As San Diego approached the uncertain 1920’s it was obvious that the nationwide patriotic zeal and unbounded federal spending sparked by World War I had largely bypassed the city—distant as it was from European hostilities. This worried expansion-minded businessmen and civic leaders. The economic downturn was aggravated by San Diego’s historically weak rail and road networks, unreliable water supply, feeble industrialization, and undeveloped Mexican trade. Even San Diego’s crown jewel—its incomparable natural harbor—lay largely underutilized, plagued by an awkward channel, too shallow for the most efficient, deep draft ships of the day.
Local debate on the city’s future was largely polarized between those who favored Los Angeles-style industrialization and those committed to protecting San Diego’s aesthetic lifestyle. Politicians endlessly debated the values of “smokestacks verses geraniums.”
The U. S. Navy had stood large in those debates, popular, seemingly, to all sides of the question. In the eye of eager San Diegans, the Navy represented the potential of a constant flow of building contracts, payroll dollars, and land development. There was even talk of large federal dredging projects for the bay and the construction of large new bases for a growing Pacific Fleet. A partnership with the Navy promised San Diego the means to harness a flow of industrial revenue into the region without defiling smokestacks.
Although the Navy had captured San Diego for the United States in the earliest days of the Mexican War and later sent its officers to San Diego Bay to be trained as its first naval aviators, the history of naval investment in the city, up until 1920, had sputtered hot-and-cold. In the years before World War I, the Navy in San Diego was a picture of disorganization. The small fragments of the Navy that did call San Diego home were not the result of any master plan and were far from the critical mass of infrastructure needed to ignite promising and consistent expansion. A minor coaling station clung to the shore at La Playa and isolated radio sites sat atop Point Loma and Chollas Heights. The Army had subsumed the early naval aviation presence at North Island. Naval shipping within the bay or in the Coronado roadstead had no repair shops, supply depots or even piers they could call their own.
The Navy’s lack of interest in San Diego was not for lack of trying on the part of the San Diego city government, the Chamber of Commerce, or San Diego’s energetic Congressman William Kettner. All had vigorously lobbied the Navy and had bombarded Washington year after year with reminders of San Diego’s advantages of harbor and climate. But for every step forward in wooing the Navy to the harbor, there were many more steps in other directions. Kettner had won a new Marine base on Dutch Flats. Navy ships had used San Diego as a logistics base for Mexican coast patrols during World War I, but official Navy Department studies had favored San Francisco, Puget Sound, Honolulu and even San Pedro ahead of San Diego for any new West Coast base.1
But with the end of World War I and the decision to reconstitute the Pacific Fleet along the West Coast, all that began to change. The multiple stratagems that Congressman Kettner and San Diego city officials had nurtured for years all unexpectedly began to take hold. Navy interest in San Diego suddenly spiked. Many who had withstood the vagaries of naval investment in the past were openly confident. Yet, despite the surge in naval presence in San Diego, most were guardedly pessimistic— no one really trusted the Navy’s dependability.
At this crucial juncture in San Diego-Navy relations, Admiral Robert Coontz, the Chief of Naval Operations, assigned the Navy’s first flag officer to San Diego to coordinate the Navy’s widespread and accelerating activities. Coontz’ pick for this pivotal task was Rear Admiral Roger Welles, then commander of Battleship Division Four in the Atlantic.
Welles was a competent, if not particularly front-running flag officer, with a portly appearance better befitting a well-to-do banker than a dashing battleship commander. A full head of white hair and a carefully trimmed white mustache spoke better of his station, but in a Navy that was largely still a brotherhood of officers, Welles was not widely known.
Shortly after both men attended the 1919 Army-Navy game in Philadelphia, Coontz approached Welles and asked if he would consider a transfer to San Diego to assume duties as the senior naval commander. Coontz had laid it on thick for his old friend: a brand new posting, aggressive plans for naval expansion, a Navy-friendly city, a healthful climate. Welles was skeptical, strongly preferring service with the battle fleet at sea and instinctively feeling that San Diego was about as far away from mainstream fleet operations as one could get. He had no ties with San Diego (having only visited one time before) and, besides that, he had no great desire to leave his current assignment—the pinnacle in a battleship sailor’s career.2
Welles’ hesitation was not out of character. A committed careerist, he weighed assignment decisions carefully—balancing pros and cons obsessively in order to improve the odds of moving up the professional ladder. Not blessed with charisma, a wide network of influential friends, or personal warmth, Welles could not afford an assignment stumble. Posting to distant San Diego did not bode well.
As Welles mulled how best to tell the Navy’s most senior officer of his disinterest, his wife abruptly suffered an unexpected bout of appendicitis and was rushed to a hospital for an operation. For the first time in his career Welles had to balance what was best for his career with the needs of his family. “She is very weak and Southern California will be just the place in which for her to convalesce,” he finally wrote Admiral Henry B. Wilson in the Navy Department, the tone of his letter decidedly torn between two emotions. “I would be glad to accept the detail [to San Diego] solely on account of Mrs. Welles health, but I want you to know that had there been the slightest chance of getting to sea in the near future, I should never have given my consent to be detached from the fleet.”3
By 1919, Welles had already accumulated 33 years service with the Navy after being raised just outside New York City. As a brand new naval cadet in 1886, Welles had been assigned to the flagship of the North Atlantic Squadron, the impressive steam frigate Tennessee. In a Navy that ranked as one of the world’s most derelict at the time, duty aboard the spit-and-polish Tennessee was much prized and awoke in Welles a career-long passion with the large capital ships at the battleline’s core. Rear Admiral James Jouett penned that Welles had shown “a high order of ability” aboard Tennessee and recommended promotion to passed midshipman.4
Welles was then ordered to the third-rate Navy steamer Thetis bound from Hampton Roads to the Pacific for survey duties. Thetis stopped briefly in San Diego as she headed up the coast to spend several seasons surveying the Alaskan coast and Aleutian Islands.
To break the monotony of laborious survey duties, Welles discovered a fascination with the native peoples that Thetis encountered in Alaskan inlets. Where other junior officers filled training journals with flag signals and the million myriad facts of an apprentice officer learning a profession, Welles filled his with narrative sketches of tribal ritual and day-to-day life among the primitive peoples of the coast. Avocation transcended into duty two years later when young Lieutenant Welles was ordered to the post of Special Counsel to the World’s Colombian Exposition in Chicago, not an unusual assignment for a junior officer in a Navy short on ships. His duties took him on several trips to South America; his formal study of the Orinoco River Indians won him a certificate of excellence and a bronze medal for scientific merit by the Exposition Board.
By 1890, Welles was serving aboard big gun armored cruisers and battleships of the New Steel Navy—Chicago, Essex, Cincinnati, and Texas among them—that moved him to the fast track of naval duties. But, when his best opportunity for glory arose during the Spanish-American War of 1898, Welles’ luck turned, and he found himself assigned as the executive officer and navigator on the lowly packet Wasp. Although assigned to the American fleet off Cuba, Wasp, “did nothing but steam up and down the coast in blockading duty,” a disappointed Welles wrote to his parents. The closest Welles got to the smell of gunpowder was Wasp’s overly-energetic bombardment of several Spanish light gun positions and the taking of an unfortunate Spanish supply craft that blundered into the Wasp’s patrol area.5
Duties after the Spanish-American War took Welles to the Navy’s General Board as aide to Admiral of the Fleet George Dewey, to prized duty as gunnery officer of battleship Iowa, and to one of the Navy’s choicest assignments—commissioning executive officer of the powerful new battleship New Hampshire. The battleship, though, was commissioned too late to join the cruise of the Great White Fleet, and so Welles missed, again by a whisker, one of the defining moments for the American Navy of that age.
Welles’ first command came in 1909, with orders to protect the cruiser New Orleans assigned to the Asiatic Fleet in the Far East. To his credit, New Orleans took the Fleet gunnery trophy and was widely viewed as the Fleet’s exemplar. Welles’ reward for New Orleans‘ successes was a return to the mainstream Atlantic Fleet and posting to command the second-rate battleship Louisiana. Consistent good fortune was Welles’ companion through these years as he survived the professional embarrassment of grounding his battleship. By 1915, Welles had been picked from a bevy of other competing captains to another of the Navy’s top assignments, command of the super-dreadnought Oklahoma, still on the builder’s ways. During this crucial assignment, at a time when Welles would undoubtedly be considered for promotion to rear admiral, bad luck again abruptly overtook his string of good. While he labored to prepare Oklahoma for duty in the Great War, Welles was forced from his battleship command for emergency gall bladder surgery.
Welles was crushed; correctly concluding that fate had robbed him of the culmination of his professional life, command of one of the fleet’s most powerful ships during time of war. From his hospital bed, Welles fought for reinstatement, but, instead, was ordered to a desk job in Washington as the Director of Naval Intelligence. Despite its grand title, the role commanded only a small staff and had little interest for the salt water-accustomed Welles. But fully recognizing that success in this position was critical to his selection for flag officer, Welles began to vigorously inject his office into any number of Navy plans. Welles expanded his staff and drove them for visibility in the give-and-take rivalries of the bureaucratic Navy Department, effectively using the war to his personal advantage.
His strategy succeeded. Welles was selected for Rear Admiral in 1918 on a list bloated by wartime necessity. As an additional reward for his efforts, Welles earned the Navy Cross for the wartime successes of Naval Intelligence.
Welles had married relatively late and was a full commander and executive officer of New Hampshire when he wed Harriet Deen Gardner on 17 October 1908. Harriet was of East Coast society with a nimble mind, an interest in the arts, and a decidedly plucky view of this institution called the Navy. With Welles and cruiser New Orleans in the Far East with the Asiatic Fleet, Harriet waited but a short time stateside before traveling to the Orient—not an inconsequential venture for an unaccompanied woman in an era of erratic transportation, China Sea pirates, and fickle typhoons. Harriet kept a detailed diary of her overseas experiences, rigor that helped crystallize her interest in the avocation of writing. Her later foray into commercial writing found a large national audience for her short stories and books and established her as a woman with a career in her own right—a social rarity.6
Harriet followed New Orleans from port to port generally by tramp steamer, her accommodations spartan. She liked the different atmosphere in Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Nangking and wrote of “coolies”, “drunken sailors” and “signs of rebellion everywhere.” She thought “traveling in China was much cleaner and infinitely more comfortable than in Japan,” and ended one excursion without her husband with the comment that “I’ve spent money I couldn’t afford in company with two brides following New York.” The experience proved an early introduction for a young wife to the demands of a senior commander and to the position expected of a Navy wife of the period. When New Orleans arrived in Hong Kong, Harriet envisioned a relaxing interlude but, instead, Welles was buried in social invitations: “I fear Roger’s and my happy time walking and enjoying ourselves quietly together is, as usual, fast fading into the background,” Harriet wrote icily in her diary. When New Orleans cruised south to the Philippines to operate from Olangapo and Cavite, Harriet followed by booking passage to Manila where she loved the grace and serenity of the city. But when Welles became overly absorbed in fleet inspections and gunnery drills, Harriet exercised her independence and spunk by cruising by herself on a steamer around the southern Philippine Islands.7
On 2 January 1920, Rear Admiral Welles escorted his wife to a Washington D. C. hospital for her appendicitis surgery. Three weeks later Harriet had recuperated sufficiently to travel. The Welles arrived in San Diego on 25 January after a four-day train trip across country. Although a Sunday, they were immediately whisked off to dinner by the ever-energetic and attentive members of the San Diego Chamber of Commerce and given quarters in a suite at the U.S. Grant Hotel.
Anticipating Welles’ arrival in San Diego, the Chief of Naval Operations had officially established the position of Commandant of Naval Base San Diego through Navy General Order No. 514 on 31 December 1919: “The naval base at San Diego, Calif. is hereby established and shall consist of the naval air station, the naval fuel depot, the naval hospital, the marine barracks, the radio stations and such other naval activities as are now or may be established in San Diego or in the immediate vicinity.”8
During modest ceremonies at North Island on the morning following his arrival, Welles formally assumed his duties through a communiqué to all local commanding officers: “Complying with orders of the Secretary of the Navy dated 2 January 1920, the Commandant has established his office in the building on the grounds of the Naval Air Station occupied by its Commanding Officer. The following units are considered as coming under the command of the Commandant: US Naval Air Station, US Naval Hospital, Public Works Office, Naval Fuel Depot, US Marine Corps Advanced Base, US Naval Radio Station, Marine Detachment, Balboa Park.”9
Exercising the prerogative of seniority, Welles usurped the offices of the commanding officer of the naval air station, Captain J. Harvey Tomb, and then also claimed Tomb’s handsome quarters. These comfortable and newly-built quarters on North Island were nicely situated within a ten-minute walk of the Navy’s first flying boat hangers and Welles’ new office, well within earshot of the clatter and clack of early Navy biplanes.
While Welles labored attentively with the daily duties of a new commandant, Harriet astutely realized that she would be under some scrutiny as her husband assumed his highly visible position in San Diego affairs. Universally gracious when forced into a social circumstance, it soon became clear that Harriet also harbored a certain impatience with the heavy yoke of social responsibility and the stiltingly formal naval decorum of the period. She, graciously, though, never allowed her unease or her innate desire to escape the crush to show publicly. She recognized that her love of independence and her success in the uncommon profession of a female commercial writer could be seen as peculiar or even threatening within the social circles she would frequent.
Harriet shrewdly sought projects that would be both helpful to her husband and would cast her in a more traditional role. She immediately set to work transforming the relatively unadorned quarters at North Island into both home and showcase. She sought advice and help from local friends on draperies and china for the house and then scouted the city for items at best value. Her work on the gardens became widely known and provided an easy ticket for her into San Diego society. Writing was never far from her heart. During her San Diego time, anecdotes featuring the whimsical side of Navy life regularly surfaced in articles in Scribners and in her widely sold first book Anchors Aweigh.10
For his part, Welles was determined to make a rapid and determined start in this new assignment. On his first working day he escorted General “Black Jack” Pershing, of World War I fame, around San Diego. Later, during his very first public address to a luncheon meeting of the San Diego-California Club, he established the theme of Navy support to San Diego that would become his mantra: “That the Navy Department is back of San Diegans,” Welles was quoted, “in their ambition to make this the greatest naval base on this side of the continent is not only because her citizens want it, but because it will benefit the entire United States Navy.”11
Welles clearly saw himself as the guardian of the Navy’s public image and assiduously shaped a positive pro-Navy theme for every audience. To the Rotary Club, Welles emphasized business and economics with a message that resonated with all the still-fresh memories of economic bad times: “the Navy’s payroll is already large here but in a very short time it will be doubled and tripled, and it behooves us to see that the men of the Navy who are with us and will make their homes here are treated right and made to feel that they are wanted.”12
Businessmen and civic leaders universally smiled. Here was something new for San Diegans. This was no brief news bite by a visiting dignitary promising the moon but a steady and balanced message from a senior uniformed representative fully engaged with the city’s tempo. Welles provided a consistent face for the message; a reliable contact point for businessmen, newspaper reporters or civic officials; and a dependable level of responsibility.
Welles set out immediately to strengthen the Navy’s position in San Diego while he could depend on the Chief of Naval Operations’ support, engendered both by his personal friendship and the obvious desire to promote the success of a new venture. “In order to make the position of Commandant Naval Base, San Diego at all possible,” Welles wrote Coontz,
“it seems to me there are several things that should be done at once … First, (Southern) California should be made a separate Naval District with the Commandant of the (San Diego) Naval Base as commandant of that naval district …. Second, there should be a receiving ship stationed at San Diego. There are at present 53 vessels of all kinds in this harbor, but there is no receiving ship. Third, as it is proposed to make this an operating base, I am soon to recommend that a storehouse be built at the foot of Broadway … for supplies for the Fleet as well as offices for the Commandant. Fourth, the Commandant should have a house built for him.”13
San Diegans and senior naval officials were not the only ones gladdened with Welles’ progress. In Washington Congressman William Kettner was especially pleased, as it had been his vision, stretching back over his eight years in Congress that had largely energized Navy interest in San Diego. The seeds that Kettner had sown with the Navy were blossoming, much to his satisfaction. Each of the facilities that Welles was now so ably coordinating into a single, efficient San Diego operating base had been initiated through Kettner’s influence. On North Island the Navy had returned to share the base with the Army, a new permanent training station was planned on the bay at Loma Portal (to replace the “temporary” station in the vacant Exposition buildings in Balboa Park), and a large new naval hospital would rise in Balboa Park to serve the expected recruits.14
Although Kettner had placed most of these plans in motion, it was up to Rear Admiral Welles, the new naval commander, to maintain the necessary momentum if ultimate success was to be achieved. At this, Welles proved a master. They made an extraordinary team. Although Kettner was leaving public office just as Welles arrived, Kettner had always been the unflagging booster of his constituents—just as congressmen must be and Welles quickly became the unflagging booster of the Service—just as senior officers must be. Collaborate they must surely have done, but their collective impact on San Diego was less than that of teammates working together on the field than that of a starting and a relief pitcher. Kettner pitched San Diego and its Navy into the lead; Welles closed the deal, dominated in the crucial innings, and earned the “save.” The result was a nearly seamless strategy that ensured the Navy’s long-term viability in San Diego.
Both Kettner and Welles realized that the key to solidifying naval presence in San Diego depended on a new repair and operating base for ships of the fleet. San Diego had long been blocked from this step, much to Congressman Kettner’s dismay, by Navy studies that favored other West Coast ports. But as the First World War ended, the Navy ordered a rebalancing of its Atlantic and Pacific fleets. Hundreds of ships sailed toward West Coast cities that were ill prepared to receive them. Although Washington’s preference was clearly for a single large operating base for its ships (to save precious budget dollars), the Navy announced that it was forced to “temporarily” spread its ships to several ports. With San Diego’s reputation as a “shallow harbor” fresh in Navy planner’s minds, the port was tapped for the basing of the Fleet’s large force of destroyers.15
Kettner jumped on this unexpected windfall. With post-war budgets tight, the Navy did not have the budget for extensive new construction on the West Coast to meet its “single operating base” ideal. But in San Diego, funds had already been appropriated (thanks to Kettner’s vigor) for new training, hospital and aviation facilities. Kettner and San Diego city officials successfully argued that, in the arcane logic of the accountant, San Diego’s planned facilities could actually “save” the Navy new money if sufficient ships could be based in San Diego.
By the time Welles arrived in San Diego, Pacific Fleet destroyers and smaller craft were moored everywhere in the harbor. Most were gathered in helter-skelter groupings; many had no crews, the result of post-war demobilization. It was the Navy’s (and now Welles’) priority to resolve this snarl quickly … and Welles now concentrated on how best to build a new repair and operating base.16
In a study dated 11 December 1919 that Welles carried with him across country, the CNO’s Plans Division cited the new Navy position that “operations of the fleet on the west coast required additional facilities in San Diego including a supply base, a repair base for all but capital ships and a large addition to the fuel supply base.”17 Now with Kettner, the Navy Department, and San Diego city officials all finally aligned on the need for a fleet operating base, it was up to Welles to bring this notion to fruition.
Beginning in May 1918, Congressman Kettner had helped sponsor a new commercial shipbuilding operation in San Diego, the Pacific Marine & Construction Company that operated on 77 acres of land and 21 acres of water and marsh at the foot of 32nd Street. Concrete ships Cuyamaca and San Pascual had been completed on the site through wartime contracts, but by the spring of 1920 no new work was in the offing.18
During the war, Kettner had also sponsored a bill authorizing $175,000 for a marine railway at La Playa to replace the long-time Spreckels Marineways on North Island that had been dismantled to clear the area for Navy seaplane ramps and hangers. The marine railway had been designed to haul medium-sized naval and commercial vessels out of the water for repairs and maintenance.
Kettner now brokered a grand strategy by recommending that Pacific Marine’s shipbuilding lease at 32nd Street be terminated, the site turned over to the Navy, and the already paid-for marine railway be moved to the same 32nd Street site.19
All parties enthusiastically agreed to the plan. Government interests would be protected (including a $3 million investment in plant equipment provided to Pacific Marine during the war), the city would immediately increase Navy investment and would be assured of continued industrial work at 32nd Street, the Navy would obtain ideal harbor property at no cost, and Kettner would have the Navy established on a site optimal for further growth into a much larger operating base.
By city charter, land donations such as those proposed for the training station, naval hospital, and new destroyer base had to be ratified by San Diego voters. With this in mind, Welles quickly became a leading proponent, lobbying vigorously for these proposals. Locked in an economic downturn, voters had rejected most recent bond issues, but the notion quickly grew in nearly everyone’s mind that the Navy was to be San Diego’s economic savior. “All the government asks of San Diego is the concession of a few acres of tidelands and a site for a hospital in Balboa Park,” spoke one representative editorial in the San Diego Union, “in return, it gives San Diego one of the finest naval establishments in the world.”20
A city referendum was held on 3 August 1920 with a outcome overwhelmingly in favor of the Navy. “Never in the history of the city has such a sweeping vote been polled at any election,” related the Union’s cover story. Four separate ballot measures were offered for the four donations of land to the Navy (training station, hospital, destroyer base, and a parcel of land at the foot of Broadway for a naval supply depot). The vote for the hospital land in Balboa Park was the “closest,” passing in favor of the Navy 9,341 to 134. The Roseville district of Point Loma, adjacent to the training station land, voted 160 to 0 in favor of the Navy.21
Welles was ecstatic at the great outpouring of public support for the Navy especially in favor of the new destroyer base at 32nd Street. Kettner rushed through a $750,000 amendment to the 1920 Naval Appropriations Bill for site improvements to “take over as soon as possible this property and put it in shape for repair of destroyers and other craft.”22
Under Welles’ overall coordination, the Navy took formal custody of the yard at 32nd Street on 15 February 1921. On 10 June 1921, Commander H. N. Jenson, commanding officer of Prairie (AD-5) was ordered to moor at the site. On 23 February 1922 U. S. Destroyer Base, San Diego was officially established by Secretary of the Navy General Order 78 with Commander Jenson designated as the base’s first commanding officer. By September, after dredging and the installation of mooring dolphins, 69 destroyers were ordered to the new base, and within a month another fifteen destroyers had arrived. Tender Buffalo (AD-8) replaced Prairie. Buffalo, in turn, was replaced by the newly commissioned tender Rigel (AD-13) on 3 January 1923 with Captain H. L. Brinser of Rigel relieving Jenson of command of the base. The transfer of the marine railway from La Playa to 32nd Street was completed in February 1922.23
Welles’ call for a separate naval district designation for San Diego came to fruition on 26 January 1921 with the establishment of the Eleventh Naval District with Welles remaining as Commandant. The new Naval District encompassed the six southern counties of California and stretched eastward to New Mexico. Welles’ first staff numbered only seven officers but would soon grow. In August 1922 Welles moved his headquarters office from North Island’s Administration Building to the new naval warehouse building at the foot of Broadway.24
The case Welles continually made for San Diego in correspondence with the Navy Department was founded on a sincere desire to do what was best for the fleet and was calculated to both inform and implore a distant bureaucracy. With a flag officer in charge, San Diego enjoyed increased attention and funding—good for the harbor but not, as it turned out, good for Welles. Despite his careful stewardship of local spending, Welles quickly gained a reputation three thousand miles away within the Navy Department, for high spending habits, causing the CNO to caution: “What I must impress upon you, Welles, is the necessity for economy in the district and the not asking for any money or anything of that character that is not absolutely necessary.”25 Worse, this undesirable attention in distant Washington did nothing to help when it came time for favors.
In mid-1923, Welles received transfer orders to Norfolk, Virginia, to relieve as Commandant of the Fifth Naval District, an assignment he bitterly opposed: “I feel that the remainder of my active duty should be at a station which Mrs. Welles prefers,” he wrote the assignment officer. “As you know, she writes short stories and, as you may not know, she is an artist, having had many of her pictures in different exhibitions. At Norfolk, there is no art, no music, or no literature worthy of the name. In view of the above I should much prefer Boston to Norfolk.”26 In the end, reflecting his difficult relations with those back in Washington, Welles was peddled to Norfolk with his orders stamped abruptly: “this employment on shore duty is required by the public interests,” to end any further argument.27
Just before his departure from San Diego, Welles pressed for a small commissioning ceremony at the new naval training station. Although tiny on his schedule—Welles spoke only briefly at the ceremony and ordered the station’s first flag raised—the event stands as one of the jewels of his tenure for it focused public attention anew on the positive attributes of a Navy within their community. The Navy had been careful with the architecture plan at the new Naval Training Station, and these stylish buildings, built at the most attractive corner of the bay, captured a degree of grandeur in 1923 just as they retained eighty years later. Welles took an a personal interest in promoting the best in the San Diego–Navy relationship, and his favor of Bertram Goodhue’s Spanish Revival architectural model for naval construction provided a unifying theme not only across the naval complexes of San Diego but between city and Service. These simple arcades, red-tiled roofs, cool stucco, and breezy outdoor courtyards would place the Navy in the best possible public light and would serve as a perfect gift to many future generations of San Diegans.28
When Welles’ departure orders were made public, San Diego immediately recognized its loss. The term “Navy Mayor” was still years from the vernacular, but Welles had done what a “mayor” had to do to ensure the vitality and perpetuation of his chosen community. The San Diego businessmen joined together in a great outpouring of acclaim. Dinners were arranged in his honor, speakers gushed superlatives, Welles quietly sparkled. The tenor of the moment was effusive and stimulating but tinged with just a hint of anxiety. San Diego business leaders had seen the drop-off in energy when William Kettner had been replaced in Congress, and many feared a similar decline with Welles’ replacement—an action that might doom the San Diego-Navy enterprise. But without many realizing it, the Kettner and Welles vision for San Diego’s Navy had already reached a self-sustaining critical mass and would grow and flourish in the years to come. A lead San Diego Union editorial on the day of Welles’ departure took the high road by summarizing the thoughts of many:
“Because the Navy’s business in the 11th Naval District was well carried on, the harbor of San Diego with its wide and safe shelter and its strategic importance was brought increasingly to the attention of the Navy Department … Since Admiral Welles came here, the Navy has spent millions of dollars in this port—and more important than that—has signified its large purpose to develop one of America’s great naval bases at San Diego. In all of this Admiral Welles has had his part.”29
Once in Norfolk, Welles gamely discharged his assignment, a much larger responsibility in terms of personnel, ships, and infrastructure than San Diego. His professed concern about his wife and his distress with Norfolk were well placed. Harriet was hospitalized for three months beginning in January 1924 for “a complete nervous breakdown.”30
Welles’ duties in Norfolk ended in late 1925 but not, as he expected, his naval career. True to form, when advancement and attractive orders were dangled before him, Welles responded. The result was a promotion to three stars and orders across the Atlantic to assume duties as Commander, U. S. Naval Forces, Europe. A touch of San Diego followed him when Commander Raymond Spruance, a dashing young destroyer officer from the admiral’s San Diego days, assumed duties as his assistant chief of staff and Captain Taylor Evans, the son of Admiral “Fighting Bob” Evans who had brought the Great White Fleet to San Diego in 1908, became Welles’ Flag Captain.
Welles’ step upwards on the seniority ladder was perfectly in character but again had a deleterious effect on Harriet’s health. At first enamored with the distinction of the posting, Harriet quickly began to tire of the nearly constant social proceedings. Despite at least two royal audiences (where she left autographed copies of her latest writings), she found herself increasingly detached from Welles’ sense of duty and sought solace in Naples and Frankfurt for treatment of recurring bouts of arthritis. Near the end of his posting, and finally feeling the stress of his wife’s absence, Welles finally admitted growing weary of his responsibilities: “(Command of Naval Forces, Europe) is the pleasantest cruise anyone can make,” Welles wrote upon his departure,” (but) I find it decidedly strenuous as there are so many luncheons, dinners and parties of all kinds which you must attend.”31
Rear Admiral Roger Welles was officially transferred to the Retired List on 7 December 1926—his 64th birthday. True to Welles’ proclivity of always placing his career first, he had squeezed every ounce he could from his time in naval service, leaving on the exact day he reached statutory retirement age. He returned to his roots and the life of an urban squire in New York City but passed away on 26 April 1932 of complications following an operation for gallstones. Sensitive as he was to the embellishments of career success and proud as he was of the role he played in the Service and society, it was not a way he would have chosen to pass into history. Two nearly identical (and brief) obituaries appeared the next day in the San Diego Union and the New York Times but no further editorial comment emerged in either paper. Once outside the protective circle of his naval relationships, Welles lived his last years, metaphorically, like a ship out of water. It was as if the city that had nurtured him and sent him into the Navy never really recognized him, and the city where he fashioned his biggest lifetime achievement never really recognized what he had wrought.
1. Bruce Linder. San Diego’s Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2001), 64.
3. Roger Welles, letter to Admiral H. B. Wilson, 4 January 1920, Admiral Roger Welles Papers, Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Naval Historical Foundation Collection (hereafter Welles Papers).
4. Welles papers.
5. Welles papers.
6. Welles papers.
7. Welles papers.
8. Records of the Commandant, Naval Base San Diego, 1920, National Archives, Laguna Nigel.
10. Welles papers.
11. “Admiral Wants Bigger Port,” San Diego Union, 31 January 1920, 1.
12. “Welles of the Navy,” Rotator of the Rotary Club, San Diego, 10 August 1920.
13. Welles letter to Admiral Coontz, 3 February 1920, Welles Papers. Heretofore, San Diego naval activities fell under the administration of the Commandant of the Twelfth Naval District in San Francisco.
14 William Kettner, Why it Was Done and How (San Diego: Frye and Smith, 1923), 122
15. Kevin Starr, The Dream Endures: California Enters the 1940s (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 112
16. Linder, San Diego’s Navy, 70
17. Jeffrey W. Farquhar, “The History of Naval Station San Diego,” thesis, University of San Diego, San Diego, 1996, 38.
18. Ibid., James D. Newland, “Admiral Cements Station’s Foundation,” Traditions, November 1995, 8.
19. Kettner, Why it Was Done and How, 78
20. “Building a Seaport,” San Diego Union, 2 August 1920, 4.
21. “Navy Items Carried by Record Vote,” San Diego Union, 4 August 1920, 1.
22. Josephus Daniels, telegram to CNO Benson, 24 June 1920.
23. Farquhar, “History of Naval Station San Diego,” 43; Newland, “Admiral Cements Station’s Foundation,” 9.
24. Welles, memorandum to Secretary of the Navy, 19 July 1920, Welles Papers; Eleventh Naval District, Administrative History, Department of the Navy, 1946, 8.
25. Coontz, letter to Rear Adm. Roger Welles, 28 January 1921, Welles Papers.
26. Welles, Letter to Adm. Coontz, 23 April 1923, Welles Papers.
27. Welles papers.
28. Kaplan and Associates, “Architectural and Historical Significance of Selected Buildings at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, California,” 1989, 28.
29. “San Diego Says Goodbye,” San Diego Union, 1 August 1923, 4.
30. Welles papers.
31. Roger Welles’ time as Commander, Naval Forces, Europe as a three-star flag officer was considered a temporary promotion and he retired in his permanent rank of Rear Admiral.
Bruce Linder is a naval historian living in Coronado. His recent book tracing the history of the U.S. Navy in San Diego from 1845 to the present, San Diego’s Navy (Naval Institute Press), won the San Diego Book Award as Best Non-Fiction Book in San Diego for 2001. He has also authored over forty articles appearing in publications in the United States, Europe and Japan on naval history and naval policy and is at work on a new history of the navy in Norfolk, Virginia, due out from Naval Institute Press in 2004. Mr. Linder is a retired Navy Captain who has commanded a guide missile frigate and two major shore bases in San Diego. He currently works as a technology consultant for the firm of Booz Allen Hamilton in San Diego.