Navy Rear Adm. Robert W. Cary Jr. had a long military career that included both world wars, but the actions that earned him the Medal of Honor happened when he was only a few months into life as a commissioned officer.
Cary was born on Aug. 18, 1890, in Kansas City, Mo., to Robert and Lalla Cary. According to a Kansas City Times article, he was a descendant of Meredith Miles Marmaduke, the governor of Missouri in 1844.
After graduating from Kansas City’s Westport High School, Cary went to William Jewell College and the University of Missouri before attending the U.S. Naval Academy, which he graduated from in 1914. About seven months later, he found himself serving as an ensign on the USS San Diego.
On Jan. 21, 1915, the San Diego was off the coast of La Paz, Mexico, conducting a four-hour, full-speed endurance trial, when all hell broke loose.
Toward the end of the trial, Cary was working in the ship’s boiler rooms with the job of taking steam pressure readings from every boiler every half-hour. He had just read the steam and air pressure on the No. 2 boilers and had stepped through the electric watertight door into the No. 1 boiler room when the No. 2 boilers exploded.
Apparently, one of the boiler tubes had become blocked, causing an explosion that led to a chain reaction.
As the emergency unfolded, the ship’s bridge started to electronically close the doors between the rooms. Cary didn’t want the men in the No. 2 room to be trapped, so he forced the doors to remain open so they could escape, even as the steam from the ruptured boilers swirled around him. That quick thinking saved the lives of three men.
Cary’s cool demeanor also kept the men in the No. 1 boiler room calm enough to remain at their posts, even though five nearby boilers had exploded and more were expected to explode at any time.
Eventually, Cary was able to direct the men in the No. 1 boiler room into a bunker for safety. The entire incident killed five men and injured at least seven others, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command.
Cary was cool and collected during the ordeal and showed a lot of bravery during a dire situation. But it would be 19 years before he would earn the Medal of Honor for those actions.
Cary continued his service in the Navy. During World War I, he served on destroyers and earned the Navy Cross for bravery when the potential for an explosion threated another ship. On Nov. 7, 1918, Cary was an executive officer on the USS Sampson when, during a heavy storm, a depth charge on the ship’s fantail broke loose – something that could lead to an explosion. Cary and three enlisted men quickly went to the fantail and secured the depth charge to quell the danger, despite almost being washed overboard.
At some point early in his career, Cary married a woman named Jane Watt. After she died in 1931, he remarried a woman named Jane Christian. Between the two marriages, Cary had a son, Robert, and four daughters.
After World War I, Cary remained in the Navy, serving in many capacities at several duty stations. It was during this period between wars that he finally received the Medal of Honor for the 1915 incident on the San Diego. On May 23, 1934, then-Lt. Cmdr. Cary received the nation’s highest award for valor. The ceremony was held at the Bremerton Navy Yard, where Cary’s ship at the time, the USS Arizona, was in port. A fellow sailor from the San Diego, Petty Officer 2nd Class Telesforo Trinidad, also received the medal for his efforts in rescuing crew members that day.
Cary went on to serve in various European campaigns during World War II, including as the commanding officer of the USS Savannah during the U.S. invasion of Italy. On Sept. 11, 1943, the ship was struck by a German glide bomb off the coast of Salerno. About 200 sailors were lost during the incident, but the ship managed to make it to Malta to be salvaged.
According to an article in the Kansas City Times, Cary earned the British Distinguished Service Order from King George VI during World War II. He returned to the U.S. in 1944 to command Naval Station Treasure Island in San Francisco.
By the time Cary retired from the Navy in 1946, he’d reached the rank of rear admiral. As a civilian, he worked various jobs in industry and business. He also owned and operated a farm in his home state for about 10 years, according to the Lima, Ohio, newspaper, The Lima Times.
Cary died of a heart attack while in Toledo, Ohio, on July 15, 1967. At the time, he was the chairman of the board of Trans-World Service Inc., Toledo’s largest freight forwarder. He was 76.
Cary was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.