African American History Month provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the achievements African Americans played in our Nation’s history. For USS Pinckney (DDG 91) Sailors, February brings to mind the courageous acts of Navy Cook 1st Class William Pinckney, whom the ship is named after.
The date was October 26, 1942. USS Enterprise (CV 6), USS Hornet (CV 8), and their supporting strike group consisting of battleship USS South Dakota (BB 57), six cruisers and fourteen destroyers, patrolled the waters near the Santa Cruz Islands in the South Pacific. Opposing them were four Imperial Japanese Navy carriers.
Shortly after 7 a.m., Japanese and United States aircraft were in the sky, and the Battle of the Santa Cruz Islands was in full effect. By 9 a.m., Hornet was dead in the water and the focus turned to Enterprise, where Japanese dive bombers hit the ‘Big E’ twice.
For the crew of the Enterprise, the battle was hardly over. Under the command of Capt. Osborne Hardison, who had assumed his role just five days prior, the carrier dodged nine torpedoes while damage control efforts from the dive bombers were still ongoing.
In a munitions magazine below decks, a five-inch shell exploded, knocking Pinckney unconscious. Four Sailors died in the explosion, but as Pinckney came to, flames raging around him, he discovered Gunner’s Mate 3rd Class James Bagwell – alive.
Pinckney proceeded to carry Bagwell through an escape hatch; despite the fact Bagwell outweighed him by 20 pounds and Pinckney had third degree burns covering his arm, leg and back. An electrical cable brushed against Pinckney, again knocking him unconscious. He came to, successfully moved Bagwell to the hangar bay and returned to the magazine to check for additional survivors.
“When the first guy seemed to be surviving pretty good, I went below to see if I could help someone else, but they were all killed and I couldn’t help anyone,” recalled Pinckney, whose trademark modesty was well known among his shipmates.
At the end of the battle, the Hornet had sunk, the battered Enterprise lost 44 sailors and 16 aircraft, while the Japanese forces lost 145 experienced pilots and crew. The damage control team of ‘Big E’ made repairs as necessary, and in just two short weeks, the Pacific Fleet’s single attack carrier was back in action.
For his actions, Pinckney was awarded the Navy Cross and Purple Heart. He passed away in his home on July 21, 1976, and is survived by his wife Henrietta.
“William Pinckney is more than just a namesake to the Sailors aboard USS Pinckney,” said Cdr. Benjamin Oakes, the ship’s current commanding officer. “He is a constant reminder to strive for greatness in the face of adversity, and to give back even when we have been given little.”
“Men like William Pinckney paved the way for the talented men and women of color on board today to succeed as Sailors, chiefs, and officers, and we could not be more proud of that heritage. So many great black men and women from history will never be recognized for how they contributed to America’s greatness, but William Pinckney will always provide inspiration and serve as a reminder of how far we have come and how far we still have left to go,” said Oakes. Today, 20 percent of the ship’s crew is African American.
Pinckney said only that he was “proud to serve,” when awarded the Navy Cross, making him the second of four African Americans to receive the honor. That statement later became Pinckney’s motto.
“We are proud to serve on board the finest ship on the waterfront, and proud of our heritage, and proud to model ourselves after one of America’s greatest heroes,” said Oakes.