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John Henry "Dick" Turpin

Messman, Battleship Maine

(August 20, 1876 -1962)
By Eadhmonn Ua Cuinn
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John Turpin was a messman aboard the Battleship MAINE. He went on to become the fist, or one of the first, African American Chief Petty Officers in the U.S. Navy.


John Henry "Dick" Turpin was born on August 20th 1876 in Long Branch New Jersey.  At the age of 20 Turpin enlisted in the United States Navy on 4th November 1896, and was a "Mess Attendant" aboard the Battleship MAINE when she was sent to Havana, Cuba to protect American Lives in 1898.

On February 15th 1898, an explosion took place aboard 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 OLIVETTE.

In July 1905 Dick Turpin was about to encounter another Naval Disaster, when the boiler exploded aboard the 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.

John Henry "Dick" Turpin was one of the first African-Americans to achieve the rank of Chief Petty Officer at a time when the armed forces still held a "color barrier" intact,

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 "mobilisation" at age 65 when World War II broke out. His request was denied, but Turpin "forgot his age" and managed toi 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.

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.

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