Most have never heard about this man, even most who have served in the United States Navy may never have heard of him. His name was John Henry Turpin and here is his fascinating story.
Turpin was born in 100th year of this country’s history in Long Beach, New Jersey on August 20, 1876. At the age of 20, on November 4, 1896, he enlisted in the United States Navy into the only rating that Black people were allowed in at that time, the mess service.
Almost two years later, on February 15, 1898, Turpin was serving in the mess hall of the USS Maine tied up in Havana Harbor, Cuba when it mysteriously blew up. He reported afterward that he felt the huge ship heave upwards suddenly and then everything went dark.
Turpin felt his way out of the mess hall then leapt overboard as the Maine burned and sank.
He was picked up from the waters of Havana Harbor along with 89 other crew members. They were the only ones to survive the catastrophic explosion out of 350 total crew. The cause of the explosion and destruction of the Maine remains a mystery, but this was during the Spanish American War and the word went out that it was destroyed by the enemy.
“Remember the Maine” became a battle cry for the rest of this short war.
Turpin later served in the China Relief Campaign during the Boxer Rebellion as well.
In July 1905, Turpin was serving on the USS Bennington, a gunship then docked at the San Diego Naval Base. The ship’s boilers were steaming up when a huge explosion ripped the Bennington apart. Turpin and 11 others jumped into action to save their fellow crew members. Turpin was personally credited with saving the lives of 3 officers and 12 enlisted men during that effort. He was one of 66 out of 102 crew members to survive that explosion on the USS Bennington.
All 12 men who went into action that day to save their fellow crew members were put up for the Medal of Honor. While the 11 white crew members were awarded the Medal of Honor, Turpin was not. In fact, it appears that he was awarded no medal for his actions that day.
An effort was put forth more recently to have the Medal of Honor awarded to him, but this time the excuse for not awarding it was that too much time had passed and there were no living eye witnesses to account for his actions on that day.
Turpin left the Navy in April 1916 only to be called back up in June 1917 during WWI. He was made a Chief Gunners Mate at that time, one of, if not the first, African American to be given that rank on the Navy Cruiser USS Marblehead. He was transferred to the Naval Fleet Reserve in 1919 and continued to serve in the Naval Reserve doing many different things. He was the USN boxing champion in several different weight classes and was a boxing instructor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland. His nicknames were “Dick” and “Big Bill”
Turpin retired from the United States Navy on October 5, 1925 as a Chief Gunners Mate. As a civilian he made a career out of working at the Puget Sound Naval Base in Bremerton, WA. He was a Master Rigger and became a diver. In this latter capacity he helped during the efforts to salvage the sunken USN submarine USS F-4 off of Honolulu, Hawai’i. He was also instrumental in developing underwater cutting and welding techniques. He tried to reenlist during WWII but was denied because of his age. CGM John Henry Turpin died in Bremerton, WA, in 1962.
Recent efforts to posthumously award the Medal of Honor that Turpin was put up for back in 1905 were denied because too much time had passed and there were no living eye witnesses to corroborate the events. Instead, the United States Congress decided to name the United States Post Office in Bremerton, WA, after CMG Turpin. He will be remembered through various education efforts as well.
Turpin’s military awards include: the Navy Expeditionary Medal, the Spanish Campaign Medal, the China Relief Campaign Medal, the Nicaragua Campaign Medal, the Mexican Service Medal, the WWI Victory Medal and the Good Conduct Medal.
The Veterans Site is honored to bring CGM John Henry Turpin to our readers’ attention. Given the times in which he lived, he gave of himself completely in service to the nation, without reward or recognition. His life and his dedication to duty, to his crew mates, and to his family is a model for all of us. A man like this should never be forgotten. We are thrilled that his legacy is being preserved in Bremerton, WA, where he lived and served for most of his life.
Bravo Zulu, CGM Turpin. We know that you are sailing under “Fair Winds and Following Seas” now.Whizzco