'The good Lord was with
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
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
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 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
"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
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
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
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
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.
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
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, uss-bennington.org, 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.
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