The Sinking of Admiral Barry

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“San Francisco, January 15, 1911 – Rear Admiral Chauncey M. Thomas, Commander of the Second Squadron of the Pacific Fleet, today relieved Rear Admiral Edward B. Barry as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Fleet, in pursuance of orders received from the Navy Department in Washington.” Thus began the article in The San Francisco Chronicle that led to the destruction of the hitherto stellar military career of Rear Admiral Edward Buttervant Barry. The article went on to report ominously that for several months the Admiral had been “the subject of much gossip. Stories reflecting seriously upon the character of the retiring admiral are being circulated.”

And that was enough to bring down the commander of the U.S. Navy’s Pacific Fleet—all apparently based upon innuendo as reported by Barry’s subordinate officers. The Chronicle excused the vagueness of its allegations by declaring that the scandal was of such a sensitive nature as “to forbid explicit statement in print.” So vulgar was the word “homosexual” that the polite Victorian standards of the day restricted the description of the Admiral’s wrongdoing as being “the same vice which caused the downfall of Oscar Wilde.” Wilde was convicted under British law of “gross indecency” and served a two-year sentence at hard labor. At the time, the “gross indecency” statute was used to prosecute gays. The term “gross indecency” was not clear defined, nor did the law require the accused to be caught performing any specific sexual act—simply evincing “sexual invert” behavior was sufficient grounds for prosecution. The U.S. military equivalent is the catchall term “conduct unbecoming,” which can include from lying to “moral turpitude.” The Chronicle uses the phrase “moral conduct” and refers repeatedly to the “moral character” of the accused.

Simultaneous with the public disclosure, the Department of the Navy sent “urgent orders” to Rear Admiral Chauncey W. Thomas, commander of the second squadron of the Pacific fleet, to proceed at once to San Francisco from Santa Barbara in his flagship the USS California. Admiral Thomas was ordered to relieve Admiral Barry of the command of the Pacific fleet.

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