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It is a gift to be able to write of a sailor like Richard Wesley Konter, who can put his adventures of sailing around the world with the Great White Fleet in a single line, and have that many more adventures to fill a page. Richard was the last surviving veteran of the Spanish American War in Brooklyn in 1975. Born January 8th, 1882 in the Bushwick area of Brooklyn he joined the Navy at 15 years old. He served from 1897 to 1927 a period of great transition in naval history. I am the keeper of his photo collection, a great honor and responsibility to share a life and a passion of going to see as a sailor at the turn of the century.
Richard was a guitar playing sailor who sailed on the Constitution, fought in the Spanish American War, was stranded on a South Pacific island, served on cruisers, battleships, rode the tops of trains, and went with Admiral Byrd to the North Pole. Oh, and he served aboard the USS New Jersey in 1908 to travel around the world.
His collection is unique. Unlike most, it has few postcards, only a couple, and the entire collection is photographs the Richard took with his Kodak Brownie box camera. I imagine that he had a dark room on the ship he could use and became skilled and developing and printing his photographs. It is unique also because Richard got to see parts of the cruise that other did not. He was on a train in a train in the mountains of Peru that was stranded by avalanche and was one of the select sailors that visited the pyramids of Egypt. He connected with people. His photos are with others, sailors, people he met, children, students at school, families, and friends. The collection presents a unique insight to a sailor's voyage around the world by someone who was an adventurer.
In 1975, at the age of 93, he was busy writing a book about his life. He decided to edit his scrap book of photos to be used in his book with a pair of scissors. They had been glued to pages, front and back and were torn or cut from the pages and the cropped as best he could. I have retained all of them in the condition found and put them here for record of the period of the Great White Fleet Cruise.
His first photographs are from Rio De Janeiro where he is seen just enjoying the city and his friends. The palm lined streets, a trip to the botanical gardens and just hanging out under a tree.
The ship was next to cross the equator and meet Neptunus Rex in a time-honored tradition of acceptance into the real of the deep. Richard had certain been initiated from previous cruises and was there to make his shipmates welcome at their crossing. From the photos, it is clear that the New Jersey initiated the crew.
He was able to go on both big adventures in Lima, the bull fights and the train high in the mountains. Both experiences to remember. The bullfight turned out to be one-sided against the bulls and many sailor left before it was over, and the train ride to 13,000 feet turned into an overnight disaster when one train broke down and the other got trapped by an avalanche. Many were sick from the high altitude and one sailor died.
In San Francisco his camera came out for the parade, where he found a vantage point that he could capture the crews from different ships marching past. He also took a picture of the old city hall that had been recently damaged by the earthquake and the lights at night at the Terminal Building to celebrate the fleet's visit.
The above photos, with reverse writing, show the Kearsarge and Kentucky in Bremerton Shipyard and the crowds that flocked to the boats in Tacoma, Washington. Photos from Tacoma are rare.
While in Tacoma, Richard visited Washington High School students. The bear was a gift from the City of Seattle to each ship. The harbor vessel showed the fleet and the Train Station in Tacoma was decorated for the occasion of the fleets visit. The train from Tacoma used to run to Yellowstone National Park!
While in Hawaii the crews were treated to a visit by the pineapple boat! It came to each ship and delivered more pineapples that they could eat. Richard got the camera out for this event. The camera he used had a roll of 6 shots, so every shot counted.
New Zealand and Australia were not a place for Richard to take photographs. It was a place to enjoy the welcome and participate in the events that were planned for the fleet's arrival. There were parades, sporting events, military celebrations, dinners, pubs, and parties. Oh, and there were ladies for the right sailors.
Richard was able to get a few photos while visiting Japan. Keep in mind, by this time Richard had visited Japan many times and spent more time on enjoying and less time on sight seeing.
It appears that when Richard was selected to be one of the few sailor from the ship to go on liberty in Suez and meet the ship in Cairo, he found a place to take photographs, Egypt. That him down front with the fez on. This was the experience he had been waiting for, riding on top of a train through the desert, next to the Suez Canal and seeing the ships of the fleet steaming along. Climbing the pyramids, riding a camel, poking a cobra, seeing a monkey dance in the street. This was the highlight of the cruise for Richard.
The final stops for the New Jersey was to support the efforts for the earthquake by visiting Naples and to visit Villefranche before meeting up with the rest of the fleet at Gibraltar and heading home. They arrived back in Hampton Roads on February 14, 1909.