Warship Wednesday: Jan. 27, 2016 The Tragic Tale of the Wake Island Wanderer
Here at LSOZI, we are going to take off every Wednesday for a look at the old steam/diesel navies of the 1859-1946 time period and will profile a different ship each week. These ships have a life, a tale all of their own, which sometimes takes them to the strangest places. – Christopher Eger
Warship Wednesday: Jan. 27, 2016 The Tragic Tale of the Wake Island Wanderer
Here we see Gunboat #4, the USS Bennington, a Yorktown-class gunboat labeled as a cruiser (third rate) in the post card above, and she acted like one, roaming the coasts of the world far and wide, adding to the territory of the United States on occasion, and suffering a sad fate in the end.
The three ships of the Yorktown class, all named after Revolutionary War battles, were designed in the 1880s in a joint effort between the Navy and William Cramp and Sons shipyard of Philadelphia (though only class leader Yorktown would be built at the yard, follow-on sisters Concord and Bennington— the hero of our tale– would be built at the Delaware River Iron Shipbuilding & Engine Works in Chester, PA).
Humble, steel-hulled ships of just 244 feet in overall length, these 1,900-ton warships were slow at just 16 knots and at half that could voyage for 12,000 nautical miles on 400 tons of coal but, when coupled with their three-masted schooner rig and 6,300 feet of canvas carried as auxiliary propulsion, could roam the world as long as there was wind.
They weren’t built to take a lot of punishment, having just two inches of armor on their conning tower and much, much less (9.5mm) over deck spaces and coal bunkers. However for ships their size, they were able to put out a fair bit of punishment, mounting a half dozen 6″/30 Mark I guns. These guns were the standard armament of the “New Navy” in the 1880s and were used on the “ABCD” squadron (cruisers USS Atlanta, Boston, Chicago and gunboat Dolphin), as well as most of the early cruisers (main guns) and battleships (as secondary armament) of the pre-1898 U.S. Fleet. They could fire a 105-pound shell out to 18,000 yards.
Bennington, the first U.S. Navy ship to carry the name, did so to commemorate the decisive American victory of New England militia over a bunch of Hessian mercenaries near Bennington, Vermont on 16 August 1777. She was commissioned 20 June 1891 and was soon off to become a world traveler.
Assigned first to the “White Squadron” or Squadron of Evolution and subsequently to the South Atlantic Squadron of RADM John G. Walker, the squadron toured ports in America, Europe, North Africa, and South America, demonstrating the U.S. Navy’s technological prowess as well as its commitment to protecting the nation’s merchant fleet.
In 1894, after cruising to Europe twice and all over South America, she received orders to transfer to the Pacific just after participating in the International Naval Review at Hampton Roads, arriving at Mare Island Navy Yard in San Diego on 30 April of that year.
After having her hull scraped, she was soon off to Hawaii where she spent most of the next two years where she rode shotgun in port during the upheaval in the combat between Royalist and republican forces there that led eventually to the ouster of Queen Liliʻuokalani, paving the way to Hawaii’s annexation in 1898.
When the Spanish-American War erupted, she left Hawaii and patrolled the California coast on the off chance Spanish raiders would appear then in September set sail, unescorted, to the Philippines. There, her sister Concord on the Asiatic Station had been a part of Admiral George Dewey’s fleet at the Battle of Manila Bay just four months prior, but the islands were far from conquered.
On the way to the PI, Bennington stopped at the unclaimed and uninhabited atoll of Wake Island halfway between Honolulu and Manila and took control of the strategic location under orders from President McKinley.
A subsequent stop at the Spanish possession of Guam on 23 January led to the surrender of that island to the U.S. as well. Taussig inspected the ancient Spanish military positions on the island and found them “condemned.”
Arriving in the Philippines in Feb. 1899, Bennington spent two years heavily involved in the pacification efforts there. With a draft of just 14 feet, she was often called upon to come close to shore and support landings and combat on land with her big six inchers.
She also was involved in the occasional surface fight, sinking the over-matched insurgent vessel Parao on Sept 12, 1899. When things slowed down, she served as a station ship at Cebu before otherwise aiding Army operations throughout the chain.
Leaving for Hong Kong in 1901, she was refitted and soon got back to the business of international flag-waving, visiting Shanghai for an extended period before heading back to the West Coast.
There, along with familiar faces in the form of USS Concord, she participated in a Latin American cruise and patrolled Alaskan and Hawaiian territorial waters as needed.
On 21 July 1905 Bennington was building steam in her four 17-foot long locomotive boilers to leave port when disaster struck.
At about 10:30, excessive steam pressure in the boiler resulted in a boiler explosion that rocked the ship, sending men and equipment flying into the air. The escaping steam sprayed through the living compartments and decks. The explosion opened Bennington’s hull to the sea, and she began to list to starboard. Quick actions by the tug Santa Fe — taking Bennington under tow and beaching her – almost certainly saved the gunboat from sinking in deeper water.
The explosion occurred directly under the ship’s galley just before lunch after a hard morning of coaling and the area was filled with hungry sailors. In all, 66 men were killed and another 46 seriously wounded– more than half her crew. It was one of the worst accidents in the history of the Navy and resulted in 11 Medal of Honor awards for “extraordinary heroism displayed at the time of the explosion.”
These individuals earned the Navy Medal of Honor during the period specified. Their names are followed by their rank and rate, if known, the date of the action and the vessel or unit on which they served.
BOERS, EDWARD WILLIAM, Seaman, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, 21 July 1905
BROCK, GEORGE F., Carpenter’s Mate Second Class, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
CLAUSEY, JOHN J., Chief Gunner’s Mate, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, 21 July 1905
CRONAN, WILLIE, Boatswain’s Mate, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, 21 July 1905
FREDERICKSEN, EMIL, Watertender, U.S. Navy, USS Benington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
GRBITCH, RADE, Seaman, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
HILL, FRANK E., Ship’s Cook First Class, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
NELSON, OSCAR FREDERICK, Machinist’s Mate First Class, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
SCHMIDT, OTTO DILLER, Seaman, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
SHACKLETTE, WILLIAM SIDNEY, Hospital Steward, U.S. Navy., USS Bennington, San Diego, Calif., 21 July 1905
It was a cause for national mourning and the victims were laid to rest at Fort Rosecrans military cemetery just two days later as local mortuary services were overextended.
At the cemetery, a 60-foot obelisk was erected for the crew in 1908, overlooking their resting place.
One survivor of the explosion was John Henry (Dick) Turpin who has been a part of history already.
You see, Turpin enlisted in the Navy in 1896 and was a survivor of the explosion on USS Maine in Havanna harbor in 1898. Remaining in the service despite his experiences, he became a Chief Gunner’s Mate in 1917 and served in WWI. Transferred to the Fleet Reserve in 1919, CGM Turpin retired in 1925. Qualified as a Master Diver, he was also employed as a Master Rigger at the Puget Sound Navy Yard, and, during the World War II era, made inspirational visits to Navy Training Centers and defense plants, likely one of the few bluejackets to have served in the Spanish American War and both World Wars.
All the more of an accomplishment due to military segregation at the time of his service.
Damaged beyond economical repair, Bennington was decommissioned 31 October 1905 and stripped of her armament and machinery. Her guns were likely re-purposed in World War I for use in arming merchant ships.
After dry-docking to repair her hull, she was converted to an unpowered barge for use in Honolulu until being struck from the Navy list 10 September 1910 and she was sold for her value in scrap that November.
The Matson Navigation Company acquired the hulk for the ignoble use as a molasses tow barge in 1913, finally scuttling her off Oahu in 1924.
In 1944, the Navy would commission USS Bennington (CV/CVA/CVS-20), an Essex-class carrier, as the only other ship to bear the name. Decommissioning 15 January 1970, she lived a long an rusty life on red lead row after seeing service in WWII, Korea and Vietnam, being scrapped in 1994.
The old gunboat is commemorated not only in the monument in California but also on Bennington Day in Vermont (Aug 16) which celebrates the battle and the two ships named after it, by the USS Bennington veteran’s group and in a storied painting that hangs in the U.S. Capitol’s Cannon Room 311
Peace originally hung in the hearing room for the House Committee on Naval Affairs in the Capitol throughout the WWI period and was moved to the Cannon Room in 1919.
As for Bennington‘s sisters, Concord remained afloat the longest, being decommissioned in 1910, but enduring as a training and barracks ship for the Washington Naval Militia until 1914, then as a quarantine ship for the Public Health Service in Astoria, Oregon, until 1929 when she was sent to the breakers. Two of her 6-inch guns were brought to the War Garden of Woodland Park, Seattle, WA at “Battery Dewey” where they remain on the property of the Woodland Park Zoo today, aged 130+ years.
Yorktown, decommissioned and recommissioned no less than four times in her 33 years of service, was involved in the 1891 Baltimore Crisis in Chile, participated in the China Relief Expedition carried out in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, tested Fiske’s revolutionary telescopic gun sight, and served as a convoy escort in World War I before being broken up in Oakland in 1921.
The Navy has not carried a Bennington on its List since 1989.
1,710 long tons (1,740 t)
1,910 long tons (1,940 t) (fully loaded)
244 ft 5 in (74.50 m) (oa)
230 ft. (70 m) (wl)
226 feet (69 m) (lpp)
Beam: 36 ft (11 m)
Draft: 14 ft. (4.3 m)
2 × horizontally mounted triple-expansion steam engines, 3,400 ihp (2,500 kW)
2 × screw propellers
4 × railroad boilers
Sail plan: three-masted schooner rig with a total sail area of 6,300 sq ft. (590 m2), removed 1902
Speed: 16 knots (30 km/h)
Endurance: 4,262 nautical miles @ 10 knots (6,376 km @ 19 km/h), 12,000 at 8
Complement: 191 officers and enlisted
6 × 6 in/30 (15.2 cm) BL guns
4 × 6 pdr (2.7 kg) guns
4 × 1 pdr (0.45 kg) guns
2 × .45-70 caliber Gatling guns
6 × 6 in/30 (15.2 cm) BL guns
4 × 1 pdr (0.45 kg) Rapid Fire guns
2 × .30 caliber M1895 machine guns
deck: 0.375 inches (9.5 mm)
conning tower: 2 inches (51 mm)
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