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North Bay Black Roots


Survived USS Maine and Bennington explosions

John Henry Turpin served at Mare Island in early 1900s

John Henry "Dick" Turpin, the first African-American Chief Petty Officer in the U.S. Navy, held an even greater distinction:  Turpin, who served at Mare Island in the early 1900s, survived explosions on the USS Maine in 1896 and the USS Bennington in 1905. Turpin enlisted in the Navy in 1896.

Turpin was one of 354 crew members aboard the USS Maine on that fateful day in February 1898. The ship was patrolling the harbor of Havana Cuba when a blast ripped through the armored vessel. More than three-fourths of the Maine's crew, including 22 African Americans, was killed during the explosion. Turpin attempted to save a number of lives during the 1898 catastrophe. The sinking of the Maine precipitated the Spanish American War. 

On the morning of July 21, 1905 Turpin survived yet another disaster when a boiler in the USS Bennington tore through the gunboat. Sixty men were killed and 40 crewmembers were seriously hurt.

At a time when black men in the Navy were limited to serving as mess stewards, Turpin, in 1914 served as a Gunner's Mate First Class at Mare Island.

While serving at Mare Island, Turpin, who was tall and powerfully built, spent some of his spare time in the boxing ring. In November 1905 the Oakland Tribune reported that Turpin fought Matt Turner in a six round match at The Palm Club in Vallejo.

Turpin would distinguish himself during his long service in the Navy. Qualified as a Master Diver, he was also employed as a Master Rigger at the Puget Sound Navy Yard. Transferred to the Fleet Reserve in 1919, CGM Turpin retired in 1925. Turpin's deep love for the military would bring him back as a volunteer during the World War II era. From 1938 through World War II Turpin volunteered his services as a speaker at Navy Training Centers and defense plants throughout the nation.

He died on March 10, 1962.


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