Tuesday, February 1, 2011

James Nicholas Ryan - A FollowUp

Last April, I wrote a post on James Nicolas Ryan, the first-born child of James Hugh and Rose Ryan. In that post I mentioned that I was going to send away for James service record from the National Archives to clear up some "myths" about Jim.  Jim (as he was known) died at the age of 22 aboard the USS Virginia while it was docked in the Boston Harbor.  Cause of death -- diphtheria.

Jim Ryan is sitting on the right of the anchor.
The stories about Jim had become quite grandiose over the years.  I referred to him as "St. James." With each telling of the story, Jim became more and more heroic. His stature increased, he advanced quickly through the ranks, and they even named a building after him in Washington, D.C.  The most consistent story is similar to one that Pat Biederman, a niece of Jim, sent me in an email:
While the fleet was on their voyage a piece broke on the ship and Jim said if they could get a fire hot enough to melt brass he could fashion the piece.  He made the piece that was needed.  He is listed in the National Archives in Washington D.C. as inventing the first forge on the high seas.
I just had to separate the fact from the fiction. A couple of months ago, I sent for Jim's record from the National Archives.  The record was much more comprehensive than I had anticipated.  We had always known that Jim "lied" about his age when he joined the navy at age 18.  He gave his age as 21.  This eventually resulted in his Death Certificate incorrectly listing his age at the time of death as 25 when he was only 22.  (The Navy did identify the discrepancy in reports following his death and attributed the discrepancy to an incorrect age at the time of enlistment).  Jim was the oldest of nine children and I'm sure it was to his advantage to move out as soon as possible.  Pictured is part of his enlistment record.  I especially like seeing his signature and knowing once and for all how he spelled "Nicholas".  I'm going to have to update some records.

Note the description of his physical characteristics:  Age - 21 years 2 months (not true), Height - 5 ' 8 3/8", Weight - 156 pounds, Eyes - hazel, Hair - dark brown, Complexion - ruddy and Personal characteristics, marks, etc. - scar over each eye, r. knee, r. ring finger, tip r. index, wart inside l. hand.  In a separate document, his occupation at the time of enlistment is listed as "moulder" and later reports include a tattoo of the head of a sailor on his left arm.

Of interest to me was the inclusion in the record of a "report card" documenting Jim's competence on the job, changes in rank, commendations and punishments.  Hopefully, the reader will be able to click on the documents below and enlarge them.

If you review the documents, clear patterns emerge.  Jim was generally "proficient" as a sailor averaging a "4" on a 5-point scale.  You could also conclude that he was "sober".  His "mechanical ability" and competence with "marine equipment"  improved over time from a rating of "1" to a rating of "4". 

On the other hand, it seems as if Jim occasionally struggled with authority. Almost immediately after enlisting, Jim was found guilty of "leaving his station without permission,"  an offense that merited him five days of solitary confinement. For the next nine months, Jim "kept his nose clean," but then he overstayed his leave by three hours and was bumped back a class. Over the next year and a half, Jim frequently overstayed his leave and was given extra duty, reduced a class or docked pay.  He was caught "smoking out of hours" and found guilty of "using indecent language when told to get in uniform."  This latter offense earned him another day of solitary confinement.

1910 was a good year.  Jim was promoted to "Fireman - 2nd Class" and then "Fireman - 1st Class" six months later.  Almost immediately he was reclassified as a "Blacksmith (foundryman)" probably following his ability (so often referenced in the oral history) to fix a critical piece of the ship based on his experience as a "moulder,"  This was the rank he held at the time of his death in May, 1911.  Listed below is a summary of Jim's ranks during his time in the Navy.

Luckily for us, we have more than Jim's Navy records.  In the next posts, I will post some of Jim's personal notes that are a part of Matt Biederman's collection.

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