While it may seem natural to ask what someone’s rank is or was, if you’re asking the question of someone enlisted in the U.S. Navy, you’re going to run into a terminology issue: in the U.S. Navy, enlisted personnel go by rates, not ranks. An enlisted sailor’s rate is shown on their rating badge, which shows both the rate – pay grade – which is indicated by chevrons, and their rating (occupational specialty) which is signified by a symbol immediately above the aforementioned chevrons. Officers do have ranks and wear rank devices in various locations on their uniforms. There are three basic uniforms with accompanying rank devices: a working uniform – khakis – with pins on the collar; whites, with stripes displayed on the shoulder boards; and blues, with stripes sewn onto the lower part of the sleeve. In addition, shoulder boards can be worn with bridge coats and reefers.
It takes a great deal of time to work your way up the naval ladder; time, sweat, blood, and tears. Our nation has been blessed with naval heroes of all kinds, and as the years pass and instances of bravery and courage not only continue but multiply, it’s become quite clear that heroism is not restricted to one particular rating or rank. Heroes abound throughout the U.S. Navy, spanning the centuries, crossing seemingly insurmountable barriers, and proving the reality of one particularly famous naval quote: “I have not yet begun to fight.” Our naval heroes can be found everywhere, from seamen to petty officers to captains and on and, while there isn’t time to study them all, we can at least take the time to remember a few specific acts of heroism.
The Captain: Captain John Paul Jones, 1747-1792
John Paul Jones, who began life simply as “John Paul” but added the “Jones” midway through his life in an attempt at hiding in plain sight, was responsible not only for the above quote but is also credited as being the “Father of the U.S. Navy.” He was born in Scotland and had an early affinity for the sea; in fact, he loved the ocean and sailing so much he began going along on various voyages at the age of 13. Jones wasn’t just focused on sailing, though. When his time spent on ships gave him an up-close-and-personal glimpse at the barbarism of the slave trade, he immediately gave up what was a prestigious – and profitable – position on a particular vessel, which led to his being forced to rush to gain passage back home to Scotland. Of course, this is John Paul Jones we’re talking about, so not only did he find a new ship, he got a new position, quickly becoming master of the ship.
It was in 1770 that the events were put in motion which would eventually land him in the United States. While dealing with a mutinous sailor, Jones delivered what would come to be judged as a particularly brutal flogging, and although the initial claims of “unnecessary cruelty” were dropped, they roared back in full force when the sailor died. The sailor’s death did not come to pass until weeks after the flogging, and further study has shown considerable doubt as to the validity of the flogging being linked to the man’s eventual death, but at the time Jones was blamed. The dead man had actually not been a sailor but an adventurer of sorts from a wealthy Scottish family, and the influence of his family is quite likely what led to Jones being blamed, arrested, and imprisoned.
Jones was eventually released on bail and, in the end, he left Scotland altogether. A series of rather fascinating events followed which led to his time with the then-fledgling U.S. Navy; it was a time wrought with moments where his rather short-fused temper was evident and others where his teeth-baring bravado won the day, and it is in those moments we find the source of the aforementioned quote. The moment spurring the uttering of those words took place while Jones was captain of the USS Bonhomme Richard. It was September 23, 1779, and Jones and his men – and their ship – were about to face off with a fleet of merchantmen – Brits, of course – who were unsurprisingly being escorted by a 44-gun frigate, the Serapis, and a 28-gun frigate, the Countess of Scarborough. Events unfolded as follows:
“It was the battle between the Bonhomme Richard and the Serapis that became legendary; the two ships battled abreast one another, with the Serapis quickly destroying several of Jones’ main cannons and effectively crippling his ship. In no time, Jones and his men were forced to abandon the guns on the lower deck and parts of the ship even caught fire as devastating holes were blown into the ship’s hull. Finally, another mighty blow from the Serapis knocked the Bonhomme Richard’s mast off, and Captain Pearson of the Serapis called across – yes, that’s how close they were, he simply leaned over and asked – if Jones was surrendering. That is when John Paul Jones delivered the line he is best known for: “Surrender? I have not yet begun to fight!”
Now he was mad, because Jones then rammed the other ship with his own clearly mangled one and ordered his men to lash the ships together. His men kept up the musket fire and fought wildly, and despite a British attempt to board the Bonhomme Richard, it was Jones and his men who boarded the Serapis, forced her surrender, and declared victory. Jones knew a fight wasn’t over when he still had breath in his body, and fight he did.”
Another fantastic quote from Captain John Paul Jones: “I wish to have no connection with any ship that does not sail fast, for I intend to go in harm’s way.”
The Petty Officer: Petty Officer Second Class (SEAL) Matthew Axelson
The story of Operation Red Wings is now quite well-known, not only within but also outside of the military community, since the book co-written by former SEAL Marcus Luttrell and author Patrick Robinson was turned into a movie. On that mountainside in the desolate, rock-strewn Hindu Kush, three phenomenally courageous SEALs were killed in action and one incredibly brave SEAL physically survived; it’s been almost 10 years since the chilling events of that June day, and their memories live on, as well they should.
One of those lost was Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Axelson, known to his friends as Axe. Axe enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 2000, finished Sonar Technician Surface (STS) “A” School immediately after basic, and then went on to graduate from BUD/S with Class 237. After completing the rest of the requirements, Axe reported to SEAL Delivery Vehicle (SDV) Team One in 2002 (To read impressively done accounts of what it takes to become a Navy SEAL, read Dick Couch’s books “Warrior Elite” and “The Finishing School” in that order.). He would spend the next three years proving his mettle time and again before his valor shone its brightest for the final time on June 28, 2005.
On the day in question the four SEALs had been inserted in the mountains of Kunar Province, Afghanistan, hoping to put eyes on a known terrorist. Early on in their mission they’d been compromised by a group of would-be goat-herders, which forced them to make a choice: kill the goat-herders and risk an international incident along with their own arrest and prosecution or let them go and hope to out-run any potential assailants. While it is easy for many to play Monday morning quarterback regarding the events of that day, it is simply impossible to fully understand the ramifications if you haven’t been in that position – or, better yet, if you were not there on that day. They let the goat-herders go, and before long they were attacked and massively outnumbered by heavily armed insurgents under the leadership of the terrorist they’d hoped to locate. As the battle progressed the SEALs had to fling themselves down the sharp shale mountainside time and again, fighting all the way. Only when he’d been shot five times and the entire right side of Axe’s head had been blown away by an insurgent’s bullet did his body begin to fail to keep up with his ferocious spirit.
The story of Axe’s heart is told best by Marcus Luttrell:
“Axe will always be a hero to me. Throughout this brief but brutal conflict, he’d fought like a wounded tiger. Like Audie Murphy, like Sergeant York. They shot away his body, crippled his brain, but not his spirit. They never got that.
Matthew Gene Axelson, husband of Cindy, fired at the enemy until he could no longer hold his rifle. He was just past his twenty-ninth birthday. And in his dying moments, I never took my eyes off him. I don’t think he could hear me any longer. But his eyes were open, and we were still together, and I refused to allow him to die alone.” (Lone Survivor, page 239)
Axe’s blue eyes had filled with the death-black of blood in the minutes prior to his death, and yet he’d continued with his attempts to hold back the enemy. His only thoughts were of saving his brother SEALs – and of his wife, Cindy. His last words: “You stay alive, Marcus. And tell Cindy I love her.”
When Marcus was rescued days later, teams went out to recover the bodies of the three lost SEALs. But when they looked for Axe in the spot Marcus had so carefully pinpointed, he was not there. No, Axe was an even greater fighter than imagined:
“…Axe was a few hundred yards even farther away. No one quite knows how he got there. Axe still had three magazines left for his pistol when the grenade hit us. But when they found him, he was on the last one. And that could mean only one thing: Axe must have fought on, recovering consciousness after the blast and going for those bastards again, firing maybe thirty more rounds at them; must have driven them mad. I guess that’s why, when he eventually succumbed to his most shocking injuries, they had accorded him that barbaric tribal finale.” (Lone Survivor, page 365)
Petty Officer Second Class Matthew Axelson was repeatedly shot in the face by the Taliban when they finally dared approach his body. He’d battled on even after Marcus was launched backwards into a hole by an RPG. He’d battled on, undoubtedly fighting to protect his brother with his last breath. Axe was an American hero whose internal flame and ferocity far outlasted the external damage to his body.
Bravery knows no rate, no rank, no class. True bravery is found in the heart of the sailor, not on his uniform. In the words of Lucius Annaeus Seneca, “It is a rough road that leads to the heights of greatness.” No matter who you are, you have a chance for greatness. Take it.
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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