Explosion 26 May, 1954
Date: Tue, 25 May 2004 09:22:32 -0500
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Subject: Re: Bennington explosion-5/26/54
Thank you for your interest in my recollections regarding the explosion in peace time at sea aboard the USS BENNINGTON (CVA-20).
Here they are.
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(The author of this article, Donald G. Hauser, Des Moines IA enlisted in the U.S. Navy from Burlington, IA in January 1951. He served on a variety and kinds of warships during his four year enlistment. In early 1952, Don was transferred to Fighter Squadron Forty-Two (VF-42), Carrier Air Group Six (CAG-6) where he was assigned to the personnel office. VF-42 became Attack Squadron Forty-Two (VA-42) in 1953.)
TRAGEDY ABOARD USS BENNINGTON (CVA-20)
On May 25, l954, Attack Squadron 42 packed up and moved from U.S. Naval Air Station, Oceana, Virginia to the U.S. Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Virginia to load aboard the aircraft carrier, USS Bennington.
The previous day, our AD-4 Skyraiders had flown to NAS NorVa, and when the support staff arrived dockside, the aircraft were being hoisted by crane aboard the carrier. We enlisted people comprising the office support staff were responsible for packing up, seeing to proper shipment, and unloading of all the squadron records. Squadron records were packed into huge metal containers and carried aboard ship by those responsible for them.
This move to the Bennington, an aircraft carrier of World War II vintage, was for the purpose of embarking on another, my second, cruise to the Mediterranean Sea where it would be attached to the U.S. Sixth Fleet on a peace keeping and good will mission.
It was early afternoon when Bennington got under way from Pier 7, NOB, NorVa.
The next morning, May 26, we were well at sea when the ship began launching sorties. The aircraft in the Air Group were being catapulted into the air. Sufficient lift was generated for the aircraft to fly by the ship turning into the wind and moving through the water at close to 30 knots. The wind coming across the flight deck, plus the speed of the aircraft generated largely by the catapults plus a short takeoff run was sufficient to get the aircraft to flight speed.
Several of us had finished breakfast on the mess deck and had returned to the squadron office when we began to hear and feel the action of the catapults.
It seemed that only a few aircraft had been hurled into the air when the ship was shaken by a huge explosion. I remember feeling two or maybe three explosions. Shortly after the explosions were felt, an acrid green smoke came into the squadron office via the ventilation equipment. We could also feel that the ship's engines were no longer throbbing, and a glance outside confirmed that the ship was hove to, dead in the water.
An announcement over the public address system ordered ship's company to go to their general quarters duty stations, and for staff of the air group and its squadrons to standby for orders on the flight deck. Our squadron office was only two decks below the flight deck so it was no major challenge to climb up to the flight deck.
Eventually, word began to filter through to us that the ship had suffered a serious accident, probably in the catapulting system and that many people had been killed and injured. (Later reports confirmed that 103 sailors had been killed and about 200 seriously injured.) Two of VA-42's pilots and our two Stewards Mates had been killed. Several more squadron personnel had been seriously injured.
Ships, for convenience of identifying locations where trouble may exist, are divided into three sections, A, B, and C. Section A was the forward one third of the ship, Section B, the middle one third, and the after one third was identified as Section C.
We learned that the explosions had occurred in the vicinity of the second and third decks about where Sections A and B are joined. This is Officers' Country, and on this fateful day VA- 42 lost LT Billy Jackson, LT Daniel J. Smith, and our two Stewards Mates who served in the Officers' Mess.
Gradually, the ship got under way again but very slowly. Helicopters were airlifting some of the seriously injured to the Naval Hospital at Newport, Rhode Island. The airlifting of injured personnel continued throughout the morning until Bennington arrived dockside in Quonset Point, RI, and then the manual off loading of injured began.
Those of us in VA-42 who had been mustered topside on the flight deck were ordered to report to the hangar deck to carry injured sailors on litters over the side.
As I was walking through the hangar deck looking for an assignment, someone lying on a litter said, "Hello Hauser". I looked down and at first did not recognize the sailor, but a moment later realized it was my good friend, Parachute Rigger First Class, Frank Lille. His face had been burned black almost to the point of being unrecognizable.
I stayed with Frank at that point and when the order was given to carry litters over the side, I and another fellow hoisted Frank up and carried him to the ladder that had been rigged over the side to the dock. As it turned out The Providence, Rhode Island newspaper covering this tragedy took a photograph of the first litter over the side, and it was of Frank's litter with me at the lead end. (I have some newspaper clips of this in my albums of the time.)
Frank was transported by ambulance to the Newport Naval Hospital and later I heard he and many other badly burned sailors were air lifted to Texas to a center specializing in treating burn victims.
I was a Personnelman Third Class at the time of this incident. Since the Bennington was now out of commission, our cruise to the Med was canceled. The members of VA-42 were air lifted to NAS Oceana in a giant four engine Lockheed Constellation.
This was the last cruise I took and a fateful one at that.
Prior to departing NOB, NorVa on the Bennington, Robert McLaughlin of Renssalaer, New York had introduced me to Rosa Lee Del Signore of Keyser, West Virginia who was working at the U.S. Naval Supply Deport, NOB, NorVa. After my return to Oceana, I began courting Rosa in earnest and married her in Keyser in August 1954.
People as low in the pecking order as are Personnelmen Third Class never heard the full story about what happened in this accident. What we read was that a naval inquiry was convened and found that perhaps the nitrogen based catapult fluid had caused the explosions. Also we heard that the Bennington was a jinxed ship as it had prior mishaps.
For many years, the National Safety Council in Chicago, Illinois statistically listed the Bennington incident as the seventh worst marine disaster in recorded naval history.
(May 26, 2004, marks the 50th anniversary of this peace time explosion, death and injury aboard the USS BENNINGTON (CVA-20).)
ONE NATION, UNDER GOD - IN GOD WE TRUST
Don Hauser (515/277-7494)
Des Moines, Iowa 50312-2747