John King (1862–1938)

[Medal of Honor Recipient]

John King was an Irish sailor who received two Medals of Honor during a twenty-six-year career in the U.S. Navy, though neither was for wartime action. King died in Hot Springs (Garland County) and is buried in Hollywood Cemetery.

John King, a native of Ballinrobe in County Mayo in western Ireland, was born on February 7, 1862, to Michael King and Ellen Flannery King. He moved to the United States in 1886 and enlisted in the U.S. Navy on July 20, 1893. King served his career below decks, beginning as a coal passer, before receiving promotion to fireman, oiler, water tender, and chief water tender, the latter being the petty officer commanding the boiler room.

Perhaps the most-feared occurrence in a steamboat was a boiler explosion, which could swiftly turn a vessel into a flaming wreck, as seen in Arkansas in the explosions on the Sultana and the Miami. King would receive his two Medals of Honor for averting such disasters aboard U.S. Navy warships.

The first incident occurred when he was serving aboard the USS Vicksburg, an Annapolis-class gunboat, near Port Isabella during the Philippines War. On May 29, 1901, a boiler exploded aboard the Vicksburg, and King “shut off the main stop of the boiler and smothered it up with blankets and towels,” averting a more serious accident. King received a Medal of Honor seven months later “for heroism in the line of his profession at the time of the accident to the boilers, 29 May 1901.”

On September 13, 1909, King was serving in the Atlantic Ocean on the USS Salem, a scout cruiser outfitted with some of the navy’s earliest turbine engines. As he reported, there was “an explosion in the boiler [that] carried away the tube[,] and 12 men in the fire-room stood in danger of being scalded to death.” King turned on the blowers full-force to dissipate the steam, adding, “I was badly scalded on the arms, but went back to the fire-room and stayed until the engineer of the watch found me, and sent me to sick bay. We got all the men out of the fire-room and no one was injured.” King was promoted to chief water tender, his highest rank, on October 1, 1909.

He also received his second Medal of Honor that December, being cited for “extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession on the occasion of the accident to one of the boilers of that vessel, 13 September 1909.”

King became a naturalized citizen of the United States in November 1912, retired from the U.S. Navy on September 24, 1916, and married Ballinrobe native Delia McKenna the next year. Two days after the United States entered World War I on April 6, 1917, however, he was called back to active duty, serving until August 20, 1919.

The Kings moved back to Ireland in 1921 and lived there until Delia King’s death in 1936, after which King returned to the United States to stay at the Naval Home in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. He broke his leg when he tripped over an iron bench and was sent to the Army-Navy General Hospital in Hot Springs in February 1937. He died of pneumonia there on May 20, 1938, and is buried in the city’s Hollywood Cemetery where, coincidentally, Christian Steiner, another Medal of Honor winner, is interred.

In 1961, a guided-missile cruiser, the USS John King (DDG-3), was commissioned in his honor, and a full-sized bronze statue of King was unveiled in Ballinrobe in 2010. John King was one of only nineteen men in the nation to receive two Medals of Honor; Newton County native John Henry Pruitt was one of the others.

For additional information:
“John King.” Congressional Medal of Honor Foundation. https://themedalofhonor.com/recipients/watertender-highest-rank-chief-watertender-john-king-u-s-navy-u-s-s-vicksburg-u-s-s-salem/ (accessed October 2, 2020).

“New Details Discovered about Irish-Immigrant War Hero Who Will Be Honored in Hot Springs Ceremony March 14.” World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, March 9, 2011. http://www.shorteststpats.com/2011/03/new-details-discovered-about-irish-immigrant-war-hero-who-will-be-honored-in-hot-springs-ceremony-march-14/ (accessed October 2, 2020).

Vicksburg II (Gunboat No. 11).” Naval History and Heritage Command. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/v/vicksburg-ii.html (accessed October 2, 2020).

Salem I (Cruiser No. 3).” Naval History and Heritage Command. https://www.history.navy.mil/research/histories/ship-histories/danfs/s/salem-i.html (accessed October 2, 2020).

Mark K. Christ
Central Arkansas Library System

Last Updated: 10/02/2020

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