He “did what he was expected to do”

He “did what he was expected to do”.


6923 Kabekona Lane, NW

Hackensack, MN 56452-2236

Merle R. Wilson enlisted in the United States Navy in 1951 from Wright County, Clarion, IA and after completing boot camp at Great Lakes Naval Training Center became a part of ship’s company in USS BENNINGTON CVA-20, a WW II Essex Class aircraft carrier. He was a member of the Damage Control Center (DCC), Engineering Department when the ship suffered devastating explosions on May 26, 1954 in Rhode Island Sound, about 75 miles off Narragansett Bay.

Early morning of May 26, 1954, Merle had served the DCC mid-shift (12:00 PM-4:00 A.M.) and was retired in his bunk when the explosions occurred and the alarm was sounded. Initially there was much confusion and Merle and others were not certain what had happened. Then he began seeing injured men laying and milling about and it was apparent something serious had occurred.

He donned breathing apparatus (OBA) and along with others worked his way to the damaged areas of the ship in order to bring about some control, and removal of injured personnel.

Merle remembers carrying an injured sailor, FP3 George E. Cobb, up several ladders to the forward galley where he was placed with other injured men. The rescue work was not an easy task and the OBA was cumbersome. He also remembers having to leave CHCARP James Walter Hurd in the damaged area, being unable to reach him, and learned later that Hurd did not survive.

When matters were once again under control, Merle and others were assigned clean up duties, removing debris and bailing out water from the damaged areas. They remained on board the ship during clean up, being assigned alternate berthing facilities.

After the disaster, Merle was ordered to appear before a naval inquiry led by an Admiral where much of the questioning was conducted by a Navy Commander. After answering many questions, someone expressed the opinion that Merle “was the one”. Apparently there had been reports of a sailor’s meritorious actions and Merle was identified as that sailor.

Eventually Merle received a Commendation Letter and Medal from the Secretary of the Navy for his actions that day. (See enclosures for copy of Commendation Letter and other specifics.)

In reminiscing about his experiences a couple years ago, Wilson commented that there was live ammunition laying about in the damaged areas. There had not been sufficient time to store it properly. One young sailor was using a piece of ammunition as a crow bar and Merle advised him to stop and find something more suitable and less dangerous to use as a tool.

Sometime around 5:00 P.M., on May 26, 1954, a heavy hangar deck hatch was inadvertently dropped making a very loud noise. Merle and other DCC personnel who had worked continuously in the affected areas were disturbed by this loud sound and thought there might have been another explosion. This caused concern because they were not looking forward to having to return to the damaged areas at that time.

Merle is now 79 years old and was age 23 and serving a four year enlistment when the disaster occurred. He is retired from Northwestern Bell Telephone Company of Iowa and has been living at a family operated resort in Minnesota for a number of years. On October 24, 2007, he received the good news from his doctor that his cancer was in remission.

Of his actions on May 26, 1954, Wilson humbly states that he “simply did what he was expected to do.”

(Based on conversations with Merle R. Wilson, this paper was written by
Donald G. Hauser,
3721 Grand Avenue, Apt. 202
Des Moines, IA 50312-2858
telephone 515/277-7494,,
with permission and editing by Mr. Wilson.

At age 20 in 1951, Hauser enlisted in the U.S. Navy from Burlington, IA
and at the time of the USS BENNINGTON disaster
was aboard the ship temporarily as a member of Air Task Group 181 and
Attack Squadron FORTY-TWO (VA-42) from Naval Air Station, Oceana, VA.
Hauser has other letters on file on the BENNINGTON website.)

(November 9, 2009 - revision)

Donald G. Hauser
3721 Grand Avenue, Apt. 202
Des Moines, IA 50312-2858

Commendation Letter


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