Navy throws a party for John Paul Jones

Academy marks birthday of Revolution hero

July 07, 2002|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,SUN STAFF

John Paul Jones' lot in death has improved significantly during the past 100 years.

As late as 1905, the Revolutionary War hero's body lay in an unmarked grave beneath a building in a rundown section of Paris. But these days, thanks to Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. Naval Academy, his remains lie in a grand marble sarcophagus adorned with bronze seaweed and dolphins. A Marine stands guard as visitors pass through the crypt beneath the academy's chapel and learn about one of America's first great sea warriors.

Jones was the object of particular attention yesterday, as the academy marked the 255th anniversary of his birth with fife, drum, several ceremonies and a cake. Hundreds of visitors learned Jones' life story.

"He was our first really good naval leader," said John Wilson, who helped organize the Jones celebration and passed the day in Colonial attire. "He's relevant to what the midshipmen do here, because their training is so focused on leadership potential and character, and he embodies those traits as much as anyone."

Jones was born in Scotland in 1747, but unlike many future officers, he entered the world with scant wealth or political connections. He stopped attending school at age 12 and began working on ships at 13, eventually becoming a merchant captain. When the Revolution began, he sided with the rebels.

Jones quickly developed reputations for bold tactics and plain-spokenness, Wilson said.

"For God's sake, don't give me a slow ship," he once implored, "because I intend to go in harm's way."

Jones achieved his most noteworthy victory in September 1779, when his Bonhomme Richard outbattled the newer and swifter British vessel H.M.S. Serapis. The Navy regards the victory as a classic example of doing a lot with a little, Wilson said.

British guns destroyed several of Jones's cannons almost immediately, and the Serapis was sailing rings around the American ship, Wilson described excitedly. The British commander called to Jones and asked if he wanted to surrender.

Jones famously replied, "I have not yet begun to fight!"

He then steered his ship so close that his troops could lash it to the British vessel, neutralizing any speed advantage and forcing the British to fight in close quarters. The British surrendered, but the fighting had been so intense that the Bonhomme Richard sank hours after its proudest moment.

After the war, Jones, a hero in both America and France, faced unemployment because the Navy disbanded. He took a commission in the Russian navy under Catherine the Great. He was about to re-enter American service when he died in 1792 at age 45 and was buried anonymously in Paris.

Roosevelt took a personal interest in having Jones' remains found and returned to the United States, a task accomplished in 1905 after a six-year search.

Wilson, a professor at the Maryland Institute College of Art who in his spare time helps the Naval Academy develop historical exhibits, said he has been fascinated with Jones since he was a boy, partly because of the tragic elements of the sailor's story. "He was a creative, intense figure who never achieved as much celebrity here as he did elsewhere...," Wilson said.

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