Admiral Mannix served in the Spanish-American War, the conflicts in Cuba and the Philippines, and the First World War. His career spanned the years of America’s emergence as a major player on the world stage, and this book offers memorable portraits of the Navy and of America…and of much of the world…during this period.
After spending his childhood in China (his father was a torpedo expert working for the Chinese government), Mannix entered the US Naval Academy in 1885. When the battleship Maine blew up in Havana harbor and the Spanish-American war erupted in 1898, he requested permission to leave the Academy early, and joined the battleship USS Indianapolis.
The war resulted in a rapid American victory, despite some serious deficiencies in the American conduct of operations (such as the failure to use smokeless powder), and Mannix observed the sad passage of the Spanish admiral into American captivity, in an open boat, wearing civilian clothes loaned to him by an American captain and with his head lowered in deep dejection: “I was never so sorry for anyone in my life.” He was impressed by the exquisite courtesy of a badly-wounded Spanish officer who had lost a leg:
As though making his adieux after an enjoyable evening, he thanked us for our “hospitality” (no, he wasn’t being sarcastic) and expressed his profound regret for the annoyance that his unfortunate arrival had caused…I have met men of all nationalities during my years in the Navy; in “good breeding” none of them could equal the upper-class Spaniards.
After returning to Annapolis, Mannix graduated in 1900, and he sketches what life was like in America at the turn of the last century: some of the popular songs and comedy acts, the Gibson Girl (“the loveliest of all feminine ideas”, in his view), but also the fear of riots and attempted revolution when President McKinley was assassinated in 1901…New York’s ‘streetcar rowdies’, who molested women and beat up any man who tried to stop them…and a riot in Pensacola’s red-light district which involved civilians, soldiers, and sailors (“a far rougher lot than today’s bluejackets”) and which Mannix led a landing party to suppress.
In 1903, Mannix was assigned to a “friendly mission” of four warships to German ports, as ordered by Theodore Roosevelt. “These ‘friendship tours’ were quite common in those days and paradoxically served a dual purpose: they reminded the foreign power that we had a powerful Navy that could reach their home waters while at the same time allowed the people to meet Americans and learn that we were not all strange, uncivilized barbarians.”
Assigned as an aide on the Admiral’s staff, aboard the battleship Kearsage, he met many German officers and found them mostly friendly. The Kaiser also visited Kearsage, and Mannix was impressed that he chatted with the enlisted men as well the officers. “Much to my surprise, he showed a sense of humor.”
One potentially-disastrous incident involved a collision between a German (or at least Prussian) custom: civilians on the street were supposed to give way to any uniform-wearing officer…and an American naval custom: officers generally did not wear their uniforms when ashore. This collision of customs lead to a physical collision, followed by the use of fists by the American officer, and a challenge to a duel. The situation could have led to a serious diplomatic incident had it not been defused.
Throughout his travels, Mannix enjoyed meeting people from other countries…a view that he says was far from universal. Speaking of a luncheon given by the Lord Mayor of London, he says, “To my astonishment, most of the junior officers were reluctant to attend the luncheon and would far rather have spent their time playing cards together or chatting in the wardroom mess.”
Some of the officers he met at the luncheon were members of the First Life Guards, an “elite” regiment that was open only to the wealthy and titled…”Kipling referred to them contemptuously as the “fatted flunkies of the Army.” But:
Twenty years later I was in Constantinople and the Household Brigade of the British Army was stationed there. I looked over the list to see if I could recognize any old acquaintances. Among all those names there were only two or three who had titles…Where were all those young earls and baronets and honorables? They were dead. Most of them had died in August 1914 during the terrible retreat from Mons when the old British Regular Army virtually ceased to exist. They were not “fatted flunkies” there.”
In addition to meeting the men of other nations, Mannix especially enjoyed meeting the women, and could not understand those fellow officers who preferred to interact with any American girls they might chance to meet. While in Germany, he had an affair with a young Countess, and was in bed with her when a very upset German officer burst into the room. Mannix was afraid that the man was about to visit dire consequences upon him for “the desecration of his countrywoman”…but the officer had only wanted to warn him that the Kearsage had gotten up steam and was getting underway. Which was bad enough.
When Mannix did marry, in 1910, it was to the daughter of a socially-prominent Philadelphia family. He was alarmed when his bride informed him she envisaged a household with a minimum of four servants–but was relieved to be assured that Polly would of course continue to receive her regular allowance.
Mannix’s first command, also in 1910, was of the destroyer Jarvis–a small ship, with less than 10 feet draft. In any kind of sea it pitched and rolled unpleasantly. There was no GPS or radio navigation in those days, of course, and Mannix records some navigational incidents in which disaster was narrowly averted. Running at 30 knots, between two islands, only a narrow passage between them could be observed. The ship’s navigator “had a very good opinion of himself” and assured Captain Mannix that it was safe to proceed through the passage at full speed. When Mannix demurred, the navigator replied in a weary, condescending tone, “I assure you, sir, the passage is well marked, I have carefully checked our position, and there is no possibility that I am mistaken.”
As the ship drew closer, Mannix noticed a curious-looking bird that was swimming back and forth across the passage, catching fish. Having never seen a bird quite like it, he called for a telescope…and realized that the bird was not swimming, he was walking to and fro on the bottom! Full astern!…barely in time.
When America entered the First World War, Mannix got wind of a highly secret plan to lay a mine field (to inhibit the operations of U-boats) across the North Sea: 250 miles long and involving 100,000 mines. Relatively few officers were eager to join the mine-laying squadron…mining “lacked the glamor of shooting it out with broadsides from the big guns”…also…”If you were beaten in ship-to-ship conflicts you could always surrender. If while mine laying one of your mines exploded, that was it.” Mannix volunteered, and was assigned to command a retired merchant ship that was in pretty bad shape and that was being repurposed as a minelaying vessel. Always in the minds of those involved in minelaying was the recent event in Halifax, where a French vessel loaded with TNT (the same explosive used in the mines) had exploded and wiped out two square miles of the town. Mannix’s ship had some close calls–one involving a fire, which could have detonated the mines and which was put out by mess cooks who noticed the smoke and flames and took prompt action–but ultimately the squadron cruised 8384 miles without losing a ship. The mine barrage was credited with destroying at least 23 U-boats, and Mannix believes that the effect on German naval morale was considerable.
With the war over, there was much determination, in all the combatant nations, to avoid any such catastrophe in the future. In 1921, Mannix was required to attend the Washington Disarmament Conference as an escort for some foreign dignitaries.
This was the height of the pacifist craze. The League of Nations was to make wars impossible. All armed forces would be demolished. The resulting savings in taxes would be used to benefit the poor and needy.
My group of delegates came from a certain European country, a very little one, that had no navy. They were insulted at being met by a naval officer in uniform (we were ordered to wear our uniforms). The chief of the delegation, a little fat man, informed me that he was “a man of peace” and I “no better than a hired assassin.” I called a taxi to take them to their hotel and the chief delegate got into a terrific row with the taxi driver over where he was to put his suitcase. As a dove of peace he was the most bellicose person I’ve ever met.
Everywhere in the city was the same anti-militaristic attitude. Even walking in the streets, I was met by scowls and often muttered imprecations. This happened to all men in uniform. It seemed to me that they deserved better of their fellow countrymen after risking their lives for them. I am sure a number of these “pacifists” would have attacked me if they dared…One evening, as a representative of the Navy, I was required to attend–in full uniform–a large formal dinner given by the English Speaking Union. The speaker was Mr Arthur Balfour, the famous British statesman. In his speech he assured us that the United States did not need a Navy; we could depend on England to protect us. His remarks about our Navy were so abusive that people turned to glare at me. I felt that I should have vanished like the devil in a pantomine through a trapdoor but unfortunately none had been provided…At the end of his speech, the audience gave him an ovation. A number of them, both men and women, rushed up and actually kissed his hand…A high dignitary of our own Episcopal Church turned to me and said enthusiastically, “A wonderful speech, was it not?” I began to wonder whether I was crazy or whether everyone else was.
Mannix’s later service included two years in Turkey, of which he tells many interesting stories. The book was compiled by his son, Daniel Mannix IV, from his father’s original diaries. Highly recommended.