Saturday, February 13, 2010

American Ships, Sailors and Soldiers: A history of Sea Power and disaster relief

"The Great White Fleet" Comes to the rescue in Italy, 1909

America's leading role in emergency assistance following last month's devastating earthquake in Haiti and the huge numbers of US Navy ships, sailors and soldiers sent to help has been lauded worldwide.

But there is always one critical jackass who gets it all wrong and finds it easier to broadly criticize a response to a huge crisis rather than helping solve its problems.

The jackass in this case is a well known Italian politician, Dr. Guido Bertolaso. He is Italy's national civil defense director and their special envoy to Haiti. A few days after the Haiti quake Mr. Bertolaso made a quick visit and immediately issued scathing criticism of the effectiveness of the entire relief effort to the international press before his superiors could call him quickly back home.

He particularly singled out the US-led efforts calling them a "pathetic" failure. His blistering remarks included an observation that America, "... when confronted by a situation of chaos, tends to confuse military intervention with what should be an emergency operation, which cannot be entrusted to the armed forces."

You bet Guido. You seem to know even less about your own country's history than many politicians your age here in America know about ours. The irony is that you must have missed reading about the big historic commemoration in Italy in 2009 recognizing America's military relief efforts there after a terrible Southern Italian earthquake in 1909.

Doctor Bertolaso was twice put in charge of Southern Italy's massive garbage crisis in 2007 and 2008. For months on end mountains of garbage in and around Naples remained uncollected, putrefying in the summer heat and displayed in photos on the front pages of the world's newspapers. The problem still is not totally solved. So Guido knows an "utter failure" when he sees one.

Here's a quick history lesson for everyone about the effectiveness of the American military in earthquake relief. I found a scholarly article by Prof. Jeff Matthews, an expat scholar, historian and teacher who has lived with his wife in Naples, Italy for decades. His English language, web based, "Around Naples Encyclopedia," has a worldwide following.

His latest article, reprinted below, spurred me to present this iHandbill article about the historic connection between today's American military help in Haiti and our much earlier help in Italy.

The Great White Fleet & the Messina Earthquake
On July 27, 1909, the New York Times reported that “The first baby born in a new house in Messina was named Theodore Roosevelt Lloyd Belknap Palmieri”! This was Mr. & Mrs. Palmieri's tribute to those American politicians and diplomats who had organized the relief effort in aid of the city of Messina, Italy, devastated by a powerful earthquake on the morning of December 28, 1908. The quake killed about 60,000 people and destroyed much of the city. (Some estimates of the number of dead are as high as 200,000.) In the months following the quake, US aid was considerable and—to explain the “new house” in the above quote—included the building of 1,500 frame houses. The rest of the name: Teddy Roosevelt was US president at the time of the quake; Lloyd C. Griscom was the US ambassador to Italy; and Reginald Rowan Belknap was the US Naval Attaché in Italy.*

American Relief Troops in Messina, Italy 1909

The early aid was immediate and direct. It came in the form of ships from the US Great White Fleet, which was circumnavigating the globe and, at the time of the quake, found itself in the “home stretch,” as it were, of a cruise of 43,000 miles—16 modern warships, employing 15,000 men—in a brash display of young US sea power. The cruise lasted from December, 1907, through February, 1909, and was under the command of Admiral Charles S. Sperry. The Great White Fleet went from Hampton Roads, Virgina, around South America and up to San Francisco; then, across the Pacific to Australia, the Philippines and Japan, and then across the Indian Ocean, through the Suez Canal, west across the Mediterranean, through the Straits of Gibraltar and back home across the Atlantic.

The fleet was in Egypt when it received news of the Messina earthquake. The flagship, Connecticut, with support vessels, arrived in Messina on January 9, 1909, with thousands of pounds of food, medicine and temporary shelters for survivors. About 17,000 persons were pulled from the rubble, their lives saved by the heroic efforts of the combined search and rescue crews of the US ships and of vessels of other nations that were near Messina at the time of the quake. The US ships docked at the port of Naples during operations, and their presence is noted in the January issues of il Mattino, the Naples daily newspaper. The fleet stayed until late January and then left for home. In January, 2009, 100 years after the fact, ceremonies were held in Messina to commemorate the international effort that helped the city through the tragedy. I really do wonder what happened to Theodore Roosevelt Lloyd Belknap Palmieri. I hope he had a fine life.

Jeff Matthews

One of 1,500 sturdy wooden frame homes built in Messina with US Aid
Thanks to "Around Naples Encyclopedia"

*see American House Building In Messina And Reggio: An Account Of The American Naval And Red Cross Combined Expedition (1910) by Reginald Rowen Belknap, pub. G. P. Putnam's Sons, New York and London.


nanceandraf said...

Very informative, and well said. I confess to not knowing much about this event before; thanks for enlightening us.

Oscar said...

great article. The unfortunate, untold rest of the story is the following: our beloved Italian prime minister (SUPER-SILVIO) publicly promised to give soon Bertolaso a Ministry !!! Isn't it great?

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