By Asa N. Bushnell
It was a glorious summer day in San Diego, July 21, 1905, with a clear blue sky, quiet breeze and the bay sweet and clean. At 7 a.m. I was in our back yard at Second and Kalmia beating the living-room rugs, having been promised four bits for so doing. That was a considerable sum in those days, and I felt rich with my fifty cents when I was paid off, at the job’s completion.
And so, in accordance with my usual summer procedure, I got on my way, down to the water. My family of women (my father had died years before) were always afraid that I would drown, so they cautioned me to be careful. I could swim well; they might have cautioned themselves about crossing streets in front of some of those early model automobiles, or the two-horse delivery-wagon from Hamilton’s Grocery.
My fifty cents was burning my pocket. So, instead of walking down to the wharf at the foot of Fifth Street, I spent a nickel for a car ride, and met my boyhood friend Hildreth Peckham at Fifth and D Streets. We walked on down Fifth, passing up Ingersoll’s Candy Store (a spot hard to get by in those days) past Western Metal Supply and out onto the wharf to the Rowing Club. Here we changed into bathing-suits and got into a four-oared wherry, to row about the bay and get warmed up for our morning swim.
Heading down the bay against the tide so that it would be easier coming back, we delayed for the Coronado ferry so that we could rock in the rollers of its wake. A few hundred yards west of the Coronado cable-crossing and at the edge of the main channel lay a trim, white-and-buff gunboat, the U.S.S. Bennington. She was almost ready to leave for Bremerton, or some other West Coast navy yard, to be decommissioned. We decided to row around her, before returning to the club.
We were not much more than fifty feet off her port side, amidships, when her boilers exploded with a deep, muffled roar; steel gratings flew to mast-head height, and steam and black smoke began pouring from her ventillators. My reaction was instantaneous — I dove out of the boat and swam straight down. Then, realizing that it was not good to be under water at the time of an explosion, I came to the surface and grabbed the boat, meanwhile yelling to Peckham to help me save it; I knew that my family would not like the idea of having to pay for a lost boat. He had started to swim toward North Island, hand over hand, as fast as he could go.
Then came a trying time for two 19-year-old boys; we were scared, but not in panic. Back in the boat, we found that there were seven men in the water, close to us. Three were swimming quietly, three were beating the water in panic, and one was floating face down, apparently dead. He had no marks on him, and we got him into the boat, but did not have room to try to get the water out of him. For the only time in my life, I had to beat a man about the face and hold him off by his hair, as one of the panicked swimmers almost upset us all before another man boosted him into the boat. Things were happening so fast that I did not know what Peckham was doing at the time. He told me afterward that he stayed on one pair of the oars, which was fortunate for the men in distress, as we were drifting away with the tide. He also tried to get the water out of the limp form we had dragged into the boat, but without success. We never found out if this man lived.
There was a very fine, completely unexcited colored man swimming about thirty feet from us while we were picking up those who were poor swimmers or were in panic. He was of great help, and told us to pick him up last, that he was all right. I think his name was Turpin1 and in past years I have seen him on television, telling his story of the Bennington. Once I tried to get in touch with him, but without success.
Two rather minor incidents have remained fixed in my mind through all these years. One was of a man of a dark race, who was standing high on the superstructure around the stack, with a swab in his hand. I was looking at him at the moment of the explosion. When I came up out of the water seconds later he was still standing in the same spot, swab still in hand, looking down as if he were frozen there. And there was the Officer of the Deck, I think his name was Wade, threatening a member of the crew with his revolver and evidently telling the man to do something. Instead, the man jumped overboard. He was one of those whom we picked up who could not swim.
With the two of us and our seven men from the gunboat, we were down in the water until the gunwales were practically awash, and we were in real danger of swamping. It was our desire to get as quickly as possible to the wharf near the Ferry Slip, so that we all would not be back in the water again. Fortunately a double-ended fishing boat (called a “salmon boat” in those days) met us in the channel, and we transferred our load to them, for transportation to the shore. By this circumstance we escaped the scenes of horror on the wharf when they began to bring the dead and terribly burned members of the crew ashore.
On our way back to the Rowing Club we picked up a life-ring from the Bennington, and it hung in the Rowing Club for years. The Coronado ferry had attempted to lower a boat, possibly for the first and only time. We saw the boat hanging down from the davit, bow down, stern high and still unlaunched. The Bennington, by this time, had developed a marked list to starboard and shortly afterward was shoved ashore by a tug, grounding near the old Zlac Rowing Club building north of the ferry slip.2
Walking back uptown from the club we had little to say; I think that neither of us realized the extent of the tragedy which we had witnessed. Newspaper reporting was not as extensive then as now — we were not interviewed as the nearest civilian eye-witnesses. There were too many other details for the reporters to cover, and we therefore had no part in the extensive investigation of the catastrophe.
Several days later I walked down to the bay-front at the foot of Laurel Street and watched the wagons going by, with coffins piled high, on the way to the cemetery on Point Loma. On several occasions I have stood near the monument to the Bennington’s dead, saying quietly “May the souls of these faithful Navy men rest in peace, both now and forever more”.
1. J.T. Turpin, who survived the Bennington disaster unhurt, had been similarly fortunate seven years before. He was a member of the crew of the U.S.S. Maine when she was blown up in Havana harbor in 1898.
2. Lee K. Strobel, the only one of the Bennington‘s boatswain’s mates to live through the ordeal, cites the heroism and quick thinking of Capt. “Bob” Morris of the Spreckels tug Santa Fe for getting the stricken gunboat onto a mudflat before she sank; Morris was not even mentioned at the time. The Bennington began to fill when salt-water connections for such auxiliaries as her condensers and fire pumps were ruptured by the force of the explosion.