U.S.S. Benevolence AH-13 - Eyewitness Accounts

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Cassani, Marie Lipuscek

[KWE Note: The following was sent to the Korean War Educator in April of 2013.]

"My name is Marie Lipuscek Cassani.  I was born on October 31, 1918 in Brooklyn, New York.  My folks were Agnes Matula Lipuscek and Joseph Lipuscek.  I attended grade school in Fort Hancock, New Jersey and high school at Leonardo High, Leonardo, New Jersey.  I graduated from high school in 1936.

I had friends who were in nurse's training and they encouraged me to be become a nurse.  I took my training at Misericordia Hospital, New York City, with my schooling paid for by my family.  We nurses lived in the nurses' quarters attached to the hospital.  We had to be in at a certain time at night, so there was not much social life.  The hours were 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., with three hours off in the afternoon for classes and study.  We had to study all subjects pertaining to nursing.  We wore uniforms that were blue and white striped with a white bib and white apron.  We were required to pass all subjects in order to graduate.  Graduation took place in June 1939 at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City.  My mother and sister and a close friend attended the ceremony.

After graduation I worked for one year at the Champlain Valley Hospital, Plattsburg, New York.  My family lived there then.  I was a nurse anesthetist and don't know if that was the reason I was chosen for the assignment on the USS Benevolence.  I was excited to be transferred to the hospital ship as I wanted to see more of the Orient.  I had been in the South Pacific before when I went to New Caledonia in 1943.

I think I got to California about two weeks before August 25, 1950.  We nurses lived in Quonset huts before going onboard the Benevolence.  The ship was in mothballs following World War II and we had a lot of cleaning to do.  We reported for duty every day, so there was not much social life, but we were getting to know each other.  My roommate was Catherine Harkins.  I was assigned to the operating room.  It was a well-equipped O.R., but there was a lot of work that had to be done to get it ready for patients.  I do not remember having any instructions about emergencies, but I know that we had life jackets in our room.  We did not know anything about life boats.

On August 25, 1950 I was on duty as usual.  I was getting ready for dinner when the collision took place.  I didn't know what we hit, but I could tell that it was serious as the ship started to list immediately.  I returned to our room and grabbed Catherine's and my life jacket and my pocketbook.  I remember that I was frightened and I remember that someone called out that we were struck by another ship.

I don't know how Dorothy Venverloh and I got separated from the other nurses, but we walked off the starboard side of the ship and into the water after the abandon ship order.  No one helped us.  We just got in the water and held on to a plank.  I don't know where it came from.  The water was cold and I really thought that this was the end, even though I knew how to swim.  I had lived near the water and had learned to swim by age eight.  I was upset that I hadn't made a will and I thought of the nice clothes that I had brought with me.

I don't know how Dorothy reacted to the situation, but needless to say I was praying my very best.  I found out after we were rescued that we were given conditional last rites by a Catholic priest that was assigned to the Benevolence.  We were rescued in about two and a half hours by an Army tug.  My wallet fell out of my purse as I was being pulled aboard the tug.  It landed in a life boat that we eventually were picked up in.  The wallet was returned to me the next morning.  I told three of my friends that I would take them out to dinner if I had any money in my wallet.  I did and we enjoyed dinner!

After we were rescued by the tug we were taken to Oak Knoll, the Navy Hospital.  We arrived about 10 p.m. and spent the night and the next day or so there.  I was glad to be alive.  I couldn't believe that we had been rescued.  We had to submit a claim for the items we lost and were reimbursed at less than half of their value.

At the time of the sinking my mother was living in Teaneck, New Jersey.  My brother was home from the Army and I think he heard it on the 11 p.m. news.  I called home when I finally got to a phone in the wee hours of the morning to tell them I was okay.  I later got to go home before my next assignment.  I don't remember how long I was home, but my next assignment was Portsmouth, New Hampshire.  I wasn't happy that I wouldn't be going to Korea because I would have liked to have seen some of the Orient.

About a year and a half after the wreck I got married.  I was working part-time as a nurse anesthetist when I met Frank Cassani at an officers' club dance in Portsmouth, New Hampshire in 1951.  We were married in 1952. We had two children.  Our son Richard is now a hospital purchasing agent and our daughter Anne Marie is a medical librarian.

Through the years I never talked much about the sinking of the USS Benevolence.  At age 94 I still run a house and take care of my husband.   My son encouraged me to write down my memories of the sinking.  It happened such a long time ago I rarely think about it, but I would like to know if there are any nurses left.  One of our nurses died while at sea.  Her name was Wilma Ledbetter of Chillicothe, Texas.

There was a picture of Dorothy Venverloh and me that I think was in every newspaper at the time of the sinking.  What a way to get on the front page!" - Marie Lipuscek Cassani

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Cochran, Capt. James C. (COMING SOON)


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Harkins, Catherine N.

[KWE Note: Found in the Milwaukee Journal, August 27, 1950.  Ms. Harkins recounted her experience during the sinking of the Benevolence via a telephone call back home while in the Oak Knoll Hospital, Oakland, where she was recovering from bruises, most of them on her legs.]

"We were just going down to chow about 3 in the afternoon when we heard an awful crash.  Our ship began to list and it was hard to stand up.  We grabbed for the life belts and waited for orders."  According to Harkins, an officer tied some large planks together to form a raft, eleven of the nurses were linked together with rope, the ship had rolled to one side, and they walked into the water, pushing the raft ahead of them.  "We moved fast," said Harkins.  "Everyone moved fast.  Yet all of the people were calm and collected.  You don't do much except pray to God that someone will come and save you at a time like that.  I don't know just how many of us there were around the raft."

She said, "I can't swim a stroke.  It wouldn't have made any difference if I could.  The waves were too high for swimming.  The water was too cold, too.  I had my rosary so I prayed all of the time.  Some of the other girls had rosaries but I didn't pay much attention to them.  I just kept busy praying myself.  They told us to kick our legs a little in order to keep our blood circulation up."  Harkins and the others were pulled out of the water one by one by the crew of an army tug.

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Hewitt, Ernest

Ernest Hewitt
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[KWE Note: The following statement was sent to the Korean War Educator by Ernest's daughter-in-law, Glenys Hewitt of Bella Vista, Arkansas.  Ernest Hewitt died October 29, 1975.]

Statement of Ernest S. Hewitt, Badge No. 59-390000, Pipefitter, 1024 Benicia Road, Vallejo, California.  Mare Island Naval Shipyard, Vallejo, California, 13 September 1950.

"On 8-25-50 at approximately 0800 I left Mare Island Naval Shipyard on the USS Benevolence from Berth 18, on a trial run.  Our duties were to check piping, fix any leaks that could be fixed at that time, etc.  By our I mean the two Mare Island pipefitters aboard.  We had heard that we probably would go outside the Golden Gate on the trial run.

I was in the Mess Hall when the accident occurred.  As close as we could figure it was around 1700.  Collins, Palliser, Ogan, Campi, Murray and myself were together in the Mess Hall at time of impact.  We had just started to eat our chow.  My first thoughts were that something had hit us or we had hit a reef--we didn't know what it was.  I went over to ladder and went up on deck.  Campi went up ladder just ahead of me.  The others were behind me.  We all became separated when we got on main deck.  After I got on main deck I noticed that the ship had a slight list to port side.

I looked for a life jacket on main deck but could find none so I went up the 01 deck where I found a kapok coat, life jacket, which I tied on.  I went forward under bridge and stood along starboard rail.  Then the order came over loud speaker to put life jackets on and release life rafts.

When I first came on topside I saw another ship going away from our stern.  It was foggy.

The remarks of the men were that they didn't think ship would sink so I stayed by starboard rail for approximately 20 minutes before I slid down rope and into water.  While standing on ship I saw a man whom I believe was one of the Yard Pilots.  I did not know him.  He was standing by bulkhead under bridge on 01 deck.

I started swimming for a life raft.  I had to swim about 400 yards before I located a raft.  It was crowded so I hung on outside of raft for about one hour.  By that time I was so cold that I didn't know whether I had a hold of ropes or not so I had to squeeze aboard raft.  George Palliser came aboard our raft from another crowded raft.

After we were in water for about one or one and half hours I heard a boat whistle sounding four blasts.  When we heard this whistle everyone on raft hollered to attract attention.  The whistle sounded like it came from a big ship.  We couldn't see the ship.  It was 3/4 or 1 hour after we heard whistle before we were picked up by a U.S. Army tug.  We were picked up between 1930 and 1945. A colored man who was sitting next to me on raft died just before we were picked up.

My stomach churned a little while I was on the raft but I didn't throw up.  I had swallowed some salt water while swimming to raft.

The Army tug took us to Fort Mason dock, San Francisco.  The first doctor who treated me was a four striper (I do not know whether he was Army or Navy) who came aboard at dock just before we left the tug.  The doctor put blankets around us.  Coffee was given us on the tug.  Then we were loaded in a Navy bus and taken to Marine Hospital, San Francisco.  The Marine Hospital gave each of us pajamas and a robe.  Some doctor asked us if we had any rope burns or bruises.  We were then put on a bus and sent to U.S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island.

I met Messrs. Mott and Robnett while I was at Marine Hospital, San Francisco.  Palliser, Robnett and Mott were on same bus with me that brought us to Mare Island Naval Hospital.  The doctors at Mare Island Naval Hospital questioned me as to how we felt, etc., and asked us if we wanted to go home.  I went home in Mr. Palliser's car as he had driven his car to Mare Island that morning.  I arrived home about 0200 on 8-26-50.

When I got up about 0800 I noted that my right foot was swollen and it pained me a little.  I had gone to bed about 0300 but I couldn't sleep.

On Sunday afternoon I noticed that my chest hurt me.  I had a slight cough.  On Monday 8-28-50 I reported at Yard Dispensary, Mare Island.  The doctor examined my chest and told me that I had bronchial pneumonia.  He gave me a shot of penicillin and sulfa tablets and told me to go home and go to bed.

I still have a cold and I haven't yet returned to work." - [signed] Ernest S. Hewitt

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Holly, David - survivor

Read David Holly's eyewitness account here (PDF File).

David Holly
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David Holly
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Hubbard, Howard - survivor

[KWE Note: The following eyewitness account was published in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin in August 1950. Howard Hubbard was a 48-year-old merchant seaman from Oakland who was serving as operator of the post exchange aboard the Benevolence.]

"I was in the officers' mess.  I had just finished eating and I was smoking a cigarette and listening to a couple of fellows across from me talking.  One of them said it was pretty soupy out, but guessed nothing would happen.  Five minutes later there was a continuous jar.  It was like an earthquake ashore.  In two or three minutes the ship started to list and glasses began flying all over the place.  It was that fast.  I was on the deck above main deck and I went down to try to find a life preserver.  I looked in some wards, but it was so dark I didn't go in.  I went back on deck and decided to gamble.  I didn't think the ship was really going to go down.

A guy beside me said, 'Fellow, don't you know enough to wear a jacket in a time like this?' I told him I couldn't find one.  I hope I see that man again.  I think I would know him.  He went below and in about 10 minutes after crawling around on his hands and knees in the wards he came back with a jacket for me.

I saw the captain on the deck above us and I asked him if he wanted us to abandon ship.  He didn't say anything so I asked him again, and he said, 'I will let you know when to abandon ship.'  Then I decided it was time to go and I went.  Somebody said when we were at a 45 degree angle that we couldn't go any further because we were only in 38 feet of water.  But when she started boiling in the water I didn't take his word for it.

I just paddled around.  I went overboard at 5:25 and was in the water about an hour and a half, I guess.  Most of the fellows around me said they had been in the water that long.  The last 15 or 20 minutes were beginning to get bad, the water was so cold.  I had only one worry all the time--that it would get dark before we were picked up.  finally a Coast Guard cutter came along and got us."

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Kauffman, G.J. - tugboat skipper

"We just came across them like fish in the water.  Radar wasn't much good, the scope was all cluttered up--waves and wreckage--so it didn't help much.  There were so many we didn't know which ones to pick up first.  They were all yelling to us.  They all wanted us to get to them first." - [Source: St. Petersburg Times, August 26, 1950]

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Martin, Ruth (Deus) - Survivor

Left to Right- Ruth Martin Deus and Dorothy Venverloh, survivors of the sinking of the USS Benevolence - photo taken May 1990 at the San Francisco NNCA (nurses) Convention in San Francisco, California.
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[KWE Note: The following letter was sent to Ruth's family following her rescue from the shipwreck.  One paragraph was added by Ruth Martin Deus in 1988 when the letter was published in the October 1988, Volume 2, Number 2 issue of the Navy Nurse Corps Association (NNCA) News.]

"Dear Family,

You can't imagine how relieved I was when I spoke to you Saturday a.m.  We arrived at Oak Knoll about 10:30 by busloads from Ft. Mason, an Army Post in San Francisco.  That was where the Army tug that picked up my little group had landed.  God Bless the Army!  I knew if you had heard the news how worried you would be but they made us go to bed instead.  And it never felt so good!  With a nice warm hot water bottle to boot.  And a sleeping pill... as soon as I could sneak out, I went to the phone to await my turn.  The Red Cross told us not to worry as they had sent telegrams to all our folks which you probably got Saturday a.m. about 0800.

Seems my only injuries are a few bruises the worst of which I received yesterday morning in the hospital when I fell while rushing out to hear a news broadcast.  'Course I could complain of muscular aches and soreness.  Some of the nurses have sprained ankles, stiff necks--nothing ever happens to me!  Can't even work up a good cold.

I keep thinking, now that it is over, what a wonderful experience it was.  Aside from the fact that I lost everything I own except my car [it was in storage], I consider myself quite lucky.  What a wonderful way to start a new wardrobe.  I almost went back for my sewing machine.

Everyone asks me where I was when it happened.  It's a most embarrassing question...it was about two minutes before five...dinner was served at five.  So, I had gone to the head.  I heard this terrific crash, and decided it was only a boiler blowing  up as we heard had happened on the Repose while she was making her trail run.  I stepped out in the passageway and someone yelled, "A ship has rammed us!"  I still wasn't very concerned.  Then the call came to grab the life preservers and man the life rafts.  We had not had any sort of drill for we had not been aboard long enough.  Our life jackets were in our staterooms, mine across the hall from the head on the port side.  I decided it might be cold out there, so I put on my raincoat and grabbed my purse which had a shoulder strap.  I went to the starboard side where all the people were.  It was like trying to climb up a wall, but with the aid of strong men, I got to the railing and climbed over.  I remember thinking earlier in the day as I stood on one of the top decks looking down into the water 'how tall this ship is; I could never jump off if I had to.'

They couldn't get the life boats down, as the ship was at such a severe angle.  Six were finally lowered, but people jumped in them immediately.  By this time we were all sitting on the starboard side of 'Benny' and she was going down fast!  The Captain told us the ship wouldn't go down any farther as the water wasn't deep enough.  So we had visions of sitting waiting for a rescue party...but not for long.  Most of the people had shoved off by that time except for the nurses, officers and two Captains.  Our medical officer, Capt. Riggs, tied all the nurses together, eleven of us, with rope so we wouldn't get separated.  He slung two pieces of wood together, about 8 feet by 6 inches and shoved the eleven of us plus nine others onto it.  (Four of the nurses were elsewhere.)  That was wonderful, and we shoved off, sliding off our seats then paddled like 'hell' to get away from the ship.

[KWE Note: This paragraph was written by Ruth in 1988.  It was not part of her original letter home.] I think we were tied together at the waists.  It was a good decision as the group became quickly and widely separated after shoving off.  We had on Mae Wests which were supposed to be secured by straps brought from the back between the legs.  I don't remember if this was done as we all had on dresses.  The jackets kept riding up around the face.  The blue coloring kept rubbing off on our faces making us blue and colder appearing than we were.

Ten minutes after we left the ship, it couldn't be seen.  I still wasn't scared as I knew someone would rescue us.  That was about 1730.  It was so foggy you couldn't see far.  The water was very cold.  I still had on my shoes...pumps at that!  The first hour in the water, I kept moving and was quite comfortable.  No one was very encouraging, as one of the civilian crew said they hadn't been able to get a message out.  Later, we learned that one message had been received before communications were knocked out.  No one knew if the ship that hit us had stayed.  It was getting dark.

About 1830, we saw a little fishing boat and yelled to attract attention, but they went on by.  From later reports, it seems they were filled with survivors, mostly stragglers and people without life jackets who were worse off than we were.  It was beginning to get cold, and then we saw an Army tug which picked us up.  This half-hour was the worst of all.  Every once in a while, we'd get a face full of salt water which took the breath away.  The rescue was hampered because we were still tied together.  Finally, the rescuers got a knife and cut us apart.  They wrapped blankets around us.  I didn't think I would ever stop shaking although it was warm in the boat cabin.  It was now about 1945.  About a half-hour later we arrived at Ft. Mason and were then transported to Oak Knoll.

The highway was blocked off and we sped to the hospital.  They broke out the whole staff; everyone was wonderful.  They took off our clothes and put us to bed.  I remember trying unsuccessfully, to untie the square knot on my seersucker uniform.  My purse was full of water, but still had all the contents!

I awakened Saturday morning at 0630.  All the nurses brought armfuls of clothes, shoes, undies.  Then the newspaper reporters and photographers started pouring in.  Questions, questions, pictures.

Incidentally, the clothes I was going to send home, I didn't.  I decided to keep them on the ship in my suitcases.  Oh well, I was tired of them anyway. - Love, Ruth"

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Matthews, Lt. Gail

Lt. Gail Matthews
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[KWE Note: The following story of survival was told by Lt. Gail Matthews to United Press for The Scrantonian newspaper and appeared in the Sunday, August 27, 1950 issue.  Her husband, Dr. Charles Fain, shared it with the Korean War Educator.]

"I have a fear of the number 13 from now on.  The Benevolence's number was AH-13.  I was sitting in a lounge chair in the wardroom, waiting for dinner, when the crash came.  Everything in the room started to roll.  I went to a porthole on the port side and I could see the other ship just aft.  It was sliding away.  I went back to where the other nurses were.  The loudspeakers kept repeating, "Man your lifejackets."  I had my jacket on but then I realized I didn't have a coat on so I took my jacket off, put on my coat, then put my jacket back on.

We went up on deck and there Captain Riggs (Capt. Cecil Riggs of Arlington, Virginia) found some rope, I don't know where.  He lashed 11 of us together.  Then he and some men tied some boards together.  Riggs didn't even have a lifejacket on but he was wonderful, helping us.  for awhile, we didn't think we'd have to leave the ship, but then Riggs told us we'd have to get into the water.  It was awful.

I took off my shoes and all of us together put the raft into the water.  I couldn't get my breath, the water was so darned cold.  Then I remembered to take a big, deep breath.  It was like a cold shower, only much worse.  I was tied to Miss Ledbetter.  Miss Ledbetter was a wonderful person.  She was so full of fun.  But now she was very frightened.

Miss Harrington (Lt. Eleanor Harrington, Lowell, Massachusetts) said, "Let's sing 'Merrily We Roll Along,' but it didn't last long.  The Catholic girls who had rosaries began to pray.  I am not Catholic, but I joined them.

We could see a raft close by.  It was green and white.  We couldn't understand why they didn't pick us up.  Then I saw they were picking up single people out of the water. I guess we were all right...we had something to hold on to. 

There were two young sailors, they were just kids, really.  Miss Harrington saw them and pulled them over close to the raft and they hung on.  They were awfully blue.  One of them kept saying, 'My legs are cramped.'  In a little while, they said they couldn't feel anything below their hips.  But these wonderful kids.  The waves kept throwing pieces of timber at us and even though they were in pain, they kept trying to shield us.  I lost them when the rescue tug got near.  I hope they made it.

The tug was only a few feet away when I saw Miss Ledbetter with her head in the water.  The waves had thrown her feet over the raft.  She was a tall girl.  I wanted to help her but was so cold and so weak that I couldn't manage to do anything.  You just don't know how it feels.  I knew she was in a bad way.  There wasn't anything I could do for her.  Then I could see her begin frothing at the mouth.  Her head was so far away I couldn't even lift it or get to it.  I don't know what happened.  They tried to pull her over the side and I started to scream. I was tied to her.  They must have cut us apart.  Someone did.  Next thing I knew I was no longer tied to her.  I was all by myself.

The waves were terribly rough and one threw me completely over the raft.  Then I became frightened.  I was so close and I couldn't swim.  I went under.  Then, someone was giving me a push and I was going up the side of the tug.

Our chief nurse, Miss Harrington, was wonderful.  Even when the water was rough and the waves were breaking, she seemed to have courage to spare.  She would smile at the girls and cheer them."

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Graduating From Nursing School
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Personnel Claim for Property filed by Gail Matthews
The total value of her lost personal property due to the Benevolence sinking was $2,035.05. The government reimbursed her just $992.75.
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Personnel Claim for Property filed by Gail Matthews
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Personnel Claim for Property filed by Gail Matthews
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Personnel Claim for Property filed by Gail Matthews
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Change of duty orders
Detached Lt. Gail C. Matthews from duty at the naval hospital in Pensacola and transferred her to the USS Benevolence.
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Hospital Ship Tranquility
Lt. Gail Matthews, survivor of the sinking of the USS Benevolence, served as a nurse onboard the hospital ship Tranquility during World War II. The ship's crew, including Lieutenant Matthews, helped rescue survivors of the sinking of the USS Indianapolis at the end of World War II.
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McGuire, Irvin

A letter from Benevolence survivor Irvin McGuire exists in the collections of the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, San Francisco.  In it, McGuire recounts his experience at the time of the collision that sank the Benevolence.  View the letter here (PDF File).

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Spence, Robert

[KWE Note: Robert Spence's account of the accident appeared in the San Francisco Call-Bulletin, August 26, 1950.  Spence was a 21 year old hospital corpsman from Forrest, Mississippi.]

"I was standing on the deck of the Benevolence.  The fog was thick; I could hardly see a thing.  I wasn't thinking of anything in particular.  Suddenly--it was horrible--I saw this shape come right out of the fog.  I didn't know what it was.  I couldn't think.  It seemed so big and was moving so fast.  I couldn't move.

The crash was horrible.  I was thrown to the deck.  I was dazed for a moment.  Then I began to think again.  Everybody was yelling.  They were all moving about.  Somehow, I don't remember, I managed to get a life jacket.  I didn't look for a lifeboat or anything.  Once I got the jacket on, I jumped right into the water."

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Tobin, Capt. Austin

[Excerpt from an unidentified newspaper clipping of the time.]

"Captain Austin Tobin of an Army tug found 60 men crowded on two 12-foot square rafts.  'Not a man among them had enough strength left to pull himself aboard though our deck was level with their chins."

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Venverloh, LCDR Dorothy J. - Eyewitness Account (COMING SOON)


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Venverloh, LCDR Dorothy J. - Interview

[KWE Note: The following interview with LCDR Venverloh was conducted by Jan K. Herman, Historian, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, 23 August 2000.  JH = Jan Herman/DV = Dorothy Venverloh.]

JH - Are you originally from St. Louis?
DV - Yes. I was born and reared here. I’m living in the family home at present.

JH - When did you decide to become a nurse?
DV - When I was about 5 or 6 years old. The teachers were always asking us what we were going to be when we grew up and I said I was going to be a nurse. I went to Catholic school. My teacher said, “Why don’t you be a nun and then be a nurse?” I said, “No. I don’t want to be a nun. I want to be a nurse.” So it was always there in the back of my mind.

JH - Where did you go to nursing school?
DV - At St. Johns-Mercy. Now it’s St. Johns-Mercy Medical Center but the school as I knew it is no longer in existence. I graduated from nursing school in ‘41. I then did general duty at the hospital, and then signed up with the city of St. Louis Public Health Department. We did maternal Health, new babies. The Health Department also had a tuberculosis clinic where they did follow-up work on TB patients. There was also an active program of immunizing infants and a “well babies” progress and development and a school health program. Of course, the war was in progress, but at that time since I was with the public health department, the American Red Cross could not process my application. Nurses were needed on the civilian front. Nurses (RNs) were classified. I was essential for the home front.

JH - When did you join the Navy?
DV - In November of 1947. At that time, the organization I worked for had to release me when a nurse released from military service replaced me. It was no longer necessary to apply to the Red Cross. You see, previously, if you wanted military service you applied to the Red Cross and they assigned you where they needed nurses, whether it was Army or Navy. By the time I applied, the Red Cross was no longer doing that. I was told to write to the service of my choice and request an application.

JH - So you picked the Navy?
DV - Yes.

JH - Why?
DV - Many of my friends were in the Navy and they all reported good working relationships. Some of my friends who were Army nurses didn’t feel they were always treated as professionals.

JH - Where did you enter the Navy?
DV - I had to go to Olathe, Kansas for my physical and interview. I don’t think I was sworn in out there, though. I think I was sworn in St. Louis.

JH - Where was your first assignment?
DV - US Naval Hospital Houston, TX.

JH - Did you have any kind of orientation into the Navy or did you just report to your new assignment?
DV - An orientation nurse was assigned that we reported to. She introduced us to the physical layout of the place and the Navy’s way of doing things from folding blankets to . . . It wasn’t that bad. I had been doing field work with the St. Louis Health Department so I had been away from hospital work for 4 years.

JH - This was still ‘47.
DV - Yes. When we reported into Houston, there was a Miss Dell, as I recall. She was our orientation nurse. A Marine who had been a prisoner of war in the Philippines was the one who gave us our drill instructions and abandon ship training. But what we always laughed about was what he told us. He told us that if we had to abandon ship to take our dungarees off and put them over our head to gather air and use it as a life support system. But they forgot that we didn’t wear dungarees. Our group of indoctrinees got a lot of laughs out of that.

JH - How long was the indoctrination?
DV - It lasted 6 weeks and we were restricted to the base.

JH - Where were you when the Korean War broke out?
DV - I was at Oak Knoll. I was on a surgical ward when we heard they were having troubles in Korea.

JH - How did you get involved with the hospital ships?
DV - Through the Bureau [of Medicine and Surgery]. My orders were dated the 25th of July 1950 for another nurse and myself. We had to report to Mare Island Naval Shipyard because that’s where the ship was in mothballs. We reported in and lived in Quonset huts on the base, as the hospital was officially closed at Mare Island 2 weeks before. When we reported in we reported into the Reserve Fleet for temporary duty.

JH - So you lived at the Navy yard and could see the ship while it was being renovated.
DV - Yes.

JH - Were you going aboard the ship?
DV - Yes.

JH - What kind of duties did you have?
DV - We were making an inventory of what was there.

JH - What was you first impression of the Benevolence?
DV - I had nothing to compare it with. One of the hospital chiefs from the Naval Hospital in Houston was on duty there on the hospital ship so he showed us all around--above deck, below deck, the elevators, and then when we got down below where the hospital units were, he said, “This ship is not as seaworthy as some of the other ships.” It was originally laid down as a tanker so it has only one hull. The regular Navy ships have two hulls.” I always kept what he said in the back of my mind. Another comment of his was, “All the wool blankets were secured with moth balls and stored in the cells of the brig.”

JH - Did the ship look like it was in pretty bad shape and needed a lot of work?
DV - No. It looked like it had been taken care of pretty well. Just as the wool blankets were preserved with camphor (moth balls), the remainder of the ship had been protected by spraying it with layers to protect the entire ship and to “cocoon” it when it was placed in the “Moth Ball” fleet.

JH - Were you excited about being assigned to a hospital ship?
DV - Oh, absolutely. That was one of the things one always thought about. This was choice duty for a nurse. I had come into the Navy in ‘47 and, of course, many of the experienced personnel had been released to inactive duty. After reporting in for this duty we stayed in Quonset huts at Mare Island. There were a few incidents that didn’t bode well, but we didn’t realize it.

JH - What were those?
DV - Personality differences.

JH - Who did you report to while you were there helping get the ship ready? Was there a chief nurse?
DV - Yes. Her name was Eleanor Harrington. I understood she had experience as chief nurse on an earlier hospital ship.

JH - Besides personality differences, did you see other problems?
DV - No. Not at that particular time. There was so much preparatory activity of many things.

JH - It was a busy place then, getting the ship ready.
DV - We were to go aboard earlier but couldn’t because this was going to be the first ship that sailed with a Navy crew and a merchant marine crew. And the merchant mariners had gotten there first and staked out their territory.

JH - So, they took the best quarters?
DV - Yes. They took over the staterooms. So they had to find a different place for them and get them moved out. So we weren’t too sure just how this was all going to work out. It was said they were very resentful because when they had moved aboard no one had told them anything.

JH - So, already people were lining up, the Navy people on one side, and the merchant mariners on the other.
DV - Yes. Anyway, we finally got moved aboard. The first day we went out--the first shakedown cruise . . .

JH - This was in August?
DV - Yes. We were headed out, but before we got to the Golden Gate Bridge, while still in Oakland Bay, the crew practiced using the distress flags and signaling that the ship was at anchor.

JH - Prior to this, had you ever had abandon ship or lifeboat drills?
DV - We didn’t have them until after we moved aboard. On that shakedown cruise down the bay, we had to go to the officers’ mess. There the captain read the orders taking the ship from the reserve fleet and putting it back on active duty. The Chief Nurse told us she had our life boat assignments and would give them to us the next day.

JH - This was now the captain in command of the ship, not CAPT [Cecil] Riggs.
DV - No. This was Dr. Riggs. The other captain was the merchant marine officer. He told us to call him “Pineapple Bill.” I don’t know what his real name was.  Anyway, we were getting ready to go to dinner at 1700 hours. Our mess was on the next deck down. And suddenly, there was this awful jolt. My roommate and I looked out our porthole and we could see another ship right next to us--the merchant ship that hit us.

JH - This was about 4 in the afternoon. Who was your roommate?
DV - Her name was Rosemary Neville, a graduate of Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. I haven’t heard from her in years. She was a little girl and just barely made the regulations as to height and weight.

JH - You said you felt a jolt. Was it a really big jolt? Did it knock you off your feet?
DV - No. It didn’t knock us off our feet. Just minutes after that we heard over the loudspeaker system, “Prepare to Abandon Ship.” They told us to take our life jackets and go to the side of the ship that was out of the water.

JH - Was it listing by this time?
DV - Yes. It began listing very fast.

JH - I understand it went down in about 20 minutes.
DV - It may have been faster than that. By the time I went to go forward I had to walk with one foot on the deck and one foot on the bulkhead. My roommate ran out ahead of me. When we got to the door between our quarters and the cross passageway, there were men who had been up on deck and they came into the cross passageway to give us a steadying hand getting up the bulkhead that separated the nurse quarters from the cross passageway.

JH - Was everybody pretty calm or were they panicky?
DV - We did not know very much about what was going on. We knew the ship was listing and not stabilized. We were all so busy getting out of our quarters. There was someone who didn’t take her life jacket and she wanted somebody to bring her one. Prior to this, most of the life jackets had been gathered and placed on another deck. They were to be sent out to be cleaned that very day so some people didn’t have them in their rooms. But we had ours. We had thrown them on top of the metal cabinet in our stateroom.

JH - So, you and your roommate both had your life jackets when you left. You got to a cross passage and noticed all these men holding on.
DV - Yes. And they reached down, grabbed our hands, and pulled us up the bulkhead, helped us through the doorway, and up the passageway. Then once we were on deck we sat on the railing to see what would happen next.

JH - What did you see once you got topside?
DV - The weather was very foggy. The 25th of August was very foggy and the fog horns were going off. You really couldn’t see very far over the water because the fog was hanging very low. Some of the men were just jumping in the water.

JH - Could you use the lifeboats?
DV - They were still secured. What did get over were the rafts but they were bouncing around. They couldn’t launch any of the lifeboats because the ship was listing so badly. Then they told us to be sure to put our life jackets on. When we had our indoctrination course nothing much was said about putting on life jackets. You know, you put this thing on and then you wrap this long tape around you and tie the knot in it. Well, we had never been told that you were supposed to secure some of the straps between the legs. And, of course, we were wearing full skirts--uniforms. So most of us just tied the strap around our waist. Well, that resulted in difficulty later on when we were in the water because the life jackets had a tendency to ride upward and float over your head.

JH - So, you were never taught how to put the life jackets on properly.
DV - No. Maybe they assumed we should know by common sense. The men knew what to do with them but we didn’t.

JH - How many nurses were there on the ship?
DV - There were about 16 of us.

JH - Were you all together at this point?
DV - Most of us were together but there were a few who had gone in a different direction and on the side of the ship and were separated from us.

JH - By now, you must have been hanging on for dear life because the ship was leaning over.
DV - Yes. They finally told us to get off the ship and we had to navigate our way down the side. We finally stepped off the bilge keel into the water.

JH - Wow! This thing was really leaning over if the bottom of the ship was already exposed. What were you thinking about at this point?
DV - We knew it wasn’t a drill. You were really looking out for the other person, making sure everyone was together. In the meantime, CAPT Riggs, the medical C.O., who was still aboard, had some of the men go around and get some wooden planks to put into the water. Planks and coils of rope and round life preservers were available for “man overboard” drills.

JH - This was Dr. Riggs.
DV - Yes. The idea was that we needed something to hang on to.

JH - I read somewhere that Dr. Riggs had gotten some rope and tied you nurses together. What was that all about?
DV - While we were on deck, he ran the rope through the belt loops on the back of our coats.

JH - You were still wearing your coats?
DV - We were wearing everything--full skirted uniforms, hats, sweaters, coats, and purses. After all, we were going somewhere.

JH - So, he put a loop through each of your coats, keeping a distance so you’d be separated, and he secured the rope to each of you.
DV - Yes.

JH - So, when you stepped off the bilge keel you were all hooked together with the rope.
DV - Yes.

JH - What about the boards that were floating in the water?
DV - They were pretty wide--about 18 inches or so--and quite thick. I had a death grip on the board I was holding on to. When the men on the ocean going tug finally pulled me out I couldn’t bend my left hand for a good day.

JH - You had really been gripping this board for dear life.
DV - Yes. And then with my other hand, I was holding on to my roommate, Rosemary because her arms weren’t long enough to reach the board. She was holding on to me and I was holding onto the board.

JH - When you stepped off the bilge keel into the water did they tell you to get clear of the ship?
DV - As we stepped off, we used the leg closest to the hull to push off. And then they told us to get away and get clear of the ship because when it finally went down we didn’t want to get sucked under.

JH - San Francisco Bay is noted for its cold water. What did that water feel like?
DV - It was cold. I think we later learned that it was around 50 degrees. We also heard that had we been in that water just 10 minutes more, they would have pulled our bodies out.

JH - You and your fellow nurses were there floating about. Could you see anyone else in the water?
DV - Some of the merchant seamen were holding on to the opposite side of our board.

JH - Where was Dr. Riggs?
DV - I think he had been up on the bridge with the pilot who had been taken aboard to guide us out through the Golden Gate. We later learned that the pilot had been thrown back against the wheel on the bridge and was seriously injured. We could hear airplanes flying overhead, probably sent out from Alameda [Naval Air Station] to try to find us.

JH - It was still foggy?
DV - Yes.

JH - Do you remember talking to your colleagues while you were in the water to try to keep your spirits up?
DV - Yes. Nell Harrington was singing all kinds of songs. Then one of the girls finally said, “If I open my mouth again to sing, I’m swallowing too much water.” Then she said to Nell, “And besides, I can’t say my prayers while you are singing.” So then Nell finally stopped singing.

JH - Was the water rough?
DV - Yes. It was rough. First we’d be down in a trough, and then we’d be way up, and then down.

JH - Did you see the ship go under?
DV - No. It was so foggy and we were so intent on holding on that we didn’t see it. After a while we saw the captain’s gig come up and one of the sailors aboard said, “I can’t take you aboard but I’ll tell them where you are.” Apparently, he had a tough time keeping the engine running.  About that time an Army Engineer tug appeared and were going to pick us up. They first took off the men clinging to the plank on the other side of us. When it came time for us, they wanted us to grab a hand so they could pull us aboard. We said we couldn’t because we were all tied together. One of the men from the tug came into the water and cut the rope between us. Then they were able to pull us individually up over the side of the tug. I would have been the last person pulled aboard except that Wilma Ledbetter didn’t want them to come near her. The tug crew had fired a Very pistol over us and told us to catch the line. We were trying to do that but Wilma kept pushing them away saying they were going to drown her. She was very panicky. Several men then jumped in and tried to hold her up, but she wouldn’t cooperate. So they turned their attention to me instead. When the waves washed me up high, the men were hanging over the railing. Two of them each grabbed one of my arms and pulled me up over the side.  Wilma, then, ended up being the last one. She continued to fight them as they tried to pull her aboard and, by the time they finally got her aboard, her color was terrible, kind of a pinkish-blue, and she wasn’t responding.  Then we went below deck where it was very crowded. Soon thereafter, they brought the pilot down on some boards. Apparently he had been injured--had hurt his back--when the collision occurred. I don’t think he survived.

JH - Were you given dry clothes?
DV - No. They took as many people as they could aboard the tug and took us right back to the pier in San Francisco.

JH - All of you nurses were then accounted for except for Wilma Ledbetter, who didn’t make it?
DV - No. Helen Wallis was with a merchant seaman who had survived several ship wrecks. The ship that hit us pulled out survivors who were floating into that ship’s path. Helen was brought to our ward some time after we were.  Wilma Ledbetter died aboard the tug boat. When they performed the autopsy, we all wanted to know what had happened to her. She probably died from hypothermia.

JH - Where did you go after they delivered you to the pier in San Francisco?
DV - We were taken to Oak Knoll on buses and admitted to the hospital and hospitalized for several days. We were all put to work on the wards until all our paperwork was reconstructed. We lost all of that except for our pay records, which weren’t aboard.

JH - I thought this was just supposed to be a shakedown cruise.
DV - The plan was to go back to Mare Island and get loaded up with supplies and then we were going to go to Korea and to relieve the Consolation as soon as the ship was loaded. We would have stayed on the ship that night.

JH - So you were ready to sail for Korea the very next day?
DV - Yes.

JH - Were there any repercussions from this accident? Did anyone ask you to testify at a board of inquiry?
DV - We had to go up to Mare Island to a meeting. It was a closed meeting of the people who had been aboard the ship. We weren’t supposed to talk to anybody about what was discussed. They told each of us if there was someone we wanted to praise or condemn for their actions, that was the time to do it. The next day they took us to Treasure Island to get some uniforms.

JH - You had lost everything except for what you were wearing.
DV - Yes. I have the purse I had with me right here and it’s stiff and still has the salt on it.

JH - I guess that’s a historic relic.
DV - That’s right. What’s peculiar about all this is that no one ever talked to me about the sinking. The first time anybody really mentioned the event was at my separation interview. And that was about 1970.

JH - Were you ever reassigned to another hospital ship?
DV - No. I would like to have gone. One of the other nurses created a fuss about wanting to go so they gave her orders to another hospital ship. The Chief Nurse, Nell Harrington, may also have had orders to another ship.

JH - What ever happened to the hulk of the Benevolence?
DV - I heard it was blown up because it was obstructing the shipping channel. The chief nurse at Oak Knoll sent me a newspaper clipping about it.

JH - It’s been 50 years since that tragedy. Do you ever think about that day?
DV - For a long time it kept bugging me. Why couldn’t have we done more to keep Wilma with us? Was there something we didn’t do that we should have done to save her? Some of the girls were talking to her. Some of them were praying with her. I don’t really know what more we could have done.

JH - Well, those were pretty extenuating circumstances. You didn’t expect to end up bobbing about in San Francisco Bay with your ship sunk underneath you.
DV - That’s right.

JH - Since that day, do you ever think about what happened?
DV - I kept having these flashbacks. When I was sinking through my life jacket and Rosemary reached over and pulled the tie down farther, it was about that time that I had an out of body experience.

JH - What did you see?
DV - I was looking upward. I heard harp-like music and saw a translucent stairway going up to the heavens. I didn’t see anybody up there. I had ascended almost to the top of the stairs and a voice asked me if I was all right. And that brought me back, back to being in the water. I’ve often wondered what I would have found at the top of those stairs. When I looked downward I could see the side of the ship with a few ant-sized bodies moving and many ant-sized bodies in the water moving away from the ship.

Nurses aboard Benevolence

  • LT Eleanor Harrington, NC, USN (Senior Nurse)
  • LT Mary E. Dyer, NC, USNR
  • LT Jean C. Fralic, NC, USN
  • LT Catherine Harkins, NC, USN
  • LT Marie Lipuscek, NC, USN
  • LT Josephine E. McCarthy, NC, USNR
  • LT Gail C. Matthews, NC, USN
  • LTJG Marie R. Brennan, NC, USNR
  • LTJG Rosemary C. Neville, NC, USNR
  • ENS Mary Deignan, NC, USN
  • ENS Patricia A. Karn, NC, USN
    ENS Ruth W. Martin, NC, USN
  • ENS Dorothy Jane Venverloh, NC, USN
  • END Helen F. Wallis, NC, USN
  • LT Wilma Ledbetter, NC, USN

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Venverloh, LCDR Dorothy J.  - Letter about the "Dirty Benny"

[KWE Note: Following is the last letter that the Venverloh family received prior to their Navy nurse daughter and sister being in the sinking of the USS Benevolence.]

August 23, 1950

"Dear Mother and Dad and all - Just a short note to brief you on this and that.  So far we have been putting in our appearances on board the "Dirty Benny" and trying to do something--anything on and about the workers who are trying to get the ship in running order.

Last Friday night we had cocktails at the apartment of the Chief Nurse of Mare Island--she had formerly had duty at Oak Knoll, so we knew her from there.  Then we went to the Officers' Club here at Mare Island and after dinner we came here to our Quonset hut and had some beer and talked.  We took flashlight pictures and I will send them when I get them back.  The other pictures I told you about are here somewhere, but with this living in and out of suitcases, I packed them somewhere and I can't find them.  We spent most of Sunday getting our gear repacked because we were told we would move aboard Monday.  So after sitting on the trunks to get the last little bit in, we did not move--it's absolutely frustrating.

Today the ship was taken out on a trial run--fortunately we did not have to go.  Instead, several of us went to San Francisco and just as the odometer was recording about 2000 miles, as we were coming across the Bay Bridge, I had my first flat tire.  The tow truck came along, and as I had visions of paying about $5.00 service charge, they told me they changed the ladies' tires for free-wasn't that nice?  I'll have to take the tire to a filing station tomorrow and have it fixed.  Just hope I didn't ruin the inner tube--we'll see.

We are supposedly moving aboard tomorrow, so once again, we have most everything packed, ready to go.  Then tomorrow night we are to have a ship's complement party at the Officers' Club from 6:00 to 8:00 p.m.

Yesterday afternoon we all went to afternoon tea at the beautiful old home of Rear Admiral and Mrs. Beatty.  We expected a rather stiff and stuffy affair, but after introductions, tea was served, then one of the wives was talked into playing the piano, so it turned into a singing party with tea.

As we drove up the driveway to the house, got out under the awning that extends from the house down to the street, a Marine attached to the Admiral drove our car out the drive and parked it. A Filipino houseboy admitted us.  After the above pleasant 2 hours, we took our departure.  Must close.  No paper. - Love, Dorothy"

View the drawing LCDR Venverloh made of her room on the USS Benevolence here.

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Voudren, Henry N. - survivor

[Excerpt from an unidentified newspaper of the time.]

"'There were dozens of men beyond the reach of life rafts, clistered together and floating around for what seemed like a century,' said Medical Corpsman Henry N. Voodren.  'The fellows with the lifejackets grabbed those without, and hung onto them, so that they couldn't draft away in the fog.'"



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