During its 241-year history the U.S. Navy has had it’s fair share of swashbucklers, iconoclasts, groundbreakers, and innovators. Here are seven among the most noteworthy of them:
1. John Paul Jones
“The Father of the American Navy,” John Paul Jones rose to early prominence in the Revolutionary War period by taking prize ships and inflicting damage on the British in the waters off the North American coast. But he truly made his name when he sailed the Bonhomme Richard into British waters and engaged with the Royal Navy’s Serapis.
After a vicious engagement that seemingly had the American warship defeated and about to sink, the British captain asked JPJ if he was ready to give up. The American captain responded, “I have not yet begun to fight,” and he went on to lead Bonhomme Richard to a decisive victory.
Jones is buried in a crypt beneath the chapel on the campus of the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland.
2. Stephen Decatur
Stephen Decatur joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 19, following in his father’s footsteps. His first major task was to oversee the construction of the original six frigates, including the United States, which he would later command.
At the turn of the century Decatur was among a group of officers who convinced a timid President Jefferson to allow the fledgling fleet to sail over the horizon to make an impact on the Old World. He led a daring raid to burn the Philadelphia in Tripoli harbor after it had run aground, a mission that Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson himself called “the most bold and daring act of the age.” Word of the raid got back to the States and Decatur became a national hero.
Decatur was later killed in a duel with James Barron over a rumor that Decatur had besmirched Barron’s honor.
3. Alfred Thayer Mahan
Mahan has been called “the most important American strategist of the nineteenth century.” His concepts of sea power, famously presented in The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783, had an enormous influence in shaping the strategic thought of navies across the world and contributed to a European naval arms race in the 1890s that culminated in the First World War.
Ironically, his skills in actual command of a ship were not good, and a number of vessels under his command smashed into both moving and stationary objects. He actually tried to avoid active sea duty.
Nevertheless, the books he wrote ashore made him arguably the most influential naval historian of the period, and his ideas still influence the U.S. Navy’s doctrine.
4. Chester Nimitz
After being court martialed for running a ship aground while he was an ensign (something no junior officer could survive today), Nimitz reinvented himself as a submariner, eventually becoming the U.S. Navy’s foremost authority on the construction and tactical uses of them. Along the way he commanded surface ships and subs alike, and he also stood up the nation’s first NROTC unit (at UCal Berkeley, which seems sort of ironic now).
Ten days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Nimitz became the commander of the Pacific Fleet, and he oversaw the “island hopping” campaign that carried the Allies to victory. In 1944 he was promoted to five-star. Nimitz signed for the U.S. when the Japanese surrendered aboard the Missouri anchored in Tokyo Bay. His final tour was as Chief of Naval Operations.
By virtue of his five-star rank, Nimitz never technically retired and retained full pay and benefits until his death in 1966.
5. Jesse Brown
He flew 20 combat missions before his F4U Corsair aircraft came under fire and crashed on a remote mountaintop on December 4, 1950 while supporting ground troops at the Battle of Chosin Reservoir. Brown died of his wounds despite the efforts of wingman Thomas J. Hudner, Jr., who intentionally crashed his own aircraft in a rescue attempt, for which he received the Medal of Honor.
Because of Brown’s successes in breaking through barriers in the segregated U.S. military, the frigate USS Jesse L. Brown (FF 1089) was named in his honor.
6. Hyman Rickover
“The Father of the Nuclear Navy,” Rickover’s unique personality and drive created the “zero defect” culture of nuke power that exists today, one that has avoided any mishaps (as defined by the uncontrolled release of fission products to the environment subsequent to reactor core damage).
Rickover’s major career advances were made by going around his immediate chain of command and getting the support of the Chief of Naval Operations, Fleet Admiral Chester Nimitz, who saw the potential of nuclear power. Rickover led the construction of the U.S. Navy’s first nuclear powered vessel, the USS Nautilus, a submarine.
For the next three decades Rickover held the nuclear Navy with tight reins, even insisting on personal interviews with every ROTC and USNA candidate who wanted nuke power. (Those interviews remain the stuff of legend because of the outrageous questions Rickover sometimes asked the young midshipmen about their academic records and personal lives.)
Always controversial and largely unpopular (especially with those who worked closely with him) Rickover was retired against his will after a record 63-year career, by Secretary of the Navy John Lehman who believed that Rickover’s accomplishments were in the past and that his grip on the community had outlasted its utility. Rickover went down swinging, including calling Lehman all sorts of names in the Oval Office while President Reagan was trying to show him the door.
7. James B. Stockdale
A year after being told by his superiors to keep quiet about the fact that he saw no enemy forces from the air the night of the “Gulf of Tonkin Incident” that President Johnson used as the justification for the U.S. entering the Vietnam War, Stockdale was shot down over North Vietnam while flying his A-4 on a bombing mission.
He was held as a prisoner of war in the Hoa Lo prison (popularly known as the Hanoi Hilton) for the next seven and a half years. As the senior Naval officer, he was one of the primary organizers of prisoner resistance. Tortured routinely and denied medical attention for the severely damaged leg he suffered during capture, Stockdale created and enforced a code of conduct for all prisoners that governed torture, secret communications, and behavior.
In the summer of 1969, he was locked in leg irons in a bath stall and routinely tortured and beaten. When told by his captors that he was to be paraded in public, Stockdale slit his scalp with a razor to purposely disfigure himself so he couldn’t be used as propaganda. When they covered his head with a hat, he beat himself with a stool until his face was swollen beyond recognition.
He received the Medal of Honor for his leadership and courage during his time as a POW. When later asked what mindset got him through the trial he said the following: “You must never confuse faith that you will prevail in the end—which you can never afford to lose—with the discipline to confront the most brutal facts of your current reality.”