John Paul Jones has a newly renovated resting place, 100 years after his body was returned to America.

An American hero returns

July 08, 2005|By Chris Yakaitis | Chris Yakaitis,SUN STAFF

In the low light of the crypt beneath the Naval Academy chapel, John Paul Jones' sarcophagus gleams.

The recently restored bronze-and-marble coffin shines like new. Eight marble pillars ring the centerpiece, with four triplets of American flags standing at regular intervals among them. Visitors stroll the cool interior of the circular chamber and inspect a succinct array of artifacts as uniformed midshipmen present brief histories of the Revolutionary War hero in hushed, respectful voices.

It's a marked difference from the anonymous grave in France where Jones was interred from 1792 to 1905.

The Naval Academy will commemorate Jones' birthday and the centennial of his posthumous return to the United States tomorrow at John Paul Jones Day, a public event featuring guided tours, historical demonstrations and children's activities on the academy grounds.

"Jones was a fighter. He was pugnacious; he was aggressive," said J. Scott Harmon, director of the Naval Academy Museum. "In terms of the Navy and the Naval Academy, he established the warrior's spirit. He gave us an example of someone who would fight for his country."

One of the most influential figures in the early days of the U.S. Navy, Jones' character and legacy are effectively summarized in his own words: "I have not yet begun to fight," a declaration he is said to have made amid a firefight off the coast of England.

Tomorrow's scheduled events include a march accompanied by fifes and drums from the Armel-Leftwich Visitor Center to the crypt, wreath-laying and flag-raising ceremonies and cannon-loading demonstrations. Parents can attend a lecture on Jones' life and take guided walking tours throughout the day, while children try their hands at knot tying, macrame and linoleum rubbing. A Jones impersonator will sign warrants and pay attendees in script, reproduction paper money from the Revolutionary War era. Events will begin at 9 a.m. and end around 4 p.m.

Born in Scotland on July 6, 1747, Jones emmigrated to the American colonies at age 26. He applied for commission in the Continental Navy at the outbreak of the American Revolution in 1775 and swiftly rose to prominence as commander of the ships Providence, Alfred and Ranger. Jones uttered his famous phrase in 1779 as his ship, the Bonhomme Richard, fiercely battled - and ultimately captured - the vastly superior British vessel Serapis.

"Even under intense fire, he was able to rally his crew and defeat the British ship," said retired Navy Vice Adm. Ted Parker. "Jones demonstrated so many of the attributes we would like to have all of our military personnel display. He never lost a battle and was brave as all get out."

Tomorrow's celebration is also a reopening of sorts of Jones' crypt, which has been undergoing an extensive renovation that began in November and is sponsored by Parker's Naval Academy class of 1955.

"In 100 years of tourism, it had gotten dirty," Parker said. "There was no humidity control, the marble had been damaged and some corrosion had taken place, even of bronze."

The roughly $1 million renovation started with the removal of a nonfunctioning ventilation system and the installation of a new air conditioner and lighting system and the associated electrical work. A second phase of the project was devoted to cleaning and restoring the crypt's limestone, marble and decorative bronze work.

"Every square centimeter was gone over in some manner or another," Parker said.

The renovation also featured the reorganization of the 12 display bays, the addition of a new Bonhomme Richard model and the replacement of modern American flags with historical ensigns "that Jones would have recognized," Harmon said. Only a few minor touches remain before the renovation is officially completed.

Before his reburial at the Naval Academy in 1906, Jones had been something of a lost hero - physically, not historically. He died at age 45 on July 18, 1792, in Paris and was buried in St. Louis Cemetery. The French revolutionary government sold the property four years later, and a house constructed on the site obscured his burial place.

More than 100 years after Jones' death, Horace Potter, the American ambassador to France, located Jones' lead casket in 1905, the conclusion of a personal six-year search.

Harmon said photographs of Jones' remains, which were remarkably intact, were compared with a life-study bust sculpted by Jean-Antoine Houdon in 1780 to help identify the body. (The bust is on display in the crypt; the photos are not.)

"Jones was in a very good state of preservation," he said. "It's not a dinner-table item, but he was complete. There was flesh on the bones."

President Theodore Roosevelt authorized the transport of Jones' body back to the United States, and on July 24, 1905, the Naval tug Standish delivered his remains to the shores of Annapolis. His coffin was temporarily placed under the grand staircase in Bancroft Hall at the Naval Academy while the chapel was constructed.

When Jones was finally interred in the crypt below the chapel on Jan. 26, 1913, he came to rest at an institution that he was instrumental in creating. Parker said Jones was a prolific letter-writer, and in an era when most military sailors learned at sea under the guidance of a ship's officer, he petitioned the U.S. government to create schools ashore to train Navy officers in tactics, ship handling and navigation.

"Jones deserves credit for the fact that the Naval Academy came into existence," he said.

The visitor center has formally marked Jones' birthday for about 10 years, said Parker, but tomorrow's event is a departure from the typically low-key affair.

And Harmon said that in light of the crypt's renovation and reopening, a celebration on this scale is unlikely to be repeated any time soon.

"We only have a ribbon-cutting once," he said.

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