Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Telesforo Trinidad rescued some of his shipmates when a boiler exploded on their cruiser in 1915. His actions made him the only Filipino sailor to receive the Medal of Honor and one of the last service members to earn it for noncombat valor.
Trinidad was born Nov. 25, 1890, in New Washington on the Philippine island of Panay to parents Juan Trinidad and Florentina De La Cruz.
In 1901, shortly after Spain ceded the Philippines to the U.S. after the Spanish-American War, President William McKinley established the Insular Force of the U.S. Navy that allowed the enlistment of 500 Filipino sailors.
Trinidad desperately wanted to be one of those sailors. His grandson, Rene Trinidad, told the Associated Press that Trinidad was so eager to join that when he was 20, he stowed away on a lifeboat from Panay to the main island, Luzon, so he could enlist at the Cavite Navy Yard, about an hour south of Manila.
At some point after enlistment, he met and married Eufemia Pagtakhan. The digital magazine Positively Filipino said the couple had 11 children, eight of whom lived to adulthood. Two of their sons followed their father into the Navy, the Associated Press said.
By 1915, Trinidad was working as a fireman on the armored cruiser USS San Diego. On Jan. 15, 1915, the ship was part of a naval patrol near La Paz, Mexico, in the Gulf of California.
That day, historians said its captain decided to hold a four-hour endurance trial to make sure the cruiser could still maintain its officially rated flank speed. At the end of the trial, one of the boiler tubes had become blocked, causing an explosion that led to a chain reaction.
Trinidad was driven out of fireroom No. 2 by the blast, but he immediately went back in and picked up an injured fireman, R.E. Daly. As he was carrying Daly through fireroom No. 4, a second explosion in fireroom No. 3 hit Trinidad, severely burning his face.
Trinidad dismissed his own injuries and kept moving until he was able to pass Daly on to someone else. He then went back to fireroom No. 3 to save another man.
Five sailors died and seven others were injured that day, according to the Naval History and Heritage Command. But Trinidad’s heroics helped rescue two, and that earned him the Medal of Honor, which was still being awarded for noncombat valor at the time. He received the honor in August 1915 and was also given $100 in gratuity pay for his efforts.
Nineteen years after the USS San Diego incident, another of Trinidad’s shipmates, then-Ensign Robert Cary Jr., also received the Medal of Honor for his bravery that day.
Trinidad remained in the Navy for a long time, serving in both world wars, according to the Associated Press. He retired in 1945 and returned to the Philippines.
Trinidad died on May 8, 1968, at a hospital at the Cavite Navy Yard, where he began his naval career. He was 77.
Decades later, his heroics are still being remembered. In May 2022, the Navy announced it would name a future Arleigh Burke-class guided-missile destroyer the USS Telesforo Trinidad.
“Having a ship named after such a significant figure highlights our diverse culture and that our people will always be our strategic advantage against any adversary,” said Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro when he made the announcement. “I hope the naming of this ship is a beacon for not only Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders but for all our sailors, Marines and civilians who serve across the Department of the Navy. The service and sacrifice of these men and women have made our military and our nation stronger and better.”
Trinidad remains the only Filipino in the Navy to have earned the Medal of Honor.
Editor’s note: Medal of Honor Monday highlights Medal of Honor recipients who have earned the U.S. military’s highest medal for valor.