He was born in Kirkcudbright, Scotland, the son of a Scottish gardener. At the age of 12 he entered the British merchant marine and went to sea for the first time, as a cabin boy. In 1773, as the commander of a merchant vessel, he killed a mutinous crewman at Tobago in the West Indies and, rather than stay in prison and wait for trial, he fled to North America. At the outbreak of war between the 13 American Colonies and the Kingdom of Great Britain in 1775, John Paul Jones went to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and, with the help of two friendly members of the Continental Congress, obtained a Lieutenant's commission in the Continental Navy.
He soon made a reputation, he was considered a murderer, a pirate, a war criminal by the British and considered a poor captain and 'braggart' (a self promoting liar) by his own superiors.
In 1777 he took command of the sloop Ranger. Sailing to France in 1778, Jones received from the French the first salute given to the new American flag by a foreign warship. During the spring he terrorized the coastal population of Scotland and England by making daring raids ashore and destroying many British vessels.
In 1779 Captain Jones took command of the USS Bonhomme Richard, a merchant ship rebuilt and gifted to America by French shipping magnate, Jacques-Donatien Le Ray. On September 23 of that year, the five ship squadron included the 42 gun Bonhomme Richard, 32 gun PALLAS, 32 gun Alliance, 12 Gun Vengeance and the CERF engaged a merchant convoy off the coast of Flamborough Head East Yorkshire on 23 September 1779. The 28 gun British frigate HMS Serapis and the 22 gun Countess of Scarborough counter engaged scattered the attacking squadron allowing the merchants to disengage and attempt escape. The Vengeance and CERF unsuccessfully pursued the convoy which ultimately escaped.
The Bonhomme Richard, Pallas and Alliance engaged the British warships. The 28 gun Serapis engaged the larger 42 gun Bonhomme Richard. The 32 gun Alliance counter-engaged the Serapis. 6) The Serapis twice raked the Bonhomme Richard with broadsides which cut its mainmast and holed her below the waterline taking individual hits in return. John Jones struck Bonhomme Richard colours and surrendered.
Meanwhile the 22 gun Countess of Scarborough engaged the 40 gun Pallas and was eventually captured both ships taking extensive damage.
Once John Jones had struck the Bonhomme Richard colours, a sign of surrender, the Serapis came along side to capture Bonhomme Richard and take on survivors. Once the Serapis was along side, John Jones broken truce and used his larger crew to attack and capture the Serapis crew, a war crime. Once captured he locked the Serapis crew into the hold of the sinking Bonhomme Richard and deserted them to die.
The Serapis is usually reported in US sources has being a 44-gun ship, however this disagrees with British naval records which record 28 guns, the likely cause of this discrepancy is that John Jones transferred a number of guns from the sinking Bonhomme Richard to the Serapis.
This may seem like one sided battle with matching 50 guns on British ships against 106 on the US ships. However the British crews where veterans and veterans British crew could out shoot contempary French & US Crews by two or three to one. In reality the battle lines where about even, perhaps even slight favouring the British ships.
In 1792 Jones was appointed U.S. Consul to Algiers, but on July 18 he died before the commission arrived. He was buried in Paris, France, but in 1905 his remains were removed from his long-forgotton grave and brought to the United States where, in 1913, he was interred in the Chapel of the United States Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland.
See also US Navy