Explosion 26 May, 1954
"Joel Schrank "
My recollection of events occurring on board the USS Bennington on May 26, 1954
This is a write up about my experience on the USS Bennington which I wrote for our "Squadrons Thirty-Three" bulletin.
The news came over our local Pottsville, PA radio station around 10am on May 26, 1954.
"A massive explosion has taken place onboard the aircraft carrier USS Bennington.
Hundreds of sailors are believed to have been killed and injured".
My squadron, VC-33, was based at NAS Atlantic City (actually Pomona), NJ.
A detachment from our squadron was part of the air group onboard the USS Bennington, CVA-20, getting ready for a 6-month cruise to the "Med."
May 26, 1954, our third day at sea, we were cruising in lazy circles and getting the last of the pilots qualified prior to taking up station in the "Med" and relieving the USS Hornet.
Our squadron was the only one scheduled to fly that morning.
Our single engine, propeller driven AD Skyraiders were going to tow targets for a few hours to give the ship's 5-inch gun operators practice.
As an air crewman, I will always be grateful for that assignment because we were in the Ready Room getting prepared to head to the Flight Deck and "man our planes" when the explosions began.
As we discovered much later that day, the fires rolled right through our berthing compartment and we lost every piece of gear we owned, leaving us with just what we had on our backs.
I was just stepping out of the Island onto the Flight Deck when the second or third explosion took place.
The force of the blast lifted the small ammunition elevator, located just forward of the Island, into the air and caused much debris to blow aft around the Island.
(Some debris lodged in one of my eyes and was subsequently treated at Quonset Point the following day.)
Our planes were launched to make more room on the Flight Deck for the helicopters soon to arrive from Quonset Point.
The dead were placed on the Hanger Deck and the injured were taken to the Flight Deck to await evacuation.
Injured who were screaming the loudest were taken first, not because of the screams but because we knew they still had nerve endings and feeling in their bodies and therefore were most likely to survive.
I spoke with sailors so badly burned they were almost like charcoal who said they had no pain; they died within minutes.
It is my understanding that most, if not all, of the Warrant Officers onboard were killed because their berthing compartment was in the middle of the explosions and fires.
I recall the Damage Control party that was trapped in their compartment and all were lost.
Also, the men who were in the ammo locker when it was ordered flooded by the Captain were all lost but the greater good of the thousands of others and the ship herself had to be the primary consideration.
When things were pretty well under control we had chow call.
Because just about everything not essential to running the ship was shut down, chow consisted of sandwiches made from cold cuts or, as they were always referred to in Navy Slang, "horsecock."
Although the stench from the burned bodies permeated the ship, we still "chowed down."
All Hands had to remain onboard that night because of the potential fire threat.
Because virtually everything was shut down, the ship became quite chilly.
As all sailors sleep in their "skivvies" the chill got to us rather quickly. One guy would say, "I think I'll put my dungarees on" and everyone followed suit.
Another remarked about the cold and said he was putting on his shirt, everyone followed and pretty soon we were all fully dressed.
I doubt anyone really slept that night.
The next day the air group was transferred to barracks at Quonset Point.
I had my eye looked at, a patch put on and told to have it checked when we got back to our base.
A day or two later, I went with our Detachment skipper, a Lt. Cdr. to see if we could salvage any of his gear.
Lt. Cmdrs. had small staterooms shared with one other officer.
Arriving at his quarters, we found that the metal bulkheads had gotten so hot they were rolled up like window shades.
Nothing was salvageable.
For a week we did practically nothing.
You would muster in the morning just to count heads and then play volleyball, etc.
After one week we were returned to our base at NAS Atlantic City.
One humorous incident, (I don't know if humorous is a good word choice) occurred when the admiral onboard, with his ever present Marine Guard,
was approached by a messenger informing him that a destroyer was docked at the one and only berth at Quonset Point.
I was in close enough earshot to hear the admiral bellow, " Tell them to get it the Hell out of there or I'll run over it!"
Needless to say, the dock was ready when we finally arrived.
I'll never forget the sight that greeted us upon arrival.
Caskets were stacked like cordwood and a line of hearses stretched as far as the eye could see.
Ham radio operators were permitted onto the pier to assist with getting messages to loved ones.
Western Union was available to send telegrams.
I chose not to send a telegram because I was afraid my mother would drop dead at the sight of a Western Union messenger approaching the house and never get to read the message telling her I was alive.
I opted to wait in line for one of the few telephone booths to call on the phone. The news of the explosion came over the radio about 10 a.m., and it was around 7:30 p.m. when I got through to my parents.
When I returned home a week later, our minister told me it was a very good decision not to send the telegram.
When we returned to our base our Squadron Commander gave us two weeks "basket" leave meaning it wasn’t charged against our annual leave time.
When we returned from leave we were immediately flown to Norfolk where we went onboard the USS Coral Sea and headed for the "Med."
We arrived at Gibraltar to relieve the USS Hornet just about one month late.
Following a fairly routine six-month tour of duty in the "Med" we returned home in December 1954.
I should note that, our routine cruise took thirteen more lives through Flight Deck accidents and a few plane crashes but that was considered normal for six months of carrier operations.
I don't recall if any of those "incidents" ever made the newspapers unlike the coverage given today.
The above is my recollection of events occurring on board the USS Bennington on May 26, 1954.