From: Bill Kirk
To: Joseph Pires
Sent: Wednesday, March 10, 2004 12:28 AM
Subject: Overturned Barge Story
As requested, I am pleased to provide you with recollections of my "overturned barge story".
During my tour of duty on the USS Bennington (January1954 to March1955) we visited the Brooklyn Navy Yard on two occasions, both in 1954. the first was in January and the second was in June. The first visit was to repair damage from an April 1953 boiler explosion which killed 11 men and wounded 7 others and to prepare the ship for an up coming "Med" cruise. To the best of my recollection, that first visit lasted around 2 months. The second visit followed the catapult explosion of May 26.1954 which killed over 100 men and wounded another 200. We went to the "Yard" that second time to repair the severe explosion damage, to convert the deadly hydraulic catapults to steam and to add a canted deck. We were in drydock for almost a year. On both occasions we were required to unload our ammunition and to remove the ships mast so we could enter New York harbor and pass under the Verrazano and Brooklyn Bridges. After almost 50 years, my memory is somewhat rusty (to put it mildly) but I feel pretty sure the following incident occurred prior to our first visit in January, 1954.
As the ship approached New York harbor, scuttlebutt had it that unloading ammunition was one of the worst jobs on an aircraft carrier. According to the "old salts", very few of the ships crew escaped this grueling, around the clock duty. As a third class petty officer, I was thankfully assigned the job of supervising a crew of about 8 guys from X division. Our job was to unload the heavy boxes of ammunition onto one of the ships elevators and, following its lowering to sea level, unload the ammo onto flat barges for transport to the Bayonne, NJ. munitions depot. There were a number of barges along side being loaded. I was instructed to be sure that my crew loaded our barge evenly so it was not, at any time, weighted too much on any one side. After a while I was satisfied that the loading was going well and decided to take a break. While I was gone word circulated that there was a problem with one of the barges. I hurried back to the loading site and immediately discovered that a barge had capsized and the men, along with all the ammunition, had done a deep six into the bay. My worst fears were soon confirmed: It was my crew.
Thank goodness they were all safe but I can't say the same for the ammunition. A huge quantity of live shells of all sizes and types lay at the bottom of Gravesend Bay, just outside New York Harbor. Once the men were back on board I made myself really scarce. I kept a very low profile for the next week or so, expecting at any time to be summoned to a captain's inquiry. The New York press very quickly got wind of the story and it was all over the papers. For days there were crews of divers searching the bottom but very few explosives were ever recovered. After a week or so, as with most news stories, everything just kind of blew over. The outraged New York newspapers went on to other things. To my great relief I never heard any more about it. Four months later the new CO of the USS Bennington, Captain William Raborn, had plenty of other, more important problems to deal with.