This Day in History: American naval hero John Paul Jones

On this day in 1747, a future American hero is born in Scotland. Today, John Paul Jones is known as one of the founders of the American Navy. Back then, he was simply John Paul, a young boy who would be introduced to a life at sea when he was only 13 years old.

He had a knack for it—but he also kept getting into trouble.

The final straw came in 1773. John Paul was young, but he was already the captain of a merchant ship. Unfortunately, his sailors were mutinying and trying to get an advance on their pay. One man attacked Paul, who raised a sword to defend himself. The mutinying sailor was killed. Paul feared that he wouldn’t get a fair trial, and he fled to America.

John Paul changed his name to John Paul Jones. The Revolution soon began, and Jones volunteered for the new Continental Navy. The former fugitive would soon become an American legend.

Jones may be most famous for a battle that he fought on September 23, 1779, while commanding USS Bonhomme Richard.

That battle was fought against HMS Serapis. The British quickly gained the upper hand. Two of Jones’s 18-pounders exploded early in the battle, tearing a hole in the side of his ship. The incident left Americans at an early disadvantage. One of the midshipmen later wrote that Serapis, “made a dreadful havock among our crew. . . . our men fell in all parts of the ship by the scores.”

Amazingly, Jones managed to move his crippled ship close to Serapis, binding the two ships together. The two sides continued to fire upon each other. The American ship was especially battered and the crew wasn’t only fighting the British—it was also fighting fires aboard the ship! Maybe worse, the American ship was taking on water and sinking. The British captain yelled to Jones, asking if he was ready to surrender. Jones reportedly replied: “I have not yet begun to fight!” Others remembered him saying: “I may sink, but I’m damned if I’ll strike.”

Maybe it is not so hard to believe that Jones eventually got the upper hand and won that battle?

Unfortunately, Jones did not handle his victory well. He returned to Amsterdam where he “was treated as a conqueror,” but his desire for glory got the best of him. He loved the attention, giving interviews and otherwise helping to publicize his account of the battle. His efforts at self-promotion became excessive, and his fellow officers complained that he was slow to give credit to others. One officer griped: “Ungrateful to his crew, he makes it seem that he alone did everything.” Even Benjamin Franklin admonished Jones: “Criticising and censuring almost every one you have to do with, will diminish friends, encrease Enemies, and thereby hurt your affairs.”

Jones would pass away in 1792. By then, he was living in Paris, largely alone. He was buried, but the location of his grave site was forgotten until the U.S. Ambassador to France began a search for him in 1899. Even then, it took years to find his remains, which were buried under a laundry just outside Paris.

In 1905, Jones’s remains were finally returned to the United States government. They were eventually re-interred in an ornate crypt at the United States Naval Academy.

Jones may have been a flawed hero, but he was a hero nonetheless. And he finally received an appropriate burial.