Friday, August 25, 2017

August 25, 1950

The U.S.S. Benevolence was a full-sized hospital at sea. She had 802 beds, many operating rooms, and the most up-to-date X-ray and lab equipment upon her completion in May, 1945.

She sailed to the Pacific, serving in the closing months of World War II. The casualties of the island-hopping strategy were terrible, and she took care of many as the allies closed in on the Japanese home islands.

At the Japanese surrender she was anchored in Tokyo bay, hidden behind the American and British battleships. Although hospitals don't get the glory that fighting ships do, they're still an indispensable part of any naval force.

After the big ships were gone, the Benevolence got down to work. 1,520 allied prisoners-of-war were released to her care, with her crew nursing them back to health so they could go home. She stayed in Japan until late November, 1945, doing this vital work.

The next month she sailed for San Francisco, bringing those too wounded to leave their beds back to the U.S. for further care. She spent early 1946 running back-and-forth between there and Pearl Harbor, transporting more injured home as they were brought in.

Later that year the atomic bomb testing was planned for Bikini atoll, and the Benevolence was selected to provide medical care for the operation. She served in this capacity through the entire project, and was then sent to provide hospital services in Tsingtau, China, anchoring there in October, 1946.

In 1947 she returned home and went into reserve, but was recommissioned and modernized in 1950 to serve in the Korean war.

On August 25, 1950, she was running sea trials off San Francisco before being sent overseas. She was 4 miles west of the Golden Gate Bridge, returning to harbor in a heavy fog.

A freighter, the S.S. Mary Luckenbach, was also blundering through the haze that afternoon, and just after 5:00 the two collided.

The Luckenbach was the less damaged, and anchored nearby to assess what had happened. Due to the fog her crew were initially unaware that the Benevolence was sinking rapidly, but as distress signals came in they manned their own lifeboats to go help. They saved 85 lives in the growing darkness.

The Benevolence was completely gone in just 15-20 minutes.

A makeshift rescue armada raced to the scene as night fell. Coast Guard ships, fishing boats, tugboats, pleasure craft, and merchant ships slowly moving through the murk, listening for voices, shining searchlights, and sending their own lifeboats back and forth to get swimmers. With the tide going out some survivors were miraculously found 12 miles west of the sinking, up to 6 hours later. One was floating on a wooden box of blood plasma.

As they returned to port almost every ambulance in the bay area was on the scene, taking them to hospitals and returning for more.

When it was all over 505 had survived and 23 were lost.

Both captains were faulted for excessive speed in the fog. The new radar technology on the Benevolence had somehow not seen the Luckenbach, and the Luckenbach's own set was malfunctioning and was turned off at the time.

When the sun came up and the fog cleared the next morning, the ocean off Golden Gate had an eerie sight: The 71 foot-wide Benevolence, lying on her side in 75 feet of water, with her red cross insignia clearly visible beneath the waves.

The navy surveyed the wreck for several months before deciding she was beyond salvage. She couldn't be left in the center of a busy shipping lane indefinitely, either.

In late 1951 the Benevolence was completely destroyed in a series of 3 controlled explosions to clear the area.

To this day she remains sadly forgotten, with no memorial to remember those lost that afternoon.


stacey said...

Given our current naval issues, this is quite timely.

bobbie said...

Thank you for sharing her story, Dr. G ~

Marjie said...

You always have such interesting historical stories. I look forward to them.

Packer said...

A friend's father was some sort of orderly at the Philadelphia Naval Hospital and his job was to bring patients off of hospital ships to ambulances for transportation to the hospital. He suffered PTSD after preforming the work for sometime as exposure to horrifically maimed people took its toll and suffered extreme depression for the rest of his life. He was self medicated with alcohol and had several suicide attempts. His service was completely stateside. Every time I hear of a hospital ship I am reminded of him and of the depth of horror of wars.

Don said...

US Navy still has 2 reserve Hospital Ships.

I had a friend who was deployed on one during Desert Storm

USNS Comfort

USNS Mercy

This is a legacy that needs to continue

Thanks for sharing this story.

Mage said...

Thank you very much for this post.

clairesmum said...

gone, but not forgotten. thanks, Dr Grumpy.

Mark C said...

great historical stories... keep them coming

Anonymous said...

My grandad served as a doctor with The Fighting 21st:

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