By Ray Schultz
In 1906, a Navy petty officer tried to enter a dance hall in Newport Rhode Island, and was turned away because of his uniform. Normally, that would have been the end of it, but Chief Yeoman Fred J. Buenzle was a wily old salt. He’d bought a 25 cent ticket when wearing a civilian coat and hat, and having paid that money, he felt he had a contract and could sue the Newport Amusement Association for failing to honor it.
Predictably, Buenzle lost the case right up through the appellate court. But in 1908, the Rhode Island General Assembly passed the Uniform Act, barring discrimination against men in uniform; the State Senate rapidly followed suit. And Buenzle, a man with broken service and at least one disciplinary case on his record, deserved the credit for it.
Why is this important now? Because service men and women still face obstacles (different ones). By pursuing that case, Buenzle did more for his fellow enlisted personnel than John Paul Jones, Stephen Decatur and anyone in the panoply of Naval heroes.
That wasn’t his only accomplishment. Buenzle also wrote Bluejacket, a moving, informative and salty autobiography that I first read as a sailor. A New York Times reviewer compared it to Herman Melville’s White Jacket. It remains one of my favorite books. Here’s what it tell us about Navy life from the time of the sailing ships to that of the so-called Great White Fleet.
Part I: Dirty Lubbers
Fred Buenzle was born in 1873, in the Pennsylvania Dutch country, of parents who owned what he called a “commercial hotel.” He spent every night of his youth helping his father fill bottles of beer in the cellar, and was often overcome by the fumes. At 16, he enlisted as a boy apprentice in the U.S. Navy in to fulfill a childhood dream of going to sea. His father disagreed with that decision, but signed the papers anyway.
The Navy Buenzle joined was not a very healthy place for enlisted men, though. As he put it, foreign mercenaries filled the ranks, while Americans wearing the uniform were disgraced at home. “New promises were made to the recruits, and the old-timers had to subsist on broken pledges,” Buenzle wrote.
That was driven home on Buenzle’s very first day in the service. Before boarding the USS St. Louis, an old sailing ship at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, for the signing of his apprentice articles, he met an old sailor who tried to talk him out of signing. The problem, the old man stated, was not with the Navy—that was fine—but with the civilian populace.
“The dirty lubbers and crooks on shore won’t serve a man in uniform, not in any decent place they won’t! And you won’t be able to buy a good meal or a clean bed, or go to a theater. Only the dive-keepers and the trollops will give the sailorman a hand, my boy, and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
Buenzle joined anyway, but that very night he came close to regretting he did. In full view of the crew, the captain of this hulk put a group of men in irons, a brutal punishment for minor offenses. “This incident of my first day in the Navy was my earliest lesson in the need of prompt and unquestioning obedience to any order received from a superior in rank or rate,” Buenzle wrote. “It made me also aware of the possibilities for tyranny at the hands of men clothed with absolute power, and of how easily a headache or any slight upon the dignity of the afterguard might be taken out upon the hapless lower ratings.”
About the only good thing that happened on the St. Louis was that Buenzle met some relics of another age, like Happy Dorgen, Baldy Tom Dunn, Jack Robinson (“a mighty liar), Basil Bono and the Hawaiian Kanaka, who told stories of a buried treasure.
As a youthful reader, I tended to view all this through a romantic haze. The base mess hall in Newport, Rhode Island periodically served what a yearbook described a typical Navy breakfast in the 1890s: boiled eggs (hard or soft), Navy beans and corn bread. I enjoyed it because I felt it connected me to the past. In reality, Buenzle’s first meal aboard the St. Louis was a “tin-dish supper of boiled rice, molasses, hardtack and tea,” wrote New York Times reviewer James Thompson.
Following this interlude, Buenzle was sent to Newport, Rhode Island for apprentice training aboard the USS New Hampshire. But the ship was moored in “sewage crusted slough,” and an epidemic of typhoid fever broke out, causing the New Hampshire to be called “the floating coffin.” Training had to be continued onshore.
A month or two later, Buenzle set sail on an ancient vessel called the Portsmouth. It sailed from Newport to the Caribbean, stopping in New York, where “a half eagle was sufficient for a snug twenty-four hour liberty.” Experiencing a variety of “vulgar pleasures” (the “better” places in New York were graced with such signs as “No men in uniform admitted here”), Buenzle returned from liberty feeling “lost in a Sargasso sea of disappointment and loneliness.” He was happy to set sail.
Buenzle soon found, though, that life at sea was hellish. Everything was damp, food was always cold, and there was plenty of deck duty, from which “all our clothing was sodden and the skin on hands and feet became bleached and tender,” he noted. Finding the port of Barbados to be a place with a “remarkable lack of points of interest,” Buenzle wrote of the lonely watches at sea during the early morning hours. “The boys,” he wrote, “hunch closer, and in whispered tones talk together of sharks at sea and sharks ashore, and of human wolves, and of the loneliest time in boyhood that each of them could remember.”
The young sailor next reported to the sailing frigate Lancaster, the new flagship of the Asiatic station. En route to Asia, he received his first disciplinary action for sleeping on watch. In 1893, at the age of 21, disgusted with being rousted out of wet hammocks at night, of eating cold mutton while officers ate delicacies, including desserts like cherry pie, and of the “pious pomposities,” of the officer corps, Buenzle took his discharge in Shanghai.
Part II: Buried Treasure
Buenzle’s first stop as a civilian was the American consulate where because he refused government passage back to the States, he had to waive the right to any further aid. But he was resourceful: When war broke out between China and Japan, he took a commission as a captain in the Chinese Army, and served as an instructor up the Yangtze River. There he met Merci Fabre, a friend of the Hawaiian Kanaka, and they went in search of the treasure described by the latter. They sailed from Shanghai to Hong Kong, then to the southern part of Formosa, where (if you believe it), they uncovered the treasure, ten thousand dollars in American and British money. When they tried to transport it in a fishing boat, though, the vessel capsized; Buenzle, who couldn’t swim, had a hard enough time saving his own neck. Twenty-two days later, without a dime of treasure, he was aboard a Canadian Pacific ship en route to the United States.
After a tenure as a special writer for the Philadelphia Times, Buenzle decided that civilian life could never match the peace of mind—i.e., the security—of the Navy. He re-enlisted aboard the sailing ship Monongahela with the rank of Ship’s Writer, First Class. But he soon learned that the Navy had changed. Aboard the battleship Brooklyn, a “new ship,” Buenzle found “young men who ha never before felt the swell of a ship beneath them. The old shellbacks remaining were in charge of gangways and lower decks.”
Buenzle had changed, too, and he had some strong views about Navy life. After sailing to Britain for Queen’s Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897 (“our uniform was more honored than it was in our own land”), he reported the USS Dolphin, and there met Assistant Secretary of the Navy Theodore Roosevelt. The two men discussed the plight of the enlisted man and together drafted a memorandum to the Secretary of the Navy. “We must make a determined effort to create a public opinion so strong and aggressive that every class of people in the United States who pretend to be patriotic Americans will not dare to erect a barrier against the uniformed men of our national defenses, whether there be any law governing the cases or not.”
Part III: Murder At Sea
Buenzle’s next post was on the battleship Iowa, part of the Great White Fleet, where he served as clerk to Captain William Thomas Sampson. Sampson was the president of the Court of Inquiry that investigated the sinking of the battleship Maine in Havana harbor; Buenzle was the stenographer. When war was declared, Sampson was promoted to Rear Admiral and given command of the North Atlantic Fleet. Buenzle accompanied him to the flagship New York.
Convinced that the enlisted men should be given some word of the events, Buenzle established a daily log, “The Squadron Bulletin,” and printed out 1,000 copies a day on a duplicating machine. There was plenty to write about. First, the New York captured the Spanish merchantman Buenaventura. The booty was split among the crew, and Buenzle ended up with $300. Then, from the flying deck of the New York, he witnessed the destruction of the Spanish fleet as it tried to emerge from Santiago harbor; he even selected the volunteers who helped lieutenant Richmond Pearson Hobson sink the collier Merrimac in an effort to block the channel. “The fleet under my command offers the nation as a Fourth of July present, the whole of Cervera’s fleet,” Buenzle ghostwrote for Sampson.
Privately, Buenzle saw little reason to celebrate, though.
“ …It was impossible that they could feel lighthearted in the face of so much suffering,” he wrote in Bluejacket. “I never wanted to hear the word ‘war’ again; and I determined, on that day, while the air was yet filled with the sour tang of smokeless powder and the crash of exploding shells, that I would be glad to exchange my naval billet for the humblest calling on shore if there was any more murdering to be done on the sea.”
Part IV: Dogs and Sailors, Keep Out
After the war, Buenzle reported to Newport again, where as Chief Yeoman, he was named officer-in-charge of the Yeoman School. And it was in Newport that his campaign for the enlisted man fully materialized.
With the three hundred dollars he received from the capture of the Buenaventura, he launched Our Naval Apprentice, the Navy’s first station newspaper, in 1901. Its mission was to entertain the men and to fight the prejudice downtown. It eventually evolved into the Newport Navalog, a newspaper that published its last print issue last year.
Next, Buenzle filed his lawsuit against the Newport Amusement Association. “Painful remembrances of the many indignities heaped upon my comrades in the sea eservice had urged me to initiate the prosecute the case of my own expense,” Buenzle wrote. These included signs saying, “Dogs and sailors keep out,” and “No men in uniform allowed.”
In this, Buenzle had the support of officers like Rear Admiral Charles M. Thomas who handled his legal fund. But they were of little help during cross-examination. William C. Clarke, the president of the company, brought in some lawyers, and they started out by claiming that Buenzle had violated Naval regulations by disguising his uniform when he purchased a dance-hall ticket.
“You expected to be refused when you presented that ticket in uniform, didn’t you?” the opposing counsel asked the sailor.
“Not exactly,” Buenzle said. “I wished to know if I would be refused. I wished to know if there was any discrimination, whether it was against me personally, for any personal disqualification, or whether it was against the uniform.”
“But you expected it, and you wanted to find that out. Answer my question. You expected to be refused admission, didn’t you?”
“I wasn’t sure. I heard the men were discriminated against
for the blue blouse and the shirt sleeves, but I didn’t expect to be refused admission.”
“You did not.”
“I didn’t expect to be refused admission in a white shirt and a collar and tie, as any citizen, with only the difference of a rating badge and brass buttons.”
The court threw out Buenzle’s claim, stating that it was the “settled rule of law for many years, that a ticket of admission to a race-track, a theatre, a concert, or any such entertainment is a mere license, revocable at the will of the party issuing the same.” He was, however, entitled to get his 25 cents back.
That view was upheld on appeal by the Supreme Court of Rhode Island in February 1908. The higher court stated that “military and naval uniforms are not intended as a badge of social equality, but on the contrary they are evidences of rank and distinction…” Thus, Buenzle was entitled to a refund but not to damages for emotional distress.
The court added, though, that if “such discrimination is deemed to be a matter of grave public consequence, it rests with the law-making power to afford a proper remedy.”
Precisely. And what Clarke and company didn’t seem to realize is that Buenzle had the ear of his superiors, right up to President Theodore Roosevelt (who sent a check), and that he was a talented writer, well equipped for publicizing this controversy.
Roosevelt said: “I feel that it is the duty of every good citizen to endeavor in every shape and way to make it plain that he regards the uniform of the United States Navy…as a badge of honor, an therefore entitling the wear to honor so long as he behaves correctly.”
The Uniform Act was passed a short time later. And Buenzle was able to write that the greatest fight of his life ended with the flagrant signs being taken down and “shelved with other anachronisms.”
Part V: Home Is the Sailor
What could Buenzle to top that? Write a book. He prospered as officer-in-charge of the Yeoman School, and in 1909, left Newport for sea duty. After retiring from the Navy in 1919, he settled in Palo Alto, California., where he opened a Naval history museum, and spent the rest of his time writing Bluejacket, which appeared in 1939. He lived in a small cottage, the grounds of which were landscaped with high-arched bridges, pads, ferns, cherry trees, and a small lagoon—all in the style of Japan and China, according to Captain Felix Riesenberg, who visited Bunezle in 1939 and wrote the introduction to Bluejacket. The home, filled with mementoes of the old sailing days, offered this sign for the visitor” “Home is the Sailor, Home from the Sea.”
Fred Buenzle died in 1946.
In my time, there was one man around who actually had known Buenzle: William E. Ragsdale, a retired Newporter and former officer-in-charge of the Yeoman School, who joined the Navy in 1907 and eventually made the rank of Lieutenant.
“There was no doubt about it, Buenzle was a great man,” he said in 1967. “When you spoke to him, he seemed to be lost in another world. He was preoccupied with his writing, and he was a very good writer. He was always writing something.
“I know of no man throughout my entire career who enjoyed the respect and worship of all the enlisted men, as Buenzle did. He as intelligent, and a gentleman all the way. He never did or said anything harsh or offensive.
“I was a student of the school when he was in charge, and I can tell you we all idolized him. He was the height for an enlisted man.”
An old man, deaf, but holding beautiful memories inside him, Buenzle said to Captain Riesenberg in 1939 of a model sailing ship he had built: “I have built her into the youth of one lifetime, the glories of liberties after long detentions over deep water She spells something now irrevocably gone!”
Fred Buenzle: A figure of the past but a voice for today.