U.S.S. Benevolence AH-13 - News Clippings

 
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Contra Costa Times, August 24, 2012

[The following story as written up by Gary Peterson of the Contra Costa Times on August 24, 2012, was sent to the KWE by David Holly, who received permission to reprint from Mr. Peterson.]

"David Holly, who joined the Navy at 16 so he could see the world, suddenly couldn't see a thing.  Standing watch on the bow of the USS Benevolence as the hospital ship returned to San Francisco Bay after a day of sea trials, Holly was blinded by fog.

He never saw the approaching freighter until it was so close to the Benevolence that neither ship had time to avoid a collision.  The force of the impact sent Holly sprawling on the deck.  The ships drifted apart, then came together again.

Again Holly went flying.  "The ship was leaning port-wise," recalled Holly, an 80-year-old Arkansas native now living in Union City.  "The spirit in me told me to go don a life jacket."  Holly did.  Then he tried to release lifeboats, to no avail.  The 577-foot-long ship continued to roll.  "The spirit in me said, 'Jump into the ocean off the starboard side as she's going down,'" he said, "'and swim, swim as fast as you can.'"

Holly leapt into the frigid water four miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge.  He doesn't recall how long he swam.  But when he looked back, the Benevolence and his 527 shipmates were nowhere to be seen.

1950 Tragedy

On August 25, it will be 62 years since the Benevolence slipped beneath slipped beneath the waves 25 minutes after its collision with the SS Mary Luckenbach.  News of the accident went viral, which in 1950 meant generating buzz on AM radio and being splashed across the front page of newspapers all over North America.  But soon enough, the remarkable story--of 23 tragic deaths, of the near-miraculous rescue of 505 hypothermic survivors, of haunting images, of investigation and blame-fixing--seemed to disappear into the fog whence it came.

"People don't know about it," said Peter Sears, of Lincoln in Placer County, a 19-year-old sailor when the Benevolence sank from under him.  "Very few people remember.  You've got to be old."

The Benevolence, commissioned near the end of World War II, quickly compiled a distinguished record.  It was part of the Allied flotilla in Tokyo Harbor during the surrender of Japan.  It remained off the coast of Japan for six months, processing liberated prisoners of war.  In 1946, it participated in nuclear weapons testing at Bikini Atoll.  It was mothballed the following year.

With escalating hostilities in Korea came a renewed need for hospital ships.  The Benevolence was dispatched to Mare Island to be refurbished.  On a cool Friday morning, manned by a hastily assembled crew, it was sent to Oakland to take on supplies, then head out the Golden Gate.

"They didn't tell us anything," said 81-year-old Bob Packwood, of Camarillo in Southern California, a Navy medical corpsman that day.  "We assumed it was sea trials.  Some guys thought we were headed overseas."

The shakedown assignment, which Holly said took them 35 miles out to sea, went well.  The ship was loaded with engineers and shipyard workers and a full medical crew, but no patients.  As the Benevolence made its way home, it was enveloped in an all-consuming fog.

The ship's radar was on, but didn't pick up the SS Mary Luckenbach.  An inquiry would reveal that the Luckenbach's radar, which had been malfunctioning, was turned off.  Holly, one of three men stationed on the bow, was on the port side, just fore of where the Luckenbach broadsided the Benevolence.

The next thing he knew, he was floating alone in a chilling sea.  "I didn't see nobody," he said.  "I started crying for my mother and father.  I said, 'Lord, please let me die.'  And out of the fog came a wooden case of blood plasma.  The spirit said, 'Wrap your body around that box and just hold on.'"

Unbeknown to Holly, the water was churning with nurses, cooks and corpsmen.  "We were playing hearts down in quarters," said Arlis Hunter, then a corpsman and now an 82-year-old retiree in Brownsville in Yuba County.  "We got out of there as quick as we could."

Enormous swells

Packwood was in the chow line when the collision occurred at 4:55 p.m.  He grabbed a life jacket, and then encountered a veteran officer.  He said, "I've been on two ships that sank, and this son of a bitch is sinking," Packwood said.  "I went out the starboard side."

Once in the water, a group of nurses formed a circle and, as they rose and fell in the heaving sea, sang, "Merrily We Roll Along" and recited prayers.  "The swells were enormously high," said Packwood, who attached himself to a raft.  "It was foggy and getting black."

The fully loaded Luckenbach drifted away from the crash point and dropped anchor, initially unaware, its captain would later testify, of any damage to the Benevolence.  Ultimately the Luckenbach would take on 85 survivors, including Holly.  A distress signal raised an armada of Coast Guard craft, Army and Navy tugs, and a variety of private vessels and fishing trawlers.  Would-be rescuers puttered slowly through the fog, looking--"By guess and by golly," one fisherman said--for survivors.

"The tide was going out," said Hunter, who lost 11 pounds in the 4 1/2 hours he was in the water.  "When they picked me up, we were 12 miles out."  Holly, whose left side was injured, remembers getting aboard the Luckenbach and seeing four of his crewmates lying on the deck, foaming at the mouth "like dogs", dead of salt water ingestion.

The scene was chaotic at Fort Point and Fort Mason, where survivors were delivered.  "Every ambulance in the Bay Area was there, or at least that's how it seemed," Sears said. "You walked off the (rescue) ship and the Red Cross gave you a carton of cigarettes and the services gave you booze."

The 71-foot-wide Benevolence lay on its side in 75 feet of water in the middle of a shipping lane--photos showed the red cross on its hull eerily visible through the waves--for 16 months, during which an official inquiry found both captains at fault for excessive speed.

When the Navy deemed salvage impossible, the Benevolence was blown up in a series of three explosions between Thanksgiving and Christmas of 1951, one of the great tragedies in Northern California maritime history ripped stem from stern and consigned the status of an undertold story.

"When it comes to maritime history, they're all undertold," said Ted Miles, a historian with the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park.  "If it had been in full commission as a hospital ship, it could have been a lot worse.  it was a real piece of luck."

Holly speaks regularly before church and senior groups, trying to keep the Benevolence alive.  The past few years, he said, the left side he injured in the tragedy wakes him up at night.  He thinks of two of his buddies who died.

"I'm just wondering if (Gilbert) Young, who's dead, and (Eugene) Harris, who's in that ocean dead, and all the rest of them who died," Holly said, "want me to make sure that people know they died for this country.  And to let people know: Don't forget me."


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Logansport Press, August 29, 1950, page 3

[KWE Note: This clipping was sent to the KWE courtesy of the Cass Historical Society, Logansport, IN.]

Lt. Karn's Story of Survival from Ship Wreck Told
She Was Taking a Bath When the Collision Occurred

"A story of one hour and 45 minutes of struggling against death by drowning was related yesterday by Patricia Karn, Logansport nurse who survived the sinking of the hospital ship Benevolence four miles off San Francisco Friday night.  Lieutenant Karn, age 27, daughter of Mrs. Lucille Karn and niece of Robert Rannels, both Pharos Tribune linotype operators, is recovering from shock and exposure in Oak Knoll hospital, Oakland, California.  Miss Karn almost drowned when she was caught between a rope pulled taut by clinging survivors and a make-shift raft.  She struggled to keep her head above water for about ten minutes before being untangled by an Indian boy.

The local girl and another Navy nurse were taking baths when the two ships collided.  Grabbing a coat, shoes, and life preserver she clambered to the deck.  "Someone told me to go and I fell off," she said.  It was immediately after that that she became entangled in the rope.  Miss Karn, another nurse, and about 30 men clung to a makeshift raft an hour and 45 minutes before being picked up by lifeboats.  At least one man lost his grip and drowned before the lifeboat came, she reports.

The Lieutenant is recovering satisfactorily after the ordeal.  "I feel all right," she said.  "Of course, there's a little shock.  But the only thing that really seems wrong is my arms.  They're just so tired and stiff from holding on to a rope so long."


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Oakland Tribune, Oakland, CA, Sunday, August 27, 1950 (two articles)

Red Cross Director Praises Response

"Mrs. Gertrude Salover, disaster director for the Oakland Red Cross, said yesterday, 'it was truly wonderful' the way Oakland area residents responded to news of the ship collision off the Golden Gate.

Mrs. Salover headed a staff of Oakland Red Cross workers who stayed up throughout Friday night to handle inquiries regarding survivors of the Benevolence.  'But what was truly wonderful,' she said, 'was the way registered nurses, amateur radiomen and ambulance drivers called to volunteer their services.  In addition, several of our wartime motor corps drivers called to see if they could be of aid.'"

Parents Are Told

"Mr. and Mrs. W.L. Ledbetter said today they had received a telegram telling them that their daughter, Wilma, had died as a result of last night's ship collision near San Francisco.

The Navy nurse was about 30 years old and had been in the Navy about seven years.  She was a graduate of an Amarillo nurses' school.  The family was so grief stricken that its members were unable to give more details immediately.

Apparently Miss Ledbetter was the nurse described as Oakland's Oak Knoll Hospital in California as "a wonderful little girl from Texas" who died as she was being pulled from the water by an Army tug."


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Reading Eagle, August 26, 1950

Survivors Complain of Cold Following Ship Collision
San Francisco, August 26 (AP)

"To a man, survivors of the sunken hospital ship Benevolence talked last night of the bitter cold as they came ashore at the fog-shrouded docks at Fort Mason.  The shocked survivors were landed at the arc-lighted docks, along with the injured and dead--with their teeth still chattering so that some could hardly talk.

Those who had been working in the ship's engine room had endured for hours the icy water of the foggy Pacific, four miles off the Golden Gate.  "I was on a raft for 2 1/2 days at Guadalcanal, but this hour and 15 minutes in the cold water seemed twice as "long", said Ronald Badkirk, a civilian chief carpenter of the Military Sea Transport Service, which was renovating the Benevolence for the navy.

Many survivors said they felt two shocks when the Benevolence and the freighter Mary Luckenbach collided.  John Graham, 44, navy chief hospitalman from Leslie, Arkansas, was in the mess hall when the crash came.  We ran to the boat deck and grabbed a life raft and climbed aboard.  Looking back, I saw the ship rolling over until her stack was under water.  She seemed to go down bow first."

"When the crash came," said Sam Uzarewich, 25, a merchant sailor, of Bayonne, New York, "the tables in the mess hall started flying all over hell.  I ran up the boat deck and down the ladder.  I landed in the water and was in there about two hours until I got picked up."

Commander M.K. Clementson USA, and Lt, Commander Julian I. Schocken, second and third officers, respectively, said they were the last to leave the Benevolence.  They were picked up by the army cable ship Niles.  They said they were in the water only about three minutes.  The watches of both men had stopped at 5:38 p.m. (P.D.T.) 7:38 p.m. (E.S.T.).  The two officers said the Benevolence sank in about 75 feet of water some 20 minutes after the collision.  They were not injured.

Carl Totten, San Francisco, junior third officer, said he climbed aboard a life raft and threw out life jackets to those in the water.  "The men in the water formed life rings, holding hands in a circle," he related.  "This kept the men without life preservers on the surface.  About half of the men were in the water and about half in life rafts.  We changed off, some of us giving the men in the water a place on the raft to give them a rest.  Everyone was really cooperative with everyone else."

Chief Boatswains mate H.L. Runnels, San Pablo, California, said men were hanging on to anything they could find--boxes, railings, "anything that would float."  Navy Fireman Chester Conner, 26, of Sheridan, Wyoming, said it took two hours and 20 minutes for the first ship to arrive, and "the water was mighty cold.  Most of the guys tried to keep the rafts right side up," he said.  "However, some of them did get panicky.  I did hear a lot of screaming and yelling while I was lying on the raft."

There were many somber scenes as the rescue ships docked.  The body of a dead man was lashed on the fantail of one tug.  One woman, apparently a nurse, was screaming and fighting hysterically.  She was put aboard an ambulance immediately.

Jack Maroni, 23, civilian quartermaster, of Santa Rosa, California, had praise for the unidentified pilot of the fishing boat Flora who pulled him and several others, including "a Catholic chaplain whose name I think was Riordan, "out of the water.  "That fisherman ought to be given a medal," he said.

The water was warmer when he was sunk off Okinawa in 1945, said Gary LaVelle, Chief storekeeper, of San Francisco.  LaVelle said he had a life jacket on when he hit the water, "but some guy pulled it off me."  He said he swam for an hour, then was taken onto a life raft.

One of the woman survivors, Helen Wallace [Wallis], 25, of Malbern, Arkansas spent two hours in the water.  She was suffering from shock and hysteria."


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San Francisco Call-Bulletin, August 26, 1950

2 Sailors Tell Ordeal of 24 Men on Raft

"A kaleidoscope story of life and death in the cold, murky waters of the fog-shrouded Golden Gate was related early today by two Navy corpsmen who survived the sinking of the hospital ship Benevolence.  Both are patients in Letterman General Hospital at the Presidio, suffering from shock and exposure occasioned by their dramatic plunge into the sea.

Hospital Man First Class Robert E. Anderson of Redlands told of a quiet pinochle game in an ambulatory ward which ended with a grinding crash.

Felt Big Smash

'I felt a big smash,' he related, 'and when I realized the ship was in trouble I looked around for a life jacket.  There were none available, so I went topside.  It was very foggy and as near as I could tell the Benevolence was hit aft on the port side.  When I got on deck I saw the other ship (the Mary Luckenbach) moving away in the fog.  She appeared to have hit us a sort of glancing blow, sliding away right after the impact.  The ship was listing heavily to port and you could hardly walk on the deck.'

Went Over Side

Hospital Man Second Class Melvin Deaton of Compton chimed in to help the story at this point.  'She was listing so bad that we didn't even wait for the order to abandon ship,' he said.  'When they said to prepare to abandon ship we just went over the side.'

Both men paused while photographers asked Deaton to pose lighting a cigarette for Anderson, whose bandaged hands were friction burned while sliding down a rope on the starboard side.  'We threw six life rafts over the sides,' Anderson said, 'but three of them didn't have a line attached to them and they just floated away.'

'I was in dungarees,' Anderson continued, 'but when I hit the water I shucked them off and swam in my skivvies.  I didn't take off my shoes, though.  Most of the rafts we saw had 10 or 12 men on them, but the one we caught on to had 24 or 25.  Five or six guys were on it and the rest of us held on the sides.  The raft was a couple of feet under water because of all the men hanging on to it. We were in the water about an hour and 20 minutes and toward the end everybody was getting exhausted.  One Filipino guy died while I and another fellow were holding on to him.  He just sort of conked out. We could hear the Benevolence's fog horn giving an SOS for about an hour.  Finally four fishing boats came along and picked us up.'

Deaton supplemented Anderson's story by saying, "A lot of men were still on the ship when we left.  I remember one officer on the raft with us.  He was in sun tans and didn't say much, just kept hanging on, never trying to climb aboard the raft.  I think he was a merchant marine guy.'

'Some of the men had just eaten chow and they began to get cramps in the cold water.  Those fishing boats came along just in time.  One kid, a Navy man, said he gave a nurse artificial respiration on a raft for quite a little while but it didn't do any good.'

Both men thought the Benevolence was going at 'normal speed' at the time of the collision.  They placed the time of the crash at four minutes past five o'clock."


Call-Bulletin Cameramen at Scene
Grim Rescue Efforts In Fog Described

Two Call-Bulletin cameramen went out last night aboard separate boats searching the fogged-in water off the Golden Gate for survivors of the ill-fated hospital ship, U.S.S. Benevolence.  They are Kenneth Adams, 169 Pine Street, San Anselmo, and Sidney Tate, 671 Ninth Avenue, San Francisco.

Both came back, not only with photographs, but graphic tales of the grim fight in fog to stave off what could have been the worst marine disaster in Pacific Coast history.  Adams went out on an Army tug that earlier had been one of the first on the scene and brought in more than 100 survivors.

'Members of the crew told of rescuing a group of Navy nurses bound together by a line on their first trip,' Adams said.  The nurses tied themselves together as they abandoned the sinking ship, and were still linked when picked up later by the Army tug.  'It was pitiful,' a crewman on the Army tug told Adams.  'One of the nurses died just as we pulled her over the side into the tug.'

Members of the crew said the water was packed with persons floating in life jackets, clinging to bits of wreckage and just swimming when the tug first got there.  The tug, with its low sides, made an ideal rescue ship, since the crew members were able to lean over and pull people in as the boat nosed slowly among the survivors.

Both Tate and Adams reported that the fog was so thick at the scene of the disaster that it was impossible to see more than a few feet unless the searchlights were on."


Rope Saved 2 Top Officers

"The weakened rope of a life boat saved the lives of two of the top officers of the hospital ship Benevolence last night.  Commander M.K. Clementson, second officer of the ship, and Lieutenant Commander Julian J. Schocken, third officer, were rescued by the Army mine tender, Ellory W. Niles, after several hours of riding the keel of the capsized boat.

'We dove into the water when we felt the ship was going down,' the men told rescuers.  'When the ship sank, the rope holding the life boat broke and the life boat floated free, keel up.  We swam to the boat and climbed aboard.'

Several hours later the mine tender sighted the exhausted men and took them aboard."


Relatives Stand Silent Vigil

"The boats came in through the fog, their prows nosing up to the dock, and waiting for them was a silent, sober throng of faces white and strained.  On the boats were survivors of the USS Benevolence, taken from the waters off the Golden Gate.  On the dock at Fort Mason--as at other points where survivors were being brought in last night--were anxious relatives of crew members.  They were waiting, hopefully yet fearfully, for a glimpse of their loved ones.

There was little conversation as the rescue boats edged alongside.  The glad cries as a familiar figure, wrapped in Army blankets, made its way through the lanes to an ambulance told their own story.  So did the silence of disappointment.

The final boatload arrived on the Army tug LT815 shortly after midnight, bringing release for some and a continuation of tension for others.  Seaman James Knox, 30, of the USS Repose, sister ship of the stricken mercy vessel, who had waited through the long hours for word of his half brother, Dwight Martin, 39, was one of those for whom the vigil ended happily.  Martin was aboard the tug, which brought 50 survivors picked up by the Mary Luckenbach.

But for Oliver Sather, 24, of Rodeo, the heart-tearing process of searching through hospitals remained.  His wife's brother, Storekeeper James Johnson, 21, of Palo Alto, assigned to the Benevolence last Monday, had not been on the earlier rescue craft."


S.F. Sea Vet Hero of Benevolence

"A San Franciscan, veteran of many years at sea, played the part of a hero in last night's ship collision.  Chief Plumber Julius Olsen, 53, of 1242 Polk Street, was in the engine room of the USS Benevolence with several younger members of the "black gang" when the crash occurred.  He calmed the young men by telling them the ship was unsinkable, then herded them topside and saw to it that they donned their life jackets.

Pushed Off Ship

Ironically, after Olsen got himself and his charges on to the nearest life raft, a sudden onrush of terrified crew members aboard the small craft pushed him and others off by force of numbers.  Still unruffled when he arrived at the Fort Mason dock aboard the Army tug LT 815 despite more than two hours in the icy waters of the Pacific, Olsen said, 'I may have been older than the rest, but I have had many years at sea and had experienced a couple of ship sinkings in World War I.'

Frozen with Fright

'The young lads were frozen with fright when the crash happened.  Even though I knew I was lying, I told them not to worry, that the ship was unsinkable.  I made them go topside and put on life jackets--just in case, I said.  I took them down the Jacob's ladder with me and on to a life raft.  But I wasn't on the raft long.  It must have been the only available one, because soon everyone was getting aboard.  I found myself pushed nearer the edge and finally over.  I was in the drink a little over two hours before I was pulled aboard the ship that rammed us.  What I would like now is a good hot cup of coffee.'"


Letterman Operates Smoothly in Rush

"Orderly confusion reigned at Letterman General Hospital in the Presidio last night as scores of survivors of the sinking of the U.S.S. Benevolence were rushed to the Army facility.  With Major General Leonard H. Heaton overseeing the work, Army medics and nurses quickly moved victims of the tragedy from arriving ambulances to receiving offices and eventually to hospital wards.

Approximately 75 persons were taken care of by the sizeable and fast working Letterman staff.  Of these, five were suffering more than an immersion.  Three of the latter patients were diagnosed as suffering from exposure and shock, while one man complained of an injured back and the fifth apparently suffered a dislocated collar bone.

Both the receiving ward and the out patient clinic were thrown open to accommodate the stream of men arriving from the rescue ships at Fort Mason and Crissy Field.  The first rush of business was entirely that of survivors, although a number of Army civilian patients were present in the out clinic.

Members of the WAC, hearing of the fog hidden tragedy, came to the hospital to volunteer their services.  Army patients stood around, apparently hoping they would be asked to assist in some manner.  A dozen or more Army doctors were on hand to care for the arriving patients, meeting each ambulance as it drove under the canopy before the receiving entrance.  The survivors stepped gingerly to the ground or were carried in litters, all of them wrapped in olive drab Army blankets."


Radio Log Records Description of Crash

"A dramatic blow by blow description of the collision of the Navy hospital ship Benevolence with the freighter Mary Luckenbach and the sinking of the former was revealed today in the radio log of the tragedy.  The log records messages between the Benevolence and the shore and the urgent calls from rescue vessels.

The first message received at Treasure Island at 5:04 p.m. yesterday was relayed from the signal tower at the Oakland Naval Supply Base, and said, 'USS Benevolence AH13 (her call letters and number) reports that it is in collision with another ship four miles outside the Golden Gate.'

Guard Message

Shortly after 5:17 the Coast Guard put out a message, believed to have originated with the cutter Gresham, which stated that the Benevolence had collides with freighter Mary Luckenbach.  The next message was from an Army tug, one of the two which reached the scene of the collision in 25 minutes, stating that many survivors were in the water and that the Benevolence had apparently sunk.

About 5:30 p.m. all facilities of the Coast Guard, Army and Navy were alerted, and ships, tugs and other small craft dispatched to scene by the Coast Guard, which took over a coordinated search of the collision area.

Full Import Told

The full import of the tragedy was driven home with the receipt of a terse message from the Navy tug Arequipa.  'We are in the midst of debris,' the tug radioed.  'It is floating with green striped life preservers.  We are two miles west of Point Lobos.'

The Navy said, however, that the Adam, an Army tug, actually was the first rescue boat on the scene.  Navy operations officers guessed that the ship must have gone down from five to 20 minutes after the collision with the Mary Luckenbach."


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Times, Saturday, August 26, 1950

Vessel Rammed by Freighter Capsizes
Four Miles Off Fogbound Golden Gate
Coast Guard Aids Army in Saving
Hundreds of Lives

San Francisco (AP) - Eighteen persons died as the hospital ship Benevolence was rammed by a freighter and overturned last night.  The Navy said it believed all of the other 497 aboard were accounted for.  The survivors were scattered through various hospitals in the San Francisco Bay area, or had gone to their homes in nearby cities.

The crash occurred south of the main ship channel entering San Francisco Bay, about four miles out from the Golden Gate Bridge.  Visibility was zero as a blinding white fog drifted in from sea.  The outbound freighter, Mary Luckenbach, ripped into the white flank of the hospital ship which was entering the harbor after a trial run.  The freighter appeared little damaged.  It crept into port during the night.

As the fog lifted this morning the 522-foot hospital ship could be seen lying flat on its side, the lifeboat davits exposed and the giant red crosses shining on the white hull.  The Navy said it expected to have a casualty list available after today.

Capt. T.R. Wirth, Chief of Staff of the 12th Naval District, said the Benevolence keeled over within 15 minutes after the collision.  Adm. George D. Murray, commander of the Western Sea Frontier, ordered a court of inquiry convened today to search out the cause of the accident.

On Last Shakedown Cruise

Surviving Navy officers and, presumably, the captain and other crewman of the freighter Mary Luckenbach will give their versions of how the two vessels came together in the dense fog obscuring the entrance to San Francisco Bay.

The Benevolence, until recently laid up with the reserve fleet at Mare Island Navy Yard, had been pulled out for duty in the Korean War zone.  She was on her last shakedown cruise preparatory to entering on duty.  She was just off the Gate, heading in for her Mare Island dock when the Mary Luckenbach loomed up precipitously out of the thick fog.

Survivors said the Benevolence swung sharply to port and the freighter rammed into her starboard side, ripping open her plates and causing her to sink rapidly.  The hospital ship capsized in 75 feet of water, managing to send out one call for assistance just before keeling over.

The Coast Guard sent out 15 cutters, the Army dispatched half a dozen tugs and fishing craft converged from all over the area, pulling survivors from the debris-littered sea so quickly that the death list was held far below what might have been expected in those treacherous waters where the sea swirls out through the Golden Gate.

The Navy was still uncertain as to the exact number of persons aboard.  It was known that the ship carried a number of persons who apparently had gone out just for the cruise.  The Navy announced that Capt. Cecil D. Riggs, senior medical officer aboard the Benevolence, and Capt. B.E. Bacon, her skipper on the trial run, were safe in Oak Knoll Hospital, Oakland.

Captain Bacon, skipper of the Benevolence, said at the Oakland hospital: "Captain Lyle J. Havens, a civilian harbor pilot, was piloting.  He first said to me, 'I hear a whistle.'  Captain Havens then ordered full stop and full right rudder--then the ship appeared.  While we were making the turn it hit us."  Captain Havens died in the crash.  Captain Bacon, who floated in a life belt for two hours, said "no order was given to abandon ship.  We didn't think the ship was going to sink."

Captain Wirth was one of the many officers, men and civilians who labored in the huge rescue effort.  "Thank God," he said, "this ship wasn't returning from Korea.  Normally there might have been 1,500 patients aboard, maybe even as many as 3,000."

Captain Bacon, commander of the Mare Island group, Pacific Reserve Fleet, was to have turned command of the ship over to Capt. William Murray and a civilian crew when she went on active duty.  It was explained that the hospital ship was being operated on this trial run by crew members of the Pacific Reserve Fleet, numbering about 145 men, and that a full operating crew of civilians from the Military Sea Transport Service was to have taken over shortly.  The Navy said there were about 187 of these MSTS men and that most of them were aboard when the collision occurred.  In addition there were about 145 doctors, nurses and other medical personnel such as hospital corpsmen.

The Mary Luckenbach rescued about 80 of the survivors and, several hours after the crash, pulled slowly back to her pier.  The ship line said none of the 49 crew members was injured.  The collision stove in the bow of the freighter.

Many Suffered from Shock

Of the known survivors the Navy listed 202 at Oak Knoll Navy Hospital in Oakland, 55 at Mare Island Hospital, 61 at Letterman Army Hospital in San Francisco, 37 at Treasure Island, 31 aboard the Coast guard cutter Gresham, 13 at Marine Hospital in San Francisco, two litter cases brought in by the Mary Luckenbach and four who later reported safe from their homes.  Many of these survivors were suffering from shock and the chill of immersion in the cold waters off the Gate.

"We just came across them like fish in the water," said Tugboat Skipper G.J. Kauffman.  "Radar wasn't much good, the scope was all cluttered up--waves and wreckage--so it did not help much.  There were so many we did not know which ones to pick up first.  They were all yelling to us.  They all wanted us to get to them first."

The Navy, earlier last night, put out an estimate of 545 aboard the Benevolence, then revised it downward after discovering that about 40 of the crewmen signed on for the ship's impending operations probably had not gone out on the test run.  There were 15 Navy nurses aboard, one of whom lost her life.


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Unknown Newspaper/Unknown Date

"A Pawtucket resident spent anxious hours late last night and this morning before he received word that his sister--a Naval nurse aboard the ill-fated hospital ship, Benevolence--had been pulled safely from the waters of San Francisco Bay and is resting in a West Coast hospital.

Lieut. Chester S. Matthews, USN, of 34 Ash Street, said today he had received a call from his mother in Scranton, Pennsylvania about '2 this morning' telling him that she had heard from his sister, Miss Gail C. Matthews, and that she had been pulled to safety after the Benevolence had been rammed and sunk by a freighter last night.

Miss Matthews told her mother she was 'nervous and cold, but otherwise all right,' the lieutenant said.  He said he first heard about the disaster on his automobile radio as he and his wife were Pawtucket-bound from Bayonne, New Jersey where he has been attending Naval school.  He knew his sister had been assigned to duty on the Benevolence.

'As soon as we arrived in Rhode Island I checked the newspapers, but they had heard nothing about Gail.  When I got home, my mother called me and told me she had heard about the sinking on the radio.  I went to bed, but got little sleep.  About 2 this morning my mother called again and told me that Gail was safe.  What a relief.'

Miss Matthews, who lives in Scranton, has been a Navy nurse since 1945 and served aboard a hospital ship in World War II, her brother said."


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Unknown Newspaper/Unknown Date - authored by Bill Stokes

Navy Says Ship Toll May Grow
Survey Indicates 13 More Persons Missing in Benevolence Sinking;
Board of Inquiry to Sift Tragedy

Up to 13 more persons may be missing in the sinking of the U.S. Hospital Ship Benevolence, naval authorities indicated last night, even as service divers completed a preliminary inspection of the vessel's hull.

Rescue craft were recalled at 5:30 p.m., from the scene of one of the West Coast's worst sea tragedies in years, with the toll of known dead standing at 18.  A total of 492 persons had been rescued.  Navy spokesmen announced a boost in the estimate of the number aboard the vessel from 505 to 523.  They said the increase was made after an exhaustive check.

Among the dead is a woman--Lieut. Wilma Ledbetter of Chillicothe, Texas, a Navy nurse.  It was pointed out that besides the vessel's Navy personnel, on whom an exact check was kept, numerous unlisted civilian observers and guests may have been on board.

Two Navy divers--Engineman 2/C William A. Demchak and Boatswain's Mate 2/C Carl Unland--descended through 75 feet of water yesterday to a spot on the ocean floor a half-mile due west of Land's End where the big hospital ship went down at 5:15 p.m. Friday, a scant 15 minutes after she was rammed by the freighter Mary Luckenbach.

The two men, who did not enter the hull of the sunken vessel, reported they were hampered by poor visibility and scattered cables, mooring lines, and other wreckage.  They said the torn portion of the ship is lying on the bottom, making it impossible to determine the extent of damage.

Yesterday's diving operations were made to check on the exact position of the ship, which is lying on its port side.  there was no indication when the divers will attempt to enter the hulk, or if efforts will be made to salvage the vessel.

The list of survivors of the sinking varied all day yesterday.  Last night, after several changes, the Navy's tally stood at what was believed to be a final figure of 487 rescued.  Then at 9:30 p.m. the names of five others previously brought safely to shore were added to the compilation, bringing the total to 492.  Coast Guard spokesmen said the search for any additional survivors will be resumed this morning with small craft, beach parties and helicopters and planes.

In "mothballs" since the end of World War II, the Benevolence was recently ordered reactivated for Korean War duty.  The cruise Friday was to have been her final test run before she was turned over to the operation of civilian officers and men of the Military Sea Transport Service."


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Unknown Texas newspaper, August 25, 1950

"San Francisco, Aug. 25. (AP) – The military hospital ship Benevolence was rammed by a freighter in thick fog off the Golden Gate late today, causing five known deaths and damaging the hospital ship so badly that she either sank or was awash in sinking condition.

"We think the Benevolence is down," the coast guard reported nearly five hours after the crash.  "There was a report from a tug that she had been sighted awash, but no one else has seen her.  The coast guard has 15 cutters engaged in rescue work in the collision area and they still are pulling them in. The work will go on until we have saved everybody possible."

The Luckenbach line, whose freighter Mary Luckenbach hit the Benevolence amidship, said the freighter was "standing by picking up survivors… We can’t say when she will be returning to port… that’s all we’ve heard except the bare fact she was in the collision."

A swarm of rescue craft sent out by the coast guard, the navy and the army saved between 260 and 270 persons, all of them apparently from the stricken Benevolence. The Benevolence was reported to have had 367 aboard, including many medical personnel.

Rescuers brought in four seriously injured persons, two of them on litters. Most of those saved were suffering from shock and cold from their perilous immersion in the rough waters four miles off the entrance to San Francisco Bay.

The Benevolence, just recently pulled out of the reserve fleet at Mare Island and being fitted out for service in the Korean war zone, was hit by the outbound freighter Mary Luckenbach. Visibility was limited to a few feet.  The Mary Luckenbach, bound for the East Coast with a general cargo, was afloat and apparently in no immediate danger of sinking. Her bow was smashed. She carried a crew of 49.

A tug reported sighting the sinking Benevolence, awash and apparently in danger of going down at any moment, half a mile from the Mary Luckenbach’s position. Service craft were searching for her. The coast guard thought she might be lugged on a reef and might slip off into deep water at any time.

It was impossible to compile an accurate figure as to how many casualties there were and how many had been rescued. Those saved were being brought, by more than two score military craft and fishing boats, to the Fort Mason army dock and to the coast guard station at Fort Point, on the presidio of San Francisco.

The Benevolence, which sailed yesterday on a test cruise, was reported to have had 119 civilians, 48 doctors and other medical personnel and 200 enlisted personnel, including medical corpsmen. Her crew was civilian and the medical personnel was all service.

Fort Mason reported three rescue craft had docked. A port of embarkation tug came in with 78 aboard, another tug had 134, and a coast guard cutter had 50 more.  All of these survivors, totaling 262, were pulled from the water or taken off life rafts.

Numerous other craft, including a destroyer, were searching for more survivors and some had been brought in by fishing boats and other service craft. Fort Mason said the survivors were being sent to Letterman Army Hospital at the presidio and to the marine hospital at 14th and Clay Streets. It was considered extremely unlikely that anything like an accurate check on survivors and casualties would be possible for many hours.

All sources blamed the collision on the thick fog, which at this time of the year often lies like a thick, white blanket along the coast. Ships moving through this fog depend on radar and foghorns for warning against such disasters as this. A navy spokesman said hospital ships usually are radar equipped but whether the Benevolence was so protected, he could not say.

Wichitan Safe

Lt. Marvin F. Sherrill of Wichita Falls was aboard the Hospital Ship Benevolence which collided with a freighter late Friday off golden Gate. His mother, Mrs. C. J. Sherrill, lives at 61629 Eleventh. Lt. Sherrill, a veteran of World War Two, received his bachelor of arts degree from the University of Texas and his medical degree from the Galveston branch. He entered the navy in 1942 and served as assistant surgeon aboard the Lavaca, attack transport in the Pacific from December, 1944 to September, 1945. Sherrill was rescued from the water and later telephoned his mother that he was safe.

 
 

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