Naval History and Heritage Command

Naval History and Heritage Command

Admiral William B. Caperton, Commander-in-Chief, Pacific Fleet, to Admiral William S. Benson, Chief of Naval Operations

United States Pacific Fleet

U.S.S.Pittsburgh Flagship.

  12 November, 1918.

My dear Benson:

     While the whole world is rejoicing over the end of the war, I want to write a few lines to tell you how much I personally appreciated the great part you have had achieving this result. The work of our Navy, no less than that of our Army, has been the determining factor in this success, and as the Navy knows and the country should know, its successful administration is due more to you than to any other one person.

     I suppose the final arrangement of peace terms will take a very long time, and am wondering how long you will be kept in Europe in connection with it.1 On the chance that you are still there, I am sending this in the care of a young French Naval Officer who is leaving for Paris tomorrow, and knowing your interest in our mission here, I am inclosing copies of two letters to the department which left today in the PUEBLO.

     I cannot too strongly express my hope that the department will not abandon this station. If you will inform me when the policy in this matter has been determined upon, I will be glad to make further recommendations, based upon my experience here, covering some further details.

     With regard to the few months remaining before my retirement in June, I must tell you that I hope very strongly that the department will see fit to leave me here as long as possible. My heart is in this work, and now that hostilities are over and I am free to cruise, I believe that some further worth-while results can be accomplished in this time.

     Because of the epidemic here, the Brazilian Government has postponed until some time next year the reception of the many missions which were to have been present on the occasionof the inauguration of the new president, 15 November. The time for receiving these missions has not yet been fixed, but it is expected to be either in March or in May. Needless to say, I will be greatly honored if my commission as special ambassador for that occasion is continued in effect until the reception takes place.2

     We have had a terrible epidemic of Spanish influenza here. Despite our best efforts, we have lost fifty-eight men in the Pittsburgh, or about four and one-half percent of the 1300 souls on board when the epidemic started. In Rio no exact statistics were kept, but the number of deaths is estimated at 35,000. The conditions on shore during the worst week were terrible beyond description. Everything was paralyzed. People were unable to obtain fresh food or medicine, and the demoralization was such that hundreds of bodies lay in the houses and in the streets awaiting burial. However, although there are still two or three hundred deaths a day, it is about over now, and conditions are nearly normal. Our own personnel is getting back into shape, and I do not think we will have any more deaths.3

     During the short stay of the PUEBLO, every precaution was taken to prevent her infection, and her personnel held no communication at all with the shore.

     I had expected to be in Montevideo on the occasion of Brum’s return,4 but am afraid that my ship will notbe ready to make a cruise by that time, as a large proportion of the crew are still somewhat weak. However, I intend going there befor long if circumstances permit. I have also in mind the possibility of a short cruise to Chile some time next year. From my visit there last JulyI feel sure that such a visit will be worth a great deal, as the people there show every sign of desiring a closer friendship with us. I am also anxious when possible to get the ship into a higher latitude for a short time, to brace the personnel who are weakened by a long stay in the tropics and by this epidemic. A cruise into the Pacific and back would serve this purpose admirably.

     I trust it is early to make this suggestion, but I sincerely hope that when the time comes for my relief I will be able to visit at least Rio and Montevideo with him, to introduce him personally to our many friends and to go over local conditions with him on the spot.5 In connection with the selection of my relief, I must not fail to mention that a knowledge of French and Spanish is a great asset in all these countries: though of course that is not so important as it is to select some one of tact and diplomacy.

     I am thinking of asking before long to have two smaller cruisers sent here as soon as their services can be spared. Of course there is no immediate emergency, but this should follow naturally in case the department adopts the policy I have recommended.6

     Our relations with the Brazilian Navy continue about the same. Vogelgesang’s work here has been perfect,7 and not only all of us who have the matter at heart, but also, I am sure, all the Brazilians, were more than sorry to see him leave today in the PUEBLO. We are very fortunate in having Vice Admiral Comes Pereira as the new Minister of Marine. He has been president of their war college, and is very pro-American; and he is also without doubt the best officer in the Brazilian Navy for the office of minister.

     I am sorry the repairs to the Sao Paulo have been so delayed.8 While it has the good feature of keeping her officers and men for a longer time in the United States, I fear it may somewhat reduce the Brazilian faith in getting prompt and satisfactory work done in our country. We must not let anything happen that will militate against our building any new ships which they may order.

     While it is still early to consider such a thing, it would be a very good thing to send a squadron of our battleship fleet to these waters from time to time in the same way that we sent them to Europe between 1910 and 1913. It will be a pleasant sight-seeing cruise for the squadron and as such stimulate recruiting, and will also serve the purpose of impressing the countries visited both with our power and with our friendship. If a squadron of say eight dreadnaughts, could be sent to Rio on the occasion of the new administration’s reception to the special missions next spring, it would be an exceptionally opportune time. Eightis the about the maximum number which should be sent to any one port here, as the cities are not big enough to absorb the personnel of a larger force.9

     I will greatly appreciate it if you will let me know what is decided both with regard to my own case and with regard to the policy of keeping a squadron here.10 Hope you are having as pleasanta time as possible with the work to be accomplished. I am in the best of health and spirits; never better.

Please remember me kindly to the Secretary, and all my friends in the Department, and with best love to the Madame,11 and yourself.

I am always your friend.

/s/               

W.B.Caperton.

Source Note: LTS, DNA, RG 520, Box 677. At the top of the page are the initials “MEJ._” which was presumably the typist.

Footnote 1: Benson was in France as naval advisor to the mission of Col. Edward M. House, sent to negotiate with the Allies concerning terms of an armistice with Germany. He remained as naval advisor to the U.S. peace delegation and did not return to the United States until June 1919. On Benson’s service in these capacities, see Klachko and Trask, Benson, 86-163.

Footnote 2: Despite being placed on the retired list on 30 June 1919, he continued on active duty in order to represent the United States at the official reception for the President Elect of Brazil, Epitácio Pessoa. DNA, William Banks Caperton file, box 37, ZB files, Navy Department Library.

Footnote 3: See “Personal Account by Rear Admiral William B. Caperton of the 1918 Influenza on Armored Cruiser No. 4, USS Pittsburgh, at Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,” https://www.history.navy.mil/research/library/online-reading-room/title-list-alphabetically/i/influenza/admiral-william-b-caperton-of-the-1918-influenza-on-armored-cruiser-no-4-uss-Pittsburgh.html, consulted 11/5/18.

Footnote 4: Baltasar Brum, the Foreign Minister of Uruguay, who was known for promoting good relations with the United States and had travelled to the United States to meet the Secretary of State. He became President of Uruguay in 1919.

Footnote 5: Caperton’s successor was RAdm. Hugh Rodham. It does not appear that he made a cruise with Caperton.

Footnote 7: Capt. Carl T. Vogelgesang had been the Senior member of a U.S. naval commission to Brazil to advise the Brazilian War College.

Footnote 8: In June 1918 Brazil sent the dreadnaught São Paulo to the United States for refit. That refit was not completed until 7 January 1920. David Topliss, “The Brazilian Dreadnoughts, 1904-1914,” Warship International, vol. 25, no 3 (1988).

Footnote 9: There is no indication such a cruise was ever made.

Footnote 10: Benson’s reply has not been found.

Footnote 11: Benson’s wife, Mary Augusta Wyse Benson.

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