In one of the early great sea victories of the American Revolution, John Paul Jones commanded the Bonhomme Richard as it defeated two British warships, the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, off the coast of England on September 23, 1779.
Early in 1779, King Louis XVI received a visit from Benjamin Franklin, dispatched by the Continental Congress to France to seek support for the American Revolution. The French king gave the Americans a 900-ton merchant ship built as the Duc de Deras for the East India Company in 1765. The Americans converted the ship into a frigate. Jones renamed it Bonhomme Richard (in honor of Franklin’s Poor Richard’s Almanac publication), making it the first of three U.S. Navy ships to bear the name.
Jones sailed to confront the British in their own waters. He encountered the Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough, and the Bonhomme Richard took such a pounding that Serapis Captain Richard Pearson offered Jones terms of surrender.
Instead, the American commodore responded with the now-famous words, “I have not yet begun to fight!”
Three hours later, he had defeated both British ships. Jones then transferred his crew and supplies to the Serapis, with the badly damaged Bonhomme Richard about to sink to the bottom of the North Sea, which it did the following day.
The legendary ship’s name resurfaced during World War II, after the Japanese sank the carrier USS Yorktown (CV5) during the Battle of Midway. That the Yorktown made it to Midway at all surprised the Japanese, who thought they sank it weeks earlier during the Battle of the Coral Sea. Instead, it limped back for a hasty repair job at Pearl Harbor, and then joined Admiral Nimitz’s force at Midway in the June 1942 Allied victory that became the turning point in the war in the Pacific.
This time, Japanese torpedoes really did sink the USS Yorktown, which now rests under 16,500 feet of water in the Pacific Ocean. Meanwhile, back in the United States, a carrier under construction and set to become the second Bonhomme Richard instead became the USS Yorktown (CV10). Whether intentional or not, another ship named USS Yorktown left the Japanese to wonder whether they really sank the Yorktown at Midway, either.
In 1944, the Navy commissioned an Essex-class carrier as the Bon Homme Richard (CV 31). Sponsored by the wife of Admiral J.S. McCain (and mother of Vietnam War POW and future U.S. Senator John McCain), the Bon Homme Richard went into service near the end of World II, and continued through the Korean and Vietnam wars until its decommissioning in 1971.
The third ship named to honor John Paul Jones’ frigate, the USS Bonhomme Richard (LHD 6) is an Amphibious Assault Ship commissioned in 1997.
The ship, based in San Diego, deployed numerous times since 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Global War on Terrorism, and other mission over the years. It also provided humanitarian aid following the Indian Ocean tsunami in 2004.
However, the USS Bonhomme Richard has endured some misfortunes, including a training accident that killed four helicopter crew members in 2007. Also, a fire determined to be arson two months ago caused extensive damage after burning for four days. The fire caused injuries including heat exhaustion and smoke inhalation to 40 sailors and 23 civilians.
The ship’s future is in jeopardy, with repair efforts hampered by the lack of shipyard facilities in the United States.
“We’ll see what we’ll do with the Bonhomme Richard, but that will be a massive effort to repair her,” Rear Adm. Eric Ver Hage, the Navy Regional Maintenance Center commander and director of surface ship maintenance and modernization, told Military.com. “I’m talking years, most likely.”
Time will tell whether the current version of the USS Bonhomme Richard has just begun to fight.