by Spencer Howard
When Herbert Hoover was elected President in 1928, long-distance air travel was still in the future; Franklin Roosevelt would become the first President to travel internationally by air. Hoover left the continental U.S. twice: first, as President-Elect in 1928, he traveled to Latin America on a “Good Will Tour,” then in 1931 he visited Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands. In both cases, he traveled by battleship.
Hoover’s trip to Latin America actually involved two battleships. The first leg, southbound from California along the west coast of Central and South America, was aboard USS Maryland. His return trip, from Montevideo, Uruguay via Rio de Janeiro to Norfolk, Virginia, was aboard USS Utah.
A battleship would seem like a poor choice for a “Good Will Tour” – big guns hardly seem friendly – and it was not Hoover’s first choice. When Hoover proposed the trip to President Coolidge, Hoover indicated his preference would have been the troop transport USS Henderson, but she was too slow for such a long trip, and was also in need of an overhaul. (Incidentally, Henderson was the ship that carried President Warren Harding and Secretary of Commerce Hoover to Alaska in 1923.) In consultation with Admiral Thomas Washington, the commandant of the Navy base in San Francisco, it was determined that Hoover’s party including a sizable press contingent was too large for a cruiser, and a battleship was deemed necessary. With Coolidge’s encouragement, Hoover chose USS Maryland for the Pacific leg of his trip.
Completed in 1921, USS Maryland was one of the newest and largest battleships in the fleet. Maryland represented the zenith of the “standard type” U.S. battleship, that is, battleships built between 1916 and 1923. These twelve ships had compatible speeds, turning circles, and guns, allowing them to form a squadron that could operate effectively as a unit. Maryland and her two sisters (USS Colorado and USS West Virginia) were armed with eight 16″ guns in four twin turrets, the largest guns in the fleet. Maryland was 624 feet long and displaced 33,000 tons; her top speed was 21 knots, though cruising speed for the Good Will Tour was 10 to 15 knots.
Maryland left California on November 19, 1928, stopping for Hoover to visit Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Cost Rica, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. Hoover disembarked from Maryland the final time at Valparaiso, Chile, where he and his party continued overland to Santiago, Buenos Aires, and Montevideo.
For the return journey, USS Utah was dispatched on November 21 from Hampton Roads to Montevideo, where she embarked Hoover’s party on December 16. Utah transported the President-elect’s party to Rio de Janeiro, then continued her homeward voyage, reaching Hampton Roads on January 6, 1929.
USS Utah was in 1928 the oldest operational battleship in the U.S. Navy, commissioned in 1911. Utah was 510 feet long and displaced 23,000 tons; she carried a main battery of ten 12″ guns in five twin turrets – an arrangement that had proved inefficient in practice. Utah and her sister ship USS Florida were both modernized between 1925 and 1927, provided with new oil-fired boilers (to replace the original coal-fired models), improved torpedo protection and other modifications. With her new boilers, Utah’s speed was comparable to Maryland.
Maryland and Utah each typically carried a crew of about 1000 officers and sailors, and both ships found it necessary to leave some junior officers at home in order to free up enough cabins for the 12 members of Hoover’s party, plus the 27 journalists and photographers in the press corps. Accommodations aboard Utah were more cramped than on Maryland, due to her smaller size and the configuration of her armament. Both Maryland and Utah were equipped to serve as flagships, that is, the each had extra cabins for an Admiral and his staff. Neither ship had an Admiral on board for the Good Will Tour, so of course the President-Elect was assigned the Admiral’s Cabin.
The crews of both ships put forth every possible hospitality for their guests, and by every account the voyages were enjoyed by all of the civilians. As Mrs. Hoover wrote afterwards to Captain Victor Kimberly of the USS Maryland, “none of us wanted to get back to the United States we all loved the sea so! The friendliness and courtesy of the Maryland’s officers and crew we found expressed in the same pleasing fashion by the Utah’s personnel.”