SAN DIEGO'S NAVAL DISASTER:

THE EXPLOSION OF THE BENNINGTON

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On July 21, 1905, the United States Navy suffered the worst peacetime disaster of its history up to that time with the explosion of the U. S. S. Bennington in San Diego harbor. San Diego, too, had not seen a calamity of such nature occur in all the years of her existence.

A small patrol gunboat of the Yorktown class, the Bennington carried 6 six-inch guns, 4 six-pounders, and 4 one-pounders, along with 197 officers and men. Her length reached 230 feet, the beam touched 36 feet, and the displacement totalled 1,730 tons.1 The construction of the white and buff vessel by N. F. Palmer, Jr., and Company of Chester, Pennsylvania cost $522,356.44 from 1889 to 1891.2

The Bennington served in the Atlantic and Mediterranean Squadrons for three years, transferring to the Pacific Squadron in 1894. Until 1898, the warship participated in the easy activity of "showing the flag" in foreign ports. After the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, the Bennington patrolled in the eastern Pacific, and later sailed for the Philippine Islands. Enroute to the archipelago, the Bennington stopped at Wake Island on January 17, 1899 to claim the atoll for the United States. Until 1901, she sailed the coastal waters of the Philippines to assist in the suppression of the Filipino Insurrection.3

Upon her return to the United States, the Bennington entered the Mare Island Navy Yard at San Francisco for an eighteen month long overhaul. Recommissioned on March 2, 1903, she sailed along the Pacific coasts of North and South America and also voyaged to Hawaii.4 For the twelve-year-old Bennington, such duty would likely be her last, as the boilers that once drove her at over seventeen knots now labored to produce twelve.

On July 21, 1905, the Bennington, a frequent visitor to San Diego since 1897, lay in the bay under a slightly overcast sky. The afternoon before, orders had arrived delegating the gunboat to escort the broken down monitor Wyoming to Port Harford.5 The sailors on board the Bennington went about their business, scrubbing down the ship which had been blackened by the delivery of almost 300 tons of coal the previous day. The crew had to be disappointed on this Friday morning, for on July 19, the Bennington had completed a rough voyage from Honolulu, and weekend liberty in "Dago" always proved enjoyable.6

Preparations to sail reached completion by 10:38 a.m., and only the absence of Commander Lucien Young,7 the captain, delayed the departure. Without warning, two dull explosions echoed across the placid waters of San Diego Bay. A volcano of superheated steam erupted through the deck amidships. The little ship shuddered violently, and a cloud of steam enveloped her.8

Ensign Newman K. Perry,9 the officer of the deck, stood near the vortex and slumped against a bulkhead, parboiled, his uniform blasted from his body. Men flew about, tossed by the detonation. Second class boatswain's mate Lee K. Strobel recalled:

Still conscious, I realized that I was being carried toward the forward hatch, perhaps fifty feet from where Gauthier and I had been talking. I remembered that a metal ladder led through the only hatchway to the forecastle deck, eight feet above my head.10

Charles Garry Wheeler, in the chief petty officers' quarters, stated: "I could not imagine what had happened, but immediately the quarters were filled with scalding steam. It grew dark, too, because the steam was so thick."11

The explosion attracted the attention of San Diegans on shore. R. Beers Loos12 stood at the end of the Spreckels Wharf:

My attention was first attracted to the Bennington by the vessel testing her engines without hoisting her anchor. Shortly afterwards, there was a dull, rumbling roar like distant thunder, then clouds of steam enveloped her.13

Pandemonium broke loose; fear pervaded the decks of the Bennington. Men tore their uniforms off in fits of frenzy and dove overboard to escape the murderous steam. Some injured themselves in the jump; others drowned before help could arrive.14 Sailors screamed and moaned piteously on the upper decks, the steady hiss of steam in their ears. A few men below decks scrambled to ladders, but many bluejackets were trapped in the various compartments. Despite such destruction, the seafarers responded to the crisis in an admirable fashion. Rade Grbitch ran down the forward hatch immediately after the explosion and began rescue work. Grbitch called, "This way out! This way out!" A number of survivors later testified that this action saved their lives. In addition, Grbitch carried other men to safety and volunteered to go back into the boiler room to stop a leak.15

Ship's cook first class Frank E. Hill stood in the hatch leading from sick bay at the moment of disaster. Hill turned and went below to retrieve injured men from passageways and machine shops filled with steam. Part of the citation from Hill's Congressional Medal of Honor read, "He had been on the sick list for several days previously, and fainted on two occasions on gaining the deck with injured men, but continued the work."16

Hospital Steward William S. Shackiette ran to the berth deck and assisted the wounded. While engaged in this effort, the medic sustained a violent blow on the skull and lay for several minutes in scalding water. Although almost fatally burned, Shackiette resumed assistance of his shipmates and, at the hospital, refused treatment until all others had been cared for by physicians.17

Still more acts of heroism prevailed. In the after engine room, seven men stood watch when the explosion came. H. B. Nidever leaped into an adjacent storeroom to shield himself. At intervals, this courageous sailor opened the door of his haven long enough to drag three other men to safety. When the lethal cloak of steam dissipated, Nidever sought the upper decks, but paused again to carry an injured fireman to the rescuers.18

Steam did not provide the only danger to the ship and her men. Water poured into the starboard side of the stricken vessel as other craft in the harbor, even the Coronado ferry Ramona, rushed to the aid of the Bennington. Lifeboats and launches splashed into the water and began to pick up the sailors who had been driven overboard.19 The Spreckels tug Santa Fe, from the San Diego side of the bay, nosed alongside the gunboat to ground her. Chief boatswain's mate Lynn J. Gauthier, who had been safe from the steam in a gear locker, emerged, dashed below, and hacked the lashing which connected the Bennington to her anchor. The Bennington thus freed, the tug pushed her onto a mudbank. The warship had been saved from a final plunge, but the lungs of Gauthier had been fatally damaged.20

As if all of this carnage would not appease death, even more than a cloud of steam and the spectre of "Davey Jones" loomed over the Bennington. When the boiler burst, a tongue of flame shot through a bulkhead, a six-inch shell room, and licked at the door of a magazine which contained several tons of ammunition. Uninjured bluejackets halted "abandon ship" procedures and hove to under the direction of Lieutenant (junior grade) Alexander F. H. Yates,21 the senior officer on board. The young Annapolis graduate gave the order to flood the endangered areas and to secure all water-tight doors. Chief gunner's mate John J. Clausey won a Medal of Honor by hastening below and opening the valves to flood the magazine at a tremendous risk to his own life.22 The added water, though, served a dual purpose: the threat to the magazines abated, but the ship heeled further over to starboard. Eyewitness Loos again reported:

The officer in charge, whoever he is, by his coolness and prompt action won promotion, whether he ever attains it or not . . . Soon he could be seen mustering his men forward and detailing squads in different directions to prevent further catastrophes.23

Word of the calamity to his ship soon reached Commander Lucien Young. The whereabouts of the commanding officer at the time of the explosion has been the source of rumor and conjecture since July 21, 1905. Young later stated under oath: "I left the ship at nine o'clock to go on shore, to settle bills and head off a lot of sea stores I had ordered for another trip . . . and was on my way back to the ship when the explosion occurred."24

Bensel R. Smithe,25 an employee of the San Diego Sun, claimed Young spent considerable lengths of time in a saloon at the bottom of the "Lawyers' Block."26 Years later, Smithe wrote he saw Young dash from a bar and head for the waterfront, about one mile away, whereupon the reporter followed the officer to the foot of H (now Market) Street.27 At this time, the Sun building stood at 918 Fourth Avenue, within fifty feet of E Street. Smithe had easy vantage of seven different bars within one hundred feet of each other, from 910 Fourth Avenue to 965 Fourth Avenue, and could have seen Young under the circumstances.28

Regardless of his previous whereabouts, Young re-boarded the Bennington shortly after eleven.29 Steam still escaped from shattered pipes and a thick, greenish slime covered the decks. Although dead bodies littered the ship, shore help began to be effective in tending the wounded.

The meager hospital facilities of San Diego strained to accommodate the unprecedented flow of injured men. St. Joseph's Sanitarium and the Agnew Sanitarium soon filled to capacity, and the old Army Barracks had to be opened as an auxiliary hospital.30 The San Diego Union reported: "The rooms were crowded to such an extent that there were three, four, and five in a room, and the doctors had to find some means of relief."31 The Sun further described the scene: "Soon the floors of every room in the sanitarium were filled with the injured men. Some were placed on cots, others on blankets, and others were placed on the bare carpet."32

Men walked about naked with sheets of flesh clinging loosely to their bodies. Those individuals the doctors could not attend to dressed their wounds with generous amounts of vaseline and axle grease smeared onto their limbs.33 To alleviate the sufferings, the citizens of San Diego flooded the hospitals with pillows, blankets, literary materials, bedding, fruits, tobacco, and ice cream. Over one hundred women volunteered their services at the infirmaries.34

The entire community of San Diego felt the enormity of the tragedy. All scheduled events underwent cancellation or modification. The Friday evening concert became a memorial service, and churchmen announced the Bennington disaster would be the subject of Sunday sermons.35

The morticians of San Diego found themselves unprepared to deal with a deluge of some fifty corpses. By evening on July 22, the death toll had mounted to fifty-nine, with at least ten more injured men expected to succumb within two days.36 Large numbers of people flocked to the funeral homes to identify remains or to pay respects to the dead, but one undertaker complained, "They are nothing but curiosity mongers. The worst of it is that so many are women and young girls. They are not satisfied to see one body, but they want to see them all."37 Despite the overcrowded facilities, forty-seven bodies were prepared for burial on Sunday, July 23, in the Post Cemetery at Fort Rosecrans.

Flags all over San Diego flew at half-mast as rude wooden coffins filled flat wagons. The silent procession moved along the dirt road toward the Army installation, joined now and again by private carriages. Other San Diegans travelled the five miles across the bay to the shores of Point Loma and hiked up the steep cliffs.38

The carts creaked their way up the bay side of Point Loma, stopped at times due to the weight of the cargo. At three that afternoon, the desolate Post Cemetery, surrounded by a picket fence, opened its gates to receive the mourners. For one hour and fifteen minutes, survivors of the Bennington came forward in sixes to receive the coffins of their friends and to lay them in a long trench dug by a primitive steam shovel.39 A Protestant minister and a Roman Catholic priest40 read prayers over the caskets. At this time, Commander Young stepped forward and addressed the Army officers of Fort Rosecrans:

I want to commit to your tender care the bodies of our unfortunate shipmates and patriotic dead. May their graves never be forgotten by the hand of affection and may marble slabs rise upon this, their last earthly resting place, and may the morning and evening sun, playing upon the grassy mounds be symbolic of their shipmates' affection.41

Army riflemen fired three sharp volleys over the graves, a bugler sounded muffled "Taps," and the crowd filed away.42

In the next few days, more men died and went to rest in Fort Rosecrans. Many families wanted the bodies of their sons sent home, but the Navy claimed no such funds had been authorized. Only the well-to-do could afford such coast-to-coast expenses; the government paid only for burial at Fort Rosecrans.43 On July 28, however, the Union reported the government could and would pay for the shipment of bodies home:

The paymaster visited the various undertaking parlors yesterday, and said that funds were available for sending bodies to their former homes. Before the funeral [of July 23] it was stated that there were no such funds, but it has since been learned that after the Maine disaster, Congress passed a law for the transmission of the bodies of dead sailors to their homes.44

As a result, many of the coffins on Point Loma were disinterred and sent back to relatives for reburial.

On July 28, the city and the Navy paused again for the funeral of Ensign Newman K. Perry, the sole officer killed in the explosion. Downtown, St. Paul's Church overflowed with naval officers, federal officials, and representatives of city and state agencies. The men of the Bennington stood at rigid attention to honor Ensign Perry; nearby, Mrs. Perry leaned for support upon the arm of Commander Young and wept over her dead husband.45

By noon, the flag-draped coffin had been taken to the railroad depot for shipment to Massachusetts. The funeral of Ensign Perry was the last large service for the dead of the Bennington. Sixty-four other men had died with the young officer, and others would be mustered out of the service due to incapacity.46

The public, as well as the Navy, sought to know the causes of the explosion. A court of inquiry convened in August, 1905 to investigate the circumstances surrounding the disaster. After two weeks of testimony, the court found that boiler "B" exploded due to an error made by a fireman in the forward boiler room.47 Instead of closing an air cock, the sailor secured the valve which admitted steam to the pressure gauge. As a result, the steam pressure in the boiler did not register on the gauge; the firemen continued to build the fires and the boiler ultimately burst.48

Commander Young and the Chief Engineer of the Bennington, an inexperienced ensign,49 stood trial for neglect of duty. Both men received an acquittal when the court-martial board implied that the Navy erred in assigning a young officer to such complex duty.50 The Bennington herself never saw service in the U.S. Navy again; private interests purchased her hulk in 1910 and employed the ex-gunboat as a barge until the 1920's.51 The Navy and San Diego, though, did not forget the Bennington, and today a sixty-foot granite obelisk stands in Fort Rosecrans, a simple memorial to the men who died in San Diego's naval disaster.52

 


 

NOTES

1. Fred T. Jane, Jane's Fighting Ships. (London, Sampson Low Marston, c. 1906).

2. "History of Ships Named Bennington," unpublished document, Naval History Division, Ships' Histories Section, Department of the Navy, p. 1.

3. "History of Ships Named Bennington," p. 2.

4. "History of Ships Named Bennington," p. 2.

5. "Explosion on Gunboat Bennington," unpublished document, Naval History Division, Ships' Histories Section, Department of the Navy, one page.

6. Lee K. Strobel, "The Bennington Disaster," Proceedings of the United States Naval Institute, vol. 95, #794, April, 1969, no. 4, pp. 148-149.

7. Commander Lucien Young (1852-1912), born in Kentucky, entered the Naval Academy in 1869, graduated in 1873. Young went to sea as a midshipman on the U. S. S. Alaska; while on this ship, Young dove overboard to save a drowning seaman. Cited by the Secretary of the Navy for extraordinary heroism, Young received awards from the New York Benevolent and Life Saving Institution and the Massachusetts Humane Society. Four years later, on the Huron, Young swam several hundred yards to shore in a storm to secure a line so almost three dozen men could get off the wrecked warship. The officer received many more honors for this gallantry, as well as a promotion by a special act of Congress. As a lieutenant, Young served conspicuously in the Spanish-American War. In 1905, with five medals and five battle bars, Lucien Young stood as perhaps the most decorated officer in the Navy, with the possible exception of George Dewey. See also Lucien Young File, Biographical Files, Department of the Navy, two pages.

8. Strobel, "The Bennington Disaster," p. 150.

9. Ensign Newman K. Perry (1880-1905), a native of South Carolina, received his appointment as a naval cadet in 1897. Perry became an ensign on July 7, 1902 and joined the Bennington on March 9, 1903, serving as a watch and division officer until his death. See also San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 1.

10. Strobel, "The Bennington Disaster," p. 150.

11. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 3.

12. R. Beers Loos, manager of the Bijou Theatre, had decided to spend his morning at the docks and thus witnessed the event. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 5. 13. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 5.

14. First class gunners' mate J. H. Turpin had survived the explosion of the Maine in 1898 and lived again after the blast on the Bennington. Uninjured, Turpin dove overboard and swam to shore. San Diego Sun, July 23, 1905, section I, p. 1.

15. For this act, Grbitch received the Congressional Medal of Honor, as did ten of his shipmates for their heroism. General Order Number 13, Department of the Navy, issued by Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte, January 5, 1906, Washington, D. C., p. 2. Hereafter cited as General Order.

16. General Order, p. 3.

17. General Order, pp. 2-3.

18. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 3.

19. In 1961, Asa M. Bushnell claimed to have been rowing near the gunboat when she blew up. Bushnell and his friend retrieved several men from the water, including a black man Bushnell identified as J. H. Turpin. Turpin was a black, but stated he swam ashore unassisted. Bushnell, "There Came Upon Me A Day of Trouble," San Diego History Center Quarterly, October, 1961, Vol. 7, No. 4, pp. 45-49.

20. Strobel, "The Bennington Disaster," pp. 151-152.

21. Lieutenant (j.g.) Alexander F. H. Yates, born in Maine in 1879, energetically took charge as acting executive officer. Yates entered the Naval Academy in 1895, came to the Bennington in March, 1905, and served as a watch officer. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 1.

22. General Order, p. 1.

23. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 5.

24. Proceedings of a Court of Inquiry, convened at San Diego, Ca., p. 23, August 2, 1905. Records of the Judge Advocate-General, Department of the Navy. Hereafter cited as Court of lnquiry.

25. At this time, Smithe worked as an editor on the Sun. San Diego Union, July 21, 1972, p. B-6.

26. The "Lawyers' Block" stood on the northeast corner of Fourth and E Streets. San Diego Union, May 6, 1900, section I, p. 7.

27. Smithe claimed he met Young at the H Street wharf and the officer invited him to go aboard. Smithe said he saw boiler "B" hanging out of the starboard side of the ship, but could not possibly have seen this, as the force of the explosion forced the boiler aft, not outward. Furthermore, with live steam still a threat, it is doubtful Young would have extended such an invitation. San Diego Union, July 21, 1972, p. B-6.

28. According to the San Diego City Directory for 1905, Smithe worked in the vicinity of the following bars:
   910 4th St. Antonio Bernardini's Saloon.
   927 4th St. Archibald Taylor's Saloon.
   941 4th St. The Budweiser Saloon.
   943 4th St. Billy Roche's Saloon.
   945 4th St. The Club Saloon.
   965 4th St. The Eintracht Saloon.
   965 4th St. Becker and Baumann's Saloon.
For an unexplained reason, the last two saloons had the same address.

29. Court of Inquiry, August 2, 1905, p. 24.

30. St. Joseph's Sanitarium was located on the corner of 6th and University Avenue, Agnew's Sanitarium at 5th and Beech St., and the Army Barracks at Arctic and H St. (now Kettner and Market). The Army Barracks proved to be the closest facility to the disaster, only a few hundred yards up H St. from the wharf. San Diego City Directory, 1905.

31. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 3.

32. San Diego Sun, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 1.

33. Strobel, "The Bennington Disaster," p. 151.

34. San Diego Union, July 23, 1905, section II, p. 12.

35. San Diego Union, July 22, 1905, section I, p. 5.

36. San Diego Union, July 23, 1905, section II, p. 9.

37. San Diego Union, July 23, 1905, section 11, p. 9.

38. San Diego Union, July 24, 1905, section II, p. 7.

39. San Diego Union, July 24, 1905, section II, p. 7.

40. The ministers were the Protestant Reverend J. A. M. Richey and the Roman Catholic Reverend A. D. Ubach, the latter of Ramona fame. San Diego Union, July 24, 1905, section II, p. 7.

41. San Diego Union, July 24, 1905, section II, p. 7.

42. San Diego Union, July 24, 1905, section II, p. 7.

43. San Diego Union, July 25, 1905, section II, p. 7.

44. San Diego Union, July 25, 1905, section II, p. 7. For these reasons, the number of bodies buried in the Bennington plot in Fort Rosecrans is now only thirty-five. Pamphlet printed by the Department of the Army, "Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery," August 13, 1968, p. 2. See also, Fort Rosecrans Burial Log, main office, Fort Rosecrans.

45. San Diego Union, July 29, 1905, section I, p. 6.

46. San Diego Union, July 29, 1905, section I, p. 6.

47. Court of Inquiry, August 11, 1905, pp. 213-214.

48. Court of Inquiry, August 11, 1905, p. 214. 49. Ensign Charles Tobias Wade. The general concensus of material published by writers of the Bennington disaster has been that Wade was to blame for the explosion, with opinions of the ensign ranging from incompetence to stupidity. More than one writer has stated Wade allowed drunken sailors on duty, and did not know boiler facilities from Navy beans. Nothing could be further from the truth. Although only twenty-five years of age and alone on his first tour of engineering duty, Wade made every effort to learn his responsibilities; he reported time and again the dangerous condition of the Bennington's boilers, yet the Navy did absolutely nothing to alleviate the situation. The blame for the disaster must rest squarely with the officials of the Navy. See also Charles T. Wade Biographical File, Department of the Navy, two pages; Quarterly Engineering Reports, U. S. S. Bennington, Third Rate, December, 1904 and March, 1905, Records of the old Bureau of Navigation, U. S. National Archives; Log of the U. S. S. Bennington (PG-4) Third Rate, November, 1904-July, 1905, Office of Naval Records and Library, Naval Records, U. S. National Archives.

50. Proceedings of a General Court-Martial in the Case of Commander Lucien Young, United States Navy, Records of the Judge Advocate-General, Department of the Navy, Washington, D. C., volume III, pp. 869-874; also, Proceedings of a General Court-Martial in the Case of Ensign Charles T. Wade, United States Navy, Records of the Judge Advocate-General, Department of the Navy, Washington, D. C., pp. 222-224; and Revisions in the Proceedings of a General Court-Martial in the Case of Ensign Charles T. Wade, United States Navy, Records of the Judge Advocate-General, Department of the Navy, Washington, D. C., p. 3.

51. "History of Ships Named Bennington," p. 2, and "Explosion on Gunboat Bennington," p. 1. The Naval Museum at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, has an interesting collection of artifacts from the gunboat, including the flag.

52. "Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery," p. 2.



Broeck N. Oder, a native of Illinois, graduated from University High School in 1971, and received the B.A. and M.A. degrees from the University of San Diego in 1974 and 1975, respectively. Mr. Oder wrote his master's thesis on the Bennington disaster, and has been accepted for doctoral work at the University of New Mexico. His article published here was an award-winning paper presented at the San Diego History Center's 1975 Institute of History