Jul 21

The Bennington Disaster

Sunday, July 21, 2019 12:01 AM

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All seemed well on board the USS Bennington (Gunboat No. 4) as the sun rose over the hills of San Diego, California on Friday, 21 July 1905. The gunboat was laying at anchor just west of the Coronado ferry crossing, having arrived on the 19th after a 17-day voyage from Pearl Harbor. The crew were undoubtedly disappointed, for their long-awaited shore leave in the city was cancelled when the gunboat was ordered to tow the Wyoming to Port Hartford after the monitor blew a gasket on her main engine. Down below, the “black gang” stoked the fires to prepare the aging gunboat for tow duty, while topside, the deck force was washing down the ship, scrubbing coal dust from nearly every surface of the Bennington‘s yellow and white hull after 500 tons of Australian coal were taken on. As the gunboat was made ready to get underway, the only thing delaying departure was the absence of was Commander Lucien Young, captain of the Bennington–one of the most decorated officers in the Navy at that time.

USS Bennington lying at anchor ca. 1899. Note that the lines from her foremast have been retouched to remove sailors’ laundry drying on them. U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive.

Boatswain’s mate second class Lee Strobel had charge of the deck. Many years later he recalled what happened next:

Barefoot, pants rolled up to the knees, I took up my bucket of water and started forward. At the fresh water spigot near the break of the fo’c’s’le, two seamen, covered with coal dust like myself, and with empty pails as proof, were arguing loudly that they had not received their allowance of fresh water. The custodian of the spigot said they had. Ensign Perry, officer of the deck, straight from Annapolis, was trying to make peace.

At my right under the forecastle deck were 20 or 30 men, stripped bare, scrubbing themselves, laughing and shouting, and squirting each other with the saltwater rinse hose. In a moment I would have joined them, had not “Whitey” Gauthier, our platinum blond chief boatswain’s mate, hailed me. With Stormy Newcombe, he and I had had several discussions about the rig-up for towing the Wyoming. Now, Gauthier had a new idea and wanted to discuss it with me. We had hardly begun to talk when the ship shuddered violently and we were enveloped in a roaring cloud of scalding steam. It struck me from behind and carried me willy-nilly and with great force like a leaf in a gale. There seemed no chance to escape, and my first thought was, “What a terrible way to die.”

Instinct told me to hold my breath and keep my eyes closed tight. Still conscious, I realized that I was being carried toward the forward hatch, perhaps 50 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. Then I landed against a bulkhead with a jolt. Frantically, I began groping around in the deadly inferno. A minute is an eternity when one is being cooked alive. Yet it could not have been much longer, I’m sure, when one of my blistered hands caught hold of that blessed ladder. In a few frenzied bounds, assisted by the heavy volume of steam pouring out, I shot out of the hatch and fell full length on the forecastle deck. Propping myself up on one elbow, I tried to get my lungs working normally again. It was several minutes before I could take any notice of my surroundings. I saw men lying prone, some of them rigid and quite still. Aft of the bridge amidships, an unearthly bellowing arose and a swirling cloud of steam poured skyward. It was apparent that at least one of the four boilers had burst.

In a flash, Strobel’s life would change for ever.

Members of the Bennington's boat crew pose for a photograph a few days before the explosion. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Members of the Bennington‘s boat crew pose for a photograph a few days before the explosion. Lee Strobel is at front right. Chief Gauthier is in the back row at far left. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

He recalled,

As I lay panting and heaving on the forecastle, I began to wonder if everyone on board had perished except myself and those lying near me who showed signs of life. Then I became aware of another imminent danger. The deck was slanting like the roof of a house, a good indication that the ship was sinking. To make it easier to swim in case I found myself suddenly in the water, I pulled off my pants and drawers. With them came most of the skin from my knees to my toes.

The pain was maddening and I stretched out again on the deck in agony. Shortly, a sizeable shore launch chugged out of the steam cloud alongside, stopping at the starboard bow, which was now low in the water. At once men emerged from nowhere, and poured like a waterfall into her without thinking of where they would land. With a wild leap, I made it before the tillerman had veered too far off. With her small engine working furiously, the overloaded boat soon reached the boat landing near the ferry slip and discharged her disheveled cargo. The landing float was a scene of chaos, already strewn with injured and dead. One glance and I knew that all who were able to stand must fend for themselves. Across the water, the Bennington lay on her side, spouting steam and moaning dismally, a doleful dirge heard for miles around.

I started limping toward town a mile away seeking help, but had hardly gone two blocks, when a horse-drawn express wagon, loaded with injured, stopped and took me in. Some minutes later we arrived at the Agnew Sanatorium.

Strobel was one of the lucky ones; some were killed instantly and many others were dying.

When I entered its busy portals shortly before noon, the injured, dead, and dying already filled the beds and covered the floors. I commenced to search the premises to see if I could find a doctor or nurse who wasn’t busy. Stepping over men lying on the floor, I entered an open door. A comely woman kneeling at a bedside looked up and gasped. Except for an abbreviated undershirt and a good covering of coal dirt, I was naked. Rising, she seized a blistered arm and said, “Here, young man. Get in this bed.”

Another man, black as myself with coal grime, was in the bed, but he was dead. Nevertheless, when she threw back the sheet, I got in and laid down. But I couldn’t relax, the pain was too great. It was less, I thought, while walking. So when the nurse wasn’t looking, I got up and began wandering around again. A gray-haired housewife handed me a bedsheet with instructions to wrap it around my hips like a skirt. Some of the injured laughed at me then, and I was glad to see they had not lost their sense of humor.

A shipmate hailed me. Somewhere he had found a bucket filled with grease. He said it was vaseline, but it looked like axle grease to me. He set the bucket on the floor; scooped up a double handful of the stuff, and began smearing my burns. It eased the pain considerably, and I did the same for him. It had now been about three hours since the explosion and this was the first medication either of us had received.

Srobel was severely injured, but alive.

Then I heard Whitey’s cheerful voice; he was in clean whites, his chiefs cap perched rakishly on the back of his platinum blond head. His face seemed more flushed than usual and his voice was somewhat husky. But he was not burned, so far as I could see.

When the blast of boiling steam struck us and carried me forward, Whitey was knocked over backward into the boatswain’s locker, and its steel door slammed shut as he fell down. Here, he was quite safe. While the deadly steam surged everywhere inboard, a porthole in his locker let in plenty of fresh air from the outside. But in a little while, he, too, noticed that the ship was listing heavily to starboard. Although safe from scalding steam, he was in a deadly trap should the ship suddenly turn over. Nevertheless, he had to wait there for a while, for to rush out on deck just then would have been to commit suicide.

About a half hour later, he heard the clang of an engine-room gong close at hand, and a loud voice calling, “Bennington, ship ahoy! Ship ahoy! Can anybody take a line?”

What he heard was the tug Santa Fe heaving to to offer assistance in towing the gunboat into shallow water where she could be beached without sinking.

As the chief boatswain’s mate, he was in charge of the anchor gear, and nobody aboard knew more about it than Whitey.

Opening the door a crack, he saw that the flow of steam was much diminished; then, taking a deep breath, he flung the heavy door aside and ran aft in a ghastly obstacle race on a tilting deck strewn with dead bodies. Among the first to be seen were Ensign Perry and the three seamen, lying together at the fresh water spigot.

In about a dozen bounds, he was in clear air, took the line from the tug, and slipped the noose over a bollard. Now he reversed his course, making his way toward the anchor windlass under the fo’c’s’le. Stumbling over dead bodies and other obstacles in the darkness, he began groping for the brake lever. When he found it, he felt around until he located the axe that he knew was in a rack close by. In a moment, he cut the lashing securing the brake lever, and then the chain began to gallop toward the hawse pipe, on its way overboard. When, in a little while, it shook the ship with a violent jerk, Whitey knew it had come to the bitter end. Hastening down to the chain locker, axe in hand, he cut the lashing at the end of the chain, which then flailed its way out of the ship to the bottom of the bay.

Dropping the axe, he climbed back to the main deck where he shouted, “All clear” to the waiting tugboat captain, who rang full speed ahead, and threw in a few jingles for good measure. With the sinking Bennington in charge, the captain headed toward shallow water near the boat landing, and rammed the Bennington’s prow into the mud just as her stern went down.

After telling me this, Whitey and I somehow got separated in the milling mob. When I made inquiries about him an hour later, I was shocked to learn that he was dead.

Later on, convalescing in the hospital, I was told that the autopsy on his body showed that his lungs had been fatally damaged by the hot steam. Thus died L. J. Gauthier, in the service at 15, a capable chief boatswain’s mate at 25. He was the outstanding hero of the disaster, and might well have lived had he not been so devoted to his duty.

One half of a steroview showing the Bennington beached after the explosion.

One half of a stereoview showing the Bennington beached after the explosion. (U.S. Naval Institute Photo Archive)

Gauthier was one of 60 men who would die as a result of the explosion. The city’s morticians were overwhelmed as curiosity seekers crowded into funeral parlors to gawk at the bodies. Most would be buried in the cemetery at Fort Rosecrans on Point Loma.

Dedication of the USS Bennington Monument at Fort Rosecrans in January 1908

Dedication of the USS Bennington Monument at Fort Rosecrans in January 1908 (Naval History and Heritage Command)

The disaster shook the Navy and President Theodore Roosevelt. In August, a court of inquiry was convened to determine the cause of the disaster. Blame soon centered around a young and inexperience ensign in charge of the boilers that day, Charles T. Wade, and Commander Young. Both were court-martialled for neglect of their duties.

The information that came out in the trials did not paint a flattering picture of the Navy. The boiler that had exploded was in terrible condition–bad rivets, rusted, pitted, and sagging internal components. It was shown that Ensign Wade, though a neophyte to steam engineering, did his utmost to bring them to good order, but was rebuffed in his efforts by a system that did not consider the fixes to be mission-critical. Commander Young, for his part, tried to bring the decrepit boilers to the attention of Navy inspectors, to no avail.

Ultimately, both men were acquitted and returned to active duty. Young rose to the rank of rear admiral; Wade would reach the rank of Lieutenant Commander, but never really shook himself of the pall the Bennington disaster draped on him.

11 men would be awarded the Medal of Honor for their heroism of that day in July. One, Newman K. Perry, would have a destroyer named after him. In 1908, a obelisk was erected at Fort Rosecrans in memory of those that lost their lives in the disaster. It can still be seen in what is now Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery.

Hulk of the ex-Bennington being used as a molasses barge in Hawaii ca. 1912.

Hulk of the ex-Bennington being used as a molasses barge in Hawaii ca. 1912. (Navsource.com)

The Bennington was not repaired and decommissioned on 31 October. The old gunboat was stripped of its engines, boilers, and armament and sold to the Matson line in 1910, who and used it to store molasses from the sugar refineries in Hawaii. The hulk was finally sunk off Kauai in 1926.

Lee Strobel would recover from his terrible injuries, but he would never again go to sea for the Navy. On his 21st birthday, 5 October 1905. He was deemed was no longer acceptable for naval service because of injuries received in the disaster. He became a salesmen and an expert in safes and locks, though he never forgot the disaster. He spent much of his later years searching for the Bennington‘s bell, but he never found it. He died in 1973, never having located the missing bell.