On June 1, 1813, James Lawrence was just two months removed from being promoted to Captain when his frigate — the USS Chesapeake — encountered the blockading Royal Navy frigate Shannon on his way to Boston.
By this point, the United States of America was just 37 years old, and the War of 1812 presented a grave threat to the fledgling nation. Lawrence knew his duty, and he engaged the Shannon in one of the fiercest battles in U.S. Navy history.
Through the chaos and smoke, the Chesapeake was disabled by the British ship, and Lawrence himself lay on her deck, mortally wounded by small arms fire. But he still managed to deliver a message to his men: “Don’t give up the ship. Fight her till she sinks.” He died of his wounds three days later after being captured by British forces, never seeing the United States ultimately prevail with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent a year later.
One hundred and twenty-eight years later, Doris “Dorie” Miller, a Messman Third Class, was collecting laundry aboard the battleship USS West Virginia when the alarms went off. He headed for his battle station, an anti-aircraft battery, only to find that it had been completely destroyed by a torpedo.
In the chaos and confusion that surrounded him and all the other men at Pearl Harbor on that fateful day, Miller knew his duty and found the ship’s captain with a serious wound in his abdomen from shrapnel, carrying him to a sheltered area on board.
Following orders, he helped man anti-aircraft machine guns that he was not familiar with to battle the incoming Japanese aircraft. And when the attack subsided, he saved countless lives by moving injured sailors through oil and water and smoke. For his actions, he was awarded the Navy Cross a few months later, but the war was nowhere near over. And despite his narrow escape during Pearl Harbor, Miller would fall in battle in 1943 after his ship was struck by a torpedo from a Japanese submarine.
Seventy-six years after Miller’s heroic actions, it was just a normal day for Fire Controlman 1st Class Gary Leo Rehm Jr. aboard the destroyer USS Fitzgerald near the coast of Japan. Suddenly, a massive collision on the starboard side shook the entire ship. The vessel had inadvertently collided with a Philippine-flagged container ship.
It was a devastating blow, cutting the Fitzgerald open below the waterline. Rehm knew his duty and sprung into action, and he was credited with saving the lives of at least 20 sailors.
But Rehm he knew that there were still six sailors unaccounted for who were trapped in the flooded compartments below. And so down he went.
The ship was taking on too much water, and the hatch had to be closed to save the vessel and everyone else aboard. Seven souls were later found in those compartments. But were it not for Rehm’s actions, there would have been 27.
No matter what era in history, Navy sailors have made the ultimate sacrifice in service to their country. It’s something we know in our heads every time Memorial Day comes around, but sometimes it’s hard to fully grasp just what it takes to give one’s life for others.
Every story of heroism is different, but every one is necessary. Without the actions of sailors like Lawrence, the United States may have been crippled at its infancy by the might of the British. Without the actions of sailors like Miller, countless men would not have lived to fight another day and win the most terrible war the world has ever seen. And without the actions of sailors like Rehm, 20 families would be in mourning even today.
On this Memorial Day, the Association of the United States Navy salutes all of the fallen heroes of the United States Navy and the United States Coast Guard — as well as our brothers and sisters in the other branches who have many of their own incredible stories. Without them, the America of today would not have been possible.
Main image: Doris Miller (US Navy photo)