Hospital Ship Down
Loss of USS Benevolence (AH-13)

by Durward L. "Dusty" Rhodes, Clarkston, Georgia

 
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Introduction

The material found on this page of the Korean War Educator was compiled by Durward L. "Dusty" Rhodes of Clarkston, Georgia.  In February 2013 Mr. Rhodes sent this document to the Korean War Educator, granting permission for it to be posted on the KWE so that readers worldwide will have the opportunity to learn more about the fate of the hospital ship, USS Benevolence (AH-13).

Table of Contents:


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Prospectus

This prospectus offers a naval military history article concerning first stunning loss of a U.S. Navy hospital ship with twenty-two fatalities within the Golden Gate Strait adjoining San Francisco Bay in late August 1950.  A book has never been published with the event as primary topic--moreover only a very few magazine articles.  This writing is also compiling a manuscript for publication of a first book concerning loss of USS Benevolence (AH-13).

The article explores lesser-known facts behind a too-hasty attempt to reactivate a U.S. Navy hospital ship from the U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet in response to the new Korean Police Action.  That operation incepts 25 June 1950 as the North Korean Army thunders across the 38th Parallel Demilitarized Zone en route to Seoul, South Korea--scant twenty miles south.  There quickly subsumes an immediate dire need for at least two more U.S. Navy hospital ships on station off the Korean Peninsula.  The reactivated five year old Haven-class hospital ship Benevolence is recklessly speeding at 18 knots through dense fog within the Golden Gate Strait at San Francisco, California when suddenly rammed by a fully-loaded outgoing U.S. registry freighter on 25 August 1950.  Fortunately carried just south of the inbound ship channel by an ebbing San Francisco Bay tide, the capsized 520-foot white ship languidly sinks to a shallow depth of eighty-five feet a short forty minutes following the collision four scant miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge--neither seen nor heard by any in the dense fog.  Among some 500 aboard suddenly entering the frigid water, eleven naval personnel and eleven federal civil service employees will die of either drowning or immersion hypothermia before delayed rescue of 490 frigid, sodden survivors following up to five hours in 58 degree Fahrenheit water for some in foggy darkness.

During evidentiary hearings a U.S. Navy captain serving as interim commanding officer of the hospital ship during one-day reactivation sea trials is recommended for a general court-martial by a naval court of inquiry.  The master of the errant freighter is recommended for revocation of his master's, first mate's and second mate's licenses by a U.S. Coast marine investigation board.  A general court-martial finds the Navy captain guilty of the cardinal sin of Hazarding a Naval Vessel with one specification of Gross Negligence.  Damning evidence against him includes improper operation of a certified radar set, twelve lifeboats incapable of activation, failures of aged kapok life jackets and Carlie life rafts plus negligence in permitting a harbor pilot with the conn at time of collision to speed through the Golden Gate Strait at 18 knots in blinding fog.  A compelling mystery surrounds a commissioned naval officer assigned by temporary additional duty orders to the hospital ship as Progress Officer one week prior to one-day reactivation sea trials--later coincidentally numbered among the eleven naval dead--whose badly decomposed body is not recovered for nineteen days following the colossal loss of ship and victims.


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Hospital Ship Down - Loss of USS Benevolence (AH-13)

- by Durward L. "Dusty" Rhodes, LCDR MSC USN (Ret.)

Rammed in Dense Fog

Literally racing at 18 knots (27 mph) through thick fog completely occluding the Golden Gate Strait at San Francisco, California at 5:00 p.m. on Friday, 25 August 1950, the majestic white U.S. Navy hospital ship Benevolence with three large red crosses festooning her sides is suddenly rammed hard near the bow by an unseen large vessel.  The 520-foot, 14,450-ton white ship is first struck hard on the port (left) side abaft two forward dry cargo holds, near frame 75, just ahead of the navigation bridge house.  An unseen large vessel--imperceptively straying southwest from the outboard ship channel in heavy fog to violate the inbound ship channel--is a fully-loaded U.S. registry commercial freighter, S.S. Mary Luckenbach of the Luckenbach Steamship Line, New York, New York.  Jarring collision site is scant four miles due west of the massive Golden Gate Bridge in blinding fog.

An insurmountable irony is that none upon that nearby orange bridge either hear or see anything unusual in the blinding fog--beyond baleful blaring of two bridge foghorns--the same later to be mournfully heard by some 500 desperate swimmers in the foggy gloom of a dark night.  Reported water temperature is 58 degrees Fahrenheit as the frigid Japanese Current sweeps southward past Alaska, then down the U.S. West Coast.

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"Ripping Her Open Like a Can Opener"

Under reduced energy thrust of rebound momentum, the freighter's bow again impacts the white hull immediately beneath the port navigation bridge wing--penetrating one-inch thin hull plating a second time.  Next the freighter's barely visible ugly black bow stem grinds aft in direct contact with the stricken hospital ship's portside hull amidst screeching cacophony, ripping out entire horizontal strakes (sections) of thin steel hull plating.  As the bow of the ramming freighter gouges aft along the port hull, the reactivating 520 foot white hospital ship is doomed to rapidly capsize and sink, first casting dazed occupants into a very frigid sea in the gathering gloom. 

Massive unhindered cold, green water volumes cascade into the largest buoyant area within the hull--unprotected hospital spaces--the weight of rapidly increasing water quickly overcoming limited inherent buoyancy.  Some 500 souls will quickly find themselves involuntary participants within a horrendous cold-water immersion survival exercise.  Most survivors will later relate simply stepping from a white virtually-flat starboard hull into remarkably cold water--taking away one's breath.  To be evenly divided in death, eleven naval personnel and eleven Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) civil service employees leaving the floundering ship alive soon expire from drowning and/or immersion hypothermia before blessed rescue of the sodden remainder by a veritable flotilla of some forty small powered vessels in foggy darkness.

Mortally stricken Benevolence--showing a U.S. Coast Guard (USCG)-estimated 300 square foot forward port hull penetration--immediately commences sinking to port by the head.  Fortunately lifted a short distance south of the inbound ship channel upon a southwest San Francisco Bay ebbing tide, only barking brown seals and squawking gray-and-white seagulls witness the final foundering agony in dense fog.  Between Mile Rocks and Seal Rocks--literally lying flat upon her port beam--the ravished white ship languidly disappears from sight within some forty short minutes beyond a massive grinding collision.

Only vertical strings of air bubbles, rising amidst a host of buoyant flotsam surging upward from the slowly sinking hull, attests to her untimely passing--save a few errant blue kapok life rafts cresting waves in a brisk southwest current, rafts lost due to missing painter lines.  Through unstinting heroism of two senior enlisted Boiler Tenders voluntarily reentering a rapidly flooding engine room to manually relieve accumulated steam pressure from two super-heated boilers, shattering explosions from cold sea water cascading down the sole exhaust funnel are mercifully precluded.

A local San Francisco news photo the following day reveals a long mangled ribbon of white metal dangling from the crumpled bow of freighter S.S. Mary Luckenbach--high-and-dry within a Bethlehem Steel Company's dry dock near the China Basin, east of the Embarcadero.  Some speculate that the large freighter's missing port anchor continually gouges white metal plating along the hull, "ripping her open like a can opener."  But from whence a rarely seen white Navy hospital ship bearing three red crosses on San Francisco Bay in late August 1950?

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U.S. Navy Hospital Ships

The U.S. Army and U.S. Navy operate a total of forty-two white vessels of mercy under provisions of the 10th Geneva Convention during the first half of the twentieth century.  Ironically, Benevolence is lost in the final year of the first half-century.  Nexus of modern U.S. military hospital ships is the First World War.  During 1917-1918, U.S. military hospital ships--primarily Army operated--serve principally as transporters of post-operative military wounded from western European battlefields via French ports to the U.S. East Coast.  It was also a common practice during World War II to see additional medical personnel assigned to Army troop transports to care for returning wounded aboard.

The U.S. Navy operates fifteen white hospital ships under Geneva Conventions throughout World War II.  First hospital ship of either service built as such from the keep up, Relief (AH-1) is commissioned 28 December 1920 at 9,750 tons with 500 patient beds and a mixed crew of 375.  She nobly serves twenty-five years until 1946, before finally succumbing to scrappers' torches.  Ship conversions are source of all other fourteen U.S. Navy white mercy vessels; four East Coast domestic passenger liners; one transoceanic passenger liner; three military troopships; three U.S. Maritime Commission type C1-B dry cargo ships and six type C4-S-B2 troop transport hulls with rear engine rooms--tardily in late 1944-early 1945 converted as Haven class hospital ships.  Each of six Haven sisters at 520 feet displaces 14,450 empty tons at 18 knots with 800 patient beds and a mixed operating crew of 580.

U.S. Navy hospital ships in large Pacific Theater military amphibious operations sail with naval operating crews under direct command of service force task group commanders.  Early challenges include Tarawa Atoll in the Gilbert Islands in November 1943, followed by the mid-Pacific Marshall Islands in early 1944--all on the heels of peripatetic medical experiences at Guadalcanal in the lower Solomon Islands from August 1942 through February 1943.  U.S. Navy medical complements--comprised of medical, dental, nursing and medical administrative officers of the Hospital Corps supported by enlisted pharmacist's mates function under egis of the Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) at Washington, D.C.  Sole exceptions are three smaller vessels of the Comfort (Ah-6) class with U.S. Navy operating crews and U.S. Army hospital ship complements embarked.  Three armed gray U.S. Navy troop transports also serve as frontline Medical Evacuation Transports (APH)--pending very tardy arrival in theater in Spring 1945 of six new Haven class vessels with 800 beds.

Wounded sailors and marines, evacuated from Central and Western Pacific combat zones, receive skilled medical care aboard white hospital ships--each en route first to Mobile Base Hospitals erected by navy Seabees in secure Pacific rear areas.  There each is treated for a desired return to duty or a second white voyage to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital at Oakland, California.  After further palliative treatment, each warrior eventually returns to duty or lengthy convalescence leading to eventual medical disability discharge--a gleaming Purple Heart Medal proudly resting among new combat decorations in either event.

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U.N. Korean Police Action

A sudden urgent need for recall of two decommissioned hospital ships from the U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet evolves from a new United Nations Korean Police Action erupting on 25 June 1950. The communist North Korean Army thunders across the demilitarized zone (DMZ) at the 38th Parallel in a pell-mell rush to Seoul, capitol of South Korea--scant twenty miles south.  With USS Consolation (AH-15) initially the sole white vessel of mercy on station off the Korean Peninsula, a growing daily deficit of medical assistance requires urgent surcease.

The Chief of Naval Operations soon orders speedy recall of two hospital ships to be hastily dispatched sent to Korean waters.  The Navy Surgeon General soon selects Benevolence (AH-13) and Repose (AH-16) for hurried reactivation.  Each selectee swings at anchor in rusting repose within the Mare Island Group, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet--placidly anchored within southern extremity of Mare Island Sound on the Napa River--due west of the small town of Vallejo, California.  Two tugboats quickly shepherd Repose "east down the bay" to the Hunters Point Naval Shipyard at San Francisco for hurried reactivation, while similar work commences at Mare Island Naval Ship Yard (MINS) to reawaken Benevolence.  An engineering gang from Mare Island's Reserve Submarine Group II soon works long hours--boiling preservative oil from a single turbine engine equipped with Falk reduction gear, and preparing two Babcock  Wilcox steam boilers to propel the ship at 18 knots plus various mechanical re-awakenings.

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Watertight Integrity

Watertight integrity is an inherent feature of each buoyant watercraft-regardless of size--hopefully ensuring random water entry into the hull does not lead to structural discontinuity with eventual foundering, as unchecked increasing weight of water overwhelms inherent buoyancy.  The vital linchpin of combat vessels, watertight integrity is designed in much lesser degrees within various classes of naval auxiliary vessels and to a much lesser extent among white hospital ships--not reckoned by marine architects to experience significant damage.  In design of Haven class hospital ships, virtually no watertight integrity exists throughout the largest buoyant area--unprotected hospital spaces comprising the major hull volume.  Two open staircases easily accommodating two-man stretchers--versus metal ladders with watertight hatches--extend from the main deck down three full decks.  An electric elevator accommodating one wheeled gurney is provided at either end of hospital spaces from the main deck to lowest complete deck.  The rear elevator assembly also extends downward to a small one-refrigerator-drawer morgue atop the keel--immediately adjacent to the hospital division's sole medical storeroom.  World War II naval designers seem to rely more upon a hallowed mystique of Geneva Conventions than thick steel plating to protect vulnerable thin white hulls with their precious maimed and wounded cargoes.

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Refurbished Lifeboats

A critical reactivation task assigned to a MINS maintenance ship is the refurbishment of twelve nested white wooden lifeboats plus two wooden motor whaleboats, a small white motor launch and a captain's gig--all continually exposed to the elements--some without canvas boat covers.  Upon an imminent foggy Friday afternoon, twelve wooden lifeboats will be "suddenly discovered improperly attached to dual Welin gravity davits"--short pieces resembling rigid welding rods hammered into place as davit cable attachments vice required use of simple hand-operated pelican books.  In some few instances, pelican hooks will be evident with some Welin gravity davits, but their simple design will be defeated by improper davit cable attachment methods employed.

It simply beggars the imagination that such large-scale safety infractions are apparently not observed--mayhap detected but not reported?--in absolute haste to reactivate the hospital ship.  Had the vessel sunk farther out to sea without lifeboats available, t death toll indubitably could easily have been much larger.  A former MINS maintenance official avowed:

  1. Twelve wooden lifeboats are first lowered to a Mare Island pier by active duty Navy personnel not assigned to the shipyard.

  2. Twelve lifeboats are properly refurbished by shipyard employees.

  3. Twelve refurbished lifeboats are again hauled aboard the hospital ship by active duty Navy Reserve Submarine Group II personnel--not MINS personnel.

  4. Unknown parties are solely responsible for unauthorized davit-cable attachment methods by which all twelve lifeboats will be discovered nested above the boat deck along each side on a foggy Friday afternoon.  Parenthetically, lifeboats in Welin gravity davits normally function electronically, first lowered to the boat deck for filling.  Within emergency conditions lacking electrical power, filled boats are lowered by gravity to the water via hand-operated manual cranks.

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Kapok Survival Equipment

A third major survival-component failure ironically concerns encapsulated vegetation.  All life jackets and Carlie life raft boats stored aboard Benevolence are aged World War II-era survival equipment.  Faded blue cloth life jacket assemblies are filled with a vegetative substance termed kapok--a mass of silk fibers encapsulating the seeds of the African ceiba tree. Its relatively low cost and ready availability rendered kapok a useful natural material for filling certain non-inflatable life jackets and also formed solid kapok blocks serving as buoyant foundations for single-use Carlie-type life rafts with open lattice wooden flooring to preclude water formations.

However, a natural characteristic of the vegetative substance is kapok's greatest drawback--an insidious propensity for eventual diminution of inherent buoyancy.  With the passage of time, loss of encapsulated kapok's inherent buoyancy evidently occurs through prolonged exposures to sun and moisture in unprotected stowage.  Some Benevolence survivors will report witnessing empty kapok-filled life jackets--dropped overboard--promptly sinking from sight.  Numerous swimmers wearing kapok life jackets will relate a fatiguing necessity for near-constant dog paddling to keep their heads above water.  Some rescuers will note "overloaded Carlie life rafts literally floating beneath the water's surface"--their occupants' mass weight seemingly overwhelming the diminished inherent buoyancy of aged, depleted processed kapok.

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Foggy Rescue

A mixed flotilla of some forty small powered watercraft of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy and U.S. Coast Guard--joined by a few hearty civilian yacht club mariners--first quests fruitlessly in the foggy darkness for a sinking white vessel--including two destroyers pulled from availability at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard plus a smaller Coast Guard cutter from Yerba Buena Island in San Francisco Bay.  Most rescuers will report suddenly encountering chilled, sodden survivors haplessly clinging to kapok life rafts or smaller flotsam or otherwise gamely struggling to stay afloat wearing kapok life jackets in foggy darkness. A few earlier-arriving rescue boats plus Presidio military police will report observing "approximately a half-dozen corpses wearing yellow life jackets" washing ashore at Ocean Beach--directly beneath the sprawling Presidio's artillery cantonment--facing the newly-sunken hospital ship a scan few miles west.

Implausible heroes of that foggy, frigid night are a precious few of San Francisco's immigrant Italian fishermen--each blindly blundering into a seascape teeming with hopelessly crowded rafts and small groups of swimmers--all fast losing both physical stamina and mental endurance after several hours of frigid immersion.  Approximately one hundred are initially placed aboard S.S. Mary Luckenbach by a variety of small craft--anchored not far beyond where Benevolence founders.  Most sodden military survivors are first landed at Army's Fort Mason Port of Embarkation piers, east of the Presidio, and transported by brown busses to Army's Letterman General Hospital.  Most boats of MSTS survivors are first landed at Marine Pier 30 along the Embarcadero, then bussed to the nearby San Francisco Marine Public Health Hospital adjacent to the Presidio.  Most Navy survivors, after examination at Letterman General Hospital--are transported by bus across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital in Oakland--all such movements fomenting a plethoric morass of nearly 500 souls for frazzled personages vainly struggling to compile accurate survivors' lists.

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Flaky Radar

Once sodden quick are rescued and sodden dead collected, the finger pointing begins.  Captain Barton Elijah Bacon, Jr., USN is assigned by Commander, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet to serve as acting commanding officer of Benevolence for anticipated one-day reactivation sea trials.  While undeniably present upon the navigation bridge--with full authority to countermand orders issued by an MSTS harbor pilot with the conn--no countermands to excessive speed in fog are apparently uttered.  Although the large white ship speeding through dense fog is purportedly equipped with a properly functioning radar set operated by a competent military operator, availability of certified radar certainly does not absolve civilian or military deck officers of Rules of the Road mandates for safe navigation under varying conditions of reduced visibility.

Why should the Benevolence warrant-officer radar operator later adamantly aver there is no apparent return image detected from the onrushing freighter before the sudden collision?  That same radar operator later testifies at a non-judicial naval court of inquiry, followed by a general court-martial proceeding, that while he easily visualizes the shorter left and right spans of the Golden Gate Bridge dead ahead, an image of the longer center span is simply apparently not returned.  Some are inclined to posit that the adjustable radar range selected is perhaps too near the radar transmitter to effectively distinguish the freighter's return image among electronic clutter permeating the narrow Golden Gate Strait.  Could the onrushing freighter's return image be obscured within that same electronic clutter?

Also not readily apparent is a logical explanation--beyond simple negligence--for the "radio antenna suddenly found disconnected from the bridge radio transmitter" when direly needed to broadcast a MAYDAY call on a frequency of 500 kilocycles--standard emergency frequency guarded by mariners.  Only one MAYDAY call is logged at both Navy Radio San Francisco at Treasure Island and Coast Guard Rescue Coordination Center at nearby Yerba Buena Island.

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Haunting Irony

A haunting irony subsumes that should the reactivating hospital ship successfully complete Friday sea trials as anticipated--leading to early Sunday morning transfer of vessel custody at a Mare Island pier to master of a MSTS civilian operating crew of 241 employees already aboard that foggy Friday afternoon--all aged kapok life jackets will be exchanged for newer survival equipment later that same day at the Oakland Naval Supply Center.  Also to be exchanged are a small host of Carlie kapok life rafts.  Along with hurried loading of general and medical supplies, also to bard there are the remainder of assigned Navy medical officers, five dental officers and Medical Service Corps officers--plus two female representatives of the National American Red Cross--all to make a hurried Far East transit.  They are to join one Roman Catholic chaplain, four medical officers, sixteen female nurses, 154 enlisted male hospital corpsmen and five dental technicians already aboard.  A hurried departure to Korean waters will follow by late Saturday afternoon.  But such events morosely will never occur--with twenty-two crew members and observers dead--Benevolence lying hard upon her port beam at some eighty-five feet depth and several overturned lifeboats tangled in davit cables off the San Francisco coast upon a beautiful fog-clearing Saturday morning....

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What Price Ignominy?

A perverse legal irony denies the U.S. navy jurisdiction of Master Leonard C. Smith of S.S. Mary Luckenbach and the U.S. Coast Guard jurisdiction of Captain Barton E. Bacon, Jr. of USS Benevolence.  Compounding the murky brew of maritime litigation, the MSTS harbor pilot with the conn at moment of collision, Captain Lyne G. Havens, is pulled dead from the cold water--victim of an apparent heart attack.  Rapid capsizing denies dazed Benevolence mariners access to twelve nested white wooden lifeboats--notwithstanding that each boat is inexorably attached to davit cables by improper methods--precluding successful emergency launching--period.

Such critical safety ignominies will lead a local USCG board of marine investigation to label Benevolence as "unseaworthy" among several other faults:

  1. failure to advise the locations of stored life jackets

  2. failure to provide proper demonstration in donning World War II kapok-filled life jackets with "dangling T straps"

  3. failure to assign lifeboat stations

  4. failure to conduct Abandon Ship demonstrations before leaving port

  5. failure to place ashore a mandated roster of all aboard before sailing

Perforce, all such customary-yet-perfunctory maritime safety practices are deemed "unnecessary for such a short time" by Captain Bacon in what some will later term, "Bart's Three Hour Cruise."

What price ignominy for Captain Barton Elijah Bacon, Jr., U.S. Navy?  A non-judicial naval court of inquiry recommends a general court-martial proceeding for Bacon.  His joint command responsibilities--all aboard Mare Island Naval Shipyard--include:

  1. U.S. Pacific Submarine Administration Command

  2. Reserve Submarine Groups I and II

  3. U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Training Facilities, San Francisco

  4. Mare Island Group, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet

A general court-martial proceeding convenes in early May 1951 at the sumptuous USCG court-martial facility upon small Yerba Buena Island.  There is but a sole charge placed before the court comprising one line rear admiral and six line captains--naval cardinal sin of Hazarding a Naval Vessel--and a sole broadly-encompassed specification of Negligence.  The needless deaths of ten Navy personnel, one Mare Island Naval Shipyard civilian employee and eleven MSTS civil service employees subsume within that sole specification of gross negligence.

Easily found guilty by overwhelming damning evidence of gross maritime negligence, Captain Bacon's feckless recommended punishment--soon approved by the Secretary of the Navy--is administrative loss of 200 numbers on the lineal selection list for promotion to Rear Admiral, Lower Half.  After a few further duty assignments at the "second banana" command level, his final tour of active duty is administrative command of the Navy and Marine Corps Reserve Training Center aboard Treasure Island in San Francisco Bay.  On 1 July 1956, Captain Bacon's rank upon his date of statutory retirement is summarily elevated to Rear Admiral, Lower Half on the Retired List, U.S. Navy--a quirky "tombstone promotion" practice lingering after World War II.

What fate for Leonard C. Smith, the hapless master of S.S. Mary Luckenbach?  A local USCG board of marine investigation finds him culpable of excessive vessel speed in fog--at the same time absolving Smith's untimely decision near 4:45 p.m. to discontinue the use of functional radar shortly before entering a dense white fog bank totally occluding the Golden Gate Strait.  Appropriate radar navigation guides a helmsman in blinding fog via radar reflectors mounted upon numbered green-and-red buoys--delineating the narrow outbound ship channel.  In their unseen absence, the fully-loaded outbound American freighter blunders at high speed into the adjacent inbound ship channel--enhanced by an outgoing tide--leading to a needless maritime disaster.  That non-judicial investigation board recommends revocation of Smith's master's, first mate's and second mate's licenses--with one-year suspension of his third mate's license. While the Acting Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard initially approves those recommendations, his replacement very arbitrarily and capriciously forgives Smith of his nautical sins--restoring his master's license without fines or penalties.  Whither justice for the twenty-two dead along with survivors hospitalized with various injuries--principally immersion hypothermia--and many irreplaceable personal possessions?  Apparently everything you do at sea is OK, so long as you get away with it!

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An Enduring Enigma

One U.S. Navy fatality remains an enduring enigma after sixty years.  In addition to one military chaplain, four medical officers, sixteen commissioned nurses, and 159 enlisted medical technicians, some sixty-five more interim MINS naval personnel are also aboard among a staggering total of approximately 56 persons--potentially the largest number of souls ever permitted aboard a U.S. naval vessel undergoing reactivation sea trials.

Interim operating personnel aboard include six commissioned officers, two warrant officers, some thirty-four enlisted engineering "snipes" and twenty-two deck ratings--all assigned to Captain Bacon's various Mare Island commands--functioning as a one-day operating crew.  Twenty-one MINS civilian maritime employees accompany that facility's commanding officer aboard plus the ships superintendent functioning as reactivation coordinator for Benevolence--one Mare Island civilian employee to be numbered among the eleven naval dead.  In addition six enlisted members of a quartermaster's gang with one-day TAD orders are also aboard from the attack cargo ship USS Skagitt (AKA-105), similarly soon slated for a fast voyage to Korean waters. Finally, some 241 MSTS civil service employees are also aboard as very "attentive disinterested observers" in U.S. Coast Guard parlance.

There also are apparently at least nine "invited guests" aboard that foggy Friday afternoon as initially reported in Bay Area newspapers on 6 September 1950 by the Commandant, 12th Naval District among Benevolence survivors--perhaps even more uncounted in a truly lackadaisical naval misadventure.  At least six "observers" are present upon the hospital ship's navigation bridge at moment of the freighter's initial impact.  Outranking them all is the Chief of Staff, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet.  Three civilian observers include the perspective MSTS master, Captain William L. "Pineapple Bill" Murray, San Francisco MSTS harbor pilot Lyle G. Havens with the conn who orders increase of speed to 16 knots in blinding fog before collision within the Golden Gate Strait--later pulled dead with a heart attack from the frigid water--and MSTS harbor pilot-observer Captain Henry B. Vreeland.  An enduring enigma in this tragic naval disaster is an apparent ninth "observer"--Lt. Commander Hubert E. Harroun, U.S. Navy.

Hubert Eugene Harroun was born 17 January 1907 at Vestaburg, Michigan.  He enlists in the U.S. Navy on 3 September 1929 at age twenty-two years.  He accepts appointment as Warrant Officer Boatswain (W-1) on 18 July 1942--for a first time reporting for duty aboard a submarine in which capacity he serves until accepting appointment as Chief Warrant Boatswain (W-4) on 17 July 1947.  On 26 October 1949 Harroun accepts temporary appointment as Lt. Commander, U.S. Navy--reporting for duty on 27 December 1949 to Pacific Fleet Submarine Training Facilities, San Francisco at MINS, commanded by Captain Barton E. Baon, Jr.  On 18 August 1950--one week prior to foggy ramming and sinking--Lt. Commander Harroun reports to "USNS Benevolence (T-AH-13) (sic) as Progress Officer for temporary additional duty (TAD)."  Parenthetically, official hull designation never changes from Navy AH-13 to MSTS T-AH-13, since command never officially passes to an MSTS master.  The MINS commissioned naval reactivation coordinator for the Benevolence consistently personally denied any knowledge of Harroun, his TAD assignment to the ship or his simple presence aboard ship that foggy Friday.  Is it illogical to presume that a former Chief Warrant Boatswain (W-4)--ordered by TAD orders as the Progress Officer aboard a hospital ship undergoing hasty reactivation--would at least coincidentally, at a minimum--if not officially--have observed refurbished nested wooden lifeboats to easily detect their glaringly improper attachments to dual Welin gravity davits?

The badly decomposed body of Hubert Eugene Harroun is finally recovered on 13 September 1950--some nineteen days following the sinking--washing ashore on San Francisco's Ocean Beach across from Lincoln Way, some few miles south of Seal Rocks below the Cliff House Restaurant.  His spouse, Mary J. Harroun, residing at 536 Laurel Street in Vallejo, verifies his identity.  Departing Oakland by rail on 18 September 1950, his remains are laid to rest with full military honors at gravesite 8-6439 at Arlington National Cemetery, Arlington, Virginia on 22 September 1950.

But perplexing questions persist after sixty years.  Exactly what are Harroun's specific duties as "Benevolence Progress Officer"?  Does anyone recall his presence aboard?  To whom does he report findings?  What are his assigned duties aboard ship during that one-day soiree at sea?  Could it just be possible that Harroun somehow leaves the ship prior to a foggy, grinding collision within the Golden Gate Strait?  What inexplicable damning evidence accompanies him to his watery grave?

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Epilogue

Although Benevolence is quickly-and-unexpectedly gone, her prospective medical and dental staff survives mainly intact--devoid of one female nurse, two enlisted male hospital corpsmen and one enlisted male dental technician.  Following a couple of weeks in barracks at Mare Island, most enlisted male medical and dental technicians are bussed to Long Beach, California--there to board class vessel Haven (AH-12).  That white ship is rapidly pulled from the San Diego Group, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet for rapid reactivation--following less than one year in mothballs the first time.  Re-commissioned on 15 September 1950 at Long Beach, Haven sails for Korean waters on 25 September 1950 with an All Navy Crew--one month to the day since Benevolence is suddenly lost off San Francisco.

Some number of fortunate Medical, Dental and Medical Service Corps officers--originally destined to board Benevolence at the Oakland Naval Supply Center--indeed first view Santa Catalina Island beyond the Long Beach harbor breakwater versus small Farallon Islands covered in barking brown seals beyond the Golden Gate.  In an administrative decision some today may posit an early attempt at managing as-yet-poorly-defined Post Traumatic Shock Syndrome--all fifteen surviving nurses are denied sailing with Haven--each instead ordered to a Navy medical facility nearest the official home of record.  Only Lt. Eleanor M. Harrington, Nurse Corps, prospective head nurse aboard Benevolence--after a brief shore duty tour at Marine Corps Air Station, Beaufort, South Carolina--is flown to the Far East in late 1951 to finally assume that supervisory nursing post aboard Haven off the Korean Peninsula.

What of Repose (AH-16)?  After sailing from San Francisco on 26 August 1950 with a mixed crew, Repose will swap Korean station duties with Haven.  In a change of command ceremony at Yokosuka, Japan in October 1950, custody of Repose reverts to an All Navy Crew. So much for the MSTS mixed-crew operational experiment--a trial balloon definitely not enthusiastically endorsed by all naval personnel involved.  In distant future years, routine operation of certain U.S. Navy auxiliary vessels--including two super tankers converted to thousand-bed hospital ships--will be commonplace.

With attempted salvage to raise the sad hulk of Benevolence from shallow tidal water denied--since several of her decommissioned "younger sisters" rust away in U.S. Navy reserve fleet groups--in 1951 the hulk is abandoned to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for disposition.  A civilian contract is finally awarded for removing a "submerged menace to navigation."  In late 1952 the ghostly white hulk--amidships hull red crosses easily visible from higher shore elevations at low tide--is dynamited into pieces no larger than fifty square feet--removing an enduring embarrassment to the U.S. Navy."

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Primary Authority - Personal Memoirs

  • "Radar Equipment Aboard USS Benevolence (AH-13) on 25 August 1950", Robert B. Holland, Electronics Shop 67, Mare Island Naval Shipyard
     

  • "Sinking of Hospital Ship Benevolence (AH-13)"

    • Captain James C. Cochran, USNR (Ret.), MINS reactivation coordinator (telephone interview)

    • QMSN Raymond W. Ratliff, USNR, port bridge wing lookout (telephone interview)

    • LCDR Dorothy J. Venverloh, NC, USN (Ret.), nurses' quarters (telephone interview)

    • BTC Mason B. Dickens, USN (Ret.), engine room boiler watch (telephone interview)

    • Boiler Tender Striker Jesse L. Letterman, USN (Ret.), engine room boiler watch

    • Boiler Tender Striker Joseph L. Kalina, USN, engine room boiler watch

    • HMC James A. Jellison, USN (Ret.), enlisted mess deck

    • HM2 Coy B. McClendon, USN, enlisted mess deck (telephone interview)

    • HM2 Garland Van Buren Sloan, USN, enlisted mess deck

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Secondary Authority - Publications

  • Publications -

    • Massman, Emory A. Hospital Ships of World War II: An Illustrated Reference.  Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1999.

    • U.S. Navy Hospital Ship Benevolence (AH-13) Lost Outside the Golden Gate," 10-15, in Bonner, Kermit, Great Naval Disasters: U.S. Naval Accidents in the 20th Century.  Osceola, Wisconsin: MBI Publishing Company, 1998.

    • Meeker, Lionel.  1990.  "Collision: Benevolence/Mary Luckenbach."  Nautical Brass.  July/August, Volume 10, No. 4, 8-16.

  • Newspaper Articles

    • Oakland Post-Inquirer

    • San Francisco Call-Bulletin

    • San Francisco Chronicle

    • San Francisco Examiner

    • San Francisco News

    • Vallejo Times-Herald


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Sinking of Hospital Ship Benevolence (AH-13)

- by Capt. James C. Cochran, U.S. Naval Reserve (Ret.)

Underway to Destiny

In August 1950 I was an Engineering Duty Officer in rank of lieutenant commander stationed at Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California.  Appointed as the Ships Superintendent, I was also designated the Reactivation Coordinator for hospital ship Benevolence (AH-13), plus several other vessels being quickly reactivated from the Mare Island Group, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet for service in the new Korean War.  In that capacity I received job orders for repair of various items aboard the hospital ship, initiated repairs and then confirmed acceptance of work performed by signature of various entities submitting approved job orders to me.

The 520-foot, 14,400-ton white ship with six interior decks left a Mare Island pier around 8:00 a.m. o Friday, 25 August 1950 for a day of sea trials off the San Francisco coast.  Dressed in a khaki working uniform complete with a black tie and khaki barracks cover with shiny bill, I moved throughout the ship checking on repaired status of job orders under my purview.  Later, standing in the aft engine room near the stern, I watched an engine revolution counter showing eighteen knots--along with approximately thirty-five enlisted men assigned to Reserve Submarine Group II of the U.S. Pacific Submarine Administration Command under Captain Barton Elijah Bacon, Jr.  USN at Mare Island.  The interim engineering officer--Lt. Martin E. McLain, assisted by First class Warrant Machinist J. Naschek--was also present.  Twenty-one marine engineering civil service employees of Mare Island Naval Shipyard stood by to offer assistance as might be required.  A group of some thirty Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) civil service engineering personnel--slated to assume operation of the ship's propulsion plant the following day--were interested observers in heated engineering spaces.

When I suddenly heard the ship's foghorn activated about 4:45 p.m. I thought that I should go topside to take a look at the weather--especially since she was doing eighteen knots.  Reaching the navigation bridge, I stepped onto the starboard bridge wing in fog so dense that I could not see forward beyond the ship's bow or visualize familiar headlands of the U.S. Army's Presidio quickly approaching off the starboard quarter.  The ship's speed seemed a bit fast in such dense fog within the restricted inbound ship channel of the Golden Gate Strait--although the hospital ship was ostensibly serviced by a functional radar system and a competent operator--conned by a licensed MSTS San Francisco Bay harbor pilot with a good local reputation.

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Foggy Collision

Suddenly, while I still stood upon the starboard wing of the bridge, the hospital ship was violently rammed abaft the port cargo kind post forward of the bridge by a fully-loaded seaward bound U.S. Maritime Commission type C2 commercial freighter, S.S. Mary Luckenbach.  The force of first impact heeled the larger white hospital ship sharply to starboard by an estimated twenty degrees on the bridge inclinometer--sending some to their knees throughout the ship--then rapidly recovered her balance.  Quickly moving across to the port bridge wing I next witnessed the freighter's badly crushed upper bow again impact the hull directly beneath where I stood--but with much less forward momentum.  I saw none aboard through the fog--upon the navigation bridge or elsewhere on deck--as the large vessel with a mangled bow rushed past amidst a cacaphony of screeching, ripped metal hull plating--literally remaining in contact with the hospital ship's hull along the full length of the port side.

Deducing that two holes now breaching the hull would sink the large-but-vulnerable hospital ship, I left the bridge to seek a lifeboat while the white ship quickly commenced sinking to port by the head in dense fog.  I easily located the first pair of nested white lifeboats among three nets along the starboard side above the boat deck.  However, it was soon evident that all twelve lifeboats in three double boat nests along each side were fastened to Welin dual-arm boat davit cables by improper method(s)--precluding emergency boat launchings under any circumstances.  Customary hand-operated pelican hooks were not utilized to connect boats to davit cables.  Lifeboats in Welin gravity-type davits are customarily lowered by attached davits in the loading position on the boat deck and thence to the water's surface.  Davits work either electrically or by gravity in absence of primary electrical power--manual crank handles available at each boat station as contingency backups.

So the next best thing was a life preserver, but location of such was unknown to me.  A man whom I saw with a life jacket told me that some more were available within a compartment a couple of lower decks.  There I donned a faded blue life jacket from a jumbled pile upon the deck (preparing for Saturday exchange).  Picking up a couple more jackets, I climbed metal ladders up to the sloping starboard main weather deck.  En route I disposed of those two faded kapok life jackets and could easily have distributed considerably more to stunned passengers now seeking same.  I later learned that all World War II-era kapok life jackets aboard--as well as all Carlie kapok-type life rafts--were slated for replacement the following day at the Oakland Naval Supply Center--yet another cruel irony in a rapidly-impending water survival saga.

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Haven Class Hospital Ships

Among fifteen hospital ships operated by the U.S. Navy under Geneva Conventions throughout World War II, a few words are appropriate concerning the hull integrity and buoyancy of six Haven class hospital ships.  All six were commissioned in Spring of 1945--during waning months of World War II and too late for great significance in the Pacific Theater.  Dispelling a persistent false assumption, the U.S. Navy's newest hospital ship class was not converted from petroleum tanker hulls.  Although Haven (AH-12) and five identical sisters sported a single exhaust stack toward the stern, they perhaps somewhat resembled typical petroleum tankers.  The six vessels completed as hospital ships were converted from incomplete U.S. Martitime Commission type C4-S-B2 Marine class troop transport hulls--engine rooms aft to provide maximum troop berthing capacity.  Moreover, vessels of the Haven class were typical U.S. Navy auxiliary vessels--bereft of critical armored hull protection afforded all combatants.  So dual portside impacts by the outbound freighter were more than sufficient to place two large penetrations through relatively thin hull plating--one hole forward into one or both adjacent dry cargo holds and a second impact directly beneath the port navigation bridge wing.  Since the sunken ship rested hard upon her port beam at eighty-five feet, Navy divers were unable to ascertain the exact locations and extent of hull penetrations.  Mayhap naval architects of World War II placed misguided faith in tenets of the Tenth Hague Convention--specifying regulations for hospital ship operation in war zones by belligerents or international aid groups--to protect "tender sides" of white ships of mercy.

A significant factor, very likely accounting for rapid capsizing and foundering of the 520-foot vessel, was that the freighter's crushed bow remained virtually in direct contact with the white hull as it scraped aft along the entire port side--literally ripping out strakes (sections) of thin steel hull plating.  A second factor was the absence of designed watertight integrity throughout the large central hospital section--largest "buoyant area" of the vessel.  Two unprotected staircases vice metal ladders and watertight deck hatches connected all four interior hospital decks.  Two electric elevators--each accommodating one wheeled gurney--serviced all hospital decks--one elevator servicing a small morgue with one-drawer refrigerator directly atop the keel.  Watertight bulkheads were virtually nonexistent throughout the hull.  When adequate hull plating was forcefully removed along the length of the amidships hospital section, the hapless ship was doomed to quickly capsize and sink.  None aboard had an inkling that such tragedy could occur in such forty short minutes--commencing four miles due west of the Golden Gate Bridge and ending two miles due west of Seal Rocks--blinding white sea fog not withstanding.

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Kapok

Kapok is a vegetative substance used to provide buoyancy within certain life jackets or shaped in bulk to provide larger flotation devices--such as Carlie life rafts with open wooden lattice flooring as carried aboard Benevolence.  With passage of time and continual storage exposed to heat and rain, evaporation of moisture content within encapsulated kapok results in a gradual diminution of kapok's capacity to provide vital supplemental buoyancy.  Such was the state of depleted life jackets with which we suddenly-hapless mariners were now forced to survive an impending frigid water survival ordeal.  The same kapok deterioration similarly affected Carlie life rafts stored on weather decks aboard--some later to be seen "floating beneath the water's surface" under occupants' mass weight.

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Abandon Ship

Now several of us sat upon a starboard deck rail in dense fog--waiting for the ship to sink.  We had no idea just how deep the water was, but expected that the ship would plunge when it sank.  Although we heard the word being passed by the ship's public address system to obtain life jackets and to go to assigned lifeboat stations, very few aboard knew where life jackets were stored and none had a lifeboat station assignment.  Finally, the single screw (propeller) became visible at the stern.  Since we did not wish to be caught by it during the ship's anticipated plunge, several of us simply walked across the nearly horizontal white starboard side, stepped over the now exposed starboard bilge keel and shoved off into the cold water.  We soon formed a ring of persons--with and without life jackets--to ensure flotation to all.  Required to dog paddle to keep our heads above the frigid water, we could easily hear the nearby orange bridge's two lower foghorns balefully blaring at each other in the dense fog--preventing anyone there from witnessing our desperate plight so nearby.  Also heard were mournful clangings of bells atop nearby channel marker buoys.

Soon a lone white motor whaleboat bearing two enlisted men--launched from a Crescent boat davit immediately aft of the third lifeboat nest on the starboard side--sputtered into foggy view.  That boat's coxswain refused to stop to assist anyone in the water--instead continuing forward toward the badly capsized bow.  Next, a single dark blue Carlie life raft with a minimum number of people aboard floated by on a southwest tide swiftly ebbing from the nearby bay--similarly deigning to pass close enough to permit any of us to board.  Morosely, it was simply too cold in the frigid water to strike out for that raft only twenty to twenty-five feet away.  Then another life raft floated up--this time we did not ask permission,  instead just clambered aboard.  There were so many aboard that second raft that it "floated" below the cold water's surface.  Soon we haggard interlopers stood upon the raft's wooden latticed floor, swaying with the passing waves--rising and falling within increasingly mountainous swells.  Sodden survivors aboard that raft made a motley mixed crew of Navy medical and reserve fleet personnel and MSTS employees. Few knew anyone else--imparting the distinct impression that during the night some might be pushed overboard to make it safer for the remainder.

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Nighttime Rescue

Shortly after a gloomy dusk, a small commercial fishing boat suddenly appeared among us with rope ladders handing down the sides. There was an immediate rush by most aboard our raft to board the fishing boat--causing a cold waiting period at the foot of the rope ladders for most.  Instead, I impatiently waited my turn while remaining aboard the life raft--suddenly discovering the body of a deceased black male with me.  I tied a line around his chest and helped haul him aboard the fishing boat.  Then I gratefully climbed aboard the small wooden boat, found myself a couple of blankets, went to the warmer engine space, removed my wet clothing and promptly fell asleep.  Since I had previously removed my shoes and trousers while in the water, I had to wrap a blanket around myself to disembark at a San Francisco pier.  From there I was transported by ambulance across the Bay Bridge to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital at Oakland.  Since I experienced no injury--beyond moderate immersion hypothermia--after normal feeling returned to my legs and feet I was discharged the next day to return to my personal quarters located aboard the Mare Island Naval Shipyard.

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Radar

My initial impression was that a radar set located upon the hospital ship's navigation bridge functioned properly--operated by a first class warrant radio electrician assigned under Captain Bacon at Mare Island.  However, it was later revealed there were recent reported instances of radar sets operating "improperly" while transiting the Golden Gate Strait--possibly false image returns from high headlands on either side of that narrow passage interfering with proper interpretation.  A local newspaper reported the hospital ship's operator later testifying that while the ship was inbound the second time that afternoon in dense fog, he was unable to detect the center span of the Golden Gate Bridge dead ahead--easily visualizing the two side spans.  He was later quoted as averring that he possibly mistook the onrushing freighter as center bridge span.  He further testified that a small inbound fishing boat dead ahead was similarly not displayed on the radarscope--only a warning to the navigating bridge from bow fog lookouts averting a collision.  Some later postulated perhaps the radar range selection was inappropriate for the prevailing atmospheric conditions (operator error?)--tragically not detecting all nearby ship traffic that foggy late Friday afternoon within the Golden Gate Strait.

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Mare Island Naval Shipyard

An explanation is appropriate concerning relationships among various commands sited aboard Mare Island Naval Shipyard and established procedures for work aboard vessels undergoing reactivation or repair there.  The U.S. Pacific Submarine Administration Command under Captain Bacon was custodian of a number of deactivated diesel submarines (50+) clustered at the northern end of the shipyard in Reserve Submarine Group I.  Available enlisted maintenance technicians were mainly deck and engine room ratings from decommissioned ships of the Mare Island Group, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet and Reserve Submarine Group II--both also Captain Bacon's commands.  The shipyard was in essence a de facto landlord for those decommissioned diesel boats--but upon a more permanent basis--until reactivated, sunk as targets or sold for scrap.

When naval vessels underwent repair, overhaul or reactivation at Mare Island, written job orders detailing requested work were forwarded to the shipyard commander for approval and initiation of work projects by the Ships Superintendent.  In the case of Benevolence, some job orders originated within the reactivating Mare Island reserve group, some from the ship's senior naval medical officer and even more from the Bureau of Ships at Washington, D.C.  It was my responsibility to ensure that the pertinent shops of the shipyard accomplished approved work in a timely manner.  Then upon completion of requested work, signatures upon each job order by the requesting entity verified acceptance for the shipyard's work.

Interim operating crews for sea trials of vessels reactivated at Mare Island were typically comprised of line officers and enlisted technicians from Captain Bacon's two local reserve submarine commands.  It should be noted that the Korean War had started just two months past and severely reduced personnel manning levels still subsumed following V-J Day on August 15, 1945.  Some 240 MSTS employees aboard Benevolence that day--most licensed by the U.S. Coast Guard--generally were not familiar with the hospital ship.  Both U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Navy investigations later deemed MSTS employees aboard soley as "disinterested observer-passengers" that Black Friday.

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Naval Court of Inquiry

Following the astonishing loss of the hospital ship with twenty-two fatalities near San Francisco Bay, a non-judicial naval court of inquiry was soon convened at Treasure Island Naval Station as ordered by Commander, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet.  I was called to testify concerning nature of Benevolence job orders completed and to furnish any exceptions thereto.  One job order of particular interest was overhaul and reinstallation of twelve nested wooden lifeboats.  I emphatically stated that Reserve Fleet personnel participated in lowering those twelve wooden boats to the pier.  Then Reserve Fleet personnel--not shipyard employees--again secured refurbished lifeboats to Welin dual-arm gravity davits within six dual boat nests aboard ship.

Needless to say, I was highly surprised that foggy afternoon to discover improper methods securing each lifeboat to its davit cables.  Had the hospital ship sunk farther out to sea, deaths due to lack of lifeboats could easily have numbered in the hundreds.  Instead, proximity to shore saw a veritable flotilla of some forty small water craft responding to the ship's sole SOS message received by the U.S. Coast guard's Emergency Coordination Center at Yerba Buena Island and Navy Radio San Francisco at Treasure Island.  Perhaps earlier fortuitous permanent assignment of a Navy chief boatswain's mate to the reactivating hospital ship's crew might have precluded sea trials by a purportedly "unseaworthy" vessel in the eyes of the U.S. Coast Guard that foggy Friday afternoon?  I also similarly testified at the general court-martial proceeding of Captain Barton Elijah Bacon, Jr. at Yerba Buena Island in May 1951.

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Misconceptions

There appears to be a lingering misconception that the prospective civilian MSTS master upon the bridge of the hospital ship died that day.  To the contrary, the only person upon the bridge to die was Captain Lyle Glen Havens, a well-experienced MSTS San Francisco Bay harbor pilot conning the ship at the moment of initial impact--a strange irony among several ironies that foggy Friday afternoon.  Hopefully dispelling another lingering innuendo--it was a sheer happenstance that Captain Bacon was appointed as acting commanding officer of Benevolence that day--urgent sea trials required since the vessel was slated to be turned over to an MSTS vice Navy operating crew the following day for a hasty departure to Korean waters.

Sailing with a set of temporary orders issued by the Commander, U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet, Captain Bacon did not appoint himself acting commanding officer--naysayers notwithstanding.  Moreover, a pervasive sense of urgency to quickly reactivate the hospital ship--from the Chief of Naval Operations and Surgeon General at Washington, D.C. down the chain of command to U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet headquarters at San Diego, California and onward to Mare Island--worked against Captain Bacon that day and indubitably throughout the reactivation process.  Such haste saw an improbably 500 persons aboard a naval vessel undergoing reactivation sea trials during San Francisco's annual Fog Season.

The ultimate penalty of such folly was paid by twenty-two fatalities.  Ironically, custody of Repose (AH-16), similarly reactivated at Hunters Point Naval Shipyard, was transferred to the civil service master of an MSTS operating crew with a Navy hospital complement aboard on the morning of Saturday, August 26, 1950--a schedule originally envisioned for Benevolence.


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Sinking of Hospital Ship Benevolence (AH-13)

- by LCDR Dorothy J. Venverloh, Nurse Corps, U.S. Navy (Retired)

[KWE Note: In LCDR Venverloh's account, she refers to 17 nurses.  Records indicate that there were actually only 15 nurses onboard the Benevolence.  Venverloh mentions most of them by name in the following personal account.]

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Korean Police Action

Completing both high school and nursing training at St. Louis, Missouri, I was commissioned as Ensign, Nurse Corps, U.S. Navy in 1948--soon entering active duty at Great Lakes Naval Hospital north of Chicago, Illinois.  In August 1950 I was stationed at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital at Oakland, California.  East across the bay from San Francisco, the naval hospital was located not far from the Alameda Naval Air Station that sat right on the northern shore of San Francisco Bay.  A lighted tunnel through Yerba Buena Island connected the Frisco side to the cantilevered Oakland side of the five-mile bridge.  On a few unfortunate occasions Navy or Marine Corps planes flew into that cantilevered bridge span in dense sea fog causing enduring Bay Area transit problems during the Annual Fog Season--June through September.

We were all suddenly surprised when the Communist North Korean Army thundered across the demilitarized zone on 25 June 1950--twenty miles north of the South Korean capitol of Seoul.  We were even more surprised when President Harry S. Truman declared to the United Nations that the U.S. would do all possible to halt Communist aggression--seeking the approbation and participation of other member nations.  Our nation was suddenly at war again after five brief years of peace.  Then next we were apprised that the Chief of Naval Operations ordered the Navy Surgeon General at the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED) at Washington, D.C. to quickly reactive two "mothballed" hospital ships from the U.S. Pacific Fleet on the West Coast.  Decommissioned vessels of the U.S. Pacific Reserve Fleet were anchored within reserve fleet groups at San Diego, Mare Island and San Francisco in California and Bremerton, Washington.  Somewhat confusing was the fact that certain decommissioned vessels allocated to the San Francisco group actually rusted at anchor in Suisun Bay on the Sacramento River--alongside Mare Island group confreres.

Those two reactivated vessels were to relieve "sister" hospital ship USS Consolation (AH-15) that had been in the midst of the fighting--supporting troops ashore from the get-go--including beleaguered U.S. Marines "advancing in the opposite direction" from "Frozen Chosin Reservoir" on far northern Yalu River--south to the port of Pusan.  Finally, the most thrilling news of all was that BUMED sought Navy nurse volunteers to staff those two hospital ships.  My good friend, Lt. Rosemary C. Neville, and I sought to be first volunteers at Oak Knoll.  We were soon accepted and advised to get our personal affairs in order--prior to transfer to the Mare Island Naval Shipyard at Vallejo, California in western Solano County where one of those two hospital ships was to be quickly reactivated.

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Reactivating Hospital Ships

The two World War II hospital ships designated for quick reactivation from the reserve fleet were the USS Benevolence (AH-13) and her "sister", USS Repose (AH-16)--both rusting away at anchor toward the south end of the Mare Island Sound on the Napa River.  The Repose was pulled from her anchorage in early July 1950--towed "down the bay" to Hunters Point Naval Shipyard at San Francisco for hurried reactivation--while Benevolence remained at Mare Island.

We also learned that those same two ships were to become the first U.S. Navy hospital ships operated by civil service crews of the new Military Sea Transportation Service (MSTS) with Navy hospital complements staffing the ships' 800-bed hospitals.  The U.S. Army Transportation Service throughout World War Ii employed that same vessel-staffing pattern with laudable success--civil service crews operating Army hospital ships with active Army hospital complements. A gross distinction was that the U.S. Army lacked a viable military maritime service like the U.S. Navy to operate its ships in lieu of civil service crews--should the need arise.  By mid-August 1950 it was anticipated that Benevolence would be the first hospital ship reactivated for transfer to the MSTS--followed by a quick voyage to the Orient.

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Mare Island Naval Shipyard

Rosemary Neville and I reported aboard the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in mid-August 1950--both traveling via my "privately-owned vehicle" in naval parlance.  Instead of being temporarily housed within nurses' quarters at the older Mare Island Naval Hospital--all seventeen nurses upon reporting were housed within World War II metal Quonset huts on the hospital compound--former sleeping quarters for convalescing World War II ambulatory patients.  Enlisted hospital corpsmen--reporting from medical facilities nationwide to staff the ship's hospital--were also temporarily quartered there.  Those austere accommodations were plebian--to say the least--but we all eagerly anticipated moving aboard the large white hospital ship festooned with red crosses that we daily saw moored at a Mare Island pier on the Napa River.

The large 520-foot, 14,4000-ton ship glistened with a fresh coat of white paint with three large red crosses--interspersed by a broad green stripe along both massive sides of the hull.  The Tenth Hague Convention regulated international treatment of prisoners of war by belligerent nations.  Among its requirements for hospital ships was the display of large red crosses upon white hulls for ready identification in combat zones.  Also required were broad colored stripes--interspersed among red crosses on white hulls.  The colored stripes upon hospital ships operated by belligerents were green, while those of independent relief agencies--such as the International Red Cross--were red.  Large red crosses were also mandated upon the horizontal exposed weather decks with burgeoning advent of naval aviation following World War I.

All hospital ships were similarly to be totally illuminated during all hours of darkness or reduced visibility to preclude inadvertent attacks by belligerents.  While the U.S. Navy experienced only one successful attack by Japanese aircraft upon its illuminated hospital ships in the Pacific Theater during World War II, the British Royal Navy suffered several German aerial attacks upon its illuminated hospital ships in the Mediterranean Sea.  One armed, non-illuminated U.S. Navy medical transport evacuation ship (APH) was also attacked by air the same night as the one illuminated hospital ship--both off Okinawa.

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USS Benevolence (AH-13)

Our soon-to-be new white home quickly took on the appellation, "Dirty Bennie" among us nurses.  That catchy sobriquet evolved as groups of civilian shipyard workers and enlisted Navy maintenance technicians continually trooped throughout the ship--working long hours to get her ready for deployment to the Far East.  A routine soon developed wherein we seventeen nurses--under head nurse, Lt. Eleanor M. Harrington--boarded the white ship daily to accomplish various tasks readying the ship's hospital to receive patients with combat wounds.  A veritable host of items was required to reactivate an 800-bed hospital--following nearly three years of deactivation in the Pacific Reserve Fleet.  The U.S. Navy's post-World War II practice of "mothballing" hospital ships was about to endure the crucible of first reactivation.

One discovery bringing a chorus of giggles among nurses was a barred "jail cell" in the lower forward end of hospital spaces--literally stacked to the overhead (ceiling) with ubiquitous brown woolen blankets embossed "USN"--replete with camphor balls to deter hungry moths.  Each blanket was dutifully shaken to remove mothballs--then hung outside wherever possible for airing.  Mare Island sailors jocularly chided us nurses that presence of so many blankets gaily flapping in the breeze upon many deck railings hearkened an ancient naval tradition and the enlisted man's periodic drudgery--"air bedding"--lashing thin cotton mattresses to deck railings to "air out" while praying for clear weather.

We nurses were ably assisted in our generic housecleaning chores by some 154 male enlisted hospital corpsmen--excluding five dental technicians.  Female hospital corpsmen were not yet routinely assigned to hospital ships--only serving aboard certain troop transports when female dependents were hauled.  Those young men all willingly pitched-in to get their new floating home and still-modern naval combat-treatment hospital squared away for sea.  Just as most nurses were assigned to patient wards, so too did a large number of junior hospital corpsmen perform the tedious janitorial aspects of preparation to receive bed patients.  A typical patient bunk--a simple affair somewhat resembling troop transport and typical shipboard enlisted "racks"--presented a rectangular frame of shiny tubular aluminum, attached to an adjacent vertical stanchion (metal post) or bulkhead (wall) via a diagonal chain at either outer end.

Purpose of that plebian design was two-fold: first, to raise empty bunks for daily deck cleaning; second, to increase the square footage of deck space within crowded wards--especially those spaces housing ambulatory patients.  A three-inch cotton-ticked mattress, white cotton mattress cover, perhaps an impervious draw sheet, two white cotton sheets and a brown Navy-embossed woolen blanket garnished patients' bunks--complemented by a thin cotton-ticked pillow with white cotton case.  A sturdier bunk frame and larger mattress served patients in surgical recovery wards.

The ship's laundry was operated by Filipino enlisted men with electricity and steam heat provided by the engine room--low-pressure "hotel service" steam.  Location was far aft on the second deck--very near and above the highly heated engine room.  Full capacity of 800 beds could easily see evening shifts operating the ship's laundry equipment, including an electric sheet folding "mangle" pressing machine and small individual steam clothing presses.  Judicious reuse of unstained "clean" sheets--particularly during transport hauls of mainly ambulatory patients and/or repatriated prisoners-of-war--was sometimes employed to lessen laundry loads.

Nurses and hospital corpsmen with various technical medical specialties also strove long hours to prepare their areas of expertise for patient care throughout the ship's large amidships hospital division.  Included were a clinical laboratory, pharmacy, two surgical suites, X-ray and a well-stocked physical therapy unit providing two electric whirlpools.  Medical supplies were routinely issued from a large medical storeroom sited directly atop the keep beneath upper hospital decks.  Adjacent thereto was a small morgue with a one-drawer refrigerator.  At an upper Central Supply Room various among us spent many hours preparing bandages--at a time when "disposables" amounted to little save 2x2-inch and 4x4-inch gauze pads and surgical tape.

Today's nurses are simply incredulous upon hearing how we "old timers" tediously sharpened steel needles--then cleaned and sterilized glass syringes.  Only a solid glass "piston" showing a matching glazed serial number would properly fit within its mating "cylinder"--break one piece, discard the other.  There was also a four-chair dental unit for use by five dental officers scheduled to report aboard--along with most assigned medical officers and Medical Service Corps administrators--at the Oakland Naval Supply Center after custody of the ship was turned over to the MSTS operating crew the next day.

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Quonset Hut Exodus

On Tuesday, 22 August 1950 the white ship made first foray under its own steam power in nearly three years.  After a quick trip down San Francisco Bay "to swing the compass" near Treasure Island, discovery of seawater on the fresh water side of an evaporator unit used to distill the ship's fresh water supply necessitated a slow return to Mare Island--where the problem was quickly rectified.  We migrant nurses did not make that brief trip--instead busying ourselves with preparations to finally move aboard ship.  That exercise became a delayed adventure--since MSTS deck and engineering officers reporting to the ship ahead of us had helped themselves to our cabins.  After some squabbling those miscreants finally acceded to relocate elsewhere.  So we seventeen Navy nurses finally moved aboard ship on Wednesday, August 23rd.  An MSC officer who shepherded our exodus from the Quonset huts told me that it took him longer to move seventeen nurses than approximately 150 male hospital corpsmen he moved from Quonset huts that Monday.  Or course, they lacked the amount of luggage we females toted along with us!

Rosemary C. Neville and I--both good Roman Catholic girls--managed to share a room.  Our small cabin was about the size of the upstairs back hall at my parents' home and outfitted with built-in metal bunk beds and acceptable mattresses.  I chose the upper bunk.  Other built-in metal furniture included a shared rather-sumptuous upright clothing storage cabinet, while we each had a combination desk and chest of drawers with a built-in lockable safe.  We each also had a small armless cushioned metal chair that slid into the desk's kneehole for storage.  Need I add that all metal furniture was painted oil-base semi-gloss gunmetal gray?  There was one lavatory along one bulkhead with a medicine chest mounted upon another bulkhead.  Simultaneous movement by both of us within that small room at the same time required some coordination!

A restroom with communal showering facilities was located a short distance down a narrow passageway (corridor) running the length of the Nurses' Quarters--situated on the boat deck or "01 level"--first deck above the main weather deck not extending aft beyond a point amidships.  Immediately aft of the Nurses' Quarters stood the small Sick Officer's Quarters with ridiculously small rooms.  We nurses desperately needed lessons in mariners' jargon to survive among some 240 potential civilian MSTS crewmates.  Ironically, the few watertight hatches anywhere throughout the three complete decks of the hospital served as direct exit doors onto the boat deck from the Nurses' Quarters and Sick Officer's Quarters passageway.  Go figure!

MSTS waiters--resplendent in starched white jackets--served our shipboard meals within the officers' wardroom--up forward immediately beneath the navigating bridge with several small porthole-sized windows overlooking the bow.  Meals were prepared by two MSTS cooks within a small attached pantry.  After unpacking on Thursday afternoon, 24 August 1950, we nurses visited the ship's legal officer for drafting and signing personal wills and powers-of-attorney.  Most of us decided to wait until returning to Mare Island from one day of sea trials Friday before mailing those important documents--an ill-timed decision in view of horrendous ensuing events late Friday afternoon.

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Underway to Destiny

Following breakfast on Friday morning, 25 August 1950, at about 8:00 a.m. we nurses all gathered on deck to observe two small yard tugboats move the 520-foot white ship away from a Mare Island pier.  Then we proceeded slowly south through the Mare Island Sound into the Napa River--the small town of Vallejo in full view to the east.  At a point where the easterly Sacramento River flows into upper San Pablo Bay--a short distance south of Mare Island--the ship made a sharp swing to starboard (right).  That maneuver placed the white ship upon a southerly heading within a narrow ship channel between double strings of red-and-green buoys.  Scenery passing by included the larger city of Richmond to port (left), while on the starboard side onlookers saw San Quentin state prison, soon followed by small  Angel Island.  A couple of busy large highway bridges passed overhead along the way.  Then with the fabled orange Golden Gate Bridge in the distance to starboard the ship swung to port--"heading east down the bay" within San Francisco Bay.

Scenery now viewed off the starboard quarter in western San Francisco Bay included the U.S. Army's Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason with three enclosed piers.  To the west upon craggy headlands the U.S. Army's historic Presidio and Letterman General Hospital overlooked the Pacific Ocean.  Upon green slopes stood the original Golden Gate National Cemetery whose more notable occupants included Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz with his Lady by his side.  Thereafter, taxpayers' pricey impedimenta dominated the view--including the San Francisco Yacht Club off the starboard side with thousands of dollars bobbing at anchor.  Next a seemingly endless row of long piers--each bearing a large enclosed building--marched east before us toward the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge.  Hard upon a small knob to starboard, tan columnar Coit Tower somberly overlooked the Embarcadero below with its imposing necklace of piers stretching in both directions along the famed bay's frigid green water.  Then Frisco's commercial skyline next hove into view beyond Coit Tower--the historic Ferry Building with its trademark lookout tower the last structure of substance east among Embarcadero piers before the looming bay bridge visible ahead.

Off the port quarter first loomed gaunt structures of Alcatraz federal penitentiary--in August 1950 still housing that penal system's most dangerous customers.  A couple of miles east to port lay flat Treasure Island Naval Station--"T.I."--a notorious way station for enlisted personnel transiting the Pacific Ocean with reassignment orders.  Built upon dredged bay materials to host an international exposition in 1938, the facility blossomed into a bustling naval station as the U.S. Navy quickly burgeoned toward a mammoth size in 1942.  A narrow concrete causeway connected "T.I." to smaller lumpy Yerba Buena Island to the east--the U.S. Coast Guard's 12th District headquarters--through which a lighted vehicular tunnel connected the Frisco side of the bay bridge to the Oakland side.  An electric train ran across a lower bridge span--conveying riders from one side to the other--with an intermediate stop at "T.I." for tipsy sailors.

Swinging smartly to port east of the small island--also known as Goat Island in antiquity--we Oak Knoll nurses now viewed familiar Alameda Naval Air Station and Oakland Naval Supply Center dead ahead.  The white ship was slated to moor at the latter Saturday morning--after custody was passed to the master commanding the MSTS operating crew--loading general and medical supplies into two forward cargo holds for a quick departure to Korean waters.  Scuttlebutt by sailors told that two female American Red Cross employees would also board there to provide Red Cross assistance services to embarked wounded patients.

A second port turn next placed the large white ship upon a westerly heading between tall concrete piers of the cantilevered Oakland bridge span.  Abreast Treasure Island the ship commenced a series of sharp turns, circles, speeding up, followed by quick stops through engine reversals, etc.  We nurses returned to the wardroom at noon to eat what became our last meal aboard ship--none failing to notice how water within heavy glass tumblers eerily sloshed about during vessel maneuvering.  The last sea-trial testing within the bay was "wetting the hooks"--exercising the ship's two huge forward metal anchors by associated machinery.  At no time were any of the twelve nested lifeboats lowered to the boat decks, we nurses as a group shown either how to properly wear a life jacket, nor told anything about lifeboats.  Our head nurse told us that lifeboat stations would be assigned prior to departure from the Oakland Naval Supply Center on Saturday--a day late and more than few dollars short!

About 2:30 p.m. a small group of men who had boarded that morning at Mare Island to witness portions of sea trials were removed via a pilot's boat off Treasure Island--best thing that ever happened for them.  Then the ship again raised steam to proceed west to sea through the Golden Gate Strait ahead.  Approaching the Golden Gate Bridge about 3:00 p.m., a bank of blinding white fog already obscured the tall orange bridge--totally masking the narrow sea passage beyond--a phenomenon so frequently observed by residents of Marin and San Francisco Counties at that time of day during Fog Season.  The wide central bridge span and two tall orange towers above were totally obscured.  Lower vertical sections of two tall concrete piers--a fog horn at the wooden-fendered base of the southern pier balefully honking to its mate upon the adjacent Civil War Fort Point beneath south end of the bridge--were scarcely visible until eerily passing between them.  The white ship did not break out of that dense fog until some distance west beyond the red San Francisco light ship bobbing at anchor to port--maneuvering the rest of the bright afternoon off the coast among increasingly large patches of white sea fog.

During the remainder of the afternoon at sea most nurses clustered upon the port side of the main deck since some felt a bit queasy within the ship--early birth pangs of seasickness.  A couple of nurses later lamented that the day of sea trials subsumed for them as little more than an opportunity to verify that cabin water flowed in lavatories and that toilets flushed--presaging an abrupt cold-water survival exercise in blinding fog.  Now the white ship commenced various maneuvers--including figures-of-eight and running the engine at measured forty, sixty and eighty percent of full-rated capacity of eighteen knots.  All seemingly performed properly for an upcoming long sea passage to the Far East.  About 4:40 p.m. one of the MSTS seamen came down from the bridge saying, "Maybe we can get back to Mare Island in time for some liberty.  We're going to turn back soon."  The fog at sea off the coast had gotten progressively thicker and the sea choppier.  As we girls hung over the rail looking at it, we speculated just how easy it would be to simply miss seeing anyone who might be in the water.  Little did we know!

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Foggy Collision

Since the evening meal service began at 5:00 p.m., Rosemary and I returned to our cabin to freshen up for dinner.  I had just finished washing my face and hands, looking for my lipstick.  I had kept my blue sweater on even in the cabin, because the air conditioner was on and it was chilly.  I couldn't find my lipstick within the medicine cabinet, so I picked up my purse and had just gotten the one out of there.  Just then I heard four long whistle blasts (Collision Alarm) and nearly immediately felt a severe jarring--like a hard earthquake tremor.  I stepped to the porthole but saw nothing outside but thick fog.  So being a woman and nosey, I grabbed my coat and started down the passageway to the boat deck to see what had happened.  Two of the other girls came dashing along too from their cabin.

We three got partially out to the boat deck when the ship was struck again on the forward port side beneath the navigation bridge by the heavily-laden outbound commercial freighter S.S. Mary Luckenbach.  We got onto the port boat de4ck where we both felt and saw how much the ship was already listing to port.  So we said to one another, "Whatever has happened, it isn't good.  Let's close this watertight hatch to the outside."  Then together we heard the chilling announcement over the ship's public address system, "Close all watertight doors!  Prepare to abandon ship!"  Within the nearby officers' wardroom dinner dishes were clanking and clattering off tables to break upon the deck beneath--then slide in a pile against bulkheads to port.  Some of the nurses' trunks not yet placed within the trunk storage room nearby slid back-and-forth to the nurses' quarters narrow passageway.

We three adventurers hurried back to our cabins while two of the other girls tried to leave the head (restroom).  The deck now was at such a sharp angle that they tried to keep their balance and hold the heavy door open while stepping up onto the doorsill--three or four inches high aboard ship to curtail horizontal water movement.  When I returned to our cabin, my diminutive roommate--about five feet tall and weighing little more than one hundred pounds wet--was precariously perched upon a cushioned chair, extracting our two lifejackets from atop the tall metal storage cabinet where we had stowed them.  Since both blue faded cloth life jackets were so dirty and dusty, we had gingerly held them in our fingertips while moving them from place to place within the small cabin.

Rosemary had her lifejacket on as I was pulling on mine, saying, "I don't know what you're going to do, but I am getting out of here!"  I said to her as she dashed out, "Here's your topcoat.  Maybe you'll need it and where's your purse or billfold?"  She replied that she didn't remember and didn't plan to take time to look for them.  I was partially down the passageway when I remembered my glasses, so I ran back to grab them from atop my chest of drawers--slipping them into a pocket of my heavy blue woolen topcoat.  By the time we got back to that watertight hatch, the white ship had already listed so far to port that a man held onto the side of the opened starboard hatch across the passageway--stretching his hand in for us.  So by joining hands, we were assisted through the hatch onto the badly-canted starboard boat deck.

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Departure Delirium

On the "02 level"--short top deck level above the boat deck--some men feverishly attempted to lower twelve nested lifeboats.  However, they quickly deduced that none could be lowered--an improper method immobilized each boat attached to its davit cables.  Then all the nurses were herded together--some of the men struggling with lifeboats cautioning us to remain close to the side of the ship.  They feared--due to the increasing port list of the ship--that if lifeboats were released down to the starboard boat deck, they might crush anyone standing too near the rail.  At the same time some Navy enlisted men manually jettisoned dark blue kapok life rafts along both sides of the hull--distance to the water along the port side steadily decreasing.  Barostatic devices attached to shackles would normally release stacks of kapok life rafts from the 0-2 deck level as the ship submerged through 70 feet beneath the water's surface.

Attempts to lower lifeboats on the starboard side were a total failure as the ship continued to slowly capsize to port.  Lifeboats at similar locations along the port side soon disappeared beneath the rising cold water.  Some of those men then joined hands to help us climb through the ship's railing as the starboard hull increasingly assumed a virtual horizontal orientation.  By this time empty life rafts that had been manually released--but lacking proper (painter) lines to secure them to the ship for loading--floated quite a distance away upon a ring sea.  Now many of the crew, including corpsmen, enlisted deck and engineering technicians and various MSTS personnel swam out to board those rafts.  But since those kapok life rafts lacked oars, those men were unable to return them to the side of the rapidly sinking ship to collect us--some number simply floating away empty upon a tide swiftly ebbing from the nearby bay.

Then some sailor came from within the ship saying, "Relax, even if the ship settles (sinks), we're going in forty-eight feet of water and the ship is seventy-two feet wide."  So we all proceeded to sit upon the ship's top rail with our feet braced against the middle rail--just like in the bleachers.  We were thinking, "Well, this won't be so bad.  We'll just wait until someone picks us up.  Kinda like waiting for a streetcar."  Unfortunately, the acting Navy skipper upon the bridge apparently believed that the ship foundered above a shallow spot marked "50 feet, spoil area" upon the San Francisco Bay entrance chart--disregarding a swiftly ebbing tide happily carrying the wounded hospital ship just south beyond the inbound ship channel.  However, when the ship completely sank from sight within some forty minutes, the ravaged port side rested upon the sandy sea bottom at approximately eight-five feet--starboard side festooned by three large red crosses estimated beneath just thirteen feet of water at low tide.  Passersby at the nearby Cliff House Restaurant above Seal Rocks at Sutro Heights could soon easily discern frothy waves breaking above an amidships large red cross on the sunken starboard side during fog-free daylight hours---"an enduring embarrassment to the U.S. Navy."

Now as the ship continually capsized to port we nurses heard steam hissing.  Although we were told that the boilers had been secured before the engine room crew departed, upon hearing hissing steam a ship's officer directed us to move forward on the starboard side--well beyond the aft engine room and exhaust funnel.  By this time waves were lapping onto the virtually flat starboard side from the now exposed bottom of the ship while most men had departed the ship by now.  Some of the Navy chief petty officers and several civil service employees from Mare Island kept asking, "What are we going to do with the nurses without lifeboats?"  Then Captain Cecil D. Riggs, senior medical officer, obtained some rope from a nearby lifeboat.  He, medical officer Commander William C. Marsh and others decided that we nurses would stay together better in the water if they somehow tied us together.  So that lovely piece of rope was weaved through a belt loop at the rear of each nurse's heavy Navy blue woolen topcoat--the very means by which eleven nurses remained together throughout the upcoming cold-water immersion ordeal.  Those two medical officers--our saviors that foggy Friday afternoon--indeed deserved medals for their unstinting valor on our collective behalf.

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Abandon Ship

Meanwhile, some of the men still remaining aboard found some pieces of wood somewhere.  Whether they chopped it out or it was lying upon the deck, I don't know--apparently small pieces of wood intended for damage-control shoring.  Collecting those pieces of wood--about ten or twelve feet long, maybe four by four inches wide--they lashed about three or four pieces together.  Next they carried their "raft" to the exposed starboard bilge keel.  There eleven of us nurses who were tied together and several of the men all got a hand onto the lashed wood and simply stepped off the bilge keel into the very cold water.  We were that close to the sinking ship, so we all just braced our feet against the bottom of the ship to push away into breath-taking frigid water of the Japanese Current sweeping down past Alaska.  But with that a huge wave came along to pick us up, carrying us a good distance away from the other six nurses not tied with us.  Each of them would have a different survival experience than eleven of us.

Quite a varied debris field of floating materials from the capsized ship now surrounded most in that frigid water--some swimmers capitalizing upon the larger floating objects for buoyancy.  Numerous boxed medical supplies--stored within the two forward cargo holds--later washed ashore upon Bay Area beaches.  Such flotsam clearly indicated that one or both forward holds were heavily breached by the first jarring impact of the freighter's bow--similarly accounting for the rapid rate by which the bow nearly immediately settled to port.  Four white lifeboats easily marked the new wreck site the following morning--all floating upside down.  Three were still attached to the foundered ship by tangled davit cables.  The fourth white boat was located by the U.S. Army harbor defense mine planter Lt. Col. Ellery W. Niles five miles southwest--out to sea.  Morosely borne upon its upturned white bottom were the disheveled acting executive officer and acting navigator from the foundered ship's bridge.  That discovery confirmed both the direction and speed of an ebbing tide from the nearby bay late that foggy Friday afternoon.

After Captain Riggs had tied eleven of us together, he simply ran out of rope--another dollar short that foggy afternoon!  One of those other six nurses, Mary Deignan, struck out by herself--swimming to a nearby life raft.  Two of the girls who went off the ship at the same time we did--Marie Lipuscek and Patricia A. Karns--stuck together to be later joined by Captain Riggs, Commander Marsh and others.  They all made a large circle in the water--eventually boarding a life raft and were later rescued by the same tugboat that picked us up.  Only Helen F. Wallis became completely separated from the rest of the nurses.  She could not swim but had donned a lifejacket when she encountered one of the MSTS boys who had been doing a lot of explaining about the ship to us "landlubbers" earlier in the day.  Helen later related that she simply told her MSTS benefactor that she could not swim, but was depending on him--so he stayed with her in the cold water.  They eventually joined Chaplain Reardon's circle of frigid floaters--gradually enlarging as more hapless swimmers joined them in the looming foggy darkness.

Helen Wallis and the rest were later rescued by an immigrant Italian fisherman--John Angelo Napoli, with his small fishing boat, Flora, from San Francisco's Fishermen's Wharf--who then transferred them to the freighter S.S. Mary Luckenbach, still anchored nearby in the blinding fog.  Later that night they were landed ashore via an Army tugboat.  Eleven years later John A. Napoli was presented with a tax-free $25,000 reward check from the U.S. Congress for loss of fishing revenue, boat damages and a back injury suffered that black, foggy night near the Golden Gate Bridge.  He was to later lament that sum only reimbursed him for one-third of his monetary loss plus a divorce.  In retrospect all we sodden survivors should have passed a hat to collect money for him--those few still possessing any money to donate or a hat to pass!

After we eleven nurses stepped off the sinking ship into breath-taking frigid water our head nurse, Eleanor Harrington, jocularly inquired, "Don't people abandoning ship always sing?  So let's all sing."  So she started lustily singing, "Merrily We Roll Along."  The reaction of most of us to singing at a harrowing time like that was something less than enthusiastic.  We all felt we should save both our breath and our strength--with less likelihood of getting salt water into our mouths if we kept them closed.  Harrington next said to the girl next to her, Mary Eileen Dyer, "Why don't you sing with us?"  She shakily replied, "I'm too busy praying to sing."  Katherine "Harkie" Harkins was saying her rosary loud enough for us all to hear her while Rosemary Neville was saying the Memorare over and over again.  I think I began with the rosary, recall saying an act of contrition occasionally, then said the Memorare with Rosemary some more.  As the cold time slowly passed I can recall not being able to really think of anything except the first verse of the hymn, "Mother Dear, Oh Pray for Me."  I couldn't help wondering whether the composer really could know how I felt when he or she wrote those last two lines, "I wander on a fragile bark, o'er life's tempestuous seas"?

Josephine McCarthy would call to me once in a while, "Are you alright, Dorothy?"  As lifejackets worked up around our ears--since no one had bothered to tell us the importance of fastening the dangling T-strap between our legs to the upper front buckle-no mean trick when wearing long skirts!  The neck string was up under my nose, my hat was down over my eyes and by raising my eyebrows attempting to raise my hat I could just barely see over the top edge of the lifejacket.  I was holding onto our meager raft for dear life, kicking my feet the whole time--while blue dye from the decrepit World War II-era kapok life jacket was fading into my eyes and onto my neck.  As I was in this fine fettle Rosemary Neville looked over at me and said, "Dorothy, are you comfortable?"  Whereupon I heard one of our male companions say, "Well, that's one day to consider it!"

Time slowly craft painfully by.  We all kept wondering, "Where is the U.S. Coast Guard?"  We were painfully aware there was no certainty that the single SOS radio message had been received.  We also knew that the Navy radio operator must be agonizing about that plea for help, since the auxiliary electrical generator topside near the bridge conked out when its exhaust line went underwater.  Later we learned that vital message had gotten through to both the Coast Guard rescue coordination station at Yerba Buena and Navy Radio San Francisco at "T.I."  One of the men kept saying, "If we get picked up, I'll buy everybody a stiff drink!"--the whole while the persistent fog thicker, the waves choppier.  Next we spied in the not-too-great distance three or four kapok rafts bobbing in high waves together--each overloaded and surrounded by people in the water.  One of the men in our group developed a severe leg cramp and hung forward over our small raft, heaving his last supper and apologizing to us the whole time that he vomited-in essence, chumming the fish.

Periodically, we heard the mournful clanging of a nearby channel buoy's warning bell (green buoy number one marking entrance to the nearby inbound ship channel through the Golden Gate Strait),.  Then we spied in the foggy distance just a ghost-like outline of a fishing boat--but it apparently neither saw nor heard us although we shouted and each waved a free hand.  We were all now tiring rapidly through exertion and cold immersion.  Even the stalwart men who had been earlier doggedly cheerful expressed the thought that if somebody didn't pick us up soon, we could not last the night in the terribly cold water--later reported at 58 degrees Fahrenheit.  The water seemingly began to become colder as it became more difficult to kick our legs.  Then one of the men suddenly said, "There must be a ship around here somewhere!", after we all suddenly heard four toots upon some vessel's whistle.  The men on the far side of the raft then chimed in unison, "Let's try to move closer to it and then we'll all call out!"  We gamely tried to move our small raft toward that tug boat--but to no avail.

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Blessed Rescue

Then suddenly a beautiful brown tugboat was seen not too far away through the fog--rescuing the others.  We attempted to attract their attention by all calling, "HELP!" together.  We were unsure whether they had heard us at first but later they did--shouting to us that they would come to us as soon as possible.  So we all hung in there just a wee bit longer with salvation now in sight--although one of the eleven nurses couldn't see the tugboat and was just sure that it was going away without helping us.  She was bubbly, petite Lt. Wilma Ledbetter from Chillicothe, Texas who kept shouting, "HELP!" and could not be quieted.  After picking up two or three other groups of survivors, that beautiful brown U.S. Army tugboat finally moved toward us.

The tug's crewmen shot several lines toward us, but we missed each of them.  Finally they shot a line directly across Rosemary, Wilma, men on the other end of our small raft and me.  We all hung on for dear life as we were pulled toward the tugboat, but Wilma Ledbetter kept fighting that line.  Every time she would shout her head would dip into the cold water.  Finally a young Army enlisted man jumped into the cold water to hold her up.  Seemingly fruitlessly we strove to make those superb men understand that we eleven beauties were tied together as a package.  They still tried to pull us all aboard--but with the continual sloshing of the high waves we would slide right out of their grasp.  We sodden survivors simply lacked the strength or stamina to cling to their outstretched hands.  Finally, one of those wonderful men jumped into the water with a knife to swiftly sever Captain Riggs' Rope.  How I later wished that I had salvaged that treasured souvenir!

Men finally helped me onto the small Army tugboat and stood me upon my feet saying, "Are you okay?"  At first I thought I was and stared shuffling toward the stern of the tugboat.  I got only about ten or twelve feet, then recall stumbling into a pile of wet lifejackets.  So one of the boys helped me down into the tugboat's small blessedly warm engine room.  It was jammed with people--just like sardines in a can.  Two of my fellow nurses already aboard helped me remove my heavy wet coat and sweater.  Then seated men moved over to let me also lean against the engine to try to warm up.  Most of those men had stripped down to their trunks--trying to keep warm and dry their clothing.  Wondering the time of day I discovered that my wristwatch was amazingly still running--its time showing 7:10 p.m.  So we nurses blessedly survived in that frigid water about one hour and thirty or forty minutes--a much shorter time than some others.

I dimly recall that the brown tugboat made several more stops to pick up floating survivors before finally setting us back onto dry land.  We were landed at one of thee enclosed piers of the Army's Port of Embarkation at Fort Mason--east of the Presidio.  We were all very happy to see Miss Bolling--supervisor of nurses aboard MSTS ships--who quickly came aboard to inquire how we were doing.  Then we grabbed up our wet coats and sweaters, had blankets thrown over our shoulders and were helped off that beautiful tug boat.  We were quickly hustled toward a nearby brown Army bus--after each being given some delicious hot coffee were rushed cross the Bay Bridge to Oak Knoll Naval Hospital--my recent sustenance.  We arrived there about 9:45 p.m. where we were stripped of all wet clothing, then placed into nice warm beds with hot water bottles beneath several Navy white woolen blankets of the style used aboard naval medical facilities--both at sea and ashore--for generations.

Next familiar staff doctors came to query each of us--directing that each be given a shot of brandy and told to drink it.  Red Cross workers gave each of us more coffee and comfort articles, such as combs, wash cloths, toothbrushes and toothpaste, bar soap, stationery and envelopes.  Everyone was simply grand to all of us.  We learned that the hospital was placed upon Disaster Bill status and that everything had clicked just fine--certainly so in the case of us 16 nurses.  Most unfortunately, Lt. Wilma Ledbetter expired shortly after boarding that tugboat--cause of death noted upon the death certificate signed by a medical officer at the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital, "Immersion Hypothermia with Neurogenic Shock."  Her petite physique had just been unable to withstand extended immersion within that frigid, numbing water.

We were each given a sleeping capsule, but we still didn't know about Helen Wallis.  We were all talking and wondering how and where she was when she suddenly joined us at 1:00 a.m.  She related how she and her MSTS benefactor--both first landed at Fort Mason--were taken to Letterman General Hospital at the Presidio for evaluation before her long ride to Oak Knoll.  So after much more talking and gabbing we finally got some warm, blessed sleep that very stressful night.

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Epilogue

We were all assured that an uniformed member of the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps would escort Wilma Ledbetter's casket to her beloved home at Chillicothe, Hardeman County, Texas--on the southern bank of the Red River between Texas and Oklahoma.  All of our official Navy records, except pay records, went down with the ship--meaning that original copies of our transfer orders were lost.  We had been counting on some "per diem pay" to help us out.  Now not only were we unable to collect that pay--since our original transfer orders were lost--we had to await arrival of replacement orders by mail from Washington, D.C.  We each also submitted required claim forms to be reimbursed for property we lost, but had no idea just how long it would take for said claims to be settled.

We homeless waifs still did not know exactly what the U.S. Navy planned to do with us.  Even though some requested duty aboard hospital ship Haven--the "big sister" to both Benevolence and Repose--we would probably not get it right away--if ever.  Nor did we yet know anything about taking leave.  Eventually, each of us was involuntarily assigned to an active naval medical facility nearest our official home of record. Only Lieutenant Harrington eventually served as chief nurse aboard Haven off the Korean Peninsula through the Korean War.


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Adieu, White Vessels of Mercy

by LCDR Durward "Dusty" Rhodes

USS Haven (AH-12) was quickly reactivated from the San Diego reserve fleet group--after a short seven-month lay-up--towed to Long Beach, then recommissioned for the first time on 15 September 1950.  She sailed for Korea on 25 September 1950 with an all-Navy crew one month to the day since the rammed Benevolence quickly sank at San Francisco--abruptly casting over 500 persons onto a bitterly cold sea--resulting in deaths of twenty-two among them.  For some never-explained reason the Surgeon General refused to permit any of Benevolence's fifteen surviving nurses to accompany Haven to Korea--instead involuntarily transferring each to an active naval medical facility nearest her home of record.  Only Lt. Eleanor M. Harrington eventually joined Haven as head nurse off Korea--after one year ashore at Marine Corps Air station, Beaufort, South Carolina following her brief Benevolence hiatus.

What did fate hold for three closely aligned hospital ships?  Of course, Benevolence was long gone.  With the seemingly interminable Korean War in a stalemated armistice in early September 1954, Haven was dispatched to Saigon, Vietnam to load French patients and ex-POW's--along with an astounding 3,000 pieces of baggage.  Then ensued a fabled round-the-world cruise via the Suez Canal to Oran, Algiers and Marseilles, France.  Next the white ship--by now in desperate need of a new paint job--returned to Long Beach, California via the Panama Canal.

There the forlorn ship would sit at her new homeport--ignominiously tied to Pier Seven at the Long Beach Naval Shipyard.  After monthly weekend forays to sea for sea pay and purchase of tax free Navy Exchange commodities--steaming languid circles around Santa Catalina Island--she was decommissioned for the last time on 30 June 1957.  Then cuckolded Haven subsumed at that same Long Beach Naval Station pier, "In Service, In Reserve" for the next ten years--tightly bound within a cordon of dark coffee grounds surrounding the hull.  There she served as a landlocked station hospital after the Corona Naval Hospital closed west of Riverside, in late 1950s--pending construction of a new naval hospital east of Long Beach.  But the entire assigned crew served without sea pay orders for the next ten years.

On 1 March 1967 Haven was stricken from the Navy List of Active Ships as "unfit for further naval service," decommissioned for the last time 30 June 1967, then returned to the U.S. Maritime Administration to again be relegated to rust ignominiously at anchor with other marine relics at Suisun Bay, California.  In June 1968 the hapless white ship was sold to the Union Carbide Company--towed through the Panama Canal to Bethlehem Steel Company's repair yard at Beaumont, Texas where 330 feet added to the hull carried twenty-eight heated liquid storage tanks.  Thus terminally corrupted, the former white vessel of mercy returned to sea as S.S. Alaskan in flat black livery--sadly relegated to maritime obscurity.

The fate of Repose was much more appropriate for a vessel of mercy--soon to be nicknamed "Angel of the Orient."  On 26 August 1950 the hospital ship hastily reactivated as Hunters Point, San Francisco was delivered to the MSTS--her hull designator changed to T-AH-16--with the long-anticipated Civil Service operating crew and Navy hospital complement aboard.  After loading supplies at the Oakland Naval Supply Center, the ship departed 2 September 1950 for Yokohama, Japan.  On 28 October 1950 the World War II hospital ship was re-commissioned into the U.S. Navy for the first time with an All-Navy crew at U.S. Naval Station, Yokosuka, Japan.  On 21 December 1954 Repose was again decommissioned at Hunters Point--again towed to rejoin confreres within the Mare Island reserve group at Suisun Bay.  Ten years later with a glistening new paint job the white ship was again re-commissioned into the U.S. Navy on 16 October 1965 at Hunters Point--then continually serving five years on rotations off Vietnam--alternating with her "younger sister" Sanctuary (AH-17).  Repose was decommissioned for the last time on 15 August 1970--stricken from the Navy List of Active Ships on 15 March 1974 after twenty-nine years of stellar service, then delivered to the U.S. Maritime Commission for final disposal (scrapping).

The last Haven class hospital ship in active service was Sanctuary (AH-17), decommissioned on 26 March 1975 to rust at anchor in the reserve fleet group on the James River near Norfolk, Virginia.  Stricken from the list of active naval vessels 16 February 1989, today the sad vestige of USS Sanctuary rusts ate an obscure berth "In Reserve" within harbor at Baltimore, Maryland.

A small modern complement of white hospital ships includes Mercy III (AH-19) and Comfort III (AH-20) in "Ready Reserve," each converted from super oil tankers with 1,000 beds and a mixed crew of 1,214.  Maintained by skeleton crews at Norfolk, Virginia and San Diego, California, a Ready Reserve crew can have each ship underway in anywhere upon the planet within 72 hours.


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U.S. Naval Hospital Ships of the 20th Century

Compiled by Durward L. "Dusty" Rhodes, a list of hospital ships commissioned from 1908 to 1987 are listed here. The information includes hull number and name, date they were commissioned, length and width, number of crew, number of beds, when they were decommissioned and scrapped, etc.


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About the Authors

LCDR Durward L. "Dusty" Rhodes

Durward L "Dusty" Rhodes is a retired military researcher.  He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1954 and reported aboard the hospital ship USS Haven at Long Beach Naval Shipyard as HM3 in April 1956 from Balboa Naval Hospital, San Diego. After a brief stint on the enlisted ward, he was assigned to the Medical Storeroom. He was promoted to HM2 in 1956. In April 1957, he was transferred to overseas shore duty at Navy Medical Unit, Tripler U.S. Army Hospital, Honolulu, Oahu, Territory of Hawaii. He was promoted to HM1 in 1961 and commissioned as an Ensign, MSC USN on 01 September 1962 at the School of Aviation Medicine, Pensacola, Florida.  He was TDRL on 01 September 1974 as LCDR MSC USN in the specialty of Naval Aerospace Physiologist (#32).

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CAPT James C. Cochran

James Charles Cochran was born 24 September 1917 at Natchez, Adams County, Mississippi.  An only child, his parents were James Caswell Cochran and Leila Henry Cochran.  Following high school graduation he was appointed to the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis, Maryland--assigned service number 85348.  He graduated with the Class of 1940 in June of that year.  One early highlight of his career was assignment aboard light cruiser USS Honolulu (CL-48) at the Pearl Harbor Naval Base--torpedoed at a pier during the Japanese aerial assault on 7 December 1941.  He later completed the Salvage Diver course at the Navy's deep-sea diving school at Bayonne, New Jersey.  He also obtained the Master of Science degree in Naval Architecture and Master of Science degree in Nuclear Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He was present at Groton, Connecticut in 1954 for launching of USS Nautilus (SSN-571)--the U.S. Navy's first nuclear-powered submarine.  Following fifteen years of active duty in the Regular Navy he resigned his commission when "he couldn't get along with Admiral Hyman Rickover", later obtaining a Naval Reserve commission for final seven years of reserve service.  Captain James C. Cochran, USNR retired from active duty in 1962, residing at Brandon, Mississippi until his demise in March 2007.

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LCDR Dorothy J. Venverloh

Dorothy Jane Venverloh served on active duty in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps for twenty years.  Following her first involuntary return to Great Lakes Naval Hospital in September 1950, she served at Naval Station, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba; Naval Air Station, Memphis, Tennessee; Great Lakes Naval Hospital for a third time; Taiwan, Republic of China; St. Albans Naval Hospital, New York City, N.Y.; Naval Air Station, Norfolk, Virginia and Philadelphia Naval Hospital.  She retired from active duty in 1968 in the rank of lieutenant commander and again resided at St. Louis, Missouri until her demise in 2006.

 

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