USS Bennington Memorial

Fort Adams State Park
Newport, Newport County, Rhode Island
 
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"In memory of our shipmates and members of
Air Task Group 181
lost in an accidental explosion of the
USS Bennington
while operating off the coast of Rhode Island
on May 26 1954.
 
As long as there is one left in whom your memory remains,
you are not forgotten.
 
Dedicated on May 26, 2004
USS Bennington Reunion Association
Families, Friends, Shipmates."
 

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For most that have served in the military their time in uniform usually fades into a proud memory, an adventure experienced as a young adult. The uniform was placed into a closet as the civilian career began. Even the "lifers." those that served until retirement, often have a difficult time remembering the details and dates that moved them from one unit to another for two or three decades. The majority of veterans are confused when, years afterward, others around them say, "Thank you for your service."  What? We just did our jobs, it wasn't anything heroic.

But a few veterans will vividly remember specific dates and events until the last breath is taken. Their memories can't gently fade. Those veterans will never be able to forget the sounds, the confusion, and the odors associated with explosions and fire, mangled bodies and death. It is nearly impossible for the survivors to put the experience aside. That is why this memorial to the fallen shipmates of USS Bennington (CVA-20) exists.

The Essex class carriers were conceived and built late in World War II. Bennington made it off the ways in 1944 and got into the Pacific Theater fight in February of '45, just in time to take part in the attacks on the Japanese home islands. Three battle stars were awared the ship for its participation, but being new doesn't keep any ship in a naval service that is downsizing at the end of a major war. Bennington was put into reserve status a year after war's end, waiting four years to be taken back to the shipyards and converted to the newest attack carrier standards.

It took two years, but USS Bennington was lengthened by forty-three feet and widened by over eight feet, complete with angled deck and new arresting wire system to accommodate jet aircraft. She missed action in Korea, but in later years was active off the coast of VietNam. Bennington rejoined the fleet at the end of 1952 and in February of '53 her first hosted unit was Marine Air Group 14 flying F-9F Cougars. 

On April 27th, a steam tube in the boiler room exploded, killing eleven and seriously wounding four. Bennington was on the way to developing her dubious nickname, "Bad Luck Bennie."  The second accident, and the one that is the reason for this monument, occurred a year later, on May 26, 1954, and took place just a few miles offshore from Newport.

The launch system of the Essex class carriers was an extremely powerful hydraulic catapult. The hydraulic fluids used in the ram are under tremendous pressure and the system is designed with safety in mind, but pressure creates heat and sometimes will develop a dangerous mist of hydraulic oils. At 0611 hours something sparked an explosion that first tore apart a forward berthing area. Several men were killed immediately, as they were preparing for morning chow.

Not everybody heard the blast, but everybody aboard felt the ship shudder. "General quarters! General quarters! This is NOT a drill..." was the first call to action. Down in the sick bay, at the aft end of the ship, there was no doctor aboard and the Duty Corpsman's first clue that this wasn't going to be an easy day was when a naked shipmate came into the compartment. At least he thought the man was naked. A second look revealed that he was wearing his belt and his boots, everything else had been burned and blown away in the first blast. His body was so blackened that the corpsman was unable to identify the man that died in his arms just a moment later. The dead sailors last words were a request to, "Help my buddies!" 

As a second, and probably a third, explosion shook the "Bad Luck Bennie" the damage control crews started assembling as they had been trained. Near the port side catapult a curious green smoke was drifting throughout the berthing areas, mess decks, ready rooms and officers country. The explosion had torn apart bulkheads, hatches, ladders, fresh and salt water tubes, anything that could be twisted was. The damage control parties began to asssess the damage, make temporary repairs, and conduct rescue and recovery efforts. Some compartments were flooded with water, trapping and drowning sailors, but most of the injuries and deaths were due to the concussive and thermal power of the blasts. 

The total number of dead was above 100 and over 200 were wounded. The most seriously wounded were evactuated directly to hospitals by Coast Guard helicopters. The remainder had to wait for Bennington to reach Quonset Point, Rhode Island, before loading into scores of waiting ambulances and further triage at locals hospitals. The men most badly burned were flown to the US Army burn center in San Antonio, Texas. 

The Bennington crew that helped identify and carry their fallen shipmates off the ship experienced the full range of emotional distress that day. Survivors guilt is a common theme among them. Many of their stories begin with, "If I hadn't left the compartment just a minute earlier..." or "I knew the voice, but couldn't recognize the burned man speaking to me..." For those most impacted by the tragedy it would take four or five decades before the Veterans Administration would offer them compensatory benefits for PTSD. In the 1950's the term had not even been coined. These veterans suffered alone, or with the support of family and friends that only knew their veteran had been through something terrible. 

The fallen shipmates came from across the United States, and from all walks of life. Ships Clerk John Thornton Jr, had enlisted for World War II at age 17 and was making a career of the Navy. He had come from Bentonville, Arkansas, where his father ran a laundry service. Chief Gunner Max King had also served in World War II and Korea, he was from Tennessee and his body returned to Chattanooga for burial. 

CWO (Photographer) Guy Bemiss and his brother Clair had learned about cameras and photography through a YMCA camera club program back in Mason City, Iowa, their home town. Clair went on to college and work with Kodak, while Guy chose to enlist in the Navy. Some of the photos we see of the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941 were his work. Toward the end of the war he was in France, and wrote home that he didn't really like it - it was dirty, run down, and it was evident the taxpayers of the USA was paying for most of the war effort. He even got to Kodiak, Alaska, as one of his assignments. 

The most senior man to die was LCdr Paul Fournier, a career officer from San Diego. He had met his bride, Virginia Rose, at a roller skating rink and she had followed him around for 17 years. He was on the promotions list for Commander and was due for a shore duty billet that would probably take him to retirement. Ginger remained a widow, living in their home at Ocean Beach untill she died fifty years later.

The three most junior of the men that were killed in the explosion were Steward Apprentices Lloyd Coleman and Lonnie G Woodum. Both were engaged in serving morning mess in the wardroom when the first blast took them and many Stewards and officers. Twenty-two year old Airman Apprentice William Baskin's last trip home was on the famous passenger train known as "The City of New Orleans." His body was escorted to Winona, Mississippi, by other airmen of his squadron and met at the train station by his parents, two sisters his widow and two year old daughter.

The youngest veterans of the USS Bennington aboard that day in 1954 are now 81 years old. There are not many opportunities left for them to gather here and remember their friends and shipmates. Soon the first hand accounts will be silenced and the sound of the explosions will be gone. The tears of those mourning for the fallen will continue for another few decade as the children of these men will continue to tell the story. And then it will be finished, May 26, 1954, will live just as a footnote of history showing how Bennington's disaster ranks among others of its type. 

08/21/2017

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This video was found on YouTube and more like it can be found here.

 

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State Title - Rhode Island

state headline RI