San Diego Historical Society-Ticor Collection
The gunboat, gutted by fire and scalding steam, lists beside a downtown dock. The sudden influx of sea water increased the list to starboard and alarmed Gauthier and the other sailors who had survived the blast but were trapped in compartments of the ship.
The sighting of San Diego was a welcome event for the crew of the GSS Bennington on a sunny July 19,1905. The patrol gunboat had just completed a rough, seventeen-day journey from Hawaii, and the bluejackets, as sailors were called at the turn of the century, were looking forward to the weekend ahead and some much-needed liberty in the saloons and restaurants of the city.
USS Bennington within hours of the boiler-room blast, July 21, 1905. “There was a dull, rumbling roar like distant thunder, then clouds of steam enveloped her.”
San Diego Historical Society-Ticor Collection
With a population of 22,500 who lived and worked in buildings huddled close to the harbor, San Diego wasn’t as cosmopolitan as San Francisco or as exotic as Honolulu. But Lee Strobel, a young boatswain’s mate aboard the Bennington, considered it a favorite liberty port primarily because the San Diego Brewery made excellent beer, which was available in every saloon. A schooner cost all of a nickel — with a free lunch thrown in. The town itself was used to hosting the ships of the G.S. Navy in general and the Bennington in particular, since the gunboat appeared regularly as a part of her normal rounds of the Pacific.
As for the dead whose graves were buried on Point Loma two days later, the Navy did a turnaround on shipping the bodies to their loved ones. Originally, naval officials had “forgotten” that Congress after the sinking of the Maine authorized funds for sending bodies of sailors home.
San Diego Historical Society-Ticor Collection
As the white-and-yellow warship glided into the navigation channel and followed the flat curve of Coronado, the men standing sea-and-anchor detail on her starboard side had an excellent view across the flat and vacant island toward the Hotel Del Coronado and the smattering of dwellings on the southern portion. Finally, the gunboat reached her anchorage near the Coronado ferry landing a few hundred yards off the foot of H Street (what today is Market Street). Commander Lucien Young, captain of the Bennington, immediately sent a letter off to Rear Admiral Caspar Goodrich, Commander of the Pacific Squadron, informing him, “Sir, I have just arrived here ... I left Honolulu about midnight for this port... for the first four days I bucked into a moderate gale of wind and very rough head seas ... after that, for the next day or two, the sea and weather gradually improved, and for the rest of the time the trip was very pleasant...”
Dedication of the Bennington monument, January 1908. The inscription on the obelisk simply notes that it is dedicated to the Bennington's dead and gives the date of the disaster.
San Diego Historical Society-Ticor Collection
The Bennington was not a new ship. Construction on her had begun in 1889 and was completed two years later. Even by the standards of the time, she was a small vessel, displacing a mere 1700 tons and extending just 230 feet from stem to stern. Crammed inside her steel hull were 197 officers and men who led a less-than-ideal existence while at sea, for at the turn of the century, sailors still slept in hammocks, often saw their berthing compartments awash in sea water, and were fed what was available and unspoiled in the ship’s pantries. The Bennington had been built in Pennsylvania but was transferred to the Pacific Squadron in 1894; she had cut a small niche for herself in history during the Spanish-American War by claiming Wake Island for the United States in January of 1899 while on her way to the Philippines. The steam-powered gunboat had delicate, tapered masts located fore and aft, a single smokestack amidships, and a low open bridge that was covered by an awning when the ship was in port. From a distance, she looked like a large luxury yacht, not a warship. It was only at close range that her formidable armament became visible: six six-inch guns, four six-pounders, and four one-pounders made her a man-of-war ideally suited to the task of showing the American flag throughout the Pacific.
At the time of its construction, the sixty-foot gray granite obelisk monument was the most visible object on Point Loma next to the lighthouse itself.
San Diego Historical Society-Ticor Collection
Almost immediately, boatswain’s mate Strobel and the other sailors aboard received the bad news that there would be no liberty on this visit. As the Bennington dropped anchor, a telegram arrived for Captain Young, informing him that the old monitor Wyoming had broken down off the coast of Santa Barbara. The gunboat was ordered to replenish its supply of coal and steam north to a rendezvous with the disabled ship, then escort it to Port Harford for repairs. Three hundred tons of coal were transferred from supply barges to the Bennington on Thursday, July 20, with the entire crew pitching in to get the job finished so that the ship could sail the next day.
By mid-morning of Friday, July 21, the citizens of San Diego were bracing themselves for another warm summer day. Nineteen-year-old Asa Bushnell was eager to get away from the family house at Second and Kalmia in order to join a friend down at the harbor, but since his mother was willing to pay him fifty cents to beat the living room rug, he decided to put off his plans long enough to carry out the chore. Once the job was completed, he and the other boy made a beeline down Fifth Street, resisted the temptation to spend their pocket change at Ingersoll’s candy store, and hurried to the ZLAC Rowing Club Wharf, where they rented a rowboat for a spin around the harbor.
A.L. Parmelee, a twelve-year old who lived at Twenty-second and F Street, had always been fascinated by naval vessels and knew the Bennington had been ordered to sail that morning. The boy was determined to watch her as she stood out from her mooring, and he knew that from F Street, there would be an unobstructed view of the bay. Parmelee managed to slip outside, hoping for a glimpse of the ship as she hoisted anchor and turned her prow toward Point Loma and the Pacific Ocean.
The manager of the downtown Bijou Theater, R. Beers Loos, had sauntered down to the wharves that morning; the theater hadn’t yet opened for business, and it was fine weather for a walk. He was standing at the end of Spreckels Wharf when his attention was drawn suddenly to the Bennington. As he described it later, “There was a dull, rumbling roar like distant thunder, then clouds of steam enveloped her.”
It was 10:40 a.m. One of the Bennington's boilers had just exploded.
As boatswain’s mate of the port watch, Lee Strobel had charge of the deck. All morning of the twenty-first, the crew had been kept busy getting the ship ready for sea. Coaling gear was being stowed away and the decks were being scrubbed clean of the thick black coal dust. When his relief arrived, Strobel rolled his pants up to his knees, grabbed his water bucket, and started forward to help with the cleaning. At the fresh-water spigot near the bow, he paused to watch an argument between two sailors and the spigot custodian. The sailors, covered with coal dust, complained that they had not received their proper allowance of fresh water. The young officer of the deck, Ensign Newman K. Perry, hastened over to settle the issue. Another twenty or thirty sailors were also near the bow, laughing and squirting each other with the saltwater rinse hose. Then, as Strobel remembered it many years later, “ ... 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.’ ”
Chief boatswain’s mate Lynn J. Gauthier, with whom Strobel had been talking just as the blast of steam hit, had been knocked over backward and out of harm’s way into the boatswain’s locker. Stunned but unhurt, he had a supply of fresh air from the locker porthole and took a few moments in the comparative safety of the space to gather his wits about him. Soon he became aware that the Bennington had started to list to starboard. A handsome and athletic man who had been nicknamed “Whitey” by his shipmates because of his light blond hair, Gauthier was experienced enough to realize that if he remained in the small room and the ship capsized, he would surely drown. On the other hand, he dared not leave the safety of the locker because live steam was roaring through the ship on the other side of the steel bulkhead. Gauthier decided to sit tight.
Captain Young was not on the gunboat when the boiler blew. He had gone ashore at 9:00 a.m. and the senior officer aboard was Lieutenant j.g. Alexander F.H. Yates. Yates guessed what had happened and was quick to assess the danger to the ship. Along with the scalding blast of steam, the ruined boiler had also produced flames that shot through the Bennington with the in tensity of a blow torch. He ordered all water-tight doors secured and the magazines flooded to prevent the detonation of shells and powder. It was the proper thing to do, but the sudden influx of sea water increased the list to starboard that alarmed Gauthier and the other sailors who had survived the blast but were trapped in various compartments of the ship.
For dozens of men, however, all worry was over. The sailors stoking the boilers were dead. Dead also were most of those exposed to the blasts of steam that continued to pour from the ruptured boiler and broken pipes throughout the length of the ship. Ensign Perry and the three sailors by the fresh-water spigot had been instantly parboiled. Boatswain’s mate William Cronin, who had been blown overboard by the explosion, climbed back onto the ship via the anchor chain. As he moved along the bow, he saw Perry lying on the deck, arms covering his face. Cronin later testified that “as I lifted his arm, the burned skin came off in my hands.”
On shore and on boats in the harbor, there was almost instant recognition that something terrible had happened aboard the Bennington. Some witnesses later said that they had heard two sharp explosions coming from the ship. Eight-year-old Frank M. Larceval would remember nearly three-quarters of a century after the event that there was a lot of smoke on the bay immediately after the explosion. A.L. Parmelee was wondering why the Bennington had not left her moorings when his father, who was business and advertising manager of the San Diego Union, called his mother with news of the disaster. Parmelee’s mother gathered up her brood and took a streetcar down to the docks.
The best eyewitnesses were Asa Bushnell and his friend. They had rowed out toward the main channel and were not more than fifty feet from the port side of the Bennington when the boiler exploded. As Bushnell recalled it, “Steel gratings flew to masthead height... steam and black smoke began pouring from her ventilators.” Fearing for their lives, both boys dove into the water but then climbed back into the skiff having decided that they didn’t want to be charged for the loss of the rowboat. As they drifted off the port side of the stricken warship, Bushnell noticed seven sailors in the water, three swimming quietly, three beating the water in panic, and one floating face down. The boys picked up all the sailors but were unable to revive the unconscious one. Bushnell also claimed to witness a peculiar happening on board:
... There was this officer of the deck ... threatening a member of the crew with his revolver and evidently telling the man to do something. Instead the man jumped overboard. He was one of those we picked up who could not swim.
Ships and boats of all sizes in the harbor began to respond almost immediately, but two stood out as a result of their heroic actions that day. The ferry Ramona broke away from her normal track between San Diego and Coronado to offer what aid she could; she picked numerous survivors out of the water. The tug Santa Fe performed an even greater feat, for she actually saved the Bennington from sinking.
The Santa Fe had just finished some morning work in the bay and was moored to her wharf when deck hand Joe Brennan, on his way to the Snug Harbor Saloon farther along the waterfront, heard an explosion and turned to see the Bennington enveloped in smoke. Brennan and another hand ran back to the tug, cast off her lines, and got her under way. The captain of the Santa Fe, Bob Morris, was also ashore. He was unable to get back to his craft on time, but he hurried back to the waterfront and took a motor launch out to his boat and assumed command just as the tug pulled up against the listing gunboat.
Whitey Gauthier remained in the safety of the boatswain’s locker for nearly half an hour, feeling the ship sliding over on its starboard side and listening to the steam hissing by on the other side of the closed hatch. Then, to his amazement, he heard a voice asking if anyone could take a line. He looked out the porthole and saw the Santa Fe chugging up along the port side of his ship. It was clear that the tug’s intention was to put her nose into the side of the Bennington and run her into shallow water before she capsized. Gauthier, as chief boatswain’s mate, was in charge of the anchor and realized the tug’s efforts would be in vain so long as the gunboat’s anchor held the ship fast to the bottom. Taking a deep breath, he opened the hatch and sprinted over the scalded corpses littering the deck. A line was thrown to him from the Santa Fe, and he slipped the looped end over a bollard, thus joining the two vessels. Next he retraced his steps and entered the interior of the ship’s bow under the fo’c’sle, groping his way past the bodies and debris that littered the passageways until he found an axe. He chopped away the lashings that secured the anchor brake lever, and the chain ran out its full length, finally shaking the bow with a violent jerk. Then Gauthier fumbled his way down to the chain locker and cut the rope attached to the anchor chain itself. At last the ship was free. Gauthier climbed back to the main deck and yelled to Bob Morris aboard the Santa Fe that all was clear. Morris then rang full speed ahead and pushed the Bennington into a mud bank near the ZLAC rowing club just north of the ferry slip.
Lee Strobel did not die in the steam blast as he thought he would. The force of the steam had carried him forward until he hit a bulkhead almost fifty feet from where he had been standing. Amazed that he was still alive, he had the presence of mind to grasp for the ladder that led up to the forecastle deck. Although his hands were badly blistered, he somehow managed to hoist himself up the ladder — boosted by the continuing blast of steam — and collapsed, gulping fresh air. He realized that at least one of the four boilers had burst and, afraid that the ship would sink, he pulled off his pants and underwear. With these garments came most of the skin from his legs.
Below decks, other sailors performed remarkable feats of heroism in the effort to save stricken shipmates. Rade Grbitch had been on deck and was uninjured by the explosions that wracked the ship, but he immediately went below to assist in rescue operations. Ship’s cook Frank E. Hill was standing near the sick bay when the boiler burst, but at the risk of his own life, he made several trips into the depths of the hull to carry the injured topside. Hospital steward William S. Shackiette groped his way through the darkness to the berthing compartment in search of sailors unable to find their way to safety. Something fell from the compartment overhead and knocked him senseless, and for several moments he lay almost unconscious in scalding water. Although badly burned, he collected his senses and went back to his rescue work.
In the meantime, other boats began reaching the Bennington. A large shore launch nosed against the starboard bow, which was now low in the water, and began to take aboard panicked and injured sailors. Strobel managed to overcome the immobilizing effects of shock and his wounds and leaped aboard just as the launch was pulling away. From that boat and on the wharves, sailors and civilians alike heard an eerie moaning coming from the Bennington as she lay heavily on her right side on the mud bank.
Within a few minutes of the disaster, all San Diego seemed to know what had happened out in the harbor. On the wharves, crowds of men had begun to gather to help transfer the wounded and dead from the boats. Once on the docks, there wasn’t much the citizenry could do except try to revive drowned sailors and aid in loading the injured along with the stiffening corpses on wagons for transport to hospitals and morgues. Baker’s wagons, grocery and laundry wagons, hacks and hearses all crowded the docks to receive a share of the casualties. One witness watching the procession as it headed toward the hospitals remembered, “They took 125 past our place in half an hour. Lots of them were begging to be shot, few had any clothes on ... every man was black from the soot of the boiler.”
The first doctor on the scene was Edward Grove, who lived in the 2200 block of Front Street. It was apparent to Grove and the few other medical personnel who reached the wharves that while San Diego was not equipped to handle such a mass disaster, the men had to be moved quickly and efficiently to the hospitals of the city if lives were to be saved. All those who could be gotten off the ship were transported to St. Joseph’s Sanitorium at Sixth and University and Agnew Sanitorium at Fifth and Beech. When these facilities had been filled to capacity, the old army barracks at Kettner and H was opened as an auxiliary hospital.
Herbert C. Hensley, a reporter for the San Diego Union, was called to help cover the disaster. Reaching the harbor, he saw power boats rushing out to the ship, and as he neared the foot of H Street, he could hear the cries of wounded sailors as they milled about, waiting for help. Some of the bluejackets wore only the tattered remains of uniforms, others were already bandaged. Many had actually begun to walk away from the harbor in search of medical attention and had to be rounded up for transport to the hospitals. After a few minutes, Hensley witnessed the arrival of Mayor John Sehon, who, along with the chief of police, the district attorney, and the coroner, took charge of the rescue operation and brought some order to the scene.
Lee Strobel ended up at the Agnew Sanatorium, a two-story building of only five or six rooms that was already packed with dead, dying, and wounded sailors when he was helped inside. Unable to find a doctor or nurse who wasn’t already busy, he was finally assisted by a woman, presumably one of the hundred or so San Diego women who volunteered their services during the crisis, and helped into a bed. But the pain of his scalds and burns was too great to allow him to lie still, and so when the woman wasn’t looking, he got up and began walking around again. Another volunteer noticed that he was naked and handed him a bedsheet, telling him to wrap it around his hips like a skirt. The outfit drew laughter from some of his wounded shipmates.
At the turn of the century, there wasn’t much that even trained medical personnel could do for the sorts of scalds and burns inflicted on the men of the Bennington except clean and dress the wounds and make the sufferers as comfortable as possible. Strobel and the other sailors who had not yet received medical attention were in such agony that they decided to take things into their own hands. One of the bluejackets found a bucket filled with grease — whether it was axle grease or petroleum jelly is open to dispute — and he and Strobel took turns smearing their burns with the stuff. It was the first medical attention Strobel had received in the three hours since the boiler had blown up.
Back on the waterfront, the last of the dead and wounded were being removed from the ship, and emergency crews had begun the task of securing the broken steam lines. Herbert Hensley, watching the operation from the docks while awaiting an opportunity to get aboard the gunboat, observed that
The appearance of the Bennington at that moment offered, to anybody boarding her then, an almost incredible contrast to her trim, sleek looks... like all our naval vessels of that period, she had been painted a snowy white from bow to stern and rail to water; only deck erections, funnel, spars, etc. being a bright yellow ... [now] she lay like some abandoned derelict... greasy with ash and cinders ... I would not have supposed such an instantaneous metamorphosis was possible.
Eventually, a number of newsmen got aboard the ship. Hensley claimed to have boarded her three times. Bensel R. Smithe, only twenty-one years of age and already managing editor of the San Diego Sun, insisted in later years that Captain Young, who was hurrying back to the ship, recognized him and told him on the wharf to come aboard. As Smithe remembered it, he followed the captain to his cabin, got the story directly from the skipper, then was taken back to shore on a motor launch to announce to his editor Frank Waite and to the entire world that the Bennington had blown up.
The disaster was front-page news throughout the nation on the morning of July 22, 1905. President Theodore Roosevelt, summering at his home in Oyster Bay on Long Island, was shocked when informed of the disaster in San Diego. Roosevelt, perhaps more than any president before or since, loved the navy and saw the destiny of the United States tied directly to her ability to exercise her will on the high seas. As an avid believer in Alfred Thayer Magan’s theories regarding sea power and its influence on history, Roosevelt had pushed hard for a modern naval force that would be the equal of any in the world. The outcome of his personal vision was the Great White Fleet, of which the Bennington was part. But Roosevelt’s attention was also focused on another but not wholly unrelated issue in late July, for a delegation of Japanese were just then arriving in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to discuss peace terms with their enemy, Imperial Russia. Although Roosevelt would act as mediator between the belligerents, he was keenly aware that just two months previously the Japanese Navy under the command of Admiral Togo had smashed the Russian fleet at Tsushima Strait, thus establishing Japan as the preeminent naval power in Asia. Roosevelt was already concerned about the efficiency of the Japanese Imperial Fleet — and the small size of the American Pacific Squadron, which had just suffered the loss of one of its ships.
With this in mind, Secretary of the Navy Charles Bonaparte hurried back to Washington, D.C., from his summer vacation and ordered an immediate inquiry into the disaster. Admiral Caspar Goodrich was assigned to head the investigative board. Goodrich received his orders and steamed to San Diego aboard the cruiser Chicago.
In the meantime, San Diego was trying to cope with the aftermath of the disaster. By the evening of July 22, the death toll had risen to fifty-nine, and several more were expected to die soon. The few funeral parlors in town were overwhelmed by the number of corpses that had to be prepared for burial. Bodies were strewn about the premises like inventory waiting to be stowed away. As with any major tragedy, a swarm of curiosity-seekers hovered around the funeral homes to get a glimpse of the deceased. Most of these citizens were women. One mortician complained, “They are nothing but curiosity mongers ... they are not satisfied to see one body but want to see them all.”
As the sailors had been different from one another in life, so they were in death. Some lay in the funeral parlors with sheets pulled up to their chins; others wore the tattered remains of their uniforms. A number of bodies seemed almost unmarked, while others were horribly mutilated. One corpse lay frozen with his arm raised in midair, as though he had died trying to fend off the scalding steam. The undertakers faced a considerable challenge in making those with damaged faces presentable for viewing, but they were largely successful in their efforts. Ernest Bartlett was just a boy in 1905, but sixty-five years later he recalled:
I went through one undertaker’s shop ... there were thirty-three in there, and I was surprised that they had fixed them up so well. I saw all the faces but three. Some faces were not burned at all. The burned skin had been smoothed down and colored like Indians ... some had their hands covered up in flowers or tucked into the blouse. They were nearly all young boys.
In preparation for burial, the corpses were dressed in navy blues and placed in hastily constructed wood coffins, almost all of which were left open for the public viewing that took place in the mortuary parlors. The navy refused to bear the cost of sending the dead home, which meant that only the well-to-do could afford the costs of transport and a private interment for their loved ones. As a result, some forty-seven bodies were prepared for a government-paid burial on Sunday, July 23, at the post cemetery, Fort Rosecrans.
One of the dead was chief boatswain’s mate Whitey Gauthier. He had met Lee Strobel at Agnew’s Sanatorium, and Strobel had been surprised to see him looking so healthy. The chief boatswain’s mate didn’t appear to be burned and had even changed into a clean white summer uniform. For some time, the two men compared notes and questioned each other as to who had survived and who had died in the explosion. Strobel did notice that Gauthier’s face was flushed and that his voice was husky, but his spirits were high and he appeared cheerful. The two men were separated in the confusion at the sanatorium. An hour later, Strobel learned that Gauthier had died as a result of the steam that had seared his lungs.
Strobel’s story of survival took its own bizarre twist. Late in the afternoon of the twenty-first, he was transferred from Agnew’s to the army barracks on Kettner. He passed out from the pain of his injuries while jostling along in the wagon and for several days remained delirious. The doctor who looked him over at the barracks decided he was dying and had him put with the hopeless cases, but one of his shipmates noticed that Strobel was a long way from dead and insisted another doctor take a look at him. Only then were his injuries cleaned and dressed. For several days Strobel lay in a coma. When he awoke, he found his face, neck, shoulders, arms, legs, and feet all swathed in bandages, but unlike sixty of his shipmates, he was very much alive.
A stream of dignitaries and citizens followed the long funeral cortege from San Diego around the bay and out onto Point Loma on Sunday. The coffins were placed in horse-drawn flat-bed wagons, which San Diegans followed either in carriages of their own or on foot. A mass grave had been dug overlooking the channel and Coronado, the displaced earth piled up like the ramparts of a fort around which the military and civilian mourners gathered for the sad ceremony. Services began at 3:00 p.m., presided over by Pastor J.A.M. Rickey and Father A.D. Ubach, the city’s best-known and most respected clergymen. Captain Lucien Young rose and addressed the army officers who commanded Fort Rosecrans, saying,
I want to commit to your tender care the bodies of our unfortunate shipmates and patriotic dead ... may marble slabs rise upon this, their last earthly resting place, and may the morning and evening sun ... be symbolic of their shipmates’ affection.
Three volleys were fired over the graves, taps was played, and the crowd began filing back toward the city. A few days later, funeral services were held for Ensign Newman K. Perry, the only officer to die in the accident. Services for the ensign were held at St. Paul’s Church downtown, and again a host of mourners turned out for the occasion. Then Perry’s young widow accompanied the body of her husband on the train that carried it east for burial.
The court of inquiry met in August m 1905 to determine the cause of the disaster. Admiral Goodrich and the other naval officers assigned to the board heard two weeks of testimony before issuing their final report, which stated that the explosion had occurred in boiler B when a fireman in the forward boiler room secured the valve that admitted steam to the pressure gauge, thus allowing the pressure to reach critical levels without being noticed by anyone on the watch. In addition, it appeared that the safety valve that should have prevented a build-up of dangerous steam had malfunctioned. The firemen had unwittingly continued to stoke the boiler until it burst, killing them and roughly a third of the crew.
Commander Young and Chief Engineer Ensign Charles Wade were court martialed for neglect of duty, but both were acquitted due largely to the opinions expressed by Holden Evans, who had been assigned by the navy the task of refloating the Bennington. In Evans’s view, the explosion had not been caused by negligence. Rather he said that since the boilers had been “blown down” (emptied) for cleaning after arrival in San Diego and the ship had not expected to sail so soon, a small amount of oil had gotten into the feed water (the water that is heated by the boiler). When the water was emptied from the boilers, a thin film had coated the metal interior, and as cold feed water was pumped back into the boiler, the oil inhibited the rapid transfer of heat. As the intensity of the fires grew with rapid stoking, the temperature of the metal in the boilers rose until rivets loosened and began to leak steam, which ultimately led to the deadly explosion itself. The steam main that connected the four boilers was broken in the cataclysm, and it was the sound of the steam blasting from it that caused the almost human moan heard all along the waterfront.
But there were darker tales being told as well about what had actually happened below decks on the morning of the twenty-first of July. It was rumored that the crew stoking the boiler was drunk and that Ensign Wade had known of their inebriated state and allowed it. The evidence of this was supplied by the only fireman to survive. He had been sent topside just seconds before the blast ripped through the ship to search for someone who could explain exactly why the steam gauge wasn’t working. It is a tale that, while disputable, carries some plausibility. The United States Navy was not “dry” at the turn of the century but, like the Royal Navy, allowed alcohol aboard ship. The crew of the Bennington had expected weekend liberty but was denied it because of the orders to sail to the aid of the Wyoming. It is possible that more than a single bottle of whiskey was broken out from personal stores as the men grumbled their disappointment and made ready for sea.
Another question centered on the whereabouts of Captain Lucien Young on the morning of the explosion. As Young explained it at the court of inquiry, “I left the ship at nine o’clock to go on shore, to settle bills and head off a lot of stores I had ordered for another trip ... and was on my way back to the ship when the explosion occurred.”
That may have been so, but others differed in their recollections years later. Bensel R. Smithe of the San Diego Sun recalled that “across the street [from the Sun] on the ground floor of the Lawyer’s Block was a large saloon ... we had noticed the Bennington's skipper was there every day while in port.”
A.L. Parmelee, the boy who had stepped out into F Street hoping to catch sight of the Bennington (and would later go on to a distinguished career in the U.S. Army), stated flatly, “Ship’s surgeon Allen Peck was with Captain Young in a saloon at the time of the explosion.” Parmelee claimed to come by this information because the Peck family had lived near his on Golden Hill when he was a toddler.
It was no secret to Admiral Goodrich or the other officers of the Pacific Squadron that Young did not want command of the Bennington. Certainly the commander must have been frustrated when ordered to such a small vessel. Having reached middle age, he was stuck in his rank and saw his chances for promotion dwindling. What he wanted was a cruiser, a ship of much greater tonnage and armament that he felt was more fitting to a man of his experience and ability, and a command that might lead to further advancement in the navy.
His character and record certainly seemed to justify command of a larger man-of-war. Young had graduated from Annapolis in 1873 and was almost immediately cited for heroism while serving on the USS Alaska for diving overboard to save a drowning seaman. Four years later, he was again cited for swimming through stormy seas to secure a lifeline from the disabled USS Huron. He had served with honor in the Spanish-American War and, by 1905, had five medals and five battle bars, making him one of the most decorated officers in the United States Navy. As for his drinking habits, the New York Times wrote, “Although fond of good living, he has all his life made it a cast-iron rule not to drink a drop of intoxicating liquor while at sea ... those who served with him testify unvaryingly to his ability and efficiency as an officer.” Admiral Goodrich prior to the disaster had commented on how “spick and span” the Bennington was since Young had taken command of her.
Whatever the truth, there was no indication that Lucien Young was drunk when he transferred from the launch to his stricken ship a half hour after the boiler exploded.
As is always the case when the shock waves of a disaster subside and those who survived it or lived through it vicariously have had time to reflect and study the event, the Bennington incident produced its share of oddities.
Eleven Congressional Medals of Honor were issued to the sailors of the who had performed heroic acts. The of life aboard the gunboat was the won that the United States Navy had ever suffered in peacetime, and it drew comparisons with the fate of the battleship Maine, which had exploded in Havana Harbor seven years previously. In both cases, the crews were taken unaware by events, and the explosions on both vessels were catastrophic in terms of numbers killed. At the time of the Bennington disaster, it was still widely assumed that the Maine had been struck by a Spanish mine or torpedo.
In fact, both ships were lost because of internal explosions. It was most probable that the Maine sank because of coal gas - odorless and tasteless methane-that built up in her fuel bunkers due to high temperatures and poor ventilation and ignited the ammunition stowed in an adjacent magazine. Another connection between the Maineand the Bennington was provided by first class gunners’ mate J.H. Turpin, who had the bad luck to be assigned to both ships when they met their ends. In 1898 he was badly injured on the Maine but survived to continue his naval service. In 1905 he found himself uninjured after the blast aboard the Bennington, but deciding enough was enough, he jumped overboard and swam ashore.
Perhaps most bizarre of all the stories that emerged from the disaster was that of Roy C. Thompson, a shoeshine man on Fifth Avenue who, thirty years after the explosion, claimed he was really Robert Fuller, a sailor supposedly killed on the Bennington. Thompson claimed he lost his memory for several weeks after the boiler blew and had taken a new identity for himself. In the 1930s he made his story known and put in for a military pension. Support for his claim was offered by a Dr. A. Morgan, who recalled treating a man of Thompson’s description in one of the hospitals. Further support was offered by San Diego jeweler Armand Jessop who, believing Thompson’s claim, contacted congressman Phil D. Swing. Swing was impressed enough with the accuracy and detail of Thompson’s story to introduce a special bill in Congress that would have given Thompson his pension.
Having investigated one disaster. Admiral Goodrich would shortly become the victim of another when his son, a recent graduate of Annapolis, was killed in an explosion aboard the USS Georgia in 1908.
And then there was the Bennington herself. For a while, she lay listing on her starboard side where the Santa Fe had pushed her, between the docks of G and H streets. Eventually, the water was pumped out of her, and she was moved to the Santa Fe Wharf near H Street. At about the same time the court of inquiry was finishing its business, the gunboat was towed to San Francisco, arriving there in mid-August. Because of her age and the nature of the damage done to the ship, the navy decided she wasn’t worth repairing. She remained in “Rotten Row” at Mare Island until 1910, when she was bought by an Oakland firm, which resold the hull to the Matson Navigation Company. Matson used the former gunboat as a molasses barge, and in that guise she worked the waters of Hawaii until 1926, when she was towed to sea and scuttled, going, according to Lee Strobel, “with flag snapping in the breeze ... straight down to her lonely grave at the bottom of the Pacific.”
As for the dead whose graves were on Point Loma, the navy did an embarrassed turnaround on the question of shipping the bodies to their loved ones. Originally, naval officials had “forgotten” that Congress had passed a law after the sinking of the Maine authorizing funds for sending the bodies of sailors home, but the oversight was corrected, and several of the coffins were disinterred for reburial elsewhere.
Almost immediately after the disaster, plans were made for a suitable memorial to the dead. Through private subscription and navy contributions, a sixty-foot gray granite obelisk was built in 1908. At the time of its construction, it was the most visible object on Point Loma next to the lighthouse itself. Today it sits overshadowed by a copse of trees that have reduced its starkness and given it a sort of stately bearing. Thirty-five white headstones are located directly in front of it in a double row, the markers facing south in contrast to the thousands of others that overlook the if harbor. The inscription on the obelisk simply notes that it is dedicated to the Bennington's dead and gives the date of the disaster. But in 1905, a San Diego woman by the name of E.W. Bour penned the lines that perhaps should have been inscribed there. In placing the monument, she said it should be:
By the side of the sea and
the harbor bar
Where the white breakers
roar and run
That each generation as
years come and go
will remember the Bennington.
This story is based on a collection of first-person accounts, historical documents, and contemporary newspaper accounts.
Editor's note (August 12, 2020): One of the main sources of this story was a master's thesis by Broeck Oder, written in 1975 for the University of San Diego.