DURING the World War there was a club for the enlisted men of the Navy and Marine Corps located at 509 Fifth Avenue, New York City, known then as the Navy Club. The club was operated by a group of ladies under the leadership of Mrs. William H. Hamilton. Countless tales could be told of the club of the war period, but this article does not concern those years which were heroic and memorable to all who visited there. Some time after the Armistice it was decided that the club should be continued as a permanent institution. The rented quarters on Fifth Avenue were unsuitable for a real man’s club, and two houses were purchased on East 41st Street, between Fifth and Madison Avenues. How the money was raised and how interest in the volunteer work was continued after the glamour of war service was ended is a story all its own and credit goes chiefly to a noble group of women and a few business men who somehow did the impossible and made the Manhattan Navy Club a living thing, permanent in its ideals and in its own home.
All this brings us to the year 1920, and late in that year the writer, who was a charter member of the club, was asked by another charter member, Edward Allen Loomis, to help in securing a certain man as President of the club. Mr. Herbert L. Satterlee, who had guided the club through many difficult days, had resigned because of ill health. Loomis used the expression that if I could secure the services of the man he had in mind, he would erect a statue to me in heaven for the service I would render to the Navy. I fell in with his idea and welcomed the suggestion that I might help in the matter. I at once wrote a letter to my friend and pointed out that as President of the club he not only would be enabled to continue his association with the Navy but would render a splendid service to the people of New York who were endeavoring to keep the club going. A week or so later I was delighted to learn that he had accepted the invitation to be President. Shortly thereafter, at the annual meeting in January, 1921, Franklin D. Roosevelt became the President of the Manhattan Navy Club.
Immediately things began to hum. Mr. Roosevelt, fresh from a national campaign and from his great war-time service to the Navy in Washington, saw that the club could become a real navy man’s club and national in scope and appeal. The name was changed to National Navy Club of New York, Inc. Various state societies and clubs were interested in the work and a campaign was started to raise funds for general purposes and also to endow dormitories and rooms in the club. The first such endowment was the Connecticut room.
The record of service to the men during these years is an inspiring account of usefulness to the naval service. Thousands of enlisted men became members of the club and used its facilities when in New York. Roosevelt supplied a slogan which at once appealed to all members. It was a motto framed over the registration desk. It said, “Here you will neither be robbed, instructed, nor uplifted.” Every service man will appreciate the meaning of such a promise. It gave to the Navy its first permanent shore club in the heart of the world’s greatest seaport.
Men from many foreign navies were entertained at the club when their ships were in port. Men of our own Navy from every state used and visited the club. It was truly a navy center. Dances were given by various ships at the club and under the club’s patronage in the big hotels. New York under the leadership of a Roosevelt was fast becoming navy-minded.
The unfortunate illness of Mr. Roosevelt ended his active presidency of the club and his absence also caused some to lose interest in the work. However, the club carried on and moved to quarters at 93-95 Park Avenue at 40th Street. Here occurred another episode so closely and interestingly connected with the Navy as to supply even today a national event which all the country know as Navy Day.
Mrs. Hamilton conceived the idea of a nation-wide celebration of a Navy Day, which would bring a knowledge of the Navy to every part of the country and which would also help the Navy Club to carry out its service to the Navy. I recall her telling me of her plans on an August afternoon at her home in Monmouth Beach, New Jersey. Here between the ocean and Shrewsbury River was properly born the idea so naturally connected with the Navy and its history. A few days later she left for Washington to visit the then Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Theodore Roosevelt, Jr. He received the suggestion with great interest and at once the plans were set to hold the first Navy Day on October 27, 1922, the birthday of President Theodore Roosevelt. Mrs. Hamilton’s service as founder of Navy Day has been too little remembered by the Navy. Assistant Secretary Roosevelt wrote her a letter giving her first and full credit as founder of the Day, and for the remaining years of the Navy Club that letter was framed and hung on the walls as a proud relic. The Navy Club unfortunately was a victim of the depression and was forced to close its doors in 1934 after 17 years of service to the men of the Navy.
The spirit of the club lives on in the person of our President and in Navy Day itself. That day will always remain as a tribute to the generous-hearted, noble, and inspiring American, Mrs. Hamilton. It is a day that the Navy itself will always be thankful for, and it should always be the Navy’s day at home as the Navy Club was the Navy’s home in New York. It is a particular pleasure also to recall the splendid interest and fine support of the club and its naval spirit always rendered by Mrs. James Roosevelt, the President’s mother. She took up the work when her son left off, and as a director and patron of the club assisted nobly in this work of the Navy. It is such service that makes us all proud to be Americans.
Navy Day will permanently remind us of the need of a navy powerful enough to insure the United States a peaceful future and, if war comes, to bring us certain victory. The year 1922 was one of uncertainty for the Navy and yet it stands as a milestone on the road of national unity. From volunteer work at the Navy Club, Navy Day was created, and it is hoped that its celebration will be continued for many years.
This article was written by J. Russell Carney and published in the October 1939 issue of Proceedings magazine as Some Forgotten Naval History- The First Navy Day, 1922. The last official Navy Day was celebrated in 1949.