Caught in a storm off the coast of Luzon on the night of December 20, 1915, the U.S.S. Wilmington rolled 61 degrees, dangerously close to the point where she would capsize. Having narrowly survived the worst roll in her forty-eight years of service, the naval vessel arrived in Manila the next day, safely completing the three-day passage from Hong Kong. The light-draft gunboat was part of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, charged with defending the Philippines and with upholding the Open Door Policy in China. While there were many hazards in this mission, typhoons posed one of the greatest threats to the American warships that sailed from port to port, establishing an authoritative presence in the region by “showing the flag.” Twenty-three holiday menus from the Wilmington reveal the rituals and rhythm of this patrol in the first decades of the twentieth century.
On Thanksgiving Day in 1906, the ship was anchored off Cavite in Manila Bay. In addition to the bill of fare, the menu below features two photographs and a cartoon titled “A Naval Engagement.” It also contains the ship’s roster, which typically comprised ten officers, 176 enlisted sailors, and about three dozen Marines.
Wilmington was moored at Hong Kong on Christmas in 1906. In contrast to the elaborate menu on Thanksgiving, this bill of fare was printed on a small card designed as a mailer. A notice at the bottom reads, “Iced orangeade served all day.”
Back at Manila on Washington’s Birthday in 1907, the crew was treated to roast Canvasback duck, the prized America game dish normally served at upper-class hotels and restaurants.
Decoration Day (now Memorial Day) was celebrated in Shanghai that year. Following the face-saving custom at hotels in China, the dishes on this menu are numbered, indicating the dinner was possibly served by Chinese messmen.
The ship was moored at Chefoo (now Yantai) on Independence Day. This menu is inscribed on the back by Marine Private Walter Klinepeter who served as the captains orderly.
A couple of foods on the above menu are worth noting, such as the pie which was probably made with the renowned peaches in Shandong Province. On the other end of the culinary spectrum, the spiced English ham brings to mind that Chefoo was once called the “Brighton of China.” Opened as a treaty port by the British in 1862, the city was graced with an attractive shore line, making it a summer destination for travelers, Western expatriates, and the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.
The naval ships were decorated with flags and pennants on the holidays and other special occasions. In November 1907, the Wilmington was dressed for the birthday of Cixi, the Empress of Imperial China, and a 21-gun salute was fired at noon, even though the diminutive, 72-year-old monarch encouraged widespread hatred for the West among her subjects. In January of 1908, the ship followed the same procedure to mark the birthdays of King Edward VII of the United Kingdom and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany.
Since the ship was always on the move, the commissary steward used a wide variety of commercial printers to produce the holiday menus, causing them to be strikingly different in design. The above example was printed in Manila by the Escolta Press, publisher of the works of novelist Chauncey M’Govern, dubbed the “Kipling of the Philippines.”
On Christmas in 1907, the Wilmington was riding at anchor at Canton (now Guangzhou), seventy nautical miles up the Pearl River from Hong Kong. The gun deck was again festooned with flags, pennants, and other ornamentation. The decorations, which exceeded what had been done on Thanksgiving, were described as a “bower of beauty.” On Christmas Eve, the crew of the small American gunboat Callao came on board for a social gathering called a smoker.6 Musicians, vocalists, and monologists from both crews provided entertainment on the quarterdeck. There were also Virginia reels, quadrilles, and other dances aided by the Graphophone that the visiting sailors brought with them.
Some sailors maintained a record of the daily mileage in their journals.1 In 1907, the Wilmington steamed a total of 12,243 miles. Fortunately, the ship remained at Canton during the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day. Guangdong Province was particularly pleasant at this time of year, when the dry prevailing winds blew off the mainland in the westerly direction, pushing the heavy humid air out over the South China Sea.
Independence Day in 1908 was celebrated in Hong Kong. The crews of the Asiatic Squadron dined well on this occasion, as evidenced by the menu below featuring dishes like roast goose and suckling pig. The recreational activities include baseball, a tug of war contest, and races of all kinds. Boxing matches held at several locations throughout the day. (The roster is not shown.)
The 14,000 sailors assigned to the “Great White Fleet” celebrated Independence Day in San Francisco that year. The grand armada of sixteen battleships steamed around the world in a majestic column, demonstrating the nation’s growing military power. The 43,000-mile circumnavigation, which took fourteen months to complete, concluded at Hampton Roads, Virginia on February 22, 1909, a few days before President Roosevelt left office.
While anchored at Shanghai in 1909, six sailors calling themselves the “Merry Cherry Pickers” posed on deck for this photograph. The crew nicknamed their ship “Willie.”
This bill of fare on Christmas in 1910 included Chefoo grapes, indicating the steward procured fresh fruit in Shandong Province before the ship sailed for Hong Kong. (The roster is not shown.)
The ship was anchored on Subic Bay in the Philippines on Labor Day in 1911. Ten years earlier, President Roosevelt issued an executive order reserving the waters and adjacent lands of the bay for the U.S. Navy.
In October 1911, a group of revolutionaries in southern China led a successful revolt against the Qing Dynasty, establishing the Republic of China. Two months later, the ship was anchored at Canton on Christmas. Unlike previous menus, Chinese characters have been added to the cover and bill of fare, and the roster (which is not shown) includes the names of sixteen Chinese messmen.
Petty Officer J. W. Lloyd wrote on the above menu: “My home for 3 yrs. 4 mo. in China. One year North China, 2 yrs. 4 mo. South China.” In 1911, Lloyd took the two photographs shown below. The first one, which was taken from the hill on the western half of Hong Kong Island called The Peak, shows the Wilmington moored in the harbor, most likely at Buoy #11 which was her usual mooring. (Lloyd identified the ship with an arrow; click to enlarge.)
In this photo, a hunting party of sailors poses in front of a Chinese tomb on Qiao Island situated at the center of a triangle formed by Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau in the Pearl River estuary.
Wilmington was again moored at Hong Kong on Washington’s Birthday in 1916, as evidenced by this die-cut menu in the form of a hatchet. Inside, there is a reference to the fierce storm of a few weeks earlier, proclaiming “61 Degrees and Still Afloat!” Chief Yeoman William Tripp described this special dinner as a “Big Feed” in his journal. Afterward, Tripp went ashore to one of his hangouts where he played the piano and sang.7
The photo illustration on this Christmas menu from 1918 shows the Wilmington battling the storm three years earlier, along with her motto: “61 Degrees and Still Afloat.”
The American diet became more homogeneous during the Great War, driven in part by the growth of the military. In the future, the special meals on the holidays would be standardized and much less diverse. Lavish foods such as caviar and Canvasback duck, and French words like entremets, would no longer appear on military menus. Instead, only the most traditional dishes would be served, as shown on this Christmas menu from Shanghai in 1919.
Beginning in 1923, U.S.S. Wilmington was used as a training ship on the Great Lakes. Later renamed U.S.S. Dover, she operated as an Atlantic convoy escort in 1942 and as a training ship at New Orleans. In addition to being the only American naval vessel named after Wilmington, Delaware, she was one of the few ships that served in the Spanish-American War, the First World War, and the Second World War. She was decommissioned in 1945 and sold for scrap.
1. Gunboats were equipped with batteries designed to bombard coastal targets, as opposed to engaging in naval warfare. The 1570-ton U.S.S. Wilmington and her sister ship, U.S.S. Helena, were among the largest gunboats operating in Asia.
3. The U.S. Navy policed the Yangtze River as early as 1854, when the U. S. S. Susquehanna was sent to China to safeguard increasing American commerce in the region, but routine patrols did not begin until 1900. The Asiatic Squadron was upgraded to fleet status in 1902. Five years later, it was downgraded to the First Squadron of the Pacific Fleet, but in 1910, the ships of this Squadron were reorganized as the Asiatic Fleet.
5. The Dowager Empress Cixi was five feet tall, the same height as her contemporary, Queen Victoria who ruled the British Empire until she died in 1901. Both monarchs held sway over about 450 million people.
6. Named after a seaport city in Peru, the 119-ft Callao was a Spanish gunboat captured in Manila Bay during the Spanish-American War. The U.S. Navy retained the name of the vessel when they put it into service.