Explosion 26 May, 1954
Don Hauser

Subject: MAY 26, 1954 - THE REST OF THE STORY
From: "Donald G. Hauser"
Date: Wed, July 12, 2006 8:54 am
Priority: Normal

Lonnie and Joe:

About two years ago I exchanged EMails with the two of you concerning my memories of the May 26, 1954 disaster aboard USS BENNINGTON. You were kind to include my story under Time Lines/Crew Stories.

Just recently I heard from two people who read my letter which you had placed on the BENNINGTON web site. One was a former shipmate in Attack Squadron FORTY-TWO (VA-42), Carrier Air Group SIX (CAG-6) which was aboard BENNINGTON on that fateful day in 1954; the other was a school teacher from Aiken, SC whose Father was one of the officer/pilots killed as a result of the explosions.

Its interesting how my web site letter has brought these two people to me, giving us the opportunity to exchange thoughts and memories of a former day.

Hearing from these two folks at a time so far removed from the disaster caused me to write another little article which I have called The Rest of the Story. In it I summarized my memory of the accident and related the apparent cause of the explosions which I received from my former shipmate; a cause that I had previously been unaware of. Here is a copy of my article written July 11, 2006.

Thanks for bringing us together.

May 26, 1954 began as any ordinary day aboard a United States Navy aircraft carrier, but it didn't end that way. On that fateful day the USS BENNINGTON (CVA-20), underway and launching sorties in peace time off Nantucket Island, exploded several times killing over 100 officers and men and injuring over 200 others, many severely. BENNINGTON was in the process of carrier qualifying additional pilots in preparation for a six months cruise to the Mediterranean Sea where she would become a part of the United States Navy SIXTH Fleet in its continuing post World War II peace keeping mission of Operation Big Stick.

Two officer/pilots and two stewards mates from our squadron, Attack Squadron FORTY-TWO (VA-42), Carrier Air Group SIX (CAG-6) (home port NAS Oceana, VA) were among the dead. My best friend, Frank J. Lelle, Parachute Rigger FIRST CLASS (PR-1) was among the severely injured.

In about 2000 I wrote a Chapter in my memories booklet titled Tragedy Aboard USS BENNINGTON (CVA-20) recounting the events of that day as I remembered them and then thought no more about it.

On about May 26, 2004 our son, Philip and I were surfing the web during a Brookings, SD family outing when we came across the BENNINGTON web site. It became immediately clear that this date marked the 50th anniversary of the 1954 BENNINGTON disaster. We communicated with the BENNINGTON's Historian and Web master listed in the ship's site and they accepted my memories piece and included it under "Time Line/ Crew Stories" section of the site.

Nothing further happened until June of this year when I received a letter dated June 19 from Earle R. (Rich) Andrews of New Port Richey, FL (I do not remember Rich) who had seen my letter on the BENNINGTON site and wrote that he too was assigned to VA-42 during 1954 and was also on the BENNINGTON on that fateful day. We exchanged some memorabilia by U.S. Mail

On July 10 I received an EMail from a Mrs. Gail E. Wilkinson, Aiken, SC informing me she, too, had read my letter on the BENNINGTON web site. Mrs. Wilkinson's Father, LTJG Charles Edward Hopper was one of the officer/pilots killed by the explosions in 1954. (I think LTJG Hopper was in another squadron because I did not know him.) Mrs. Wilkinson is seeking information about her Father and his death on the BENNINGTON to pass along to her children. I have sent her what little additional I know about the tragedy.

As Paul Harvey would say, "Now, the rest of the story!"

In our exchange, Rich Andrews sent me an article The Bennington Disaster authored by Retired Navy Commander John J. Dougherty. Dougherty's article seems to have cleared up a lingering question - what caused this terrible tragedy?

Dougherty's article appearing on pages 23-24 in the May 1984 magazine "Shipmate" reports in part:

"Hydraulic catapults had had a recent history of 'dieseling' during retract, as does a high compression gasoline engine after ignition-off when using too-low-octane fuel. Internal pressures, in accordance with diesel theory, rose to an estimated 5000 psi. The most recent such accident had been in USS LEYTE (CV-32) at NSY Boston, with a loss of some 33 ...........

"It was the port catapult's one inch diameter accumulator relief plug that probably blew under that over-pressure, vaporizing a stream of hydraulic fluid into her forward officer's country air circulation and conditioning system, as deep as fifth deck" ........ which stream ignited causing a series of at least three explosions resulting in the deaths, injuries and destruction which followed.

A couple years ago John Gillardo, an ex Marine and part time employee of the Blood Center of Iowa and I were exchanging "sea stories" and I mentioned the BENNINGTON incident. John said he was a member of the Marine Detachment on shakedown on BENNINGTON after she had been repaired in late 1954. BENNINGTON had been refitted with steam catapults. I believe all carrier catapults are now powered with steam.

And, now you know the rest of the story.

Don Hauser (277-7494)
3721 Grand Avenue, Apt. 202
Des Moines, IA 50312-2858


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