While I’m on the subject of seaborne memorialization, it’s worth drawing attention to an upcoming anniversary with a naval theme. October 26, 1993 saw the launch of the USS John Paul Jones, a guided missile destroyer of the Arleigh Burke class. Wikipedia notes that she is currently assigned to Destroyer Squadron 23 as part of the U.S. Navy’s presence in the Pacific. But I’m less interested in the ship’s current deployment than in its name.
One way to commemorate the history of the U.S. Navy and its role in America’s story is to preserve a handful of its warships—especially when, like the USS Constitution, they took part in some encounter that showered fame and glory on them and the nation they represent. Another way to memorialize a key person or event in U.S. history is to name a commissioned ship after that person or event. There are lots of examples of this, but today I’m going to focus on Jones, who became known as the “father of the U.S. Navy.”
When I give my park service tours of the portrait gallery at the Second Bank of the United States (at Independence NHP), one theme I use is that of “foreign-born Patriots of the Revolutionary War.” I often save Jones’s portrait—an original painting, by Charles Willson Peale—for the big finale. Why? Well, Jones was Scottish-born, there’s that. But, among the many non-Americans who helped this country win its independence, Jones earned a place of distinction. He was a swashbuckling, go-for-broke, shoot-for-the-fences, son-of-a-bitch kind of naval captain whose temper and ambition sometimes got him into serious trouble; but these qualities were also very useful at the time, and were exactly what was needed by the ramshackle Continental Navy in the early days of the Revolutionary War. It was Jones’s audacious attacks on the British coastline and British shipping that really made him his reputation. Few people today know much about him, but in the late 1770s he was widely admired and feared on both sides of the Atlantic.
Jones is still revered in the U.S. Navy. Although he’s not the only “father of the US Navy” (Irish-born John Barry also has a claim to that title) I think Jones’s audacious career gives him the edge. When I was a lad in Dunoon, Scotland in the 1980s we had a pub in town called the “Paul Jones,” that was frequented by U.S. Navy personnel serving at the nearby Holy Loch nuclear submarine base (long gone—though the pub’s still there, now renamed “51st State”). It was actually an American sailor I knew at the time who told me the story of Jones’s career. And it was quite a story. In a nutshell, he took the American fight all the way across the Atlantic, raiding ports in Scotland and England and attacking British ships off home waters. He had a stunning career that, with its highs and lows, saw Jones go from a nobody with a dodgy past to becoming the most celebrated seafarer in America, to serving in the Imperial Russian Navy under Catherine the Great.
Jones ultimately flamed out and ended up destitute in Paris, where he died in 1792, without friends or money. But the memory of his early exploits lived on in naval lore, and his name was given fresh resonance in the early 20th century, thanks to President Theodore Roosevelt. In 1906 Roosevelt, at the time determined to place the United States among the world’s leading naval powers, sent a U.S. naval detachment with great fanfare to France to bring Jones’s body “home” to America. A few years later, in 1913, Jones’s remains were re-interred in a magnificently ornate marble and bronze sarcophagus at the Naval Academy Chapel in Annapolis, Maryland.
The current USS John Paul Jones (DDG 53) is the fifth U.S. Navy ship to carry his name. The ship’s crest (see below) includes a stylized profile of the man, plus a naval cannon, an anchor and crossed swords, and two flags: his 1779 “John Paul Jones flag,” an early version of the stars and stripes he flew after the Battle of Flamborough Head; and the Navy Jack of 13 red and white stripes with uncoiled rattlesnake. Also placed on the crest is the ship’s motto, “In Harm’s Way,” which comes from a famous quote of Jones’s: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
If you’re wondering why they’ve never made a movie of this man’s life—well, they did, in 1959. Robert Stack played Jones, though I’m not sure how successful the film was. Still, according to one rock historian, the film was responsible for John Paul Baldwin of Led Zeppelin taking the stage name of John Paul Jones.
(Photo credit: Ship’s crest, USS John Paul Jones, courtesy Wikimedia Commons)
John Paul Jones. Naval History and Heritage Command. Available at http://www.history.navy.mil/special%20highlights/john-paul-jones/index.htm
Samuel Eliot Morison. John Paul Jones: A Sailor’s Biography.
Evan Thomas (2003). John Paul Jones: Sailor, Hero, Father of the American Navy, Waterville, ME.
Gordon Thompson (2008). Please please me: Sixties British pop, inside out. Oxford University Press.
USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53). Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/USS_John_Paul_Jones_(DDG-53)