world with something like this was unprecedented," Hampton Roads Naval Museum curator Joe Judge says.
"The Great White Fleet was clearly designed to show off American naval power on the world stage in a way it had never been seen before."
How that spectacle came about -- and how it affected Old Point Comfort, Newport News Shipbuilding and the rest of Hampton Roads -- will be the subject of an in-depth story and archival photo gallery scheduled to appear on or around the anniversary of the fleet's departure on Dec. 16, 1907.
Manned by 14,000 sailors, the 16 battleships covered some 43,000 miles and made 20 port calls on six continents in 14 months.
When it finally called in Japan, the fleet eased the serious tensions that had resulted in the recall of the Japanese ambassador, generating such good will that the island nation's hospitality was overflowing.
In Roosevelt's own words, that unexpected turnaround and the success of his "big stick" diplomatic approach ranked as one of the most important accomplishments of his administration.
“In my own judgment the most important service I rendered to peace was the voyage of the battle fleet around the world,” he later wrote.
-- Mark St. John Erickson
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