Newman Kershaw Perry

                                                                      By

                                                         Margaret G. Riddle

 

         Newman Kershaw Perry was born in Columbia, S.C. on November 26 (or 28), 1880 and was the 2nd son of Newman Kershaw Perry, Esq. of Colleton County and his wife Frances Heyward Mayrant of Columbia.  Young Newman left the 9th grade and accepted a position as emergency substitute at the Columbia post office. He would frequently work all day as a carrier, then work from evening to morning as night clerk, and again go on duty for the day as a carrier.

            While doing substitute work and contributing towards the support of his mother and sisters, Perry studied with two professors. He took the competitive examination for a scholarship to the United States Naval Academy and came in first of 13 competitors. His first two years at the Academy were very difficult for him. He wrote his brother, William Mayrant Perry, that he was ashamed to be so far from the head of his class and that he was afraid he could not stand the final examinations. The reply to that letter was “stick to it the best you can and we will be as proud of you graduating at the foot of your class as though you were at the head.”  He not only passed, but graduated with honors. He appears in the Academy’s yearbook, The Lucky Bag,” in the class of 1901, but may have graduated early, as some sources indicate he finished in 1900. Future Admiral Ernest J. King was a classmate.   Perry was ordered to the USS Wisconsin in July 1902. Apparently, he had at some point served in the Spanish-American War (1898), for he was awarded the Spanish Campaign Medal.

            In January 1903, Perry was officially engaged to Marie Vipont DeRiviere Doane, daughter of Mr. And Mrs. William Edward Doane, of Stockbridge, Mass., though apparently they had declared their intentions when Perry was in his second year at the Academy. They were married on October 10, 1903, in Stockbridge, and at the reception, the bride cut the cake with her husband’s sword. At that time, Ensign Perry was attached to the USS Bennington, on duty along the Pacific coast, from Alaska to southern California. Following their wedding trip, Newman and Vipont traveled to California, where they planned to make their home.

            The USS Bennington was stationed in Honolulu in the spring of 1905. On July 21, 1905, the ship had a terrible boiler explosion while in San Diego harbor, with a final death toll of 62 people, some killed immediately and others dying later. Perry, serving as officer of the day, suffered horrible burns and lived only a few hours. He was found at the wheelhouse, terribly scalded but conscious, his flesh cooked to the bone in places. He resisted help of rescuers so they could help others. In severe pain and between groans of agony, he dictated a telegram to his wife,” Keep a stiff upper lip, little girl, I’m all right.”  Three hours later he died, meeting death bravely, according to those present. He was the only officer who lost his life in the disaster. Perry’s young wife was at sea, having left Honolulu on another ship after the Bennington had departed for California. She did not learn of his death until reaching San Francisco.

            Perry’s funeral service was held in San Diego, attended by family, and many navy and other military personnel as well as community officials. The body, accompanied by Perry’s wife, her sister and her mother, was then brought back to Stockbridge for burial. There was a military burial, led by detachments from the Massachusetts area. The grave is in the Doane family plot in Stockbridge town cemetery. The fitting and beautiful headstone has sculpted sea waves and an anchor and it bears the inscription: “and we retain the memory of a man unspoiled, sweet, generous and humane.”

Newman K. Perry’s widow Vipont lived until 1965, after 2 more marriages, the last to Edward Merwin. Her family home, Merwin House, is now owned by the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities and is on West Main St. in Stockbridge, almost across from the town cemetery where Perry is buried.

The family of Newman K. Perry has other naval connections. His maternal grandfather, Robert Pringle Mayrant, was a midshipman in the US Navy in 1828. He served on the USS Guierrier and was a shipmate and personal friend of  David Farragut, later an admiral.  Another relative, John Mayrant, was an aide to John Paul Jones and served on the Bon Homme Richard in its engagement with the Serapis. There were two 20th Century navy ships named for him: USS Mayrant DD-31 and USS Mayrant DD-402.

In March 1945, the destroyer USS Newman K. Perry DD-883 was christened by Perry’s sister, Laura P. Gunter. His Academy classmates had asked to have a ship named for him. One of his classmates, Rufus S. Manley, attended the christening and another classmate, Adm. Ernest J. King , sent a letter of congratulations.