After a month of sickness and starvation, and a final disaster in the surf, only one would be alive to tell of their marooned shipmates 1,200 miles away.
Last week, almost 150 years after the tragedy, Navy curator Jeffrey Bowdoin walked across the floor of a cavernous warehouse here and pointed out what looked like a patched-up, oversize rowboat.
Look at the hatch, he said. There, on the wooden framing, were the five names.
The simple vessel, which led to the rescue of the crew of the USS Saginaw, is one of thousands of artifacts that have been gathered here as the Navy plans for its new flagship museum in Washington.
Ships bells, submarine periscopes, cruise missiles and huge Civil War guns are among them.
Giant anchors, Iraqi missiles downed in combat, a World War I German deck gun and the hatch from a decommissioned nuclear submarine.
Japanese suicide torpedoes, a 1938 fire engine from the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard and a fiberglass lion that was the mascot for a fighter squadron.
Like the Saginaw rescue boat, many have stories.
“This is the material culture of the Navy,” said Jay Thomas, assistant director for collection management at the Naval History and Heritage Command in Washington.
“But the thing that makes the objects evocative is the stories behind the objects and the people behind the objects,” he said in an interview last week.
“The objects … reflect 220 years of sailors and where they’ve been and what they’ve done,” Thomas said, “not just battles, and not just the big things, but also what it was like to be a sailor, living in small quarters and visiting places on the other side of the world.”
The Navy is conducting an inventory of its entire artifact collection, “which has never been done,” said Bowdoin, head curator with the heritage command.
Last month, the service announced plans for a new $450 million national museum, most likely near the Navy Yard in Southeast Washington.
And the inventory “will certainly funnel into any … request for artifacts for a new national museum,” Bowdoin said. “Absolutely.”
Said Navy conservation chief David Krop, “This is one place to get some shopping done.”
One likely prospect for the new museum, experts here said, is the Saginaw’s rescue boat. “I hope there’s room for it,” Bowdoin said.
The USS Saginaw was a small Navy steamer with sails and two side paddle wheels. In 1870, it had been at the desolate Midway Island helping to deepen the harbor channel for possible use as a coaling station, according to an account by the ship’s paymaster, George H. Read.
With the work finished, the ship left for San Francisco on Oct. 29. But the captain, Montgomery Sicard, wanted to survey the treacherous reefs around the uninhabited Kure Atoll, then known as Ocean Island, about 60 miles west.
An American ship had wrecked there in 1842 and a British ship in 1837. Sicard, to enhance future navigation, wanted a better idea of where the danger was. He quickly found it.
As the Saginaw crept toward the atoll about 3 a.m. Oct. 29, it became impaled on the unseen reef, and the sea began pounding it into wreckage, Read wrote.
The 93-man crew escaped to the island with much of the ship’s equipment. But they soon realized that someone would have to go for help, or their chances of survival were slim.
The “captains gig,” a large open boat, was fitted with masts and salvaged sails. Its sides were raised. A deck was fabricated. Metal straps were installed to brace the bow.
Five fit men, including Talbot, a Naval Academy graduate, were picked from among many volunteers, Read recounted.
On Nov. 18, 1870, the boat was loaded with provisions. Talbot gave Read his will. Read gave Talbot $200 in gold coins “for possible expenses.”
About 4 p.m. the boat was launched, bound for Honolulu. “With full hearts and many in tears, we gave them three rousing cheers,” Read wrote. “We watched them until the boat faded from sight on the horizon to the northward.”
The voyage was arduous. “We suffered much from wet, cold and want of food,” Halford, the only survivor, wrote later. Men got dysentery. Food was spoiled. Francis fell overboard but was saved by a fishing line.
“Muir and Andrews were sick for two or three weeks,” he wrote, Muir eventually suffering from delirium.
On Dec. 19, the boat was off the island of Kauai, northwest of the island of Oahu and Honolulu.
Attempting to come ashore on the north side of the island, the boat was caught in heavy surf, capsized and began tumbling in the waves.
Andrews and Francis were swept away and drowned. Talbot clung to the boat but was also swept off and perished. “He was heavily clothed and much exhausted,” Halford recounted. “He made no cry.”
Halford helped Muir to the beach. But Muir died there. Halford was aided by local residents and later received the Medal of Honor. And a ship was sent to save the Saginaw’s crew.
The boat was preserved, displayed at the Naval Academy for over 50 years, and then transferred to the artifact collection. At one point it was stored outside, upside down, Bowdoin said.
It sat last week in a special cradle among an estimated 300,000 other items housed in the 300,000 square feet of Navy storage space in Building 54 at the sprawling Defense Supply Center.
The site is so big that bicycles are used to get around inside.
“Until five years ago, we literally had stuff all over the place,” Thomas said, in some spots that were “small and depressing and sad. … So we consolidated everything [here] … and created a conservation branch.”
The storage “bays” are filled with items, on metal shelves, on floor stands.
A big gun from the battleship USS Maine, which blew up in Havana harbor in 1898, helping to spark the Spanish-American War, stands not far from the two cast-iron cannons of the USS Kearsarge, which sank the Confederate warship Alabama off the coast of France in 1864.
In another room sits the “Liberty” clock from the doomed USS Indianapolis, discovered at a garage sale in Hawaii the 1960s.
The bronze-colored metal clock face was a fixture on the ship and set up to tell sailors what time to be back from “liberty.”
In July 1945, the Indianapolis had just delivered parts for the Hiroshima atomic bomb to Tinian Island when it was torpedoed at sea and sunk by a Japanese submarine.
Hundreds of sailors went down with the ship, and hundreds more died in the water, many eaten by sharks.
So how did the clock survive? Why didn’t it go to the bottom?
“The only reason it is here is because someone removed it from the ship,” Thomas said. “How did that happen? … There’s a great sea story there that we’ll never know.”