The explosion that rocked the ammunition handling room of the aircraft carrier Enterprise killed four men immediately. Outside the hull, the Battle of Santa Cruz Islands raged on, part of the fierce Guadalcanal campaign of 1942.
Inside, flames and suffocating smoke threatened the lives of William Pinckney, an officers' cook from South Carolina, and the other surviving sailor, a boatswain's mate. They tried to get out through a hatch to the hangar deck, but gasoline fumes knocked out the boatswain's mate.
Summoning his strength, Beaufort native Pinckney carried his shipmate to safety. For his heroism, he received the Purple Heart and was eventually awarded the Navy Cross — the second African American to receive the honor.
After his death, he received a new honor: becoming the namesake for a guided-missile destroyer. In February 2000, then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said the 41st Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer would be christened the USS Pinckney (DDG 91). The ship, built by Ingalls Shipbuilding of Pascagoula, Miss., was commissioned in 2004.
"Last night, I was so excited I couldn't sleep," said Henrietta Pinckney, 80, upon learning of the decision. "I'm so proud of him. I just wish they did it before he passed away." Pinckney died in 1975.
Pinckney's widow said her husband did not know the man he had saved and never found out his name. "He risked his life to save someone else. He didn't care about his own life," she said.