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USS Bonhomme Richard stirs echoes of 1905 disaster, San Diego’s birth as a Navy town

The gunboat Bennington grounded on mud flats after the explosion. (Courtesy of the San Diego History Center/TNS)

The fire that rampaged on board the Navy ship Bonhomme Richard in San Diego Bay last week sent up smoke that could be seen or smelled throughout downtown and across the water on Point Loma, where a tall granite obelisk speaks of an earlier maritime disaster.

On July 21, 1905, the Bennington, a Navy gunboat, blew up in the bay, killing 65 sailors and one officer and injuring dozens more — proportionally still the deadliest catastrophe in city history. The population then was just 20,000.

The obelisk in Fort Rosecrans National Cemetery rises 60 feet and marks the final resting place of 35 of the victims. Erected two years after the explosion, it quickly became a landmark featured on postcards.

Taller trees surround it now, making it hard to see from a distance. But something else is not as easily obscured, all these years later. San Diego became a Navy town in part because of what happened to the Bennington.

Commissioned in 1891 and named for a town in Vermont near where a key Revolutionary War battle was fought, the 230-foot steel-hulled steamer was used for patrol during the Spanish-American War. The ship and its crew of 200 made several trips to San Diego around the turn of the century.

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The military wanted a stronger presence in the Pacific and saw San Diego as promising for training exercises and support bases. City leaders liked the idea of federal investment, although they weren’t quite sure what to make of the sailors who marched in parades and shined the ship’s powerful searchlights at night.

On that July Friday in 1905, the Bennington was anchored about 100 yards off what is now Seaport Village. It had just arrived from Hawaii but its leave was cut short when another vessel broke down off Central California and needed help.

Readying the ship, crew members tossed coal into the boiler furnaces and scrubbed the teak deck. Then, at about 10:30 a.m., one boiler exploded and crashed into another, which blew apart, too. (Investigators later blamed poor construction and maintenance.) Scalding steam shot through the ship. Water pored in a starboard hole created by the blast.

People on shore reported seeing men thrown 30 feet into the air. Sailors tore at their uniforms and jumped into the water to escape the searing heat.

It was, the San Diego Union reported the next day, “the most terrible accident that has ever happened in Southern California.”

Cots, books, ice creamSailors scrambled to save the ship. One stayed on board to cut the anchor loose so a tugboat could push the Bennington onto a mud bank and keep it from sinking. He died the next day from steam inhalation.

Eleven of the survivors were awarded the Navy Medal of Honor for gallantry, a precursor to the recognition bestowed sparingly these days for combat bravery.

Also on board was John Henry Turpin, who would later become one of the Navy’s first Black chief petty officers. He had survived an earlier explosion, on the Maine, in 1898.

San Diegans in row boats pulled Bennington’s sailors from the bay. Others helped ferry the injured to hospitals. “Strong men wept when they heard the pitiful cries of the wounded or saw their terrible plight,” the Union reported.

Residents donated blankets, cots, books, fruit, ice cream. They volunteered as nurses or entertained the scalded by reading stories and playing music.

“We did not know any of these men,” W.B. Henson, a Baptist minister, said during his Sunday sermon two days later. “We are all one, down beneath the surface.”

A funeral was held that day — so many black-stained caskets that officials didn’t have enough American flags to cover them. Locals contributed theirs.

It took the horse-drawn, flower-filled wagons four hours to travel from downtown to the Army’s burial ground at Fort Rosecrans. (It became a national cemetery in 1934.) Hundreds of people joined the procession, which eventually reached a mile long.

At the cemetery, hundreds more were waiting. They had come across the bay in boats and scrambled 500 feet up the hill.

Bennington survivors working in teams unloaded the coffins and put them in a burial trench that was 60 feet long and 14 feet wide. It took them an hour.

Then Cmdr. Lucien Young stepped forward and raised a hand to get the crowd’s attention. He turned to the Army officers who were present.

“I want to commit to your tender care the bodies of our unfortunate shipmates and patriotic dead,” he said. “May their graves never be forgotten by the hand of affection, and may marble slabs rise on this, their last earthly resting place, and may the morning and evening sun playing upon the grassy mounds be symbolical of their shipmates’ affection.”

Those shipmates, and others, known collectively as the Pacific Squadron, donated the money for the obelisk: 74 blocks of granite, carved locally, and topped by a pyramid-shaped stone.

The monument was dedicated on Jan. 7, 1908. Schools closed at noon so children could attend. Thousands of people made their way to the cemetery.

In his keynote speech, Rear Adm. C.F. Goodrich applauded the city for its “prompt and practical expression of a sympathy without limit and without qualification.”

He said, “So long as there is a navy of the United States, the memory of these ministrations will be fresh and green in the hearts of all who go down to the sea in its ships.”

A Navy townTen years after the Bennington explosion, San Diego announced its arrival on the world stage by hosting a giant fair, the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, and it helped cement what catastrophe had started.

Among those riding in the first car to cross the newly built Cabrillo Bridge was Franklin D. Roosevelt, then the assistant secretary of the Navy. He watched military drills during the fair and told reporters San Diego would become a Navy port.

After the fair ended, with the U.S. drawn into World War I, the Navy temporarily took over the exposition buildings before moving to more-permanent facilities — and a lasting presence in the city.

The Bennington was towed to a repair yard but never put back into military service. Instead, builders used the lessons from its catastrophe to make construction improvements.

Sold for scrap, it wound up in Hawaii, where it was turned into a barge and used to haul molasses. Its owners retired it around 1925 and scuttled it off Oahu.

In September 2011, two submersibles from the Hawaii Undersea Research Lab were on a training dive near Diamond Head. The three-person Pisces subs were working on emergency procedures in preparation for trips with scientists to explore undersea volcanoes and coral reefs.

They were also keeping their eyes open for wrecks of ships and airplanes, which are plentiful in the waters there. On an earlier mission, they’d found a Japanese “midget” submarine sunk on the morning Pearl Harbor was attacked in 1941.

This time, they came across a ship resting on the ocean floor 550 yards below the surface. It was upright, mostly intact, and eventually identified by researchers because of its distinctive round skylights, gun mounts and teak decking.

It was the Bennington, a piece of San Diego history.

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© 2020 The San Diego Union-Tribune