Explosion 26 May, 1954
William W. Kirk 1954-55
Letter to Paul
Mon, 24 Apr 2000 17:02:23 -0400
William Kirk - firstname.lastname@example.org
LETTER TO PAUL
Memoirs of the 26 May 1954 Explosion
Aboard the USS Bennington CVA 20
William W. Kirk, Jr.
April 24, 2000
June 1, 1954
Paul M. Ivins RM3
USS Sarasota, APA 204
I am at home, on leave. I head back today. I admit it has been mighty tough to go back at times but never because I was afraid to. This time I am downright scared. I have to report to Quonset Point, although the Bennington was scheduled to leave yesterday for the Brooklyn Navy Yard. I am not sure if she left or not. I hope she has although I have a feeling she may still be in Quonset. When I went on leave there were puddles of gas and oil all about the forward part of the ship. They couldn't pump them out because any electricity could touch them off. Work parties were bailing the gas and oil by hand with rubber buckets. I had in for five days leave before the accident happened. The officers who had signed the papers were dead but the OOD finally signed me out and I went.
Consciously I am OK. My mind is a blank and I have a hard time remembering what the burned and dead men looked like. When I sleep I dream a lot. In the dreams I see those guys, I hear them screaming and it's so real. I wish it was all just a nightmare.
A large part of my seabag was in the print shop which was completely destroyed by the blast. I'm only thankful I wasn't in the shop too. None of the printers were but that's another story. I wanted to send you and Eddie telegrams but the wire service was tied up for days. I hope this letter reaches you in record breaking time.
Reveille was at 0430 for the air group on the morning of 26 May. They let us sleep in until six. The PPO woke me about 0605. At 0610 I was sitting up in my rack with my feet hanging over the side. At 0615 GQ sounded. Everyone was bitching. Then the fire bugle sounded. I jumped out of my rack and, still bitching, began putting on my pants. I had one leg in when I felt the first explosion. I didn't know what it was. It felt like a concussion, a big suction. My stomach went up and down, it felt sickening. The deck moved, the whole ship seemed to rock and shake. I went sailing into another bunk rack and was knocked down. I quickly got up, finished putting on my pants, stepped into my shoes, grabbed my shirt and socks and ran for the ladder. Before I could start going up smoke was coming in through the vents. I don't have to tell you I was scared. The PA system was blaring: "this is no drill". Guys were shouting: "Jesus Christ it's real". There was a mad scramble for the ladder, on the second deck it was smoky and a madhouse of guys but amid all the panic they were still orderly. As in our many drills the men went up the ladder two at a time with a minimum of shoving. I finally got to the top of the ladder leading to the hanger deck when I felt another explosion. I looked back momentarily and saw that there were four guys behind me coming up the ladder. After they emerged there was a cloud of black smoke and I didn't see anyone else coming up. I ran to my damage control station which was aft. We were issued OBA's and sent to a hatch forward on the starboard side to assist the rescue and DC parties there. When we arrived guys with blackened faces began emerging from the hatches. Then guys with torn clothing and blackened bodies, then guys bleeding and hurt. After that I tried not to look at them. My mind was a blank. We put on our OBA's and began going down the ladder. I hesitated and someone pushed me. Down I went. It was black with smoke and I couldn't see very well. The bulkheads were all pushed in and the passageways were blocked with rubble. There was water up to my knees. Someone was hollering for help in the next compartment and I saw two guys trying to carry someone out on a stretcher. They didn't even have any OBA's. I took one end of the stretcher and helped carry the injured (or dead) guy up. We had a hard time getting the stretcher through the twisted hatches but finally made it to the ladder where I originally went down. Someone came down from above and they carried him up. I went back to where I first joined the stretcher bearers and there was another one coming through. After that there was a seemingly endless stream of injured and dead men being carried through the rubble and up to the Hanger deck. Finally my problematic OBA crapped out. I tore it off and threw it away. The smoke began blinding me and I could hardly breathe. I lasted about five minutes without it and made my way out.
Some of those guys stayed down there a long time. There were many heroes. One of the guys from X Division, Mike Ostrich, stayed down there about five hours pulling out the dead and injured. The only time he came up was to get a new cannister for his OBA. Mike was always a quiet, mild mannered guy. The last person you would think would be a hero but truly, a hero he was.
After I went up to the hanger deck to get some air I began getting scared and started shaking. Someone gave me a cup of tea and It was the most welcome thing I ever had. After drinking the tea I returned to my station but I didn't go down again. I became a stretcher bearer and as they brought the guys up I helped carry them to hanger bay 3 (aft). The entire bay was lined with row after row of dead and injured men laying on mattresses. There must have been 300 guys there. Some were screaming and crying for their mothers or God and Jesus to help them. I saw one guy who had a badly injured leg which was swollen larger than the rest of his body. Others were very quiet too quiet. The corpsmen were doing their best but there weren't enough of them. in our rescue efforts we ran out of stretchers and were using bunk bottoms. The fire and smoke were finally declared under control about 1000 hours but the rescue parties were still bringing up bodies when the ship pulled into port at noon.
Upon our arrival at the Quonset Point pier we were greeted by long lines of ambulances, hearses and of course the press. Only sailors who had clean whites were allowed to be above deck where they could be seen. The rest of us had to remain below badly in need of fresh air. Finally, at about 1900 hours I managed to get off the ship to make a phone call home. My parents and family were greatly relieved to learn I was alive and well. Well, maybe not so well. I slept (actually didn't sleep) that night with my clothes on, which was to become a habit. The next morning we had quarters and another fire broke out. Everyone scattered and ran for their stations. My knees were shaking so bad I don't know how I made it. A few minutes later all was under control. We went back to quarters.
Later that day (5/27) I tried to get to the print shop which was directly aft of the catapult room where the explosion occurred. I got in the vicinity but I didn't trust the battle lamp I was carrying and I sure as hell didn't want to be down there without any light. I shined the light around and saw that the water I was wading in appeared to be red and black. The bulkheads were the same color: blood and soot. It was too much for me. There were three sections cleaning up the ship. Each section worked two hours at a time but no one was working in the vicinity of the print shop. Early that evening, about 1900, another fire broke out in one of the boiler rooms. When I heard the alarm it was the same thing. Guys running, cursing and praying. My knees almost gave in again and I felt sick. The fire was quickly extinguished but my nerves were really shot. I couldn't sit still for 30 seconds and I had plenty of company. I had been successful at getting my leave papers so I decided to try to get off the ship before my leave officially began at midnight. I took my clothes to the shower and got washed and dressed. I went up to the quarter deck and tried to get off but no such luck. The OD wouldn't let me go until midnight. I hung around the quarter deck with a bunch of guys in the same situation for four hours until finally, at midnight, we all got off.
William W. Kirk
215 Osceola Court
Winter Park, FL 32789