The U.S.S. Bennington: Policy or Personnel

Who to blame for the gunboat explosion?

Bennington victims' funeral. Some said the boiler had a small leak, which caused the explosion. Others said the safety and sentinel valves were rusted.
  • Bennington victims' funeral. Some said the boiler had a small leak, which caused the explosion. Others said the safety and sentinel valves were rusted.
  • San Diego Historical Society

Qn July 21,1905, the USS. Bennington, a patrol gunboat, anchored in San Diego harbor. The “trim, white, buff,” 230-foot vessel had a crew of 197 officers and men. During the Spanish-American War of1898, the Bennington patrolled the coastal waters of the Philippines, “showing the U.S. flag” and suppressing an insurrection.

The 12-year-old ship’s boilers once produced 17 knots. Now they labored to make 12. Scuttle said its next duty, escorting the broken-down Wyoming to Port Hartford, could be its last.

Under an overcast sky, at 10:30 a.m. two dull explosions—a “rumble like distant thunder” — echoed across San Diego Bay. Steam erupted through the Bennington s deck amidships. Men splayed about, “tossed by the detonation.” The steam “parboiled” Ensign Newman Perry, “his uniform blasted off his body.”

Boatswains mate Lee Strogel: “Still conscious, I realized that I was being carried toward the forward hatch, perhaps 50 feet from where Gauthier and I had been talking.” Charles Gary Wheeler: “I could not imagine what had happened.... Immediately the quarters were filled with scalding steam. It grew dark, too, because the steam was so thick.”

After the explosion, as bluejackets screamed and scrambled about, Rade Grbitch ran down the forward hatch, shouting, “This way out!” — an act that saved many lives.

Hospital steward William S. Shackiette, having sustained a violent blow on the head, came to in scalding water. “Although almost fatally burned, he resumed assistance to his shipmates and, at the hospital, refused treatment until all others, some much less injured, had been cared for by physicians.”

The Coronado ferry Ramona and the Spreckels tug Santa Fe pulled survivors from the bay. The Santa Fe then pushed the Bennington into a mudbank to prevent it from sinking.

More havoc. Flames “licked at the door of a magazine that contained several tons of ammunition.” Several bluejackets secured all watertight doors. John Clausey, “with great risk to his life,” ran through scalding water and over dead bodies to open the valves and flood the magazine.

At 11:00 a.m., steam still spewed, and a thick green slime covered the decks. At this time, the captain of the Bennington, Commander Lucien Young, came on board: his whereabouts to that point a mystery.

The explosion injured at least 50 sailors and filled 64 flag-draped coffins, most of which received burial at Fort Rosecrans. The Bennington explosion was a “disaster unprecedented in the peacetime Navy.” For years afterward the question remained: What happened?

Until 1899, midshipmen at the Naval Academy trained to become either engineers or officers. A caste system evolved, the officers looking down on the engineers. The Personnel Bill of March 3, 1899, combined the two: “Henceforth all cadets at Annapolis had to receive both engineering and deck training.” Officers already in the fleet “had their ranks merged and became liable to serve in either engineering or deck divisions aboard ship.”

The move promised more well-rounded seamen, but to many it made no sense. Unqualified officers became responsible for the “complex yet delicate machinery of steam driven, coal-fired warships.”

Charles T. Wade, chief engineer of the Bennington, was a young ensign three years out of Annapolis. He had no training as an engineer— didn’t have a warrant machinist to help his duties — and may not have detected the trouble with Boiler B.

Some said the boiler had a small leak, which caused the explosion. Others said the safety and sentinel valves were rusted. Others estimated that “not more than $50 worth of repairs had been done on the boilers in the previous five years.”

A correspondent from the Chicago Record-Herald: “The Bennington was obsolete. The Navy wanted to get rid of it but waited too long. The fault lay in the Navy department. It was the fault of policy, not of any one man.”

The Navy blamed Wade — whom it wanted to “make an example” — and Commander Young.

In the court of inquiry, Wade came off as “ignorant or careless or both.” The engineering logs lacked data. Wade’s response: “I always had trouble getting the machinist to log the repairs.” Though they were “old,” Wade continued, no one considered the boilers “in the least dangerous.” They received “very, very careful attention.”

During the long inquiry the Scientific American criticized the Navy’s new system, noting a “need for engineering specialists.” The Nation went further: “Costly errors by unqualified personnel laid up a number of ships with machinery malfunctions.... In 1897 the Bennington went to sea with two engineers with a total of over 30 years of experience. In 1905, the gunboat had only Ensign Wade.”

Several witnesses for the prosecution experienced what came to be known as “Bennington amnesia,” omitting key evidence that discredited the Navy.

W.H. Allerdice, Naval engineer, testified that the life of a Bennington-type boiler spanned about nine years. “The boilers should have been removed.”

After a long court-martial, the often-decorated Commander Young received a letter of reprimand and eventually rose to the rank of Rear Admiral.

“By 1975, Navy policy had changed to include ‘restricted’ line officers, men who would specialize in but one field, engineering among them.”

Declared not guilty, Wade returned to active duty. He reached lieutenant commander in 1911 and retired in 1913. During WWI, he taught at the Naval Academy. “Holder of the Spanish Campaign Medal, the Philippine Campaign Medal, the Nicaraguan Campaign Medal, and the Navy Expeditionary Medal, Wade struggled all his life to be rid of the Bennington onus...[he] proved unsuccessful in this battle. Wade died on July 14,1942, still known then and even today as ‘that ensign on the Bennington.’”

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