By K. Cecilia Sequeira, Naval History and Heritage Command, Communication and Outreach Division
Rhode Island may be small, but it is historically mighty. As a colony, Rhode Island was the first of thirteen to renounce allegiance to the British. And, while Rhode Island is less than 50 miles long and 37 miles wide, its 400 miles of coastline have ensured a rich naval past. The U.S. Navy cemented its presence in Rhode Island during the Civil War when the U.S. Naval Academy was relocated to Newport from Annapolis, Maryland to avoid the dangers to the south. USS Constitution and other training ships including Santee and John Adams docked at Newport Harbor during the war and served as training ships for midshipmen in the Union Navy. These ships, and the capable instructors at the naval academy, helped develop several Rhode Island natives into pioneers and leaders in the U.S. Navy.
Born in Providence, Rhode Island, Godfrey DeCourcelles Chevalier was one such Naval Academy graduate. In the early 1900s, Chevalier helped install the first catapult used in the U.S. Navy and piloted the first plane launched by a catapult. For his service during World War I, Chevalier was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. On Oct. 26, 1922, Chevalier made the first landing on USS Langley (CV 1), the first American aircraft carrier. Unfortunately, Chevalier’s luck ran out less than a month later when he succumbed to injuries from a plane crash. USS Chevalier I (DD 451) and USS Chevalier II (DD 805) were named in his honor.
Carving out his own place in history, John Joseph Kirwin, a Newport native, would also be remembered as a naval hero. Kirwin was commissioned as an ensign in 1941. During World War II, he fought valiantly against German bombardment on the shore of Salerno Bay, Sicily. He earned the Navy Cross for his actions on Sept. 11, 1943. His citation reads, “When the detonation of an enemy bomb set off numerous fires and filled the turret with dense smoke and toxic gases, Lt. Kirwin promptly ordered the area abandoned and despite the imminent danger, stood by his station in the turret booth. With full knowledge of the serious hazards involved and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, he calmly supervised evacuation and deliberately remained behind to aid in saving the lives of as many of his command as possible … he eventually succumbed in the stricken booth, gallantly sacrificing his own life in order that his men might live.” USS Kirwin (DE 229) was named in his honor.
Learn about other Rhode Island trailblazers, including Oliver Hazard Perry, John Hubbard Chafee, and Nathanael Green on our website or click on the infographic below to explore Rhode Island’s naval history.