Stephen Decatur is said to have been the first national military hero after the War of Independence. Starting as a lowly midshipman in his late teens, he was promoted to the high rank of Commodore while still a young man.
Of the many adventures that advanced his career was an especially dangerous one that took him and his comrades right under the noses of enemy guns. It was in the midst of our conflict with the Barbary Pirates, a very early episode in our war on Islamic terrorism. The little nation of Tripoli on the northern shore of Africa, along with some other small countries, had been capturing American ships and selling their crews as slaves or holding them for ransom. This had been going on for many years. Finally, President Jefferson had sent the fledgling American navy to straighten things out.
An American ship, the Philadelphia had gone aground in Tripoli harbor. Unable to free his ship, the captain had been forced to surrender to the Tripolitan pirates who swarmed aboard from the nearby city fortress. The Americans had been held in prison for many weary months.
The Philadelphia was a big fighting ship. The navy knew she must not be reconditioned and used against us by the pirates. So young Decatur was ordered to recover the Philadelphia or destroy her where she lay.
Entering the harbor at night under a waning moon, Decatur approached the Philadelphia in a small sailing ship called a ketch, captured the year before from the pirates. With him were near a hundred men, mostly US marines. They were dressed in Arab garb and guided into the harbor by a pilot who spoke Arabic. They drifted casually toward the Philadelphia as the pilot called to the skeleton crew of Muslims aboard that he had lost his sea anchors in a storm and wished to tie up to the Philadelphia.
When permission was given, Decatur shouted the order to board and within minutes he and his men had swarmed aboard the bigger ship and killed or captured the entire crew, except for a few who had jumped into the water in hopes of swimming to safety on shore.
Finding that there was no way to free the Philadelphia and tow her out of the harbor, Decatur switched to plan B. He had his men place combustibles and explosives in strategic areas of the ship. Then, after all his men had scrambled back aboard the ketch, Decatur himself lit the slow-acting fuse. Quickly he joined his men and they rowed with all their might, hoisting their little sail rapidly for assistance. They were just beyond the danger zone, cannon balls from the Tripoli fortress splashing all around them, when the Philadelphia blew.
At first there was the glow of several different fires. Clouds of black smoke rose into the dark sky, illuminated by the burning ship itself. Then some of the loaded cannons began to get so hot that they discharged, some of their loads flying right into the Tripolitan defenses. Then, the powder magazine exploded and the great ship became a shower of burning fragments, arcing through the air to land hissing in the dark water.
Decatur and his men were national heroes. But he went on to lead a stellar career which, sadly was ended in a duel with another American officer. Listen to the exciting story of Decatur’s life in From Midshipman to Commodore.