On the early morning of May 26, 1954, fighter jets started to catapult into the air from the USS Bennington (CVA 20), an Essex Class aircraft carrier. The flight training operations took place at the entrance to Narragansett Bay, 80 miles off Brenton Reef Lightship.
The Bennington, or Big Ben, had left Norfolk, Va. Sailors aboard the ship reported the sea looked like a sheet of glass. At 6:00 AM, the first jet on the starboard catapult failed to launch. But over the next 13 minutes, the port catapult flung 13 jets into flight.
Then the men on the bridge saw smoke curling up from both sides of the forward flight deck. An alarm sounded with an announcement: “General Quarters, this is not a drill!”
“General Quarters” means every available man must report to his battle station immediately. Soon after the announcement, an explosion thundered below deck. And then another. And then, reportedly, another.
Big Ben measured 899 feet—three football fields long. Built in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the Navy commissioned her in 1944.
After World War II, the Navy modernized the USS Bennington with high-powered catapults to launch the new jet planes that had come into service.
On the fateful day in 1954, she had a complement of 2,300 men, commanded by Capt. William F. Raborn.
Machinist Jack Douglas Rich had just awakened in his bunk when the General Alarm rang. He smelled the smoke and saw it coming through the vents. Rich threw on his clothes and rushed to his station.
Lithographer Third Class William Kirk was putting on his pants when he felt the first explosion. “It felt like a concussion, a big suction,” he wrote in a letter to a friend. “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.” Kirk got knocked down, then ran up the ladder.
That first explosion trapped the Damage Control Unit, and all perished before help reached them.
The explosion also killed one of the doctors in the sick bay, but Cmdr. Clyde Norman, the ship’s medical officer, and all hospital corpsmen made it. They would be desperately needed.
“The smoke and smell of burning flesh was everywhere,” recalled Rich.
By 7:25 AM, Norman ordered the already overflowing sick bay moved out in the open on the undamaged flight deck.
The explosions had done most of the damage. The surviving crew went to work fighting fires and rescuing the injured.
At 10:25 AM, the first helicopters from Quonset reached the carrier with doctors, nurses, medical supplies and more corpsmen. The same helicopters would pick up casualties from the ship and ferry them to the Newport Naval Hospital, landing on lawns, parking lots and city streets cleared for emergency landings.
In the meantime, Big Ben, whose power plant remained undamaged by the explosion, had gotten underway, no doubt at full speed, back to Quonset Point. Five tugs assisted the USS Bennington in docking at Quonset. Rather than the deck lined with sailors in dress white uniforms, an awesome sight to see, face-blackened sailors with oxygen masks slung over their shoulders lined the deck.
Heroes of the USS Bennington
The fire raged for four hours before the men brought it under control. Petty Officer 3rd Class Francis Both said the engine room, “Looked like hell,” as he pulled dead fellow sailors out of the compartment.
Seaman Bruno Constantini was asleep in his bed when the fire broke out, but he ran to the hanger deck in time to help rescue 10 of his shipmates.
James H. Brown, disregarding his chance to reach safety, instead made his way into harm’s way below and saved the lives of several sailors. He himself received burns and injuries requiring extensive hospitalization. For his action, he received the Navy and Marine Corps Medal.
Navy Secretary Charles Thomas gave 178 awards for heroism to crewmen of the USS Bennington on April 22, 1955.
A court of inquiry determined the leaking hydraulic from the catapult system vaporized and ignited, causing the explosions. As a result of this finding, the Navy converted all the catapults on its carriers to steam-driven systems. They further designated the tragedy as the second worst disaster aboard a naval vessel not caused by enemy action in naval history.
When all was said and done, 104 officers and men died in the explosion and 139 others injured. A memorial plaque was dedicated in Newport to those who perished in this incident.
Ironically, the U.S. Navy had two ships named the Bennington in its history. A gun boat blew up in the first one in San Diego Harbor in 1905, killing 56 men.
Leo Caisse, the author of this story, recently published the book, The Civilian Conservation Corps: A Guide to Their Works in Rhode Island. He has also published a number of historical articles, including Ears On the World in America in World War II Magazine, October, 2017. He has a B.A. and M.A. in American History from Providence College and he lives in East Providence, R.I.