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Saturday, August 20, 2011

Dick Turpin

"By that time the water was right up even with my chin. Then I commenced to get scared, and in fooling around it happened that a rope touched my arm, and I commenced to climb overhand and got on deck." ~ Dick Turpin, Naval Court of Inquiry, 1898

John Henry "Dick" Turpin was born August 20, 1876 in Long Branch, New York near Syracuse. He joined the U. S. Navy in 1896 and was serving as a mess attendant about the USS Maine when it exploded in Havana Harbor in 1898. Of the crew of 350, only 90 survived the blast.

Turpin was aboard the gunboat Bennington in 1905 when a boiler exploded, killing 62 men. Eleven men were awarded the Medal of Honor for their actions during the disaster but Turpin was not among them, although it is reported he saved a number of crew members by swimming them to shore.

Turpin is likely the only person to have been in both naval explosions.

Kathryn Turpin (third from left)
He left active duty in 1916, only to be recalled for World War I the following year. He served as Chief Gunner's Mate aboard the cruiser Marblehead, becoming one of the first African American Chief Petty Officers. During this time his wife Kathryn worked as a riveter at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

Turpin was the Navy boxing champion in several weight classes during his service career, and taught boxing at the Naval Academy in Annapolis. He retired from the Navy in 1925.

Turpin worked as a master rigger at the Puget Sound Shipyard. He was also a master diver, and was a member of the crew that invented the underwater cutting torch. During World War II he visited Naval Training Centers and Defense Plants throughout the country and was on the reviewing stand in Seattle when the first African American volunteers were sworn in after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Turpin died March 10, 1962 in Bremerton at the age of 85. He was cremated with his ashes scattered at sea.

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