All six shipmates were survivors
The Lancaster News
By Barbara Bradley

Subject: 1954 explosion
Date: Sun, 30 Jul 2000 17:25:30 -0400
From: Barbara Bradley 

I am writing a feature story about the USS Bennington and the explosion in
1954. My brother and a few other sailors from Lancaster, S.C. survived that
Thank you very much.
Barbara Bradley

The Lancaster News--Headlines

'The good Lord was with us'

All six shipmates were survivors

By Barbara Bradley
For The Lancaster News

Cruising 80 miles offshore near Narragansett Bay, the USS Bennington CVA-20 had become a floating furnace.

Proceeding under its own power, she was making her way to Quonset Point, R.I. where her injured could be treated, those who perished could be properly cared for and the survivors could notify their loved ones.

She had sustained the worst non-combat naval disaster, at that time, in military history - where only a single ship was involved. In the early morning hours of May 26, 1954, her catapult exploded, immediately killing everyone in the catapult room. The initial explosion set off a series of secondary explosions causing massive damage to the forward third of the ship. As fumes from the catapult's hydraulic fluid spread throughout the ship, walls of the ship became sheets of flames. Stairs were twisted like pretzels from the intensity of the heat.

Many crewmen died from suffocation as dense smoke and debris filled the inside rooms and quarters. The fires that started just below the hangar deck near the officer's staterooms burned for four hours. It was an hour after the fires began before the crew could retrieve the injured and the dead. Uninjured crewmen carried bodies, some still ablaze, to the sick bay. When all the beds in the sick bay were filled, the hangar deck became the site to place the bodies.

More than 200 men were injured, 80 of them in critical condition, and 109 crewmen and officers died that fateful day. Others would die later as a result of their injuries. The majority of those injured were in a severe state of shock.

Lancaster men on board

Among the 3,500 men aboard the Bennington that tragic day were at least six young sailors from Lancaster. Two of them, George H. Strawn and William Ray Crimminger, were childhood friends and remain good friends today. Crimminger and Strawn enlisted in the Navy together when Crimminger said to Strawn,

"Come on, buddy. We're going to join the Navy!"

Others from Lancaster were C.E. Helms Jr., the late J.H. Brasington, J.C. (Calvin) Whitaker and Harry Joe King.

All six shipmates were survivors.

Whitaker never heard the initial blast that rocked the ship. There were two food galleys on the Bennington and Whitaker was in the chow line that led toward the front of the ship.

The second chow line formed to the left in the backward direction toward the fantail.

"I felt a hand on my shoulder that turned me back to the left," Whitaker said. "I was eating breakfast when we heard general quarters announce that all men had to return to their fire station. We started running. We ran up two flights of stairs to the hangar bay and the flight deck."

Whitaker said it was only after they reached their fire stations they learned what had happened. Through the fire station telephones and word of mouth, they learned about the explosions and fires.

"Later when we went up and saw what had happened, we learned that all the men who were at the front of the chow line were hurt badly and some possibly killed," Whitaker said. "All of the airmen who had practiced launching of the planes until the wee hours of the morning were resting just off the flight deck. They were all gone. Almost all the men in the officers quarters were gone too. "The good Lord was with us."

Strawn's bunk was on the 02 level of the ship underneath the flight deck. When reveille sounded that morning, he decided he'd skip breakfast and sleep a little longer. To get extra sleep, he had gone outside, then to the decontamination rooms and slept on a table in one of the rooms.

"The first explosion almost knocked me off the table," Strawn said. "All of a sudden, smoke encompassed the room. I jumped off the table and pulled my foul weather jacket over my head because the smoke was so dense you couldn't see and could barely breathe. I got on my knees and started making my way out, but you couldn't see anything - so I started crawling.

"I kept crawling and telling myself I had to try and get out of here. I thought of my wife and baby and my parents," Strawn said. "I didn't really panic but I thought I was going to die - I simply thought 'this is it.' "

Strawn managed to crawl around to the open area of the gun tub slightly below the flight deck.

He said he heard a chief petty officer telling everyone, "Don't run! Stay put!" By this time, they were trying to evacuate all the planes from the carrier.

"As the planes were taking off, I saw a shipmate run across the flight deck and a plane hit him, killing him instantly," Strawn said.

Then a general quarters announcement ordered all men to get to their fire stations that were located above the hangar deck.

"On our way to the fire stations, we saw them carrying men whose clothing had been burned off their bodies or burned into their bodies - with no body hair remaining," Strawn said.

By the time the Bennington pulled into Quonset Point, R.I., all of the fires had been extinguished. "We were then called, by division, and each survivor was allowed to make one quick phone call," Strawn said. That one call was just to say, "I'm alright."

Crimminger was asleep in the third bunk up, located three levels below the hangar deck, when a loud explosion woke everyone up.

"The second explosion knocked me out of the bunk and on my way down, I grabbed my pants that were hanging on the chains that suspended the bunks," Crimminger said. "Within two minutes general quarters announced for everyone to get to their fire station."

Crimminger said that fire stations were sealed-off areas of the ship to protect the men if the ship ever took a hit or began to take on water. "Once at our fire stations, through the use of sound-powered telephones, we were able to hear what had happened," Crimminger said.

By the time the ship reached Quonset Point, there were ambulances and hearses from nearby towns waiting. Rescue helicopters landed on the flight deck to pick up the most severely injured. News helicopters were flying overhead.

"They were bringing the casualties to the hangar deck and laying them there. There were undertakers from many funeral homes on board and each of them was trying to pick out less mutilated bodies," Crimminger said. "The executive officer came and ordered them to put all the bodies back. He told the undertakers each one could take the first seven bodies they came to - or leave the ship. There would be no picking and choosing."

The phone companies brought telephones onto the hangar deck so the men could call home. "This time we didn't have to pay," Crimminger said. For the families and friends of the survivors, including those in Lancaster, it was a long, long day as they awaited news of their loved ones.

The USS Bennington was moved back to New York for repairs and was completely rebuilt by March 1955.

In April 1955, the Secretary of the Navy presented medals and letters of commendation to 178 crew members in recognition of their heroism.

The Bennington returned to operation with the Atlantic Fleet Whitaker, Crimminger and Strawn agree that with the passage of time, it is easier for friends and shipmates to talk about happier times spent on the ship they called home - though the memories of that day in May 1954 would never dissipate.

Brief history

The USS Bennington CVA-20 aircraft carrier was named for Bennington, Vt. and a major Revolutionary battle fought there in 1777. She was one of only 24 Essex-Class carriers ever built. Built at the Brooklyn, N.Y. Navy Yard in 1944, she was 872 feet long, weighed 27,100 tons, was carrier of 103 planes, and had a speed in excess of 30 knots.

She played a major role in military history during World War II where she supported the Iwo Jima and Okinawa campaigns, took part in attacks that resulted in the sinking of the Japanese battleship, Yamato, and in the final raids of Japanese home islands.

On Sept. 2, 1945 her planes participated in the mass flight over the Missouri (BB63) and Tokyo during the Japanese surrender ceremonies. During the Vietnam War, she provided search and rescue service for downed fliers, along with surface and air surveillance of the operating area in the Gulf of Tonkin. Most of the survivors of the 1954 disaster would outlive the powerful lady Bennington.

She was decommissioned in January 1970 and was put up for sale in September 1989. Her final voyage came on Dec. 7, 1994, but this time she didn't sail under her own power. She was towed to Alang, India, for complete scrapping.

In remembrance

Although the Bennington was stricken from the Navy roster in 1989, she was not forgotten by the sailors who once called her "home."

That was the year the men of "Big Benn" began holding annual reunions. They meet each year in commemoration of the great ship, the men who served and especially those who died during their tours of duty aboard the Bennington. Technology is also helping to keep the Bennington alive.

Creators and supporters of the USS Bennington Web page are Bill Copeland of Maynard, Mass., Joseph Pires, historian, of Cape Cod, Mass., and Lonnie Whittaker, Web master, of Boulder, Mont.

The Web page,, has received numerous awards for promoting national patriotism and honoring the nation's military and veterans.

One of them, a four-star award, is the highest honor bestowed by the Regents of the American War Library as a best veteran/military worldwide web.





I don't know if any of the guys have e-mail.
Strawn (my brother) and Crimminger don't, I know.
Whitaker may be at the Nashville reunion.
Sadly, Helms has Alzheimers and is in a nursing home in N.C.
Harry Joe King lives at Pawleys Island, S.C. and
Brasington passed away.
What you're doing is wonderful because the history will mean
much to generations down the line.
Have a wonderful reunion.
Thank you again,


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