For such a little “boat,” the 15-year-old Bennington (Gunboat No. 4) had not only traveled much of the world, but also carved out a small chunk of history for herself. While on the way to support U.S. operations in the 1899–1902 Philippine-American War, her captain claimed Wake Island for the United States on 17 January 1899. Sadly, the gunboat is not remembered for her service as much as she is for her demise.
Laid down in June 1888 as the third ship of the Yorktown (Gunboat No. 1) class at the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding & Engine Works in Chester, Pennsylvania, the steel-hull, twin-screw vessel was commissioned almost three years later in June 1891. As part of the U.S. “New Navy,” comprising modern steel warships, she was on the cusp of sail-to-steam conversion. Despite her twin horizontal triple-expansion engines, she also carried three full schooner-rigged masts.
On commissioning, she joined the Squadron of Evolution, a formation of New Navy ships created to test fleet tactics and doctrine required for the revolutionary vessels. Collateral responsibilities included “showing the flag,” and at this task the gunboats excelled. The Bennington joined the South Atlantic Squadron in May 1892, the Mediterranean Squadron in August 1893, and the Pacific Squadron in April 1894. Assigned to patrol duties in Hawaii and later along the California coast during the Spanish-American War, the gunboat saw no action. During her time in Philippine waters beginning in 1899, she participated in some combat but no major actions. She decommissioned at Mare Island in September 1901 for an 18-month overhaul. Recommissioned in March 1903, the ship next patrolled the Pacific coasts of both North and South America while also including Hawaii and the Aleutian Islands in her visits.
Following a cruise to the Hawaiian Islands from February to July 1905, the Bennington returned to San Diego on 19 July after a rather arduous near-two-week voyage. Her engines and boilers, which once drove her at more than 17 knots, could barely maintain 12. On 21 July, she was lying in the stream at San Diego, anchored just off the commercial wharf at H (present-day Market) Street. As her crew looked forward to a much needed respite over the weekend, they were scrubbing down decks and cleaning the ship after taking on board some 300 tons of coal. The previous day, the gunboat had received orders to tow the Wyoming (Monitor No. 10), which had lost a propeller, into port, so the Bennington was making steam.
Suddenly, two dull explosions reverberated across the harbor.
The Bennington’s captain, Commander Lucien Young, reported the explosion in a telegram to the Navy Department. “At 10:30 this morning, while making preparations for getting under way with all hands at their stations, the top of the lower furnace of boiler B exploded, forcing the boiler astern in contact with boiler D, which was also forced astern, and exploded.”
When empty, each boiler weighed more than 26 tons. All four of the ship’s boilers were interconnected. Thus, when the starboard forward boiler B rocketed aft, through a watertight bulkhead into the after fire room and the starboard aft boiler D, causing it also to explode, all the steam trunking was ruptured. Tons of steam and scalding water ripped through the vessel. One victim was described as “parboiled . . . his uniform blasted from his body.”
In the event and immediately aftermath, an officer and 65 crewmen died, and another 40 of the 197-man crew were seriously injured. Sections of the upper deck and starboard hull were blown out, and the ship rapidly began to list as water poured through the rupture. Although initially believed to be almost totally wrecked, the Bennington was subsequently found to be “practically uninjured except in and about the boiler and engine-room.”
The loss of so many lives—more dead in this one explosion than all of the Navy losses in the Spanish-American War—shocked the nation; not only did the Navy want answers, but so did the public. Secretary of the Navy Charles J. Bonaparte requested that judgment be held until an official investigation could be made. “I promise the public that nobody shall be whitewashed, and the Service that nobody shall be made a scapegoat.”
Boatswain’s Mate Second Class Lee K. Stroebel was on the forecastle preparing to wash down after manhandling coal when Chief Boatswain’s Mate Lynn Joseph Gauthier stopped him. “We had hardly begun to talk when the ship shuddered violently and we were enveloped in a roaring cloud of scalding steam,” Stroebel recalled. “It struck me from behind and carried me willy-nilly and with great force like a leaf in a gale. There seemed no chance to escape, and my first thought was, ‘What a terrible way to die.’”
Stroebel was conscious, but barely. He recognized that many around him were dead, along with those whom just a few seconds before he had planned to join in washing down. His friend Gauthier was missing.
Stroebel was in great pain yet sensed the ship was sinking. “To make it easier to swim in case I found myself suddenly in the water, I pulled off my pants and drawers. With them came most of the skin from my knees to my toes. The pain was maddening and I stretched out again on the deck in agony.” A launch soon appeared out of the steam cloud and, though overloaded with many other survivors, plucked Stroebel to safety.
Elsewhere on board, heroism prevailed. Seaman Rade Grbitch jumped down the forward hatch immediately after the explosion and began to direct his fellow sailors to safety. A number of survivors later testified that he was responsible for saving their lives. Grbitch carried a number of others to safety.
While assisting the injured, Hospital Steward William Sidney Shacklette sustained a violent blow to his head and lay in scalding water for several minutes. Although almost fatally burned, he resumed assistance of his shipmates and, at the hospital, refused treatment until all others had received care. (Because of his injuries, Shacklette was honorably discharged. He later completed seminary school and returned to active duty in World War I as an Army chaplain.)
With flames threatening a 6-inch magazine, uninjured sailors who were abandoning ship halted to flood the spaces and secure watertight doors at the direction of Lieutenant (junior grade) Alexander F. H. Yates, the senior officer on board. Chief Gunner’s Mate John J. Clausey opened the flood valves to the magazine at great risk to his own life.
While Grbitch, Shacklette, and Clausey were among the 11 crew members to receive the Medal of Honor for their actions that day, at least one other hero was not. Stroebel’s friend Chief Boatswain’s Mate Gauthier had been blown forward into the boatswain’s locker, and the hatch slammed shut as he was thrown to the deck. Safe from the scalding steam, he responded to a hail from a coal barge tug, which had pulled alongside to aid the stricken gunboat.
Leaving his safety, Gauthier ran aft, collected a line from the tug and passed its noose over a bollard. Running forward, he went under the forecastle to the anchor windlass. Stumbling over bodies in the dark, he found the brake lever and used an ax to cut the lashing securing the brake. The anchor chain rattled through the hawsepipe until it shook the ship with a jerk. After scrambling down into the chain locker to release the chain from the bitter end, Gauthier climbed back to the deck of the now unanchored gunboat and signaled for the tug to go ahead. She towed the Bennington to shore, and the gunboat’s bow was jammed into the mud near a boat landing just as her stern went down.
Gauthier, in good spirits and seemingly fine shape, found Stroebel in the hospital and recounted his story. The two were again separated as Stroebel was treated. When Stroebel awoke, he learned that his 25-year-old friend had succumbed to seared lungs. “He was the outstanding hero of the disaster,” Stroebel said, “and might well have lived had he not been so devoted to his duty.”
In the subsequent court of inquiry, the Navy’s examinations and conclusions were clinical. The service determined the explosion was caused by excessive steam pressure in boiler B. That occurred because the valve connecting the boiler with the steam gauge was mistakenly closed, rendering it inoperative. The boiler was under “unusual and heavy firing” to get up to steam, and the safety valves failed. The court also named the individuals responsible for each, but all had died in the catastrophe. It censured only one person, Ensign Charles T. Wade, who was in charge of the engineering department. He was recommended to be court-martialed.
Secretary Bonaparte reviewed and rejected several findings but concurred with the court-martial recommendation and further ordered Commander Young also to be tried. Interestingly, the Secretary specifically mentioned the two officers for inclusion in his personal commendation to the crew for their exemplary actions in response to the explosions. In the end, Young received a reprimand and the ensign was acquitted.
The Bennington never regained active Navy service. After she was refloated, her damage was found to be too extensive to repair, and she was thus decommissioned in October and struck from the Navy Vessel Register in September 1910. Although the former gunboat was sold for scrap that November, the Matson Navigation Company purchased her in 1913. She was converted into a molasses tow barge and based in Hawaii, where she served until scuttled off Oahu in 1924.