A hometown sailor who made the ultimate sacrifice receives his due.
Peoria has long been known as a patriotic area, even before Illinois became a state on December 3, 1818. As a local historian, I have written a lot about the brave men and women who answered the call to duty—not only in the armed forces, but in our local police and sheriff’s departments as well. We have a lot to be proud of, especially when it comes to serving in the United States military.
Initially, I wrote about the local men who had given their lives in the service of their country. I counted 1,514 of them who made the ultimate sacrifice; I can only hope that number is accurate. However, I missed one who served in the U.S. Navy during the Spanish-American War, and I would like to tell you about him.
Off to See the World
That is exactly what George Henry Ellis did when he was 17 years old. George was born here in Peoria, Illinois, on October 26, 1875, and joined the Navy as a teenager. Eventually he rose to the rank of Chief Yeoman, serving on board most of America’s warships as they steamed around the world.
It was July of 1898 and Yeoman Ellis found himself on board the USS Brooklyn—the U.S. flagship anchored outside the Santiago de Cuba harbor as part of the fleet that blockaded the Spanish Navy. America had declared war on Spain on April 21st, and a land and sea war erupted. It was boring duty as the days slipped by, staring at the Spanish ships anchored safely inside the calm harbor. But on July 3rd, the enemy ships came alive and all hell broke loose.
As American ships began to chase the fleeing enemy, the USS Brooklyn singled out the lead ship and raced after it. George Ellis took up his battle station on the deck of the Brooklyn, a watch in one hand and a stadimeter, an optical range-finding device, in the other. It was the most perilous position he could possibly have taken as the bullets and shells filled the air.
His job was to estimate the distance of his ship from the enemy and call out the range to the gunnery captain. The rest of the American ships chased down the enemy and decimated the entire fleet. On one of several trips to his position, an enemy shell struck George, decapitating him.
Author Norman V. Kelly with the new plaque dedicated to Peoria’s own George Henry Ellis
The Navy Names a Hero
“Yeoman George H. Ellis returned to his battle station to continue verifying the ranges for the gunnery officer. He advanced only a few feet when he was struck in the face by a large shell. He fell immediately dead. At the time of his death he was performing his duty, finding the range of the enemy, under a most galling fire, in a most heroic manner. His record for qualifications and conduct during his entire service to the Navy is of a very high order and indicates he was a seaman of whom the United States Navy has every right to be proud.”
George Henry Ellis was the only sailor killed during the entire naval battle, although there were a few other injuries. He was temporarily buried at Camp M’Calla, Guantanamo, located in Cuba. On November 28, 1898, the U.S. Navy buried George Ellis with full military honors at Evergreen Cemetery in upper New York. Peoria’s mayor at the time, Lucas Butts, and a small contingent of sailors attended the funeral after an unsuccessful attempt to have the body of Peoria’s hero brought back to his hometown for burial.
The Navy honored Ellis with numerous awards and named a small destroyer after him. It was the USS Ellis, referred to in Navy jargon as DD-154. That ship served proudly all during World War II, carrying the name of Peorian George H. Ellis. I know of no other Peorian who has had that distinct honor.
Thanks to Peoria’s current mayor, the Peoria County Board and our Peoria County Clerk, George Ellis was honored with a plaque to be dedicated on Veterans Day, November 11, 2018, at the Peoria County Courthouse Square. I hope Peorians will come to the dedication and honor this local hero, along with all of the fallen heroes from Peoria.
By the way, America lost close to 3,000 of its brave sons in the Spanish-American War, which resulted in the freeing of Cuba and the ceding of Guam and Puerto Rico to America. It also allowed the United States to purchase the Philippine islands and proved that the USA was indeed a major world power. iBi
Norm Kelly is a Peoria historian and true crime writer. He can be reached at norman.kelly@ sbcglobal.net.