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Drawing of John Paul Jones. (Courtesy U.S. Naval Academy)
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John Paul Jones

Aboard Bonhomme Richard, First U.S. Naval Hero Beat the Odds and the British

Eager to return to action, the young naval officer pressed authorities to give him charge of a large, new vessel. Instead, he was given an old, slow merchantman named the Duc de Duras, poorly equipped and maintained.

However, John Paul Jones had a personal maxim: "A hero is always ready." He quickly assembled a crew for the rechristened Bonhomme Richard, named in honor of Benjamin Franklin's "Poor Richard." Jones then brought the 42-gun ship to the English coast at Flamborough Head to pursue and challenge the British warships Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough.

The confrontation between these ships on Sept. 23, 1779, was not without irony. A Scottish-born gardener's son, Jones had become, in Thomas Jefferson's words, "the principal hope of America's future efforts on the ocean." Since arriving in America at age 13, Jones had regarded his adopted land as his "favorite country." It was to him and his ship the Ranger that French admiral LaMotte-Picquet paid the first foreign salute to the new nation's colors. Jones was determined not to fail the United States.

Not only did the British ships have superior crew, arms, speed, and construction, but the Bonhomme Richard suffered a grave accident early in the Sept. 23 fight with the Serapis. Two of the Richard's 18-pound guns burst when the ship was first broadsided. Many of the American crew were killed or wounded. Knowing he had to outwit the Serapis' captain, Richard Pearson, Jones managed to lock the ships together. The Richard was rapidly taking on water, its aging dry timbers burning with each shell blast, but Jones did not draw the ship's colors. An American gunman, believing that Jones was dead, called surrender. Pearson yelled, "Do you ask for quarter?" Hurling two pistols at the unfortunate gunman's head, Jones gave his famous reply, "I have not yet begun to fight!"

After three and a half hours of bloody battle in a "mill-pond sea," the bowed but unbroken Serapis struck its flag. Jones and his men clambered aboard the defeated vessel. It was not a moment too soon, for the next day the crippled Bonhomme Richard sank, stern uppermost -- but with colors flying.

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