There are times in virtually every life when things seem hopeless, when one is tempted to give up. Such times reveal a person’s true character. No story illustrates this better than the true-life tale of an American Navy captain’s cry of defiance during a desperate battle for American independence. His cry echoes down to us through the centuries and inspires us even today. The captain’s name was John Paul Jones, and he proved to his fellow countrymen that Americans should fight to the very end, even against impossible odds.
John Paul Jones was born in Scotland, but at age twelve he exchanged his life on land for a life of adventure on the seven seas. As a young cabin boy, he made his first journey to the land called America. Years later, seeking sanctuary after killing a mutinous crewmember, the young Jones settled in America. He quickly fell in love with the country. At the outbreak of the American Revolution, he put his seagoing skills to use by joining the new Continental Navy. As one of the country’s first naval captains, Jones led several successful raids against British coastal fortifications in an effort to draw British ships away from America’s coast.
In August of 1779, he assumed command of the Bonhomme Richard, a new ship honoring Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac. Soon Captain Jones was back to raiding British towns, attacking British military and merchant vessels, and generally sowing panic among the British public. Then came his greatest naval challenge.
On the night of September 23, 1779, the Bonhomme Richard was sailing along the coast of England when Jones caught sight of the new, powerful British warship, HMS Serapis, as it was providing escort for several commercial ships. Seeing the American flag, the commercial vessels raced for the safety of the nearby British coast. As the two warships approached one another, British Captain Pearson reportedly asked what the Richard was carrying, and Jones brashly replied “Round, grape, and double-headed shot,” intentionally provoking a fight. The Bonhomme Richard then opened fire on the British ship.
As explosions erupted on every side of him, Jones stood erect on the deck directing the fire of his gunners and exhorting his men to carry the fight to the enemy. Jones felt shivers and heard rips as the Bonhomme Richard began to suffer direct hits to its masts and hull. Both the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis continued to close the gap as their cannons blasted away at each other. Then in an instant, the topsides of the two ships became intertwined with one another. The result was that American sailors had to actually lean over into the British ship in order to load the cannons and ignite their fuses. As dozens of their comrades fell around them, the remaining American sailors continued to pound away at the enemy. It soon became apparent, however, that the Bonhomme Richard was starting to sink.
To any experienced naval man, the outcome was obvious. The British captain was such a man. Seeing the extensive damage his cannons had done to the Bonhomme Richard, Pearson shouted across to Jones, “Will you lower your flag in surrender, sir?” Standing on the deck with seawater literally lapping at his boots, fires raging all around him, and many of his sailors lying dead and wounded on the deck, Captain John Paul Jones defiantly answered back with some of the most famous words in American memory. “No, sir,” he replied, “I have not yet begun to fight!” To him, the choice was clear — either win or sink. Not only that, but then Jones boldly asked the British captain if he wished to surrender.
The Serapis had taken severe damage to her deck and sails. Finally a well-placed shot from the Bonhomme Richard toppled the mainmast, and it was evident that the British ship could not endure any more damage. Unwilling to lose his own ship, Captain Pearson personally went over to the mast and hauled his flag down to show his capitulation. John Paul Jones had won a great victory for his struggling country. Despite their best efforts, however, he and his sailors could not save the Bonhomme Richard. So he ordered all hands to board the Serapis, the ship they had just defeated, and they watched as their own ship finally sank beneath the waves.
Though his ship now lies at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the immortal words of John Paul Jones, “I have not yet begun to fight!” live on forever. His defiant cry not only gave inspiration to sailors and officers in his day but also continues to do so today. The words live on in the naval traditions imparted to each cadet who attends the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis, Maryland, where the heroic captain now honorably rests. Captain Jones’ legacy and his message to us is this — even in the face of impossible odds and even when everything screams at us to surrender…Never Give Up!