John Henry Turpin
For several years now, I have worked with national cemetery personnel, Sons of the American Revolution San Diego Chapter, and fellow historians to annually commemorate San Diego’s 1905 naval disaster, the boiler explosion aboard the USS Bennington. Our hero, John Henry Turpin, survived two naval shipboard explosions yet rescued stunned, hurt, and dying shipmates, one after another, from the waters of San Diego Bay. His contributions to military service are exemplary, yet he was not recognized as he should have been.
John Henry (Dick) Turpin was born August 20, 1876 in Long Branch, New Jersey. He enlisted in the US Navy in 1896, and in 1917 was selected as one of the first African American Chief Petty Officers. Turpin was a survivor of two shipboard explosions: USS Maine in 1898 Havana Harbor, Cuba, and USS Bennington in San Diego in 1905. He is noted for a number of rescues of shipmates in the following hours, yet did not receive the Navy’s highest service award, the Medal of Honor, though 11 other Bennington crew did. Turpin transferred to the Fleet Reserve in 1919, and also qualified as a Master Diver, and was employed as a Master Rigger at the Puget Sound Navy Yard. During the World War II era, Turpin made inspirational visits to Navy Training Centers and defense plants. He retired from the US Navy on October 5, 1925 in Bremerton, Washington. Jamaican-born Turpin fought for a country that never fully recognized him, until now. In September 2020, the US House of Representatives unanimously passed legislation to rename Washington’s Bremerton Post Office to honor John Henry Turpin. Private citizens in San Diego are working toward posthumously honoring the Medal of Honor to our Navy hero.