On July 31, 1923, the United States Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender Sequoia hoisted the flag of the President of the United States as Warren G. Harding boarded the vessel to partake in the largest maritime event of its kind in history. Little could anyone at the time have realized that this would be the last official public duty of the 29th President of the United States who was now well into his third year of office.
At the end of July of 1923, the captain of the United States Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender Sequoia received surprise orders to drop all of the vessel’s assigned and planned duties and immediately make its way to San Francisco for a complete makeover of the vessel. The captain was informed that the Sequoia had been chosen at the last minute to be the flagship of the President of the United States, and was to be used as the reviewing ship of the greatest assemblage of Merchant Marine ships ever gathered. It was being done to honor President Harding for his role in attempting to create a new and enlarged United States Merchant Marine.
Interestingly, this was not the first time that the Sequoia had hosted a president on board. It once hosted President Teddy Roosevelt, but the ship did not undergo an overhaul for Roosevelt. This time was different. The Lighthouse Service wanted to make a good impression on the President, but they had not received much in the way of advance notice. Once the Sequoia reached port in San Francisco, the shipyard workers only had seven days to make the vessel worthy of being a flagship of the President of the United States. This included giving the entire vessel a fresh coat of paint.
Interestingly, in 1918 when Teddy Roosevelt, who was president from 1901 to 1909, was entertaining plans to reprise his presidency, he had considered Harding to be his vice presidential candidate, but those plans never materialized. Harding, who was a United States Senator from Ohio, never actually sought his party’s nomination. Harding, who was chosen as his party’s candidate for president, in the “smoke filled back rooms,” was chosen because, as well as being a good listener, he looked presidential. After nine ballots were cast by the party leaders, and no candidate won a majority of the votes, Harding became the compromise candidate.
When Harding was asked by party leaders if he knew before God whether there was anything in his life that would be an impediment in his running for president, Harding replied that there were none. However, he failed to disclose the amorous ways of his purported numerous affairs which, for the most part, he had been able to keep secret.
In the 1920 presidential election, he and his vice presidential candidate, Calvin Coolidge, defeated Ohio Governor James M. Cox and his running mate Franklin D. Roosevelt, thereby becoming the only people to ever defeat Franklin Roosevelt on a presidential ticket. Harding ran on a promise of “Return to Normalcy” to heal the nation after the Great War (World War I).
In June of 1923 Harding set out on a westward cross country journey that he labeled a “Voyage of Understanding” to connect with the people away from the capitol, and in doing so, he became the first president to ever visit Canada and the U.S. Territory of Alaska. During the demanding trip, Harding began receiving ongoing reports about illegal activities involving members of his cabinet and other political appointees that would cause him a great deal of personal stress as well as a scandal that could jeopardize his bid for a second term. On June 26, 1923 President Harding became exhausted and complained of nausea and upper abdominal pain, which was first diagnosed as food poisoning. However, another doctor said he was suffering from heart disease and given medication for it. Every day thereafter, the president complained of not feeling well.
Harding’s last big public speech was given to a crowd of 25,000 at the University of Washington stadium in Seattle. But the president was not feeling well and rushed through the speech; and when it ended, he left at once, not even waiting for the applause. He immediately boarded a train for San Francisco for his next big event: reviewing the largest parade of Merchant Marine ships in history from the deck of the lighthouse tender Sequoia. Why his staff had chosen a lighthouse tender for this event, rather than a naval ship is unclear. How many doctors went with him onboard the Sequoia on July 31 is also unclear, but one or more physicians surely would have accompanied him. But it would be his last real official public duty.
In the meantime, hearing of the president’s health reports in Washington, Harding’s friend, Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, became increasingly alarmed and extremely worried about the president’s condition. Hoover sent a telegram to his personal friend, Dr. Ray L. Wilbur, and asked him to examine the president in San Francisco. The result was that the president, described as being exhausted, was diagnosed with pneumonia and a planned speech was cancelled.
On the evening of August 2, 1923, while reportedly speaking with his wife, President Harding dropped dead. His doctors said he had suffered a stroke; however, naval medical consultants said that he had suffered a heart attack. Whatever the case, the president’s wife refused to allow an autopsy and she immediately had the president’s body embalmed and placed into a casket for the four day train trip to Washington.
Almost immediately upon President Harding’s death, rumors started circulating that President Harding had been poisoned by political opponents among his staff or perhaps by his wife, in retribution for the president’s adultery. Mrs. Harding certainly gave some credence to the conspiracy theory. Upon return to Washington, she went to the White House and for the next month she gathered up all the president’s papers, both official and unofficial, and burned every one of them. Mrs. Harding then returned to their home in Marion, Ohio and with her staff secured all the president’s remaining papers to keep them from public view. Mrs. Harding said this was being done to protect the president’s legacy.
In the 1960s more than 100 intimate letters were discovered that had been written between President Harding and his mistress, Carrie Fulton Phillips. Those letters were sealed by court order, which said the letters could not be published until 2024, which would be 101 years after President Harding’s death.
Whatever the case, the United States Lighthouse Service lighthouse tender Sequoia had played its significant role in lighthouse history and American history, which was a far cry from its normal duties of servicing aids to navigation and supplying lighthouses. The day of the onboard visit by the President of the United States must have been a memorable one for the members of the crew of five officers and 23 crewmen assigned to the vessel, perhaps more than they expected, since the president died two days later.
In spite of its notoriety, the Sequoia, built in 1909, was decommissioned on August 13, 1946 and given to the government of the Philippines, and the noted lighthouse tender Sequoia disappeared into the pages of time as did the memories and photographs of the crew who served on board during that time. Although they have been remembered by a few, they have been forgotten by most.
This story appeared in the
May/Jun 2013 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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