MONMOUTH, Ill .— When the pop group Looking Glass wrote in the 1972 hit, “Brandy,” that “my life, my lover, my lady is the sea,” they could have been describing Monmouth native Walton Roswell Sexton.
The story seems improbable — a young man from the cornfields of Illinois enrolls in the Naval Academy at age 16 and spends virtually his entire life traveling the world as a bachelor sailor, eventually retiring as a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy. But that is the true story of a man who commanded destroyer squadrons and held senior positions in both Washington and London, yet always proudly listed Monmouth, Ill., as his hometown.
Born Sept. 13, 1876, Roswell was the son of Warren County clerk William H. Sexton, a prominent Republican who held that position for 33 years, having first worked his way up from grocery clerk to city clerk. The elder Sexton also had a military background — he was a first lieutenant who served as quartermaster for the 83rd Illinois regiment during the Civil War. The family home was at 315 South Second St.
Roswell had one sibling — an older sister, Theodora, who would die in 1895, the same year she graduated from Monmouth College.
In early 1893, Republican Congressman Benjamin Marsh of Warsaw recommended Sexton as a candidate for the U.S. Naval Academy. The Warren County Democrat in April noted: “Walton R. Sexton left last week for Annapolis , Md., and is there now preparing for examination for admission to the naval academy. We regret to lose so worthy a young man but wish him every success.” In June, the Democrat reported that out of a class of more than 50, 25 cadets were selected, among them Sexton. He was currently on board the government ship Santee, being drilled in infantry and boat practice, swinging the hammock and climbing the rigging.
Upon his graduation from the academy in 1897, Sexton was assigned to the Monadnock and then to the Charleston, operating in the Pacific. During the Philippine Insurrection, which began in 1898, he served on the Princeton, the Quiros, the Culgoa, the General Alava and the Isle de Luzon.
In January 1904, the Warren County Democrat told of a letter received by William Sexton from his son, who was a lieutenant aboard the torpedo boat destroyer, Dale. The ship was part of a flotilla that had traveled more than 18,000 miles, from Newport, R.I., to the Philippines, to be present in the event of war between Russia and Japan. He was soon named commanding officer of the Bainbridge, followed by the Vesuvius and the Maine. He then served as senior engineering officer of the USS Louisiana until May 1909.
In February 1909, Sexton’s parents traveled to visit him at Hampton Roads, Va., where the Louisiana had just returned with a fleet from a record-breaking trip around the world. His mother, Marian, described their visit on board the Louisiana: “A big battle ship never fails to interest, even after pacing the great decks, looking into the engine rooms with its ten engines, viewing the guns of different caliber and all the intricate, smaller mechanisms which makes the great ship a thing of life. A woman’s interest was held by the automatic dish washer, parers and great ovens, pantries and store rooms, which make for the serving of nearly a thousand men, three times a day. The silver service on the Louisiana is the largest in the entire fleet and occupies an entire side of one room.”
Sexton served in the Bureau of Navigation in the Navy Department from 1909 until 1912, when he was assigned as an aide to Rear Adm. Hugo Osterhaus, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, and later that year became flag secretary to the admiral, who was succeeded by Adm. Charles J. Badger.
Promoted to the rank of lieutenant commander, Sexton served as navigator of the North Dakota and commander of the Tallahassee until 1915, when he entered the Naval War College. In 1916, he was given general duty with the Board of the Navy and the following year in the office of the Chief of Naval Operations.
Although he was only able to visit Monmouth occasionally, Sexton didn’t forget his hometown. In 1916, he presented the Warren County Library with 200 valuable volumes from the library of his late father, who had served for many years as treasurer of the Library Association.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, Sexton was assigned to the Cruiser and Transport Force, following which he was assigned as an aide to Vice Adm. William S. Sims, commander of U.S. Naval forces operating in European waters. For that service he was awarded the Navy Cross for Distinguished Service.
Following the war, Sexton was appointed naval attaché at the American Embassy in London and served as senior member of the Anglo-American Arbitration Board. In 1920–1921 he was commanding officer of the USS Frederick, then commanded Mine Squadron Two of the Pacific Fleet. From 1922–1925 he served in Washington, D.C., in the Office of Naval Operations and then as assistant to the Navy Budget Officer.
From 1925–1927, Sexton commanded the USS Utah, and subsequently served for two years in the Office of Naval Operations, before being promoted to rear admiral and assuming command of the Destroyer Squadrons, Scouting Force. In 1931, he was appointed assistant to the Chief of Naval Operations.
Sexton was temporarily promoted to vice admiral in 1933, assuming command of Battleship Division One. An article in the Seattle Times described him thus: “The bachelor-admiral, tall, sparsely built, with thinning gray hair and a trim gray mustache, has the face and hands of an intellectual. It’s a strong face, with rather piercing but kindly eyes…” The following year, he became a member of the General Board, serving for three years. From June 1937 until June 1939, he served as Commander, Destroyers, Battle Force, U.S. Fleet.
Although he reached retirement age in 1940, Sexton obtained permission to remain in active service because of growing emergency in Europe and Asia. On Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7, 1941, he was named Chairman of the General Board, serving in that post until August 1942. On Dec. 13, he was among top ranking foreign policy and military advisers summoned to the White House by President Roosevelt.
On Sept. 9, 1943, Sexton — retired for just one year — died at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, Md. He had served the Navy for nearly 50 of his 67 years. Burial was in Arlington National Cemetery.
Jeff Rankin is an editor and historian for Monmouth College. He has been researching, writing and speaking about western Illinois history for more than 35 years.