By Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Memorial Day is a time to honor those who have served our nation and made the ultimate sacrifice for our country. Since the beginning of our great nation, U.S. Navy Sailors, and their ships, have gone in harm’s way to protect our great nation. Each May, we take time to remember and honor these heroes.
Below we’ve highlighted several Navy ships that were attacked by an enemy during different times throughout our history and the tragedy that unfolded afterwards. While this is not a conclusive list, we hope it serves as a discussion starter and a vehicle for readers to remember all the lives our Navy has lost in service to our country. Who are you remembering this Memorial Day?
In August 1779, Captain John Paul Jones took command of the Bonhomme Richard and sailed around the British Isles. On September 23, the Bonhomme Richard engaged the Serapis and the smaller Countess of Scarborough, which were escorting the Baltic merchant fleet. In the final hour, Bonhomme Richrad’s mast was hit above the top-sail. Along with her colors, a large section of the mast came crashing to the deck near Jones’s feet. In response to the downfallen colors, Serapis called out, “Have you struck your colors?” Fiercely, John Paul Jones exclaimed, “Struck sir? I have not yet begun to fight!” After four more hours of fighting it was the Serapis and Countess of Scarborough that surrendered. Bonhomme Richard, shattered, on fire, and leaking badly defied all efforts to save her and sank the next day. Unfortunately, an estimated 150 Sailors and Marines were killed or wounded. Read more about Bonhomme Richard here: http://go.usa.gov/cJsbd
At the end of May 1813, Captain Phillip B. V. Brook, commander of the 38-gun royal frigate Shannon, challenged Capt. James Lawrence of USS Chesapeake to a duel. On Tuesday 1 June at 8am, Lawrence commanded Chesapeake to set sail in Shannon’s wake, hoisting a banner with the motto “Free Trade and Sailor’s Rights.” The duel resulted in the destruction of the Chesapeake’s sails, rigging, and helm, rendering the ship unable to maneuver. Shannon’s crew continued relentless fire, killing 1st Lt. Ludlow and wounding Capt. Lawrence. As Brook led a charge of boarders, Capt. Lawrence who was now mortally wounded below deck, continued to demand a boarding party and uttered “Don’t give up the ship!” and “Fight her ‘til she sinks!” when he realized all was lost. Within minutes of Shannon’s crew boarding Chesapeake, the fighting was over and the white ensign of St. George flew over the ship. This was the bloodiest naval battle of the war, with 280 men dead or wounded.Learn more about USS Chesapeake here – http://go.usa.gov/cJsdV
Responsibility for the sinking of Maine remains one of the continuing enigmas of American history. The Maine’s mission to Havana, Cuba was to show the flag and to protect American citizens in event of violence in the Spanish struggle with the revolutionary forces. Arriving in Havana on 25 January, Maine anchored in the center of the port, remained on vigilant watch, allowed no liberty, and took extra precautions against sabotage. Shortly after 9:42 pm on 15 February, the battleship was torn apart by a tremendous explosion that shattered the entire forward part of the ship. Out of 350 officers and men on board that night (four officers were ashore), 252 were dead or missing. Eight more were to die in Havana hospitals during the next few days.
Spanish officials at Havana showed every attention to the survivors of the disaster and great respect for those killed. The court of inquiry convened in March was unable to obtain evidence associating the destruction of the battleship with any person or persons, however, the public opinion in the United States was so inflamed that the Maine disaster eventually led to the declaration of war on Spain. Learn more about USS Maine here – http://go.usa.gov/cJeQF
Shortly before 8 am, Japanese aircraft struck the Pacific Fleet as it lay in Pearl Harbor, and Arizona took two direct bomb hits. The explosion causing the ship’s destruction came from a 200-kg bomb dropped from a Japanese carrier attack plane. The bomb caused a cataclysmic explosion that ripped through the forward part of the ship, touching off fierce fires that burned for two days. Acts of heroism were common, including Lt. Cmdr. Samuel G. Fuqua, the senior surviving officer on board, whose coolness in attempting to quell the fires and get survivors off the ship earned him the Medal of Honor. A posthumous award of the Medal of Honor went to Rear Adm. Kidd, the first flag officer to be killed in the Pacific war. Learn more about USS Arizona here – http://go.usa.gov/cJePY
Again, we realize that the above ships may or may not have been on your list of some of the most significant tragedies of our U.S. Navy, but we hope to have sparked a discussion of remembrance for every Sailor we’ve lost.