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History of Wyoming: Casper Sailor crossed the Equator with Herbert Hoover 100 years ago

Clarence Amend “Sharkey” Gehrett of Casper may not have sailed all seven seas while in the U.S. Navy, but he did become a “shellback” – the nickname for a sailor who crossed the equator – which he did in the Pacific Ocean in 1928.

For that feat, there was a special costume ceremony aboard the battleship USS Maryland to which he was assigned, and his crossing certificate was signed by then-President-elect Herbert Hoover, who happened to be on board.

Gehrett, who spent more than 20 years in the Navy, also enjoyed taking photos and took his camera everywhere. In addition to his certificate signed by Hoover, nearly two dozen of his photographs are on display in a special exhibit at the Wyoming Veterans Memorial Museum in Casper.

Museum director John Woodward said Gehrett died in 1987 and his family donated the photo collection from his Navy career to the museum in 2011.

The images not only tell the story of military life and travel 100 years ago, they are historical snapshots that capture a unique time in the United States between World War I and World War II.

“About a year or two ago, I wrote a landmark article in our newsletter about crossing the line ceremonies when sailors, coast guardsmen or other personnel cross a significant latitude or longitude and they are issued a certificate,” he said. “And in the Gehrett collection was one signed by newly elected President Herbert Hoover.

“So that caught my attention. And when we started doing temporary exhibitions, the Gehrett Collection was the first on my list to do an exhibition because it contained so many different photographs.”

‘Globe-trotting sailor’

There are 22 of Gehrett’s photographs on display at the museum in an exhibit called “Globe-Trotting Sailor.”

A photograph entitled ‘Captain Caravan and the Royal Family’ shows sailors and officers dressed in wild attire, one with a horned helmet holding a pitchfork, apparently like Neptune. The photo came from the USS Maryland as it crossed the equator into the Pacific Ocean with Hoover on board. As president-elect, Hoover made a Latin American tour in 1928.

Another photo by Gehrett shows the battleship’s officers talking to Hoover on the deck.

“That in itself is an interesting story because we actually found a company from Great Britain that has the newsreel of Hoover on board the battleship Maryland and the ceremony that’s going on about crossing the border,” Woodward said. “So there is a reasonable idea that one of the people in that news is Clarence Gehrett.”

However, obtaining the rights to display the newsreel was too expensive, Woodward said.

Photos selected for the exhibit chronicle part of Gehrett’s five years on the USS Maryland, where he served as a gunner’s mate working the torpedo racks and as a diver. One photo shows the battleship as it sails through the Panama Canal and another photo shows the crew of the USS Maryland during a parade in Seattle, Washington.

Other photos show Gehrett’s time in the Asian Fleet from 1931 to 1938 aboard the USS Pillsbury, a destroyer. He also served on a riverboat, the USS Monocacy, which patrolled the Yangtze River and protected American shipping lanes from bandits, as well as American citizens and interests along the banks in inland China.

There is a photo of Gehrett with a Chinese woman, of sailors in a rickshaw, a snowy harbor dragon and more.

Another photo taken from the Shanghai Theater shows the marquee movie, “Souls at Sea,” starring Gary Cooper and George Raft, which is being promoted in both Chinese and English. The film was released in 1937.

Native to South Dakota

Gehrett was born on April 19, 1908 in Deadwood, South Dakota. His family moved to Sheridan and then Casper when his father sought work as a pipe fitter. Gehrett’s naval career began after a run-in with the law in 1925.

According to the museum’s exhibit, the then 17-year-old and a friend stole $400 worth of groceries from WH Brown Grocery in Casper on March 20, 1925. They put the goods in the supermarket van, stole that too and drove to Glenrock.

A news article in the Casper Tribune-Herald of March 24, 1925, reported that the “young people were so eager for a camping trip that they could not resist the impulse to commit the crime.”

“The confession was made after the pair were identified by Roy Smith, a rancher, as the youths whose truck he pulled out of the mud and snow 25 miles southwest of Glenrock on Saturday,” the newspaper reported.

The pair were ultimately not charged, and in June 1925 Gehrett enlisted in the Navy.

  • Clarence Gherett's photo of the USS Maryland making its way through the Panama Canal.
    Clarence Gherett’s photo of the USS Maryland making its way through the Panama Canal. (Dale Killingbeck, Cowboy State Daily)
  • Casper sailor Clarence Gherett served on many ships during a twenty-year stint in the Navy, including the USS Maryland in 1928 when newly elected President Herbert Hoover was aboard.
    Casper sailor Clarence Gherett served on many ships during a twenty-year stint in the Navy, including the USS Maryland in 1928 when newly elected President Herbert Hoover was aboard. (Wikipedia)
  • Casper sailor Clarence Gherett served on many ships during a twenty-year stint in the Navy, including aboard the USS Pillbury from 1931-38.
    Casper sailor Clarence Gherett served on many ships during a twenty-year stint in the Navy, including aboard the USS Pillbury from 1931-38. (Wikipedia)

War years

During much of World War II, Gehrett served around the USS Vixen, a converted civilian yacht that served as a flagship for several admirals as they traveled along the country’s east coast to various naval stations. It was located in Washington, DC, at the Naval Yard.

In 1944, Gunner’s Mate 1st Class Gehrett was assigned to the USS Prairie, a destroyer tender that operated and repaired destroyers fighting in the Pacific Fleet.

“He was aboard the destroyer that engaged destroyers in behind-the-lines combat until the end of the war,” Woodward said.

After the war, Gehrett returned to Casper after serving in the Navy for twenty years. Upon his return, he worked for a car dealer and the Burlington Northern Railroad. In 1950, he was recalled to train sailors at the Recruit Training Command Great Lakes base in Chicago for the Korean War.

After this second tour of duty, he returned to Casper and worked several jobs, including his last as a custodian at the city’s First Presbyterian Church.

Gehrett died on October 29, 1987 at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Sheridan after a long illness. He left behind a wife and a daughter.

Woodward said Gehrett’s photos and the time period they represent provide a “unique view” of his service, the people he met and the places he saw during his military career.

“That’s something you don’t see, especially when you think about the 1920s and 1930s and the cost of purchasing film for a camera and developing the film,” Woodward said. “It’s very different than today when it’s on a cell phone. He invested a great deal of time and money into this hobby, and we continue to enjoy it decades after his passing.”

The exhibition of Gehrett’s photographs will be on display until the end of June.

Valley Killingbeck can be reached at [email protected].