Caught in rough seas off the coast of Luzon in the Philippines on a stormy night in December 1915, the U.S.S. Wilmington rolled 61 degrees, dangerously close to the point where she might capsize. Having survived the worst of the many dramatic rolls it would experience over the course of its forty-eight years in service, the naval vessel safely arrived in Manila the next day, completing its three-day passage from Hong Kong. The Wilmington was part of the U.S. Asiatic Squadron, charged with defending the Philippines and with upholding the American Open Door Policy in China. While there were many hazards in this mission, typhoons posed one of the greatest threats to the Navy’s light-draft gunboats as they steamed from port to port establishing an authoritative presence in Asia by “showing the flag.”
Eighteen menus from the Wilmington reveal the rituals and rhythm of this Squadron in the early twentieth century. It may seem surprising that these menus survived, however, the so-called “China Sailors” and “China Marines” were avid scrap-bookers, saving ephemera from the shops, bars and restaurants they frequented.1 In addition to photographs, they filled the pages with a colorful array of pin-ups, beer bottle labels, newspaper clippings, and business cards from their favorite “working women.” Although the menus from their holiday dinners may not be the most titillating of these mementos, they provide historical evidence of naval foodways and customs, while serving as a chronology of American military involvement in China.
Commissioned in 1897, the Wilmington operated off the coast of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, taking part in actions at Cardenas and Manzanillo. Later, she sailed in the Caribbean and off South America, making cruises up the Orinoco and the Amazon Rivers. In October 1900, soon after the Boxer Rebellion in China was crushed, the 251-foot gunboat departed for the Far East where American warships were now beginning to routinely patrol the Yangtze River and South China coast.2
Our story begins on Thanksgiving Day in 1906, when the ship was anchored off Cavite, the U.S. naval station in Manila Bay. In addition to the bill of fare, the menu below is illustrated with two photographs and a humorous 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 in Hong Kong Harbor on Christmas in 1906. By contrast to the elaborate menu from Thanksgiving, this bill of fare is printed on small card designed as a mailer. A notice at the bottom reads: “Iced orangeade served all day.”
On Washington’s Birthday in 1907, the Wilmington was back in Manila Bay. Surprisingly, this dinner features Canvasback duck, the prized America game dish normally served at expensive restaurants and hotels. In addition to iced orangeade, there was also a candy pulling contest that day.
Decoration Day (now called Memorial Day) was celebrated in Shanghai that year. Following the face-saving custom then employed at hotels frequented by Westerners, the dishes on the menu below are numbered, indicating that this dinner was served by Chinese servants.
The ship was moored at Chefoo (now Yantai) in Shangdong Province on Independence Day in 1907. This menu is inscribed on the back by Marine Private Walter Klinepeter who served as the captains orderly.
There are a couple of foods worth noting on the above menu. The pie was probably made with the local peaches for which the province was known. (The peach is indigenous to China; the history and cultivation of this fruit has been traced as far back as 1000 BC.) On the other end of the culinary spectrum, the spiced English ham recalls the fact that Chefoo was once called the “Brighton of China.” Opened as a treaty port by the British in 1862, this city was known for its attractive homes and shore line, making it a favorite summer destination for travelers, expatriates, and the U.S. Asiatic Fleet.
For the sailors and Marines on liberty, each port had its particular charms. In addition to the Chinese women who served as companions for the “American boys,” there were also many Korean and Japanese women living in northern port cities like Chefoo, Shanghai and Tsingtao. (Russian women joined this mix after the Russian Revolution of 1917 when large numbers of refugees settled all along the Chinese coast.)
U.S.S. Wilmington was decorated with flags and pennants on these holidays and for other special occasions. For example, in mid-November 1907, the ship was dressed in honor of the birthday of Cixi, the diminutive Empress of Imperial China. At noon, a 21-gun salute was fired in her honor. It seems unusual to bestow such honors for this 72-year-old monarch who encouraged anti-foreign sentiment among her subjects, fanning the flames of widespread hatred for the West in China. However, in January 1908, the ship followed the same procedure on the respective birthdays of King Edward VII of the UK and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany. It was simply part of the naval routine.
|Dowager Empress Cixi|
In 1907, the crew requested that Captain William Rush join them at their Thanksgiving meal; an invitation which he graciously accepted. Lying at anchor off Cavite, the gunboat had not yet received President Theodore Roosevelt’s Thanksgiving proclamation when thankfulness was expressed at dinner for “God’s gifts innumerable, including the Republican party.” According to the ship’s magazine, one of the most appreciated foods that day was cranberry sauce, for which there was “a well-known American craving.”
Since the ship was usually in a major port for the holidays, the steward often engaged a commercial establishment to print the menus, which resulted in a wide variety of designs. The above menu was printed in Manila by the Escolta Press, publisher of the works of Chauncey M’Govern, dubbed the “Kipling of the Philippines.”
By Christmas 1907, the ship 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. Described as a “bower of beauty,” the decorations exceeded what had been done for Thanksgiving to dress the ship. On Christmas Eve, the crew of the small gunboat U.S.S. Callao came on board the Wilmington for an informal social gathering called a “smoker.”6 Musicians, vocalists, and monologists from both crews provided entertainment on the quarterdeck. There was also dancing, everything from Virginia reels and quadrilles to the latest steps, aided by the Graphophone the visitors brought with them for the occasion.
On Christmas morning, each member of the crew received a bag of candy and nuts. The dinner menus were printed on thin, tissue paper napkins by the China Baptist Publication Society. This bill of fare begins with caviar on toast, and ends with a Christmas tree, listed below the “entremets.”
Many of the sailors were fascinated in how far they traveled, sometimes recording the daily mileage in their personal logs.1 In 1907, the Wilmington steamed a total of 12,243 miles, visiting 29 different ports. However, during the week between Christmas and New Years Day, the ship stayed at Canton. Before the heavy pollution of modern times, Guangdong Province was particularly pleasant at this time of year, when the prevailing winds came from the westerly direction. For a few months, dry breezes blew off the mainland, pushing the oppressively humid air out over the South China Sea.
Independence Day in 1908 was celebrated in Hong Kong. The sailors and Marines of the Asiatic Squadron dined particularly well on these special occasions, as evidenced by dishes like roast goose and suckling pig. The recreational activities listed below include a tug of war contest, a baseball game, and races of all kinds. However, the most popular events were the boxing matches held at several points throughout the day. (The roster in this menu is not shown.)
Independence Day in 1908 was being celebrated in similar ways in San Francisco by the 14,000 sailors and Marines assigned to the “Great White Fleet.” Comprising sixteen battleships, this grand armada was then cruising around the world in a long, majestic column, demonstrating America’s growing military power. The 43,000-mile circumnavigation took fourteen months to complete, arriving back at Hampton Roads, Virginia on February 22, 1909, a few days before President Roosevelt left office.
In mid-December 1908, the Wilmington commenced service on the Yangtze River, sailing as far as Hankou, 602 nautical miles from the mouth at the East China Sea.3 Normally, this large gunboat was not used for the “Yangtze Patrol,” and by Thanksgiving 1909, she was again moored at Shanghai.
There appears to have been good camaraderie among the crew of the Wilmington, which was affectionately nicknamed the “Willie.” During one of their visits to Shanghai in 1909, six sailors posed for this photograph on deck, calling themselves the “Merry Cherry Pickers.”
By Christmas 1910, Chief Petty Officer Walter Barowski, whose name appeared on earlier menus as the commissary steward, was no longer on the ship. Personnel changes now became more frequent. The presence of “Chefoo grapes” on this bill of fare suggests that the new steward procured fresh fruit in Shangdong Province before sailing down to Hong Kong. (The roster accompanying this menu is not shown.)
On Labor Day in 1911, U.S.S. Wilmington was anchored at Olongapo on Subic Bay in the Philippines. Ten years earlier, the waters and adjacent lands of this bay were reserved for the U.S. Naval purposes by the executive order of President Roosevelt.
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 for Christmas. The menu below is somewhat different from that of the previous year. Chinese characters have been added to the cover and bill of fare, and unlike previous years, the roster includes the names of sixteen Chinese “messmen.”
Petty Officer J. W. Lloyd, Yeoman third class, inscribed 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 was taken from the mountain called “The Peak,” showing the Wilmington moored in Hong Kong Harbor. (Lloyd identified the ship with an arrow; click to enlarge.)
Here a hunting party of sailors poses in front of a Chinese tomb on Qiao Island situated in the Pearl River estuary at the center of a triangle formed by Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Macau.
After Decoration Day in 1912, Wilmington remained in Hong Kong for two years undergoing repairs.
With war in Europe fast approaching in the summer of 1914, many of the ships in the Squadron were assigned to specific ports. However, the U.S.S. Wilmington continued duty on roving assignments. In December 1915, while sailing from Hong Kong to Manila, the ship was caught in a storm off Luzon, rolling close to the point where she might capsize. A postcard was made showing an extract from the ship’s log during that harrowing journey.
In 1916, Wilmington was again at Hong Kong on Washington’s Birthday. Reflecting the theme of this holiday, the hatchet-shaped menu below refers to the fierce storm the ship miraculously survived two months earlier, proclaiming “61 Degrees and Still Afloat!”
The ship was in the Philippines on Thanksgiving 1918. Sixteen days earlier, the armistice was signed, officially ending the First World War. Largely centered in Europe, the global conflict had evolved into a murderous war of attrition, causing the death of about 16.5 million people. The era of firing 21-gun salutes on the birthdays of monarchs had ended. Although there are no Chinese characters on the menu below, eleven Chinese “servants” are listed on the roster (not shown).
The last menu in this series comes from Christmas 1918. The American diet became more homogeneous during the Great War, driven in part by the growth and standardization of the U.S. military. In the future, special meals on the holidays were somewhat less lavish, comprising traditional foods most closely associated with American cultural identity. Things like caviar, Canvasback duck, and the word “entremets” no longer appeared on the menu. An illustration on the back cover shows the ship in the storm in 1915, along with the ship's new motto: “61 Degrees and Still Afloat.”
In 1923, U.S.S. Wilmington was assigned as a training ship on the Great Lakes. Renamed Dover, she served as an Atlantic convoy escort in 1942, and later was used as a training ship at New Orleans. In addition to being the only Navy vessel ever named after the city of Wilmington, Delaware, she was one of the very few ships that served in the Spanish-American War, the First World War, and the Second World War. Decommissioned in 1945, she was sold for scrap the following year.
2. Gunboats have batteries designed to bombard coastal targets, as opposed to engaging in naval warfare. Along with her sister ship, the U.S.S. Helena, the 1570-ton U.S.S. Wilmington was then one of the larger U.S. gunboats in Asia, armed with eight 4-inch rapid fire guns; four 6-pounder rapid fire guns; and two 6mm automatic guns.
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.