Saturday, May 24, 2008

William Halford and the USS Saginaw

The USS Saginaw was the first of the long line of ships built at the Mare Island Navy Yard. The steam-powered sidewheeler was launched in 1859 and served her entire career cruising in Pacific and Arctic waters. The story of her wreck on Ocean Island in 1870 is one of the great tales of rescue in U.S. naval history. The hero of that rescue was Lieutenant William Halford, who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts. Following the rescue (described below) Halford continued his long career in the Navy, working at Mare Island’s ammunition depot, where he retired 105 years ago this week, in May of 1903.

From the Vallejo Evening Chronicle May 23, 1903:

Gunner Halford, U.S.N.

His Departure Recalls the Story of the Wreck of the Saginaw, in which the Heroic Old Veteran Figured

Chief Gunner William Halford, U.S.N., who has been on duty at the magazine at the Mare Island Navy Yard for the past ten years, having reached the age limit, has been placed on the retired list and with his family will make his future home in Oakland. The retirement of this heroic old veteran recalls one of the tragedies of the sea.

“In 1870 the United States sloop-of-war “Saginaw” wrecked on Ocean Island [also known as Kure Atoll]. The crew was threatened with starvation. The ship’s gig, of which Halford was then coxswain, was decked over, provisioned, and started for the Hawaiian Islands, 1400 miles distant, to secure relief for the stranded mariners on Ocean Island. Halford was one of the crew of six that manned the relief expedition, and he was the only man of the six that reached the Hawaiian Island alive. His strength and fortitude rose superior to intense privations and sufferings. For his heroic work Halford was appointed a gunner in the Navy, having declined to be named as a master on the retired list of the service.

“The boat in which he made the perilous trip is now exhibited among other objects of national note in Washington, D.C.”

William Halford died in February 1919 at the age of 77. He is buried at the Mare Island Cemetery.

The Saginaw’s gig was later moved from Washington, D.C. and placed on display in Saginaw, Michigan. In recent years efforts have been made to return the gig to Mare Island.

The wreckage of the Saginaw was found in 2003.

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