10 Great American Naval Heroes

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A Brief History

On July 16, 1862, David Farragut was appointed a Rear Admiral in the United States Navy, the first officer to hold that rank.  Being a 2 ocean nation, the US has needed a great 2 ocean Navy to protect the country and look after our interests.  Along the way, many great sailors and others have furthered the capabilities of the US Navy and added to its rich history.  Here we list 10 of those examples, of the hundreds or even thousands that could be listed (no significance to the order listed).  ( Note: Although the US Marine Corps is a “naval” service and a branch of the Department of the Navy, we will stick to actual Navy personnel and contributors for this article.)

Digging Deeper

10. Hyman Rickover, 1900-1986. 

Born in Poland (under Russian control) of Jewish parents, Rickover’s first name was originally Chaim.  Rickover is known as the “Father of the Nuclear Navy” for his advocacy of nuclear powered ships, and his 63 years of service make him the longest serving US Navy sailor in history.  Under his exceptional leadership and demands for perfection, the US Navy has never had a nuclear reactor accident.   Rickover’s impact on the nuclear aspect of the modern Navy is probably the most important of any person in the past 70 years or so.
9.  Alfred Thayer Mahan, 1840-1914.

Probably the greatest naval strategist of the 19th Century, Mahan continues to wield tremendous influence on naval thinking around the world today.  His views on sea power had a lot to do with the rapid development of naval technology and the naval arms race of the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.  He is revered as a sort of naval guru similar to the way soldiers revere von Clausewitz or Sun Tzu.

8.  Matthew Perry, 1794-1858. 

A veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, Perry is often referred to as “The Father of the US Steam Navy.”  Perry is famous for exerting US military pressure on Japan in order to open that country to trade with the US and western nations in 1854.  Not to be confused with Oliver Hazard Perry, Matthew Perry also fought in the Battle of Lake Erie and was the younger brother of the other Perry.  Matthew also was instrumental in developing the curriculum in what became the US Naval Academy.

7.  Edward “Butch” O’Hare, 1914-1943.

The first ever US Navy aerial “ace” and the first US Navy member to earn a Medal of Honor during World War II, this is the man O’Hare Airport in Chicago is named after.  Flying from the aircraft carrier USS Lexington in a Grumman F-4F Wildcat in 1942, O’Hare was 1 of 2 pilots sent to defend the ship against a flight of 6 enemy bombers (the other fighter planes were busy elsewhere).  O’Hare’s comrade had jammed guns, and it was up to Butch to save his ship.  O’Hare shot down 5 of the 6 Japanese bombers and damaged the other, keeping the Lex from harm and earning a Medal of Honor.  Oddly enough, O’Hare’s father was an associate and later rival of Al Capone as part of Chicago’s mobster underworld.  Butch was a Naval Academy (Annapolis) graduate, class of 1937.  O’Hare was killed in action in 1943.

6.  Doris “Dorrie” Miller, 1919-1943. 

An African-American mess man serving aboard the battleship USS West Virginia at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, Miller sprang into action when his ship was hit by torpedoes.  When his assigned battle station was found destroyed, Miller made himself available for whatever duty was needed, and he assisted in trying to save the Captain.  Miller then joined 2 officers in manning .50 caliber machine guns and provided some of the rare defense against the Japanese aerial assault.  When they ran out of ammo, Miller proceeded to assist wounded sailors and move them to safety, saving at least several lives.  Miller was recognized for his actions with a Navy Cross medal, and was later killed in action in 1943, a legend among sailors, and a hero among African-Americans.  Miller served at a time when sailors of African descent were only allowed to serve as cooks and mess men in the US Navy, and he probably would have received the Medal of Honor had he been white.

5.  George Dewey, 1837-1917. 

The hero of The Battle of Manila Bay, Dewey destroyed the Spanish fleet in an epic one sided battle, earning him fame and accolades in the US, while also earning him the rank of Admiral of the Navy, the equivalent of a 6 star rank, never held by any US Navy officer before or since.  Dewey was also a battle tested veteran of the US Civil War.

4.  David Farragut, 1801-1870.

Not only the first US Navy Rear Admiral, but the first US Navy Admiral of any variety, starting a line of great senior seamen.  Farragut was later promoted to Vice Admiral and full Admiral, again, the first officer to hold those ranks.  He was the guy often misquoted as saying, “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!”

3.  Admirals  King, Leahy, Nimitz, Halsey, World War II. 

With the Pacific campaign being an almost totally naval conflict and the Battle of the Atlantic an absolute must win, the US Navy appointed these 4 men as the only Fleet Admirals (5 star) in our history.  Together, they performed magnificently in leading the US Navy to victory on all fronts, watching the Navy grow to the largest, most impressive sea borne force in world history.  Admiral Raymond Spruance was also considered for this rank (deservedly so) but was blocked by Congressman Carl Vinson who favored Halsey.  Such is politics!

2.  Oliver Hazard Perry, 1785-1819.

Referred to as “The Hero of Lake Erie,” Commodore Perry has the distinction of being a fighting naval hero that fought on a freshwater lake instead of the ocean.   His inspirational battle flag read “Don’t Give up the Ship!” and his famous quote, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” ranks among the most famous military quotes of all time.  Plus, his middle name has to get him some sort of bonus just for being so cool!

1.  John Paul Jones, 1747-1792. 

America’s first naval hero, he fought in the Revolutionary War.  He is often referred to as the “Father of the US Navy.”  Jones also served in the Russian Navy as an Admiral, and died in Paris of illness while serving as a US Consul.  His famous quotation, “I have not yet begun to fight!” in response to a demand he surrender his ship has inspired US Navy sailors ever since.

Question for students (and subscribers): Who would you add to the list?  John Kerry?  John McCain?  John F. Kennedy?  John Ericsson?  John P. Holland?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Duffy, James P.  Lincoln’s Admiral: The Civil War Campaigns of David Farragut.  Wiley, 1997.

Lewis, Charles Lee.  David Glasgow Farragut: Admiral in the Making.  Naval Institute Press, 2014.

Lewis, Charles Lee.  David Glasgow Farragut: Our First Admiral.  Naval Institute Press, 2014.


About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.