Chief Gunner’s Mate John Henry “Dick” Turpin
Chief Gunner’s Mate John Henry “Dick” Turpin (1876-1962). One of the first African-American CPOs, Turpin enlisted in the Navy in 1896. A survivor of the explosions on both Maine (1898) and Bennington (1905), he became a Chief Gunner’s Mate in 1917 and transferred to the Fleet Reserve two years later. He retired in 1925. Qualified as a Master Diver, he also served as a Master Rigger at the Puget Sound Navy Yard. During World War II he made inspirational visits to Navy Training Centers and defense plants. (U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command)
He was a Mess Attendant on the battleship USS Maine (ACR-1) when it exploded in Havana Harbor, Cuba 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. He dove overboard and was rescued by a motor launch. Turpin was one of 90 out of the 350 officers and men aboard Maine that night to survive the explosion.
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.
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. Turpin reportedly saved three officers and twelve men by swimming them to shore one at a time. Eleven men were awarded the Medal of Honor for “extraordinary heroism displayed at the time of the explosion”, but Turpin was not among them.
Before and following the Bennington explosion, Turpin was assigned to Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California. It was during this time he probably learned to be a diver.
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. (It is often erroneously reported that Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear held this honor.) 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.
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. 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.
During his time in the Navy, he was the Navy boxing champion in several different weight classifications throughout his Navy career and was a boxing instructor at the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
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 on account of his age. He volunteered to tour Navy training facilities and defense plants to make “inspirational visits” to African-American sailors.
Turpin died in Bremerton, Washington on 10 March 1962. He was survived by his wife Faye Alice. At his funeral, his pallbearers were six Navy chief stewards.