I presume that nearly everyone who read This Corner of the Universe made the connection of Lieutenant Mike Riedel’s conversation with Heskan about a “wet navy” ship fighting a victorious, insurmountable battle to John Paul Jones’ Bonhomme Richard. Later, Heskan curses at Blackheart’s captain, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.”
Most Americans (and maybe Britons?) are aware of this famous battle but fewer know the details. The battle was not a single ship combat and took place not on America’s shores, but on the other side of the Atlantic. Paul’s ship, Bonhomme Richard (which was originally a merchant ship rebuilt as a 42-gun ship by the French and given to the United States), was the flagship of a small squadron including two other 30+ gun vessels. Her adversary was Serapis (a 50-gun frigate) plus a hired ship, Countess of Scarborough.
Paul was actually on the East side of England and was attempting to attack a merchant convoy protected by Serapis and Countess of Scarborough. Countess got separated from Serapis (and later surrendered) by Bonhomme’s sister ships. Bonhomme Richard faced off against Serapis but not without help. The 36-gun ship, Alliance, sailing with Bonhomme Richard, attempted to assist but due to the proximity of Richard and Serapis, Alliance’s shots did more damage to Paul’s ship than Serapis. Alliance would return and fire again, once more causing greater damage to Bonhomme Richard than the enemy. Friendly fire, it seems, has existed for quite some time.
With Richard on fire and sinking, an American officer shouted a surrender to Serapis (the officer believed that Paul had been recently killed). The British captain asked to confirm that Bonhomme Richard was actually surrendering (Bonhomme Richard’s ensign, the huge flag that flies at the stern of a ship, had been shot away so the traditional method of surrender, lowering the ensign, could not be signaled). Jones would later say that he replied, “I am determined to make you surrender.” However, sailors aboard Richard attested that he, in fact, yelled, “I may sink, but I’ll be damned if I strike.” That is the line that American newspapers ran with.
Interestingly, Bonhomme Richard did sink after the battle but only after Serapis had surrendered (mostly due to Alliance’s sporadic, and inaccurate, fire). The “I have not yet begun to fight” line was uttered much earlier during a failed pass of Richard trying to grapple Serapis (and is a far less compelling line than the “sink but strike” comment).
In The Wrong Side of Space, I pay homage to a famous World War II quotation uttered (in disgust) by an unlikely hero.