After more than 40 years, Navy hero’s headstone finally honors his bravery in WWII

BEAUFORT, Sc. (WSAV) – The Beaufort National Cemetery is a final resting place for about 20,000 soldiers who fought for our country– one being William Pinckney, whose headstone has never really reflected his sacrifice, until today.

“He really never mentioned anything about his medals or awards or anything like that,” said Pinckney’s great nephew, William Mulligan.

Everyone who knew him remembers him as a humble man. The Beaufort native joined the United States Navy in 1938.

“African Americans in the 1930’s and 40’s, the first thing that they were assigned was to be a cook. So he was a cook aboard the USS Enterprise,” said Beaufort Historian and USCB professor, Larry Rowland.

But no matter their assigned job, every sailor has a battle station.

“He could be a cook during the day, but he could be a gunner during battle,” said Rowland, “His battle station was in the ammunition handling room of the USS Enterprise.”

It was October 26, 1942 during the Battle of Guadalcanal, “the ship took several bomb hits. One of the bombs penetrated the deck and blew up in the ammunition handling room,” Rowland said.

Of the 6 men in the room, only Pinckney and one other, Petty Officer Bagwell, survived the blast.

“Petty Officer Bagwell tried to climb up the ladder out of the whole ammunition holding room, and the latter was on fire and he fell back and passed out,” Rowland said, “Well Bill Pinckney was the only other sailor alive down there and he picked up Petty Officer Bagwell, put him on his shoulders, climbed a burning ladder delivered him to go to the medical station on the hanger deck of the ship, and then went down, back in to get the other sailors out of there.”

Pinckney was awarded the Navy Cross, the second highest recognition to the Medal of Honor.

“He was only the second African-American in Navy history to receive that award,” Rowland said, “And he was only one of four African-Americans in all of World War II to win the Navy Cross.”

But while working on a book, Rowland visited Pinckney’s grave at the Beaufort National Cemetery and noticed the honor was not on his headston.e

“It just said William B. Pinckney with the correct dates and ‘Purple Heart,’ Rowland said.

So he contacted the cemetery’s superintendent, Sonny Peppers, and within two week, “Navy Cross” was added.

“It’s an honor to know that the Beaufort community sought to honor him by placing his award on his headstone,” Mulligan said, as he stood with another one of Pinckney’s great nephews and a neice.

Neither Rowland nor Peppers know why the award wasn’t originally put on the headstone, Rowland says that’s a question that had to be answered in 1976.

The Beaufort Rotary Club is holding an official ceremony for the community to honor Pinckney on February 10th at 11 a.m. at the Beaufort National Cemetery.

When the humble Pinckney was asked about his service, “he frequently said, ‘Oh I was proud to serve,” Rowland said. Today, “Proud to Serve” is the motto for the USS William Pinckney guided missle cruiser in the United States Navy, currently deploying in the Pacific Ocean.

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