Sunday, February 15, 2009

Remember the Maine - Remember the Man - Chief Gunners Mate John Turpin - 15 Feb 1898

John Turpin was a messman aboard the battleship USS MAINE. He went on to become the first Black Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy.

John Henry "Dick" Turpin was born on August 20th 1876 in Long Branch, New Jersey. He was 20 when he joined the Navy on 4th November 1896. He was a "Mess Steward" aboard USS MAINE when she was sent to Havana, Cuba to protect Americans in 1898. On February 15th 1898, an explosion took place aboard USS MAINE, and according to Apprentice Ambrose Ham, who recalled that Dick Turpin was trying to in vain to save the life of Lt. F. W. Jenkins, when he was ordered by Lt. George Holman to "go below and get some cutlasses" thinking that the MAINE was being attacked by Spanish forces. Turpin, seeing that the MAINE was quickly sinking, chose to dive overboard, and soon found another man clinging to his back. He was quickly rescued safely and taken to Key West aboard the USS OLIVETTE.

In July 1905 Dick Turpin was about to encounter another Naval Disaster, when the boiler exploded aboard USS BENNINGTON in San Diego Harbor, accordingly Turpin was nominated for the Medal of Honor, for saving the lives of his fellow shipmates. In 1915 Turpin was involved in diving operations for a sunken submarine in Honolulu, Hawaii and qualified as a "Master Diver". He is also credited with being involved with the invention of the underwater cutting torch.

On June 1st 1917 Turpin became Chief Gunners Mate aboard the USS MARBLEHEAD, until he was transferred to the Fleet Reserve on March 8th 1919 and he remained in that rank until he retired on 5th October 1925.

When Turpin was not on active duty, he was employed at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, in Bremerton, Washington as a "Master Rigger". From 1938 and throughout World War II, Turpin made "inspirational visits" to Naval Training Centers and Defense Plants, and was a "Guest of Honor" on the reviewing stand in Seattle when the first black volunteers were sworn into the Navy shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Turpin never wanted to part with the Navy, and according to one article, he requested "mobilization" at age 65 when World War II broke out. His request was denied, but Turpin "forgot his age" and managed to remain a "Reservist". He lived in Seattle later in life, and was in several parades honoring him.

Over 6 feet tall, he was an impressive-looking, popular figure, who broke color barriers both in the Navy and in Bremerton. Everybody knew him, and when kids would see him, they would swarm around him, recalls Al Colvin, former Mayor of Bremerton.

Chief John Henry "Dick" Turpin died in 1962, sadly though there are no official records of Turpin ever receiving his "Medal of Honor" Turpin was a true Navy man and a great American. When he passed away in 1962, his six pall bearers were all Chief Stewards: Allen, Grant, Webb, Davis, Webb, Alley.

John Henry “Dick” Turpin was simply known as Dick Turpin to his friend’s according to a long time neighbor that lived near him since the late-1930’s. When he visited the local Navy Ships they would “pipe him aboard” with the same respect of an Admiral. Not only was he known for his bravery on the USS MAINE and USS BENNINGTON but he also was one of the top Navy Hard-Hat Divers.

He never had the benefit of a diversity program. He received no help from affirmative action. He did it all of his own desire and volition. He did it the way it should be done - his own hard work and motivation. He overcame every obstacle.

5 comments:

Sheila Collins via e-mail said...

Dear Sir,

I respectfully submit to you for your consideration the following comment:

According to certain accounts of the USS Maine disaster, Chief Turpin saved the Skipper and several others.
There is also documentation that reveals Chief Turpin saved several crew mates in the aftermath of the USS Bennington explosion.

More than eleven Navy men received Medals of Honor for their respective acts of heroism while saving the lives of ship mates from these two ships. Chief Turpin apparently was nominated but never received this citation.

Instead, Chief Turpin was allowed to leave the ranks of the mess stewards to pursue excellence in other fields of endeavor within the Navy. He was the only Black sailor allowed this "privilege" at the time (and for decades thereafter). In addition to the exploits mentioned in the article on your blog, he was a Navy boxing champion and a boxing instructor at the USNA.

Chief Turpin was not unique. He was willing and able to perform heroic acts within the midst of devastation. He was like many many proud Black American soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines (from 1775 to present).

Sincerely,

Sheila Collins
Bremerton, WA

Anonymous said...

Hi Sheila Collins
Thank you for the additional information about Chief Turpin.
Do you have any other information regarding his life, family, like pictures and so forth?
One thing I can't locate is the documented accounts of his heroism. Do you have the articles or contacts I can have?
Thank you,
Marty Schick

Sheila Collins said...

Hi Marty,

I must confess that I've not been on this blog since August 2010. I just noticed your comment. After a two-year hiatus, I am once again reviewing documentation regarding John Henry "Dick" Turpin. You may contact me at the following email address: sheila.collins@navy.mil

Very respectfully,

Sheila Collins
Bremerton, WA

Sheila Collins said...

Hi Marty,

I must confess that I've not been on this blog since August 2010. I just noticed your comment. After a two-year hiatus, I am once again reviewing documentation regarding John Henry "Dick" Turpin. You may contact me at the following email address: sheila.collins@navy.mil

Very respectfully,

Sheila Collins
Bremerton, WA

Mick Hersey said...

I have 2 official Naval documents and neither one list the Medal of Honor write ups. But back in those days, records and recommendations would disappear for men of color.