GREATER love hath no man than 1 T this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” These words on a marble tablet at the Naval Academy, erected in memory of five young men who volunteered to sail a twenty-foot boat across 1,500 miles of tempestuous sea to summon aid for their shipmates on the U.S.S. Saginaw, wrecked on a barren sand bar in mid- Pacific, mark one of the most dramatic incidents in our Navy. Some gray haired officers of the Navy today, who have since seen nearly half a century of service on the seas, recall vividly the profound impression that these words made upon them as they sat at their daily recitations in the old Naval Academy in the ’70’s and faced the then newly erected tablet.
The Saginaw’s heroic struggle with the misnamed Pacific Ocean, while perhaps the most interesting, is but one of many such soul-stirring episodes in our sea history. A dozen years earlier—in 1857—the Central America, an unseaworthy side wheeler, under Captain William L. Herndon, U. S. Navy, on her return with 474 passengers and much gold from California, was tossed about for two days in a violent northeaster off Hatteras. As the water was steadily gaining on the pumps, Captain Herndon transferred, under the greatest difficulties, about a hundred women and children to a brig that had answered the signals of distress. The long ordeal witnessed remarkable scenes of cool heroism and “offices of knightly courtesy.” The crew of the last boat, which was badly stove in, fought their way back from the brig to the wreck to die with their commander. When, after thirty- six hours of a losing fight with the heavy seas, no other rescue ship turned up, Captain Herndon put on his uniform and gold lace cap and took his station in the pilot house. Night had set in. As the Central America fetched her last lurch, Captain Herndon uncovered and went down with his ship. Four hundred were drowned with him. Fifty-two, floating about on pieces of wreckage, were saved later. Three of these were picked up nine days after the wreck and 450 miles from the spot where the Central America sank.
The spirit of adventure of the gold rush days, of which the wreck of the Central America was an incident, found a new outlet during the Civil War. The war had suggested great possibilities for the steamship. Men then visioned the leviathan of the sea as they now foresee the leviathan of the air. The decade of 1870-80 saw spasmodic attempts to revive our moribund merchant marine and to reach the elusive North Pole. In January, 1870, the U. S. steam corvette Oneida was run down in dead of night in Tokio harbor by the British Peninsular and Oriental steamer Bombay. The Bombay’s captain, thinking the rammed ship belonged to the rival American Pacific Mail Company, did not bother to stop to pick up survivors. On this occasion twenty-two of the Oneida’s twenty- four officers and ninety-five of her 152 men were drowned. A few months later the Saginaw was sent to the Pacific, and to her destruction, in a vain attempt to dredge a channel for a coaling station at Midway Island for the vessels of the Pacific Mail Steamship Company.
By the end of the ’70’s, the Jeannette, under her intrepid commander, De Long, set out to discover the North Pole. She early became wedged in a huge ice floe. After a long wait of two years the Jeannette was finally crushed and her crew, with little food, ragged clothing, and some without shoes, dragged the three row boats across the ice to open water. Separated by a gale, one boat under Melville, after frightful suffering, reached a Siberian village. De Long’s cutter, after similar experiences, got to another part of the Lena Delta. De Long then made a heroic effort to reach a village steamer, the Kilauea. She arrived, as before stated, on January 3, 1871, and carried back to civilization the men, who for sixty- seven days had lived a Robinson Crusoe existence on a sand bar in mid-Pacific.
Fifty-five years later another five young men had, in another and very different cockleshell, an experience strangely parallel to that of the five men in the Saginaw’s gig. Commander John Rodgers with his four companions on a non-stop flight in his plane, the PN-p, from San Francisco to Honolulu was forced down when his gasoline suddenly gave out. With characteristic coolness and humor he cheered up his men. He carried out a regular routine to divert their minds, rigged a foresail from the wing fabric of the plane, and drifted towards Kauai at the rate of two miles an hour. The scanty rations soon were exhausted, and the last four days he and his comrades had nothing to eat. A small still, heated by bits of wood from a wing, yielded a little fresh water. A heavy rain on the eighth day furnished two gallons, caught in fabric material, which saved their lives. On the ninth day they were found by a patrolling submarine. They had drifted to within ten miles of the very spot at Kauai where the Saginaw’s gig had been hurled ashore more than half a century before.
Like the Saginaw’s gig, the PN-p made its goal. When steam and gasoline failed, primitive oars and sails finished the job. Once again these two feats illustrate an old lesson of the Navy and the sea, that man can prevail even over the mighty forces of nature.
Of course there have been other memorable shipwrecks besides those narrated above. The Huron’s desperate fight off Hatteras in 1877; the Trenton, Nipsic, and Vandalia’s two-day battle with the Samoan hurricane in 1889; the loss of the historic Kearsurge in the Caribbean in 1894; the heroic sticking to his post of Captain Sparrow in the Tacoma off Vera Cruz in 1924— these have added their bit to the story of the struggles of the Navy against high seas and lashing winds. But probably no men battling against desperate odds have made a greater impression on the whole service than Herndon, Talbot, and De Long.
The Naval Academy treasures these traditions. In shrines along the seacoast towns of Europe, ship models and other offerings have for centuries memoralized those who have gone down to the sea in ships never to return. The Naval Academy too remembers its heroes of peace times. It has its tablet and its Saginaw’s gig, set up here after the self-sacrificing service of the five young men in token of their “greater love.” It has its granite shaft to its knightly alumnus Herndon. To De Long and his brave comrades it has erected a cairn—a replica of one raised in 1882 at the Lena Delta. The Huron’s victims sleep in the Naval Academy cemetery. The Samoan hurricane is remembered in a window in the Naval Academy Chapel, which portrays Christ stilling the troubled waters. A tablet (see illustration facing page 818) recently unveiled in Memorial Hall, recalls the fine achievement of Commander John Rodgers in the PN-p. All these too carried on in the gallant performance of duty. “Peace hath her victories no less renown’d than war.”