Southern People

You want someone like William Pinckney on your side.

The Beaufort County South Carolina native, who would have turned 98 tomorrow, is such a hero that the U.S. Navy named a destroyer after him, the USS Pinckney.

On Oct. 26, 1942, during the Battle of Santa Cruz, Pinckney was a Navy cook on the USS Enterprise when two Japanese bombs hit the ship. Pinckney, born in 1915 in the Dale community, was knocked unconscious when a five-inch shell exploded in the magazine he was manning. Four sailors died. When he came to, fire raged through the smoke-filled magazine. As he was trying to find a way out, he came upon gunner’s mate James Bagwell, who outweighed Pinckney by 20 pounds and was too weak to climb through an escape hatch, according to a Navy report.

13.0426.pinckneyBut Pinckney picked up Bagwell to get through the hatch. On the way, an electrical cable touched Pinckney, knocking him unconscious. When he came to again, he got Bagwell up a ladder and to safety. Then “ignoring the burns that had taken the skin off his hands, right leg and back,” Pinckney went back into the magazine to see if anyone else was alive. Minutes later, he returned, collapsed and got treatment.

Later he modestly said he “did help a little here and there … When the first guy seemed to be surviving pretty good, I went below to see if I could help someone else but they were all killed and I couldn’t help anyone.”

Pinckney, treated for shrapnel wounds and third-degree burns, received a Purple Heart and the Navy Cross — the service’s second highest award for extraordinary heroism. After the war, he and his wife, Beaufort County native Henrietta, eventually moved to Brooklyn, N.Y. where Pinckney served as a cook in the Merchant Marine for 26 years. Then the couple returned home to Beaufort. Pinckney died in 1976 of spinal cancer and is buried in Beaufort National Cemetery. Mrs. Pinckney still lives in Beaufort, the Navy says.

When asked about his time in the Navy, Pinckney would “often tear up, saying only that he was ‘proud to serve.’” And that’s the motto of the destroyer that was named for him when commissioned in 2004.

13.0426.mabusU.S. Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus told me that all sailors and Marines are heroic because they risk their lives to protect us.

“When those men and women confront incredibly difficult and dangerous situations and, without regard for personal safety, act to save lives, we call them heroes,” Mabus said. “’Hero’ is a label we use to help us understand how someone like Navy Cook First Class William Pinckney could act so selflessly in the face of mortal danger.

“As Secretary, I have had the profound honor to award many of these heroes with medals, some posthumously. Not one medal recipient, family member or comrade in arms accepted that label. It isn’t false modesty. It is simply the shared belief that they were just doing their job.”

William Pinckney’s story stirred Beaufort Mayor Billy Keyserling.

“We should all sing out loud as this is an inspiration for this and future generations — how a man of modest means follows his moral compass to do the right thing for someone in dire need, risking his life to save another.

“There are so many young men who waste their lives listlessly on street corners in baggy pants or thinking that brandishing a firearm gives them an identity when Pinckney’s star should be shining more brightly than a rock star or athlete or drug pusher.”

Heroes like William Pinckney and all of the people who rushed to help victims of the recent Boston Marathon bombings motivate us to do better — to be more selfless, more compassionate, more helpful and less partisan, less demanding, less irritable.

And perhaps our state legislators could learn a little something from Beaufort County’s inspirational cook. We need them to do what needs to be done to help lift South Carolina out of the country’s basement so we can all shine.

You can learn more about William Pinckney’s story here

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Editor's note: This story originally published at StatehouseReport.com.
Andy Brack

Andy Brack

Andy Brack is a syndicated columnist in South Carolina and the publisher of StatehouseReport.com. Brack, who holds a master’s degree in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, also publishes a twice-weekly newsletter about good news in the Charleston area, CharlestonCurrents.com. A former U.S. Senate press secretary and reporter, Brack has a national reputation as a communications strategist and Internet pioneer. Brack also is president and chairman of the Center for a Better South, a nonprofit regional think tank. Brack received a bachelor’s degree from Duke University. He, his wife, two daughters and dogs live in Charleston, S.C.