How a penniless farm boy circumnavigated the globe and changed his world
At 14 years old, Aura Clark was a farm laborer. The economic depression of the 1890’s had wiped out jobs, farms and fortunes. Aura’s family couldn’t afford to feed him so they found a family willing to provide room and board in exchange for his labor.
Aura grew quietly discontent with the situation, so one year later, at 15, he ran away. He left the Kewanna, Indiana farm for Chicago to join the U.S. Navy.
He wasn’t old enough to enlist so Aura had concocted a plan. He provided the Navy recruiter with a name and a telephone number to confirm his birth date. The recruiter called the number at the county courthouse in Rochester, Indiana, and spoke to the clerk who worked with marriage and birth certificates. Unbeknownst to the recruiter, the young girl was a friend of Aura’s. She, too, had been farmed out to the Overmeyer family for room and board. And she, too, had escaped. Before Aura ran away, she promised she’d help him.
The recruiter nodded as he ended the call; satisfied and smiling, he placed the handset back on the phone. Aura was in the Navy.
Aura and America became inextricably linked. They grew up together, both putting on muscle and growing in strength. Aura transformed himself from a farm boy into a man with the help of the U.S. Navy while America metamorphosed from a republic to an imperial power with the help of enthusiastic farm boys like Aura.
In 1898, Aura went to war. The United States had enjoyed peace since 1848 adhering to the American tradition of non-intervention— a policy laid down by George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and other founding fathers. But a confluence of factors—political, economic, social and yellow journalism steamrolled President McKinley into declaring war on Spain after the sinking of the battleship Maine in Cuban waters. Whether or not this war was contrived is still debated. But the outcome of the war was startling. In ten weeks the United States went from a republic to an empire, from an inward-looking country to a new world power. Spain had ceded the Philippine Islands, Guam, and Puerto Rico to the United States.
"It has been a splendid little war," wrote US ambassador John Hay from London in a letter to his friend, Theodore Roosevelt, then Assistant Secretary of the Navy.
When Teddy Roosevelt became president, he sent Aura and 14,000 other sailors on a cruise of a lifetime. It was the Voyage of the Great White Fleet.
In 1907, Roosevelt ordered 16 U.S. Navy battleships of the Atlantic Fleet on a worldwide voyage. The hulls were painted white and decorated with gilded scrollwork.
Why did Roosevelt do it? In 1906, war with Japan appeared possible. The Japanese navy dominated the Pacific and posed a potential threat to the Philippines. Aura read newspaper accounts of America's problems with Japan: Roosevelt mediated the Treaty of Portsmouth in 1906 ending the Russo-Japanese War. The Japanese had obliterated the Russian fleet. But Japan failed to get all they thought they deserved at the peace table and blamed Roosevelt for it.
In the same year, anti-Japanese feelings were sweeping California. Segregation of Japanese school children had been ordered by the San Francisco Board of Education. When this news reached Japan, violent anti-American protests erupted.
Roosevelt didn't want war with Japan. The United States was not prepared— most of America’s battle fleet was concentrated in the Atlantic; only a few armored cruisers sailed the Pacific.
So Roosevelt persuaded San Francisco to end its segregation policy in exchange for an agreement with Japan to slow down its flow of immigrants into the United States.
And to impress Japan that the U.S. Navy could shift its battleships from the Atlantic to the Pacific, Roosevelt ordered the Great White Fleet to sail around the world. This multi-faceted approach demonstrated Roosevelt’s speak-softly-but-carry-a-big-stick philosophy.
When Aura steamed out of Hampton Roads, Virginia, on December 16, 1907, on the USS Connecticut, the flagship of the Great White Fleet, President Roosevelt was there to see him off.
Teddy stood on the deck of the presidential yacht Mayflower, anchored nearby. Beaming, he flashed his toothy smile. "Bully!” he said as the battleships painted white with gilded bows steamed to the open sea.
The fleet was bound for 20 ports of call on 6 continents over 14 months. They would travel 43,000 nautical miles. It was grand pageantry of American sea power.
Aura, a penniless farm boy, was transformed into a U.S. diplomat, as one of Roosevelt’s 14,000 sailors who would meet, greet, and promote good will along the way.
Rumors of war preceded the fleet’s visit to New Zealand. But when Aura and the Great White Fleet steamed into Auckland harbor, 100,000 Kiwis— ten percent of New Zealand’s population— lined the shores to greet them. For one week, New Zealand celebrated the Yankee visit. Officers were treated to dinners and balls. And Aura was given a Government Railways First Class Pass. The small leather pass was for special trains traveling inland to Rotorua to see the Maori tribesmen.
Next, the fleet sailed for Sydney, Australia.
So intense was Australia's interest in the visit that half the population of that city remained awake the entire night and thousands upon thousands of them long before night was over were on their way to the hill tops outside the city limits, where they massed seemingly in unbroken lines to view the spectacle. Estimates of the number of spectators vary from 500,000 to 650,000. — from Teddy's Roosevelt's Great White Fleet by James Reckner.
Melbourne greeted the Great White Fleet with madness.
Every window, roof and other projection was jammed and the American bluejacket marched through six miles of madly cheering people. San Francisco' enthusiasm was dwarfed by the people of Melbourne. Hospitals were full of people who had been trampled in the streets or had fallen off buildings while watching the parade. — from The Cruise of the Great White Fleet, a collection of postcards, medals, photographs, and memorabilia by William Stewart.
The fleet left Melbourne and sailed through a typhoon on its way to Japan. Seas ran above 40 feet. Waves rose 15 to 20 feet above the ships’ quarterdecks while winds whipped 65 miles per hour. The Virginia lost two lifeboats. Three men were swept overboard with only one not recovered, Gunners Mate Fuller of the Rhode Island. The typhoon scattered the fleet. It took four days to regroup and delayed entry to into Tokyo Bay and Yokohama by one day.
As the seas settled and the fleet approached Yokohama, Aura was informed that he would be granted liberty and was read a directive written by the Commanding Officer, Rear Admiral Perry: To insure against diplomatically damaging incidents, "only first-class men, whose records showed no evidence of previous indulgence in intoxicating liquor," would be allowed ashore. And, in reference to a planned reception for the crew, the directive went on to state that "the men will be made to understand that this, though an entertainment, is a matter of military duty" and all sailors should conduct themselves accordingly.”
Japanese hospitality was lavish. Flag officers were provided rooms at the Emperor's Palace, while the ships' captains stayed in suites at Tokyo's Imperial Hotel. Junior officers were provided railroad passes, and select enlisted men, including Aura, were given trolley car privileges. For the entire week the fleet was in Japan, there was continuous celebration.
The fleet left Japan with its major diplomatic mission accomplished. War with Japan had been averted, and the visit is credited as sealing the deal between Japan and the United States— the Root-Takahira Agreement that went into effect shortly after the fleet's return. According to this treaty, the United States and Japan agreed to maintain the status quo in the Pacific and to respect each other's possessions. Also, both nations consented to respect the "Open Door" policy in China and the independence and territorial integrity of that country.
The fleet headed home crossing the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Sea. It steamed through the Suez Canal, stopped to assist earthquake victims in Messina, Sicily, and then sailed across the Atlantic.
As they steamed home into the Roads, Teddy Roosevelt was there again, waiting for them aboard the presidential yacht Mayflower. Roosevelt had only two weeks left in the White House. William Howard Taft was to succeed him. Some time later, Roosevelt would say that the cruise of the Great White Fleet was "the most important service that I rendered for peace.”
Aura Clark advanced to the rank of Chief Petty Officer. But he wanted to become an officer and a gentleman. He studied hard but was unable to pass the mathematics portion of the entrance exam for the U.S. Naval Academy. Later in life, he would see his older son, Robert, admitted to the Naval Academy. And he would see his younger son, Donald, become a mathematics teacher. He was never penniless again.