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John Henry "Dick" Turpin
CPM John Henry Turpin.jpg
John Henry Turpin
Born 20 August 1876
Died 10 March 1962(1962-03-10) (aged 85)
Bremerton, Washington
Allegiance United States United States
Service/branch  United States Navy
Rank Chief Gunner's Mate, 1917
Battles/wars Spanish–American War
Boxer Rebellion
World War I

John Henry "Dick" Turpin (20 August 1876 – 10 March 1962) was a sailor in the United States Navy in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Turpin was one of the first African American Chief Petty Officers in the U.S. Navy. He is also notable for surviving the catastrophic explosions of two U.S. Navy ships: USS Maine in 1898, and USS Bennington in 1905.

Early life and career[edit]

Turpin was born on 20 August 1876 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy in New York City on 4 November 1896.[1]

USS Maine[edit]

He was a Mess Attendant on Maine when it exploded in Havana under mysterious circumstances on the night of 15 February 1898. Turpin was in the pantry of the wardroom when the explosion occurred, and felt the ship "heave and lift" before all went dark. He worked his way aft and climbed out of the wardroom on the captain's ladder and up onto the deck.[2] He dove overboard and was rescued by a motor launch.[3] Turpin was one of 90 out of the 350 officers and men aboard Maine that night to survive the explosion.[4]

According to an obituary that appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Turpin (whose next ship assignment was not reported) saw action in China during the 1900 Boxer Rebellion.

Bennington explosion[edit]

By mid-1905, Turpin had been assigned to the gunboat Bennington. When that ship was raising steam for a departure from San Diego, California, on 21 July 1905, she suffered a boiler explosion that sent men and machinery into the air and killed 66 of the 102 men aboard.[5] Turpin reportedly saved three officers and twelve men by swimming them to shore one at a time.[3] Eleven men were awarded the Medal of Honor for "extraordinary heroism displayed at the time of the explosion",[6] but Turpin was not among them.[7]

Later career[edit]

In 1915 Turpin worked as a diver in efforts to raise the sunken submarine USS F-4 in Honolulu, Hawaii. He became qualified as a "Master Diver" - most probably the first African-American sailor to do so. Turpin was also credited with being involved with the development of the underwater cutting torch.

Turpin served on several other ships before leaving active duty service in 1916.[1]

After the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Turpin was recalled to service. On 1 June 1917, he became a Chief Gunner's Mate on the cruiser Marblehead, which made him among the first African American Chief Petty Officers in the U.S. Navy.[1] Turpin served at that rank until he was transferred to the Fleet Reserve in March 1919. In October 1925, Turpin retired at the rank of Chief Gunner's Mate.[1]

During his time in the Navy, he was the Navy boxing champion in several different weight classifications throughout is Navy career and was a boxing instructor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.[3]

Later life[edit]

After his retirement from the Navy, Turpin was employed as a Master Rigger at the Puget Sound Navy Yard in Bremerton, Washington; he was also qualified as a Master Diver in his civilian duties.

During World War II, Turpin tried to return to active service but was denied an account of his age. He volunteered to tour Navy training facilities and defense plants to make "inspirational visits" to African-American sailors.[1]


Turpin died in Bremerton, Washington on 10 March 1962. He was survived by his wife Faye Alice.[3] At his funeral, his pall bearers were six Navy chief stewards.


See also[edit]


 This article incorporates public domain material from websites or documents of the United States Army Center of Military History.
  1. ^ a b c d e "John Henry ("Dick") Turpin, Chief Gunner's Mate, USN. (1876–1962)". Online Library of Selected Images: People. Navy Department, Naval Historical Center. 27 February 2005. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
  2. ^ Sigsbee, Charles Dwight (December 1898). "Personal narrative of the "Maine" by her commander, Captain Charles Dwight Sigsbee, U. S. N.". Century Illustrated Magazine LVII (2): 254. 
  3. ^ a b c d "Survivor of Maine sinking dies at age 96". Los Angeles Times ( [sic]). 11 Mar 1962. p. J10. 
  4. ^ "Maine". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
  5. ^ Mann, Raymond A. (8 February 2006). "Bennington". Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships. Navy Department, Naval History & Heritage Command. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
  6. ^ "Boiler Explosion on USS Bennington, 21 July 1905". Online Library of Selected Images: Events. Navy Department, Naval Historical Center. 4 March 2005. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 
  7. ^ "Interim Awards, 1901-1911". Medal of Honor Recipients. U.S. Army Center of Military History. 27 January 2009. Retrieved 21 April 2009. 

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New York Times
Thu, 23 Feb 2012 14:38:15 -0800

That includes Jesse LeRoy Brown, the first African-American naval combat pilot, who was killed during the Korean War; and John Henry Turpin, known as Dick and born in 1876, who was one of the Navy's first African-American chief petty officers and who ...

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