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Honor and duty at sea

Jan 1, 2003

"A man has honor if he holds himself to an ideal of conduct though it is inconvenient, unprofitable or dangerous to do so." These words by Walter Lippmann accurately describe U.S. naval man, William Henry Allen. Allen, born in 1784 at Providence, R.I., decided early to follow the sea, joining the fledgling U.S. Navy in 1800 as a midshipman. Later, as a lieutenant aboard USS Chesapeake in 1807, Allen proved his courage and dedication to his flag when Chesapeake was attacked by HMS Leopard for failing to submit to a British search for deserters. The only cannon available to reply to the savage British onslaught was fired by Allen, using a live coal taken from the galley fire and carried to the gun in his bare hands. By 1812, America was at war with Britain, and Allen was in command of USS Argus, a brig-sloop of barely 250 tons. Allen's orders were crystal clear: hunt down and sink every British merchantman encountered on King George's doorstep. But Allen found the work personally distasteful, feeling he should be engaging Royal Navy ships and not helpless civilian vessels. While his sense of duty compelled him to destroy unarmed enemy freighters returning to England from her many colonies, Allen's sense of honor required him to find a way to avoid killing civilian crewmen and passengers. He balanced duty with a sense of fair play, and he began allowing his victims to escape safely, with their personal possessions, before destroying their ship. Those who reached shore recalled that Allen actually apologized to them before pointing out the course to land. Always the gentleman, Allen is reported to have once removed his own greatcoat and given it to a nearly naked British seaman escaping in a lifeboat. Despite his unorthodox approach, Allen and Argus were extremely successful in destroying enemy tonnage, and the Royal Navy pressed every available vessel into service to seek out and rid their shores of "Gentleman Willie." Finally on Aug. 14, 1814, HMS Pelican chanced upon Argus as she was standing to, allowing yet another merchant crew to escape destruction. The larger and more heavily armed Pelican held off pressing her attack long enough to allow the civilians to escape, and Pelican's crew gave Allen and his men three "hurrahs" for their chivalrous action before engaging the Yankee in battle.After a furious engagement, which left Allen with a severe leg wound and his small ship badly crippled, Argus' standard was lowered in submission. Allen died in prison at Plymouth, England, four days later, due to complications resulting from his leg having been amputated. Allen was buried with full military honors at Plymouth. His casket was carried through the streets accompanied by two companies of Royal Marines and a full honor guard, while the respectful citizens of the port city looked on. Even merchants who had lost small fortunes to Allen's actions doffed their hats to the fallen foe. The city also took the extraordinary step of erecting a monument to Allen inscribed with the words, "Here Sleeps the Brave" -- probably the only memorial in any country to honor an enemy seaman.


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