From Long Branch New Jersey at the age of 20 John Henry "Dick" Turpin enlisted in the United States Navy on November 4, 1896. He was a "Mess Attendant" aboard the Battleship MAINE when it was sent to Havana, Cuba in 1898. On February 15th 1898, an explosion took place aboard MAINE. According to Apprentice Ambrose Ham, Dick Turpin was trying (in vain) to save the life of Lt. F. W. Jenkins when he was ordered by Lt. George Holman to "go below and get some cutlasses" thinking that the MAINE was being attacked by Spanish forces. Turpin seeing that the MAINE was quickly sinking, chose to dive overboard, and soon found another man clinging to his back, He was quickly rescued safely and taken to Key West aboard the OLIVETTE.
In July 1905, Turpin was about to encounter another Naval Disaster, when the boiler exploded aboard the USS BENNINGTON in San Diego Harbor, accordingly Turpin was nominated for the Medal of Honor, for saving the lives of his fellow shipmates. In 1915 Turpin was involved in diving operations for a sunken submarine in Honolulu, Hawaii and qualified as a "Master Diver". He is also credited with being involved with the invention of the underwater cutting torch.
In 1917, Turpin became the first African-American chief petty officer, the Navy's highest enlisted rank at the time. On June 1st 1917 Turpin became Chief Gunners Mate aboard the USS MARBLEHEAD, until he was transferred to the Fleet Reserve on March 8th 1919. He remained in that rank until he retired on 5th October 1925. When Turpin was not on active duty he was employed at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, in Bremerton, Washington as a "Master Rigger". From 1938 and throughout World War II, Turpin made "Inspirational Visits" to Naval Training Centers and Defense Plants, and was a "Guest of Honor" on the Reviewing Stand in Seattle when the first black volunteers were sworn into the Navy shortly after the Attack on Pearl Harbor. Turpin never wanted to part with the Navy, and according to one article, he requested "mobilization" at age 65 when World War II broke out.
His request was denied, but Turpin "forgot his age" and managed to remain a "Reservist". He lived in Seattle later in life, and was in several parades honoring him. John Henry "Dick" Turpin died in 1962, sadly though there are no official records of Turpin ever receiving his "Medal of Honor".