Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Honouring a Forgotten Canadian Naval Medal of Honor Recipient

Royal Canadian Navy Press Release

More than 130 years after his death, a long-forgotten naval hero has finally received a well-deserved tribute by Canadian and U.S. military leaders in a ceremony in the historic cemetery at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C.

The bravery of Captain-of-the-Hold Joseph Benjamin Noil, an African-Canadian who served in the United States Navy (USN) and who received the Congressional Medal of Honor for saving a shipmate from drowning in 1872, was largely forgotten for more than 130 years. In 2011, members of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States, working with the Congressional Medal of Honor Society, discovered the grave upon which his name had been misspelled, and his Medal of Honor status omitted.

As a result of their research, Noil was honoured in the U.S. capital on April 29, 2016, by Rear-Admiral William Truelove, Commander of the Canadian Defence Liaison Staff (Washington)/Canadian Defence Attaché, as well as by representatives of the Canadian Embassy, the District of Columbia, members of the U.S. Coast Guard, Navy, Army, Marines, National Guard and veterans. A Medal of Honor headstone was unveiled to appropriately mark his final resting place. 

Sentries stand by as Joseph Noil’s Medal of Honor headstone is set to be unveiled
Sentries stand by as Joseph Noil’s Medal of Honor headstone is set to be unveiled during a ceremony at Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital cemetery in Washington.
Noil, born between 1839 and 1841 in what would become Liverpool, N.S., enlisted in the USN in New York in 1862. On the morning of December 26, 1872, he was a seaman in United States Ship (USS) Powhattan when, during a sleeting northwest gale, the ship’s boatswain fell overboard. According to the ship’s captain, Seaman Noil dove overboard to rescue his fellow shipmate, who “would have perished but for the noble conduct of Noil, as he was sinking at the time he was rescued.” For his bravery, Noil received the Medal of Honor, one of only 108 Canadians and the only black Canadian known to have received this honour.

“How fitting it is, that I, another proud son of Liverpool, have the privilege of eulogizing Captain-of-the-Hold Noil, ensuring that his act of bravery is rightly recognized,” said RAdm Truelove.

“I can say that the people of Liverpool are profoundly honoured to know that one of their own was bestowed with the Medal of Honor of which, to date, there have been only 3,514 recipients,” continued RAdm Truelove. “With thanks to the work of the Medal of Honor Historical Society of the United States, we begin a new chapter wherein future generations will be able to bear witness to Joseph Noil’s bravery and our common recognition of it. In Canada, we pride ourselves in remembering our fallen. Captain-of-the-Hold Joseph Benjamin Noil was indeed Canadian and we see him as our hero too.”

Following his heroic actions as a member of USS Powhattan, Noil continued to rise to the rank of Captain-of-the-Hold and served in the USN with distinction, including during the American Civil War. He was admitted to the Naval Hospital in Norfolk, Va., in 1881. The diagnosis was “paralysis.” His mind and body were failing him. The hospital noted that he had been in the service for 17 years and that the disease originated in the line of duty. He was soon transferred to the Government Hospital for the Insane (now Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital), where he died on March 21, 1882.

He was buried in the hospital graveyard, but his headstone did not include his status as a Medal of Honor recipient. Additionally, his death certificate misspelled his name as “Noel”, which is what was engraved on his headstone. Joseph Benjamin Noil, hero, was lost to history, until now.

When Saint Elizabeth’s Hospital opened in 1855, it was called the Government Hospital for the Insane of the Army, the Navy and the District of Columbia. Its 5,000-grave cemetery is the final resting place for more than 2,000 servicemen who served in conflicts ranging from the War of 1812 to World War One, and who suffered from what we now call post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.