Looking Back: Robert Earl Bonney — A local hero, veteran and Medal of Honor winner

Robert Earl Bonney

What did former Edmonds and Alderwood Manor resident Robert Earl Bonney, and famed aviator Charles Lindbergh have in common? The answer: They were both awarded this country’s Medal of Honor for their heroic actions during peacetime. Chief Watertender Robert Earl Bonney, U.S. Navy, was honored for extraordinary heroism in saving the life of another crewman while serving on a naval ship in 1910. Brig. General Charles Lindbergh, U.S. Air Force, received his medal for risking his life while flying alone from New York City to Paris, France in 1927—the first solo non-stop flight across the Atlantic Ocean.

The names of Robert Bonney and Charles Lindbergh are listed in company with an elite group of military men — only 193 of these peacetime medals for bravery were ever awarded.

The Medal of Honor was created during the American Civil War and is the highest military decoration presented by the United States government to a member of the armed forces.  Before WWI, the Medal of Honor could also be awarded for actions not involving direct combat with an enemy.  Only 193 men received the medal in that fashion.  Most of these peacetime medals were awarded to members of the U.S. Navy for their acts of bravery during boiler explosions, man-overboard incidents and other hazards of naval service.  A peacetime Medal of Honor has not been awarded since 1939.

Robert Bonney’s peacetime Medal of Honor was awarded to him by President William Howard Taft on March 23, 1910, for his heroic action during the preceding month. His valor while a member of the United States Navy is memorialized on a plaque located at the base of the United States flag display located on the north plaza of the Snohomish County Courthouse in Everett.

Robert Bonney served as Chief Watertender aboard the USS Hopkins (DD-6), a 408-ton, 248-foot, 8-inch, destroyer, home based at Mare Island, California. Launched in 1902, in June of 1908, the Hopkins joined the Pacific Torpedo Fleet for tactics along the West Coast, consisting of at-sea training north to Alaskan waters and south to the coast of Mexico. That same year, as part of the U.S. Navy’s Great White Fleet public relations tour, the Hopkins also visited Puget Sound, sailing close to the waterfront of Edmonds as it made its way to Seattle.

On Feb. 14, 1910 the Hopkins was at sea off the coast of California when there was an explosion in the boiler room. Nearby, Chief Bonney heard the explosion and rushed to the scene.

The explosion was caused when a boiler plate was blown out. As flames and steam filled the ship’s boiler room, Robert Bonney crawled under the steam to rescue a sailor he discovered lying unconscious on the floor. After pulling the injured man to safety, and in spite of the danger, Chief Bonney then returned to the boiler room to start the port blower in order to clear the room of the burning steam — thereby averting further injuries to any other crewman or damage to the ship. His commanding officer recommended that Robert Bonney receive the Medal of Honor, and it was presented to him a month later. The citation read: “He displayed extraordinary heroism in the line of his profession on the occasion of an accident to one of the boilers on the vessel.”

However, Chief Bonney’s act of courage, was not without personal injury. The boiling hot steam caused severe damage to his vocal cords, and he never completely recovered. He suffered throat trouble for the remainder of his life.

Robert Earl Bonney was a native of Tennessee, having been born in Maryville, Blount County, Tennessee on Nov. 23, 1882. In 1900, he was living in Delaware Township, Leavenworth County, Kansas, on the farm of his parents, George and Agnes Bonney.  His father, George West Bonney was a veteran of the Civil War, having served in Georgia under Union General William Tecumseh Sherman during the epic march from “Atlanta to the Sea.”

In 1901 in Leavenworth, Kansas, Robert Earl Bonney enlisted in the U.S. Navy. He was 18 years old.

During his long naval career, Robert Bonney served during the Philippine campaign of the Spanish American War, and during both World War I and World War II. In addition to the award of the Medal of Honor, he was received medals in 1912 for his service in Nicaragua and during the Mexican campaign from 1912 to 1917.

Still in the Navy during World War I, he was promoted to the rank of Chief Warrant Officer, and trained naval recruits in Seattle. In 1919, he was transferred to San Pedro, Calif. for sea duty aboard the destroyer USS Lea (DD-118). The ship had been in service on the East Coast during the war, and had just joined the Pacific Coast fleet. In 1920, Chief Warrant Officer Bonney had some medical issues and was transferred to the U.S. Naval Hospital at Balboa Park, San Diego County. It was a short stay, and he soon returned to duty on the Lea, where he remained until just before the ship was decommissioned in 1922.

Chief Bonney was again transferred to the Seattle area, where he remained. After his transfer to Seattle, Robert Bonney, his wife Elizabeth and son Robert Stewart Bonney made their home in Alderwood Manor in the Martha Lake area.

Robert Bonney retired from naval duty in 1930 with the rank of Chief Warrant Officer. As a civilian, he was employed by Edmonds School District #15, and served as a custodian at the Alderwood Manor Grade School — a position he held until the outbreak of yet another war — WWII. At this time, he and his wife were residents of the Meadowdale area, having moved there in 1939.

With the outbreak of World War II, Chief Warrant Officer Bonney, now in his late 50s, once again returned to active duty with the Navy and served as an inspector at the Seattle naval shipyards. Following World War II, he retired from naval service with the rank of Lieutenant.

Robert Bonney’s wife, Elizabeth, died at the Bremerton Naval Hospital in 1949. When he had met his future wife, Elizabeth Isabell McKnight, she was a nurse in Seattle and they married in 1914.

Robert Earl Bonney was a member of Alderwood Manor’s Robert Burns Lodge No. 243, F&AM of Washington, and later transferred to F&AM Lodge 65 of Edmonds. He remained a member of the Masonic Order throughout his lifetime.  He also held memberships in the Knight Templars of Everett; the American Legion; and the Fleet Reserve Association, Branch No. 18, Seattle.

Nationally, Mr. Bonney made three official trips to Washington, D.C.  In January of 1957, he received an invitation, and attended the second inauguration of President Dwight Eisenhower. The following year, at the request of President Eisenhower, Mr. Bonney placed a wreath at the tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washington, D.C.  In November of 1963, at the invitation of the family of slain president John F. Kennedy, he attended the funeral services for President Kennedy.

In Tennessee, Robert Earl Bonney’s birth state, another honor was given to him. One of the three southern entrances to the Naval Air Force Base at Millington, Tenn., was given the name Bonney Gate, in his honor. The former Naval Air Force Base, located near Memphis, is now a Naval Support Facility — the entrance to the facility still carries his name.

Some may remember that for several years, Mr. Bonney rode in the lead car during the annual Fourth of July parade in Edmonds.

At the Edmonds High School on Memorial Day of 1966, Robert Bonney, now in a wheelchair and living in a local nursing home, was given special honors during the services. As he entered the school’s gymnasium in his wheelchair, accompanied by a special U.S. Navy honor guard, everyone in attendance rose to their feet to show their respect. With him was his second wife, also in a wheelchair. Although, weak and frail with age, supported by a cane, Robert Bonney stood at attention during the playing of the National Anthem, and also the “Changing of the Guard” ceremony.

While staying with friends in Mountlake Terrace, Robert Earl Bonney died on Nov. 22, 1967, one day before his 85th birthday.  During his funeral services, he was accorded full military honors by the U.S. Navy. He is buried at Acacia Memorial Park in Seattle, next to his first wife, Elizabeth Bonney, and also his second wife, Floyd Ellen Bonney, who died in 1966.

In July of 2017 during the “Walk Back in Time” program held annually at the Edmonds Memorial Cemetery, board members spotlighted Spanish American War veterans, and during the ceremony, special honors were paid to hometown hero Robert Earl Bonney.

Robert Earl Bonney and his first wife had only one child — a son, Robert Stewart Bonney, who was born in 1917. He attended Alderwood Manor Grade School and graduated from Edmonds High School in 1935. In 1940, he married June Claire Koch, an Edmonds girl. Robert Stewart Bonney and his wife June resided in Port Townsend, Wash., and later in Oregon, where he died in 1989 in Springfield. His wife June died in 2004, also in Springfield, Ore.

— By Betty Lou Gaeng

Betty Gaeng is a former long-time resident of Lynnwood and Edmonds, coming to the area in 1933. Although now living in Anchorage, she occasionally writes about the history and the people of both early-day Lynnwood and Edmonds.


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