BREMERTON, Wash. — Chief Gunner’s Mate John Henry Turpin’s service in the Navy began in the last years of the 19th Century at a time of virulent racism.
Yet he risked his life to save others in one of the Navy’s worst peacetime disasters.
He fought for a country that never fully recognized him, until now.
By any measure, John Henry Turpin cut an extraordinary figure. A Jamaican by birth, but born, it seems, to be a United States Navy man.
Kitsap County historian Karen Vargas began the work to honor Turpin’s groundbreaking career nearly a century after he first joined the Navy at just 20 years old.
“He had been on two ships that had blown up,” Vargas said. “He had saved many of his comrades and commanders.”
Indeed, in 1905, Turpin was on board the USS Bennington about to sail out of San Diego when the ship’s boiler exploded. More than half of the 102-person crew died. Incredibly, Turpin saved 15 sailors, including three officers, swimming each to shore, one at a time.
“His service was phenomenal,” said Vargas. "He did so many exploits while he was in the military. "
This, at a time of extreme racism.
“Him having been in the Navy during a time when there was still segregation,” said Tracy Flood, Navy veteran, now a lawyer and president of the Bremerton Branch of the NAACP.
“He paved the way,” said Flood. “He was one who originally set that legacy as a trailblazer in front of us.”
This is not the first time this community has sought to honor Chief Gunner’s Mate Turpin.
When he died back in 1962, his remains were cremated and turned over to the U.S. Navy for burial at sea.
But they wanted something more tangible, a memorial, right here to honor this extraordinary sailor.
So they got together, pooled their money and created this headstone and placed it next to the one for his late first wife.
But that was still not enough for Karen Vargas.
“He deserved his Medal of Honor,” she insists.
So she shared Turpin’s story with U.S. Congressman Derek Kilmer.
“One of the things that appealed to me about taking this on was the fact that there were a whole lot of people who hadn’t heard of John Henry Turpin and when they did, said, ‘Wow that’s amazing,’” Kilmer said.
But too much time had passed, the eyewitnesses, even Turpin himself, long dead, says Kilmer, his achievements nearly impossible to document for the Congressional Medal of Honor.
So he offered an alternative: to name the main Bremerton Post Office for Turpin.
“This was an opportunity to elevate John Henry Turpin’s story, to recognize him as a trailblazer, to appreciate his heroic career,” says Kilmer. “And to do it in a way that the local community would see.”
In September, the House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill to name the Bremerton Post Office for Turpin. It now goes to the U.S. Senate.
“The fact that this had so much and extraordinary bipartisan support is really a testament to the fact that people are on board with the notion that this is a story that should be told, and a person who should be honored,” he said.
An honor that will stand in the heart of Turpin’s adopted hometown.
“My heart is so full,” said Vargas, her voice breaking. “My heart is full. It will be transformational for the African American community here, in this county, in this state. It brings me to tears.”
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