10 Incredible Ways People Faced Up To Their Own Death

9. William Lewis Herndon (1857)... The Captain Who Saved 152 Women And Children Before Insisting On Going Down With His Own Ship

William Lewis Herndon
Wikimedia Commons

"The captain goes down with his ship" - that is a Navy officer's motto, and one which has been about since 1852 and the sinking of HMS Birkenhead. Commander William Lewis Herndon epitomises that motto.

While he was commanding the SS Central America in September 1857, a three-day hurricane struck the commercial ship off the coast of North Carolina. During the fierce storm, the ship lost power but Herndon did not panic - instead he calmly arranged for 152 women and children to be rescued.

The ship was carrying 15 tons of gold and 575 passengers in all and was sinking fast due to the fact water was bursting through several holes in the hull. Recognising the ship was doomed, Herndon helped 152 women and children into lifeboats and on to the West Indian brig Marine - even giving his watch to one survivor, asking her to send it on to his wife as he would not leave the ship unless everyone else got off.

Unfortunately 423 people died in all, and witness accounts claim Herndon stood by the wheelhouse in full naval uniform with his hand on the rail, hat in the other, with his head bowed in prayer as the ship lurched forward and into the water.

So inspiring were Herndon's actions that towns in Virginia and Pennsylvania have been named after him, while two American ships are now called USS Herndon. Also, his brothers erected the Herndon Monument in his honour at the US Naval Academy.

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Tom Hanks
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NUFC editor for WhatCulture.com/NUFC. History graduate (University of Edinburgh) and NCTJ-trained journalist. I love sports, hopelessly following Newcastle United and Newcastle Falcons. My pastimes include watching and attending sports matches religiously, reading spy books and sampling ales.