Navy Machinist Charles H. Willey never expected to have to save the lives of his crewmates during a peacetime mission, but that’s exactly what he did during an unexpected tsunami that happened while his ship was anchored near the Dominican Republic in 1916. He paid a physical price for his actions, but they also earned him the Medal of Honor.
Willey was born on March 31, 1889, in Boston. Not much is known about his life until August 1908, when he enlisted in the Navy. Six years later, on Dec. 28, 1914, he was appointed to the warrant officer rank of machinist, according to Congressional records. That same year, he married a woman named Grace.
By August 1916, Willey was serving aboard the armored cruiser USS Memphis, which had changed its name from the USS Tennessee earlier in the year. The ship had been in the Caribbean and was sent to Santo Domingo — the modern-day Dominican Republic — in late July for a peacekeeping patrol off the rebellion-torn republic’s shores.
A freak incident
The area was known for dangerous weather, so the crew was prepared to move to deeper waters if there were any weather threats. But on Aug. 29, bad weather came without a warning.
At about 3:45 p.m., the ship’s commanding officer thought the swell appeared to be increasing, according to an account from Navy Lt. Cmdr. Thomas Withers Jr., who was on the ship at the time. So, sailors in the engine room, including Willey, readied the ship’s boilers and engines to get underway. But before the ship was able to move further out to sea, waves reported to be up to 75 feet high — unaccompanied by wind — started smashing into the ship without warning.
“Wave followed wave at intervals of perhaps 30-40 seconds,” Withers recounted in a journal. “These waves were so large, and their faces became so steep that they simply flowed over the ship.”
The ship was being dragged toward the beach, and anyone who was below deck was trapped in a precarious position. In the engine room, boilers and steam pipes burst open. Willey was scalded by steam as thousands of tons of water came down on him. However, he remained in the room in near darkness as long as the engines would turn. He left his post only when he was ordered to.
When the boilers exploded, Willey and two other men rushed into the rooms where the boilers were kept. Despite their injuries, they were able to drag and carry the men trapped there into rooms where the air was breathable.
Throughout the evening, lifelines from Memphis to the shore were set up to get many of the men to safety. However, 43 men died during the incident, and many more were seriously injured, including Willey.
A 1932 Boston Globe article said Willey was unconscious in a Washington, D.C., hospital for nearly three months after the tragedy. It took him 18 months to fully recover, the Globe said.
Willey had hoped to return to the seas, but that wasn’t in the cards. He was medically retired on July 30, 1917, according to a Congressional report. By then, he lived in East Concord, N.Y. He and his wife, Grace, went on to have three children: Richard, Doris and Walter.
A ship’s demise, a sailor’s honor
After the incident, the USS Memphis didn’t appear to be damaged above the waterline, but below deck was a different story. The hull was crushed by rocks and coral, and the lower decks were flooded, leaving the ship stranded in shallow water. That’s where the wreck remained until 1937, when ship-breaking capabilities became available to salvage it.
An investigation later revealed that a tropical disturbance had passed south of the area the night before the incident, but it didn’t cause any other markers of severe weather except the heavy swells that caused the tragedy.
Sixteen years later, Willey received the Medal of Honor for his bravery that day. The medal was presented to him on Aug. 19, 1932, by Rear Adm. Clarence S. Kempff at the Navy Yard in Portsmouth, N.Y. Two of his shipmates also received the honor; then-Lt. Claud A. Jones and Chief Machinist’s Mate George William Rud, who died during the incident. The three men were some of the last to receive the medal for peacetime actions.
At the time of the medal ceremony, Willey worked at a poultry farm in the Concord area, the Boston Globe said. He also did some technical and mechanical writing for periodicals.
Willey died on Sept. 11, 1977, in Manchester, N.H. He was buried at Maple Grove Cemetery in Concord, N.H.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.